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Program helps struggling parents find a better way

The Supernanny of Pinellas County speaks with a Puerto Rican accent, not a British one. She flies into modest apartment complexes, not suburban palaces. But like her reality TV counterpart, Charlene Simons holds one of the most overlooked jobs around. She makes parents better. Every week, the certified parenting instructor visits 15 to 20 Pinellas parents, dispensing advice in one-on-one sessions. Simons' charges are often single. They've often had run-ins with the law. But when Simons shows up in her Hyundai Santa Fe (no chauffered London Executive Sedan for her) they get some of the same, life-changing lessons as the well-to-do couples rescued by Supernanny.

At Krystle Butler's home in Pinellas Park, Simons sets up a hypothetical. Say your 7-year-old is playing ball in the house when he's not supposed to. What do you do?

"Say, 'Go play with the ball outside,' " says Butler, 23. "Not yelling."

"Not yelling. That's right!"

Simons and Butler high five. For families, little victories add up.

They add up for schools, too. Even if Simons and the other supernannies of the world rarely set foot in them.

• • •

You hear it every time, after every story about struggling students or struggling schools.

It's the parents' fault.

The pointed fingers rarely become helping hands. But some social workers and educators think there is a way to help parents.

Teach them.

"I don't think there are bad parents. I think there are parents who make poor choices," says Simons, 37, a single mother of three and a parenting educator for 13 years. "Many don't know how to do it. They don't know any better. That's the way they were raised."

Some schools try to teach parents what they call the basics. Ask your kids about homework. Make them a good breakfast. But follow a student who's perpetually floundering, and he'll often lead you to parents who need more fundamental help.

Simons met one mother who bailed her son out of jail, then bought him $200 worth of Tommy Hilfiger gear. She's helping another whose own father beat her and stuffed her into coolers.

The second woman gives her kids homemade cupcakes. But she's still wrestling with so much rage, she blacks out when they upset her. Tears fall as she tells Simons, "I may not be the parent my father was, but I'm going to have to do something."

Around Tampa Bay, a hodgepodge of parenting programs offer counseling and classes to make mom and dad more patient, more tuned in, more nurturing. Some are run by churches and hospitals. Some by nonprofit and government agencies.

Few are directly tied in to schools.

Simons and six other "family support workers" are part of a program called Childnet. It's run by Family Service Centers, a Clearwater nonprofit group, and funded primarily by the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County and the United Way of Tampa Bay. It helps 330 families a year.

Most of the families are referred by child protection investigators, but the parents sign up voluntarily. The workers visit each home once a week for six to 12 months, usually for an hour or two at a time.

Many participants are tentative at first. They fear being told, You're a bad parent.

The Supernanny of Pinellas tells them, You're the lucky ones.

• • •

When Simons' second child was 3, he swept his little arm across a shelf full of vitamin bottles and sent them crashing to the floor of a grocery store. Simons broke down on the spot. She didn't know what to do. Christopher cried a lot. He had a temper. A well-meaning woman asked Simons if she had her son tested for attention deficit disorder.

The incident was a turning point.

"When I got home, I said, 'You know what? I need to educate myself,' " says Simons, who has a degree in social work.

She began reading books on child rearing. She bought crayons and paints. She bought basketballs and volleyballs. Anything to channel her son's energy into something positive. "Instead of washing dishes, we were outside playing with clay," she says.

People at Simons' church noticed the mom carrying drawing pads and markers. They began to ask for advice. Simons started a parent support group.

She was already organizing community fairs and doing breast-feeding workshops. She added more parenting education to her repertoire. When she moved to Florida five years ago, she became certified.

"I'm just a parent, just like any other parent," she says.

Mistakes? All the time.

When she catches one, she stops and tells her kids, "You know what this is an example of?" They've heard it so often they answer in a monotone chorus.

"What NOT to do."

• • •

The 7-year-old was disrupting class. He didn't want to read unless the teacher sat next to him. He wanted his teacher to look at him, talk to him.

Krystle Butler says the problem wasn't her son. It was her.

"Now that I'm spending more time and attention with him, he's progressing," says Butler, a customer service rep at a Macy's call center.

Simons says most of the parents she works with have kids with problems in school. Not following rules. Not listening. Maybe not going to school at all.

Once, the State Attorney's Office referred her to the parent of a 9-year-old. The woman said her daughter kept missing the bus because she was spending too much time in the bathroom getting ready.

Simons suggested a tighter schedule and clearer expectations.

Maybe schools should refer more parents like that, she says. Maybe they should offer more parenting classes themselves. To the students.

"They're going to form a family one day," she says. And unless someone teaches them otherwise, many will do the same things their parents did.

Butler can relate. "I was raised up with whuppings," she says.

But now? Now, she says, she doesn't spank. She shouts less. She follows through with promises.

As they sit together at the dinner table, Simons offers tips and what-ifs. She talks alternatives and consequences.

Don't nag your kids. Be honest with them. Explain instead of just saying no.

"How do you say 'stop running' in a positive way?" she asks.

"Can you please walk?" Butler says.

"That's it. Positive message."

• • •

Butler's 5-year-old pitter-pats to the table. A rainbow of hair clips. Hands full of crayons.

"Can you draw me something?"

Not now, Butler says gently. "I'll do it when I finish," she promises.

"Okay." The girl smiles as she shuffles back to her room.

"I'm so proud of you," Simons says. "It wasn't like that when we started."

Mom shakes her head and laughs.

No, it wasn't.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Program helps struggling parents find a better way 05/16/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 16, 2009 9:47pm]
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