Susan Lembo
Photography by Mary Ellen Mark



Home economics teachers in middle schools stress decision‑making, family dynamics
by Susan Lembo

Middle schools are fast becoming the new frontier for life skills and pre‑parenthood programs. With the most current federal health study showing that teenage pregnancy rose in 1988 ‑ for the first time in 18 years ‑ many home economics educators are convinced that the time to introduce these programs is before high school, before it's too late.

In 1988, according to the study, one in every 30 women between 15 and 17 gave birth. They had more than 168,000 babies.

"It's after the fact in high school," notes Kathleen McGuire, a home economics teacher involved in Utah's "Technology, Life, Careers" (TLC) program. Elfrieda Smith, also a TLC teacher, agrees. "When they're in middle school, kids are still open and receptive to new ideas. They still see teachers as role models. A few years later they have biases."

States that have mandated family life/parenting curricula in grades K through 12 in recent years include Virginia, West Virginia, South Carolina, Iowa (human growth and development), Kansas, and New Jersey. At the middle school level, Michigan, Ohio, Utah, and Arkansas are among states offering pre‑parenting programs, some of which are mandatory.

While sonic teachers and parents may harbor doubts about the suitability of such pre‑high school programs, acceptance is growing. "Parenting courses have gotten less controversial in the last two to three years due to the growing crises of teen pregnancy and AIDS," notes Jocelyn Schultz, vice president, home economics education division, American Vocational Association. Ann Ashby, a home economics teacher and teacher‑trainer at Daniel Morgan Junior Iligh in Winchester City, Virginia, says that hundreds of seventh graders have completed a three‑week family life unit in the past six years. Of those students, parents of only two withheld permission for their youngsters to take part.

Pre‑parenthood curricula differ from state to state, but the basic structure is the same. Instructional activities, parenting labs, and guest speakers are used to help students learn the consequences of becoming teenage parents, and engage in ethical and successful decision‑making for individual and family life.

The decision‑making component is a strong focus for many. Teachers agree that it's the basis on which the success of the programs rest.

"It's more important for teens to be able to make informed, wise decisions than it is for them to be able to label a reproductive system," says Ashby. "Just for them to realize they do have a choice may mean the difference between becoming another [pregnancy] statistic or not."

Caryn Roe‑MacDonald, a life skills teacher in Michigan's "Skills for Living" program, believes self‑esteem is a key factor in improved decision‑making skills and in building good relationships. "If students develop a higher self‑esteem, they will ultimately become a better person, family member, and friend, and will be better able to cope with peer pressure." One class activity that helps students feel better about themselves is creating tie‑dye Tshirts "symbolizing their uniqueness." The camcorder has also proved a useful tool in MacDonald's class. "We do peer pressure activities on camera, and when kids see the finished product they often say, 'I thought I did such a good job at saying no and being assertive.'

Michigan's pre‑parenthood curriculum includes four units: Who am I?; take responsibility for life decisions; explore the process of becoming a parent (including examining the decision to become sexually active), and explore child growth and development. Each school district determines whether the program will be mandatory or elective.

In four years, MacDonald's class enrollment at John Page Middle School in Madison Heights has grown from 14 to 80. Equally significant, her once all‑female classes are now one‑third male. Gwen Hunt, a life skills teacher in Michigan, also reports that one‑third of her students are male.

"When I teach human sexuality, the boys speak up as much as the girls," says Hunt, who teaches at Franklin Junior High in Wayne. "We do more than just teach the 'plumbing.' They openly discuss their feelings. We discuss how to show love without jumping into bed with someone."

Hunt recalls a time when a 19‑year‑old with three children visited her class. Right in front of the mother, one student blurted out, "Oh my gosh ‑ I hope that doesn't happen to me." Hunt adds, "I explain that it doesn't have to happen to them. You can choose what path you take in life."

Utah's TLC program, slated for statewide implementation by the 1992 school year, has already been adopted by 80 percent of the state's junior and middle schools." Before TLC, too many of our middle school programs were just concentrating on clothing or foods, and were not incorporating family, child development, self‑concept, and communication material into the curriculum," says Mary Monroe, Utah state supervisor for vocational home economics.

TLC's emphasis on goal planning and career opportunities helps to present alternatives to early parenthood. Child care is another key element ‑ how to provide for children's physical and emotional needs, avoid safety hazards, and understand the causes and types of child abuse. A parenting lab experience is included.

 "Kids at this age have a lot of dissatisfaction with their parents," notes Kathleen McGuire of Butler Middle School in Salt Lake City. "They come out of this class with the realization that parents are doing the best they can with what they have. Students learn that they have the opportunity to do a better job as parents, if they want to. They learn that parenting is one of the more important things in life, and we had better he trained for it."

"The program helps student learn that the family is the most important thing in their lives," says Elfrieda Smith of Spring Creek Middle School in Providence, Utah.

Although the importance of family is stressed in pre‑parenthood programs, youths are encouraged to postpone having children until later in life. "We stress that having a baby is not growing up, and it's not good for the baby or the family," says Heather Boggs, a consultant for the Ohio Department of Education's "Impact" program. A life skills program for disadvantaged middle school children, Impact helps strengthen family and interpersonal relations and self‑responsibility ‑ what Boggs refers to as "empowering" skills.

"If they [adolescents] are not able to control the circumstances when they're in the back seat of a car or at home alone with their boyfriend, then it [teen pregnancy] is probably going to happen," says Boggs.

"They learn that teenage pregnancy is a decision they have power over," says Theresa Wright, an Impact teacher at Roberts Paideia Academy in Cincinnati. "At this age, kids don't have good self‑esteem. Their bodies are changing and they're going through a lot emotionally; they want a great deal of independence but they're not sure how to handle it."

"So much of the curriculum focuses on self‑understanding and decision‑making," adds Debbie Mazur, an Impact teacher at West Muskingum Middle School in Zanesville, "that it will have an effect on their not choosing drugs or becoming pregnant."

While it's too soon to tell whether the new programs can prevent teen pregnancy, teachers feel encouraged by how middle school students respond to family living and parenting units. "Kids say this is the most fun class of the day. They're excited," says Kathleen McGuire. "You are teaching them how to live and get along rather than a high concept of algebra."

"The neatest thing for me as a teacher is that you don't have to wait six years to see if it has made a difference," says Caryn Roe‑MacDonald. "Kids take these [life] skills and use them immediately."

• "100 Ways to Enhance Self‑Concept in the Classroom: A Handbook for Teachers and Parents" by J.J. Canfield and H.C. Wells. Prentice‑Hall, Inc. (1976). To order; 201‑767‑5937.
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• "Learning to Sav No," Sunburst Films. Video: $145; Filmