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Cross-Boundary Leader: Eve Odiorne Sullivan (MA EPFP '12-13)

Posted By Sarah McCann, Monday, November 13, 2017
Updated: Thursday, October 19, 2017

Eve Sullivan is the Founder and Executive Director of Parents Forum and author of Where the Heart Listens


Parents Forum and Parent Peer Support

I founded Parents Forum with the purpose of raising individuals’ emotional awareness and improving their communications skills. I believe that our efforts to develop positive ways of expressing feelings and managing our internal and interpersonal conflicts are the core of good parenting and healthy family life.


We don't receive a lot of solid preparation or orientation for being a parent. There’s preparation for childbirth, which happens whether you are prepared or not. Once you have the baby, a lot of parenting training has been, and still is, focused on practical skills: what you need to know how to do. Now, though, there is growing emphasis on social and emotional learning (SEL) in a child’s early development and how parents’ support for this enhances children’s intellectual achievement. It is great that SEL aspects of early childhood development are in the spotlight, but the focus is still on the child and on how parents can help their children.


The focus needs to shift toward parents. When parents are encouraged to seek help for themselves they can make positive changes that cascade to benefit the child and other family members.


Parents Forum grew out of my experiences getting help at a time when my kids were going through some typical adolescent experiences, that is, misbehaving! Some of it was pretty extreme, and I am thankful for the therapeutic community that helped my family, now two decades ago. I learned so much from the experience that I wanted to take it, teach it and now give it away. The key question is “How can one parent help another without putting that parent down?” I want Parents Forum resources and workshops to be accessible and available to other parents, but it’s a hard sell because raising children is so personal.


Cross-Boundary Leadership

My vision is, ultimately, cross-sector: I believe that all schools, faith communities and workplaces -- and youth sports organizations, too -- should routinely offer courses for parents. There should be classes for parents at every important stage that their child goes through and at every life transition they experience themselves. Both peer-led and professionally led programs can teach parents about developmental stages and age-appropriate expectations for their children’s behavior. Being an effective parent for a teenager is different from being an effective parent for a kindergartener, after all.


A cross-boundary leader needs to be willing to talk to and reach out to all kinds of people, and I like doing that. One example might be the prison workshops Parents Forum gave for several years. Of the men in the program, at MCI-Norfolk in Massachusetts, most had lost direct contact with their children, but they still carried their family experiences in their hearts. They welcomed the opportunity that we offered to share and, to some extent, heal their past suffering.


If we want to effectively access resources or share our own, we have to be willing to talk to all kinds of people. Be willing to strike up a conversation. I like the retail aspect of the work I do, helping just one parent in the moment, and I believe this is important. I learn something from each interaction about how – and sometimes about how not – to help someone else.


Parents’ needs change, and their skills need to change as well along the way. We need to normalize participation in such programs, so that parents say “Well, wait a minute, I need an orientation on how to be and what to do as a parent of a pre-teen or teen,” etc. Parenting education is still in its early stages, but we need to normalize both provision of and participation in parenting education programs.


Leadership Lessons Learned

Keep on keeping on and don’t be afraid to take that one next step. The one after will become apparent. Be ready to ask for help and to correct course when needed. I certainly did not anticipate, at the start, Parents Forum’s 25th anniversary this year. While we have only a few dollars in the bank -- I thought we would be bigger by now -- I’m very happy with the progress we have made and recognition we have achieved.


Developments in the past months have been significant for Parents Forum. We have a pilot group going in Winthrop and are working with pediatricians and with the superintendent of schools. I see that we need to aim higher in seeking community involvement. As important as grassroots work is, community leaders in various sectors need to be involved in advocacy for parenting education.


EPFP Experience and Value

EPFP was important for me professionally because I hadn’t done any graduate study since my Harvard MAT at the beginning of my teaching career. The program gave me a chance to re-engage with educators. I have done other programs and had teaching experiences that were not so rewarding as EPFP. A main advantage was being in a cohort of people from different fields. Our group included a nutritionist, principals, and an elected school committee member, as well as classroom teachers. EPFP gave me a welcome opportunity to connect or re-connect with people in the larger school community. To be in a cohort with other teachers was very useful for my professional goals as a parenting educator and a writer.


EPFP is relevant today because it is both accessible and focused. The program format gave me a chance to talk with a diverse group of people. Although I am ‘a one-issue candidate’ and was always beating the drum for parent engagement, I think that the others in the group appreciated the perspectives I brought to our discussions.


Parenting education is relatively new as a profession: teachers and administrators seldom hear from people in this field. I had the sense from my EPFP cohort that they welcomed the chance to step back from their daily experiences and connect about something real. What is more basic to the success of our common educational endeavors than students’ family experiences? Parents are the people who prepare young people for school and for life. When parents do a good job at home, teachers have a much greater chance of success in the classroom.


Additional Resources by Eve Sullivan

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Tags:  alumni  parents  SEL 

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