The Kearns model: Helping youths by teaching parents

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) German Ochoa, youth worker with Salt Lake County Youth Services, teaches a Guiding Good Choices class at Dual Immersion Academy in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020.

Editor’s noteThrough a grant from Solutions Journalism Network, The Salt Lake Tribune is examining how Kearns is trying to improve the lives of its children. Part 2 of this three-part series focuses on the crucial role parents have in steering their teens away from underage drinking, vaping and other harmful habits. Part 1 described the Kearns communitywide effort to improve the lives of teens living there. Part 3 looked at strengthening teens through coping skills and mentoring.

Kearns • German Ochoa likes to say that if you don’t talk to your kids about drugs and alcohol, someone else will. And you probably won’t like the message.

Instead of assuming your children know that you disapprove of experimenting, or getting angry if they ask you some version of why they can’t drink or smoke if you or their friends do, Ochoa arms parents with a plan.

He’s the facilitator of the drug and alcohol prevention program run by Salt Lake County called Guiding Good Choices. “Sometimes the parents are naive. They assume their kids know what to do,” he said. “That is not the case.”

This parenting course is seen as a crucial component of the communitywide plan to help Kearns reduce its teen drug and alcohol use. Teen survey data from 2015 showed 25% of Kearns 10th graders reported drinking alcohol in the prior month, compared with 10% of the state’s sophomores and 13% of Salt Lake County’s. The data also found 16% of Kearns eighth graders had tried vaping in the month prior, compared with 6% of the state.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) German Ochoa, youth worker with Salt Lake County Youth Services, teaches a Guiding Good Choices class at Dual Immersion Academy in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020.

Those disparities led the Evidence2Success Kearns Community Coalition to implement Guiding Good Choices at Kearns and Jefferson junior high schools in the fall of 2018. The program has since spread to three Kearns elementary schools and outside of the township. Starting this month, the classes will be offered online.

“It is sad, but our kids [in Utah] are getting into these negative behaviors, alcohol and tobacco products, younger and younger,” Ochoa said recently. “We have seen kids as young as 10 years old, 11 years old, vaping. I do believe we are facing an epidemic. Things are going to get worse if we do not educate ourselves, if we do not educate our community. That’s why I strongly believe in this program.”

The Kearns Community Coalition zeroed in on Guiding Good Choices as part of the mandate by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to find evidence-based solutions to problems facing its youths when it gave Salt Lake County $150,000 in matching funds in 2015.

Kearns leaders decided the best way to help their youths was to help their parents.

Research: Parenting matters

Utah’s substance abuse prevention experts follow the widely used Risk and Protective Factor Model of Prevention, developed by the University of Washington.

Just as medical researchers linked risk factors such as smoking and being sedentary to heart disease, they have connected risk factors like academic failure in elementary school and protective factors like being rewarded at school and home for positive behavior to problems ranging from substance abuse, teen pregnancy and depression.

The Kearns Community Coalition decided it could do something about the risk factor called “poor family management,” which describes a style of parenting that employs severe punishments or inconsistent consequences and fails to set clear expectations and monitor children’s behavior. Such parenting puts kids at higher risk of drug abuse, even if the family has no history of drug problems, according to the prevention model.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Charles Henderson, left, a leader of the Kearns Community Coalition, and Josh Nielsen, right, a pastor at Hope Unlimited Community Church, discuss what is driving positive changes in the community of Kearns.

The same survey that found alarming substance abuse rates in Kearns also showed nearly half of students surveyed in 2015 in grades six, eight, 10 and 12 reported poor family management, compared with 28% of students in the state. The Student Health and Risk Prevention (SHARP) survey is administered statewide every two years.

“When kids came from elementary to junior high, it was almost like the wheels came off the cart. They were using drugs, they were drinking alcohol,” said Charles Henderson, a leader of the Kearns Coalition, who helped pore over data and come up with priority interventions.

