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home visiting advice from experience and a few mistakes

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After 36 years in the field, Brenda Jones Harden, PhD, knows quite a bit about home visiting. She shared practical and candid information – and, yes, she admitted some mistakes -- with approximately 250 home visitors who work for Healthy Families Massachusetts, a family support and coaching program funded by the Children’s Trust.

“What home visitors do is so important,” Dr. Jones Harden said. “What we provide parents is what changes the long-term projectile in their children’s lives.”

Dr. Jones Harden spoke at Celebration Day, an annual retreat hosted by the Children’s Trust to bring together home visitors from across the state to reward their hard work. She is an associate professor in the Institute for Child Study at the University of Maryland.

She described the sometimes difficult task of gaining a family’s approval to allow a home visitor into its home. “When they let us in, it is a privilege. It’s also a chance to capitalize on the family’s own sense of space, where they may hear and understand you better than in a clinic or other location.”

She advised home visitors to focus on the parent, not the child. They’re there as parenting coaches to improve parents’ skills which, in turn, will allow parents to create the nurturing environment that will benefit their children.

Home visitors should provide “corrective emotional experiences” for parents, highlighting what parents are doing correctly and building upon that. They should look for opportunities for “skill building in the moment, coaching in the moment” to promote good parenting.

Families may experience difficult situations - eviction, substance abuse, domestic violence – which home visitors can address by supplying resources. But, still, the focus should remain on parenting skills and addressing stress that could impact a parent-child relationship.

Dr. Jones Harden admitted she’s learned a lot by making mistakes, including bringing her own “baggage” into her work. She described herself as a parentified child who took care of her siblings and their home. So, when a client wanted to visit her grandmother, Dr. Jones Harden stepped in like a parent and drove the mom four hours to visit.

“That was so wrong. What if there had been an accident, what if the police thought I kidnapped her? I learn a new boundary that day.”

“When I started in this field, what I wanted was to change the world. Now I see I can’t. But I can make small changes in parents’ lives that will improve the development of their children that will improve society in the future.”

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Stacey Nee
Communications Director
Stacey.Nee@state.ma.us
617.595.7639