UC San Diego: Workshops Build Skills, Confidence for Caregivers Helping Students Through Turbulent Times

Glenda Evans maintains a demanding schedule working as a water treatment plant operator for the city of San Diego and acting as caregiver for her 8-year-old granddaughter.

Yet Evans carves out time every other week to join in a series of online workshops from UC San Diego Extension’s PACE (Parent and Caregiver Education) program on topics like basic neuroscience, children’s socioemotional development and technology addiction.

For Evans, who lives in San Diego’s Emerald Hills neighborhood, it’s time well spent. “Oh, my gosh, I’m so appreciative,” she said. “It provides me a clearer and broader picture of how the brain works and how children learn and develop. I definitely am applying it.”

The workshops, taught by Morgan Appel, Extension’s assistant dean for Education and Community Outreach (ECO), have been delivered free to more than 4,000 parents and other caregivers around Southern California. The goal is to equip caregivers with the knowledge and tools they need to support children’s learning and wellbeing.

“People need to able to speak a common language,” Appel said. “When parents and caregivers interact with educators, they should have the background that enables them to have informed conversations and empowered conversations around education and around support.”

The program, which began with in-person classes, took on a new urgency amid pandemic disruptions.

Free Summer Sessions for Caregivers
UC San Diego Extension Parent University workshops will be offered free in July though Southwestern College’s YES Academy. Topics are:

Social and Emotional Learning and Stress Reduction.
Effective Preparation for College and the Workforce.
Understanding Giftedness, Talent and Dual Exceptionality.
Creating an Effective Environment for Learning at Home/The Journey Back to In-Classroom Learning.
Learn more about the workshops »

“Because of the COVID situation, caregivers wanted more guidance,” said Griselda Delgado, director of State and Federal Programs at Sweetwater Union High School District. “They were seeing their kids falling into depression. They were seeing behavior challenges that they didn’t know how to address—the shifting of a kid who was vibrant and was in soccer and baseball and all of the sudden they’re failing in school.”

Sweetwater partnered with Extension to offer online workshops last summer for caregivers around San Diego’s South Bay region. The response was enthusiastic. “We had 200 to 300 people per session,” Delgado said.

“I had one parent who said they were struggling with their child—they didn’t understand what was happening emotionally and psychologically,” she added. “But after going through a brain development class, they were able to be more patient with the child.”

South Bay educators plan to expand on the partnership, Delgado said. “Morgan has put us all together with a common purpose—to give our families the tools to support their child so they can reach their career and educational goals.”

Serving diverse caregivers
PACE was originally called Parent University, but Appel and others recognized that caregivers come in many other forms, from grandparents, aunts and uncles to foster parents and child advocates. So Parent University switched to a more inclusive name—Parent and Caregiver Education.

The program had its beginnings about five years ago when Chula Vista Elementary School District asked Appel to give a talk for parents of gifted and talented students. The school invited him back to talk about children’s socioemotional needs and other topics.

Morgan Appel teaching a caregiver workshop in 2019.
Extension Assistant Dean Morgan Appel teaches a caregiver workshop in 2019, before the pandemic forced the workshops online. Photo credit: UC San Diego Extension.

News about classes spread, and before long Appel was giving presentations to caregivers at different schools and community groups on a variety of topics. “It was really a lot of word of mouth,” he said. “Eventually it grew from smaller gatherings to where we had to hold these sessions in elementary school auditoriums because the audiences were growing.”

As the program gained momentum, Appel presented workshops in partnership with the Los Angeles, Glendale and Pasadena school districts as well as with districts, nonprofit groups and community organizations in San Diego County, particularly in the South Bay.

PACE mainly serves less affluent communities, Appel said: “At ECO, our emphasis has always been on equity, diversity and inclusion, and a real priority for us is serving under-resourced communities, where these types of programs are most beneficial.”

Customized instruction
In each case, the program is customized to suit the audience. The core workshops are Fundamental Neuroscience; Socioemotional Development and Stress Reduction; Creating Effective Environments for Learning at Home; Social Media and Technology Addiction; and Effective Preparation for College and Career. Other topics are available upon request.

The number of sessions varies from group to group. “The sessions differ because they’re highly interactive,” Appel said. “We don’t want to rush through topics. We want to make sure our parents and grandparents have time to digest and make sense of the material.”

The workshops are also offered in Spanish. Diana Bahena Coronel, who works in program support for Extension, provides Spanish translation and interpretation when Appel presents weekly caregiver workshops through Cesar Chavez Service Clubs in San Diego.

Bahena Coronel became a first-generation college graduate with support from her Spanish-speaking parents, so for her, the job has special meaning. “I love my role in this because I understand the importance of the family unit and how empowering parents and caregivers translates to the rest of the family,” she said.

She noted that caregivers’ concerns have shifted as coronavirus restrictions have eased. “They are looking for an overall understanding of how best to support their students, first with the transition to online studies, and now transitioning back to school,” she said.

In addition to addressing pandemic challenges, the workshops offer longer-term guidance. “The work we do is very much focused on cultivating a lifelong love of learning,” Appel said. “Caregivers are developing essential skills that will help children through college and career and life in general. We’re looking at how you reinforce things like creativity and growth mindset and resilience.”

Bolanle Kuyoro, a mother of three San Diego Unified students, takes part in the workshops through Cesar Chavez Service Clubs. She says she has gained insights she can use beyond the pandemic crisis. “It helps me know how to reason with the child and bring myself to the child’s level,” said Kuyoro, who operates a home-care business. “It helps me understand my children more.”

Grandparent University
Evans, who is caregiver for her granddaughter Heavenly, a second-grader at Chula Vista Hills Elementary School, enrolled in a PACE workshop series called Grandparent University, offered in partnership with the nonprofit group Assertive Family Solutions.

The grandparent workshops cover the same content as other PACE programs, Appel said, but there are differences in context. For example, he said, “There could be generational issues when we look at things like technology.”

Evans said she was looking for “tools to put in my toolbelt” when she enrolled. “I wanted to know, what are some of the things I can learn to help my grandchild achieve to her highest potential and help build up her social skills and emotional skills, and to make me a better caregiver for her?”

Evans has used concepts from the workshops to help Heavenly through distance learning and to support her now during the return to classroom instruction. “Even without the pandemic, it’s important to know that there are certain stages the child goes through,” Evans noted. “There are behaviors that are normal at the different stages.”

She praised Appel for his respectful approach to caregivers. “One thing that I really like is the interaction and the way the instructor communicates with all the students,” she said. “He elevates your mindset. He gives you all this confidence, he gives you all this respect.”

Appel aims to enable caregivers to expand on what they are already doing. “What this helps parents and grandparents to do is to better understand their kids, to build on the instinctual parenting skills that they have and to give it a broader context,” he said.

He prides himself on the fact that the workshops are free to caregivers. “Whether it be to community organizations or even the bigger school districts, it is always offered without charge,” he said. “We believe that is part of our ethical and moral commitment to serving our communities, and parents and caregivers should not have to pay for that.”

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