“[Many] parents have a tendency to take their foot off the accelerator with their kids. In elementary, they’re constantly watching the kids. [As they get older] because they can fix their own meals, they can care for themselves, some parents step back a little,” Henderson said. “Kids are navigating this world of new information, new relationships. Instead of having as much interaction with the parents, they’re getting it largely from the influence of other students.”

A research brief by the University of Colorado Boulder shows Guiding Good Choices reduced or delayed first-time use of substances. And for those who had used, follow-ups showed they used less frequently than the control group.

Saying ‘don’t do it’ is not enough

In mid-February, Ochoa stressed the importance of delaying drinking and smoking with a small group of parents who had gathered for his parenting classes at the Dual Immersion Academy in Salt Lake City. One mother attended because her son was caught vaping. Others were there because they know temptations are coming.

“Right now, he gets straight A’s. He’s a good kid,” said Anthony Casack, who attended the course with his wife at his 14-year-old’s school. “However, I know there’s going to be some exploration. There’s going to be some peer pressure at school. I want to make sure we are supporting him in the healthiest way possible so he’s going to make the right choices.”

Through a five-week course meant for parents of children ages 9 to 14, Ochoa shows parents how to connect with their children in positive ways, create and communicate their expectations about drug and alcohol use, learn to manage their anger so they don’t alienate their children, and give kids more responsibilities in making family decisions. One session involves kids practicing how to tell a friend no to some action that violates their family policy.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) German Ochoa, youth worker with Salt Lake County Youth Services, teaches a Guiding Good Choices class at Dual Immersion Academy in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020.

“Some parents say, ‘My son is eventually going to drink, it should be in the house with me,’” Ochoa said, warning that it is illegal to provide alcohol to teens. “Your son or your daughter does not have to drink. … You need to have clear, specific rules.”

The class walks parents through the steps of setting those rules, by first writing their hopes and dreams for their children, thinking about how they’d feel about a variety of scenarios (if their child tried nicotine, drank wine at a special dinner or hung out with a friend known to drink beer) and why they feel that way. “We think saying, ‘No, don’t do it’ is enough. That’s not enough anymore,” Ochoa advised, as parents nodded in agreement.

Guiding Good Choices emphasizes holding regular family meetings as the key to bonding. It also is a place to set expectations and reward positive behavior. Families new to the concept start by having members plan fun activities to do together, with ground rules for the meeting like not interrupting or putting anyone else down.

The next sessions call for parents to have meetings to go over parental expectations of drug use; practice refusal skills; learn how to express anger constructively (sharing how they feel and why, focusing on specific event and finding options to solve the problem); and involve children in making decisions on a variety of topics, including consequences for breaking family rules and where to go on vacation, who does what chores, and financial and health decisions.

“When we involve them in the family’s business, teaching them skills to successfully contribute and recognizing them for their contributions, children feel more strongly bonded to the family — and more likely to live within family standards,” advises the Guiding Good Choices workbook.

Casack, who is a substance abuse counselor and is in recovery from his own past addictions, said the class is right to focus on family bonding. He is open about his past and tries to be a role model by not drinking or smoking. “They may walk the same road I walked,” he said, “but I refuse to pave that road for them.”

Still, he wants his own children to feel close enough to him that if they make a mistake, like drink at a party, they would turn to him for help. There would still be consequences, but “they know they can call us because they know we’re going to be there.”

Kristin Szwarc took the class at Jefferson Junior High in Kearns, where she lives. The family already held family meetings, something urged by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which they are members. She frequently holds “family councils” about big things like drugs and alcohol, and small items, such as the pros and cons of her 12-year-old son playing Minecraft.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Szwarc family — Kristin, Atlas, 3, Orion, 11, and Robb, holding 1-year-old Castor — talk outside their apartment in Kearns on Wednesday, April 29, 2020.

Still, Guiding Good Choices “opened up the lines of communication a little bit more,” she said. “The world is a lot different from when I was a kid. There’s just so much stuff out there, especially right now vaping is a huge, huge thing. While my older child grew up knowing smoking is bad, my younger children are coming up in a world where marijuana is not so bad anymore and vaping is not so bad.”

Does coaching parents work?

It is too early to say if the classes are improving family bonding in Kearns — or reducing substance use.

It will take three to five years to see “solid outcomes,” said Jamie Johnston, a program evaluator for Bach Harrison, a Utah company hired by the county to evaluate the Kearns Coalition programs. But as part of its efforts, the coalition is tracking the short-term impact of the classes by seeing how many hold family meetings and if their knowledge and attitudes have changed.

Among the 120 Kearns caregivers who took the course in 2018-19, all said they would hold regular family meetings and almost 70% said they would hold them at least weekly, according to data analyzed by Bach Harrison, which is also ensuring the parenting classes are being implemented as designed. It will have this school year’s data analyzed by this summer.

Still, educators see a benefit to the classes. At Kearns Junior, administrators said Guiding Good Choices is part of the continuum of services offered to help the whole family of the seventh and eighth graders they serve. Those efforts included a food pantry, clothing closet, dental and medical care, a robust after-school program and computer literacy and English classes for parents.

“We know the needs are far and cover a lot of different areas and we want to be a place that provides those services, whatever is needed,” said vice principal Josh Moore.

Balancing discipline and love

Other Utah prevention groups have seen success with parenting programs. Davis Behavioral Health, which serves Davis County, has offered a similar evidence-based program for a decade to improve family bonding, called Strengthening Families Program. The seven-week program has been offered through elementaries and junior highs, and includes separate lessons each week for the kids, including listing their goals, how to appreciate their parents and how to deal with stress and peer pressure.

Debi Todd, prevention coordinator at Davis Behavioral Health, said participating parents have reported more bonding and less conflict. And SHARP data shows a decline in Davis County teens reporting poor family management, dropping from 29.5% in 2011 to 16.3% in 2019, and past-30-day alcohol use dropped from 7.8% to 3.4% in the same time period, though Todd said the drop can’t be solely attributed to the parenting classes.

Still, “Kids do better when their parents have consistent discipline but also loving support,” said instructor Devan Bradshaw, who watches families transform through the course, from being standoffish at the start to ending with hugs and smiles.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Szwarc family — Robb, Kristin, Atlas, 3, and Orion, 11 — share a laugh during a family council on the lawn outside their apartment in Kearns on Wednesday, April 29, 2020.

Parents all over the state could benefit from such programs, said Craig L. PoVey, prevention administrator for the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.

“Some parents are too lax. Some parents are way too punitive,” he said. “Very affluent, or people you consider to live in nice neighborhoods, they may not even have clear rules and expectations for kids. We need to do a better job of getting those skills to the parents and helping them do it.”

Even as parents are laying down the law of their households, Ochoa wants them to remember to notice and reward good behavior. He gives his children a “king’s cup” when they do something right. “Check on your kids. Be there for your kids. We are good at knowing what they do wrong. Do we keep track when they do something good? … Don’t ignore that like it’s just part of their job.”

And lest parents think their kids don’t care what they think, they do. Data from SHARP shows that when kids think their parents are OK with them experimenting, they are more likely to do it.

For example, among the students who said their parents thought it would be “very wrong” to drink alcohol regularly, just 3% reported using it in the past month and 12% had ever tried it. Among those who said their parents thought it would be “wrong,” 21% used it in the past month and 51% had tried it.

“Believe it or not,” said Ochoa, “they look to their parents for the example.”

When school was still in session, Kearns High junior Parker Guertler said it was easy to find students vaping in parking lots or across the street from the school. But he’s never wanted to because of his parents. “Ever since I was 3 or 4, my dad would always tell me, ‘You should never smoke,’” said Guertler, whose mother, Becky, is involved in the Kearns Community Coalition.

“The bottom line is I respect my parents enough to know their opinions are good solid opinions and maybe I should just listen for the sake of my own well-being.”

Heather May is a freelance writer based in Salt Lake City. She can be reached at heathermayslc@gmail.com.

This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems. Part 1 of this three-part series describes the coordinated effort by the Kearns Community Coalition to help young people in their township. Part 3 highlights a program that teaches teens how to be emotionally resilient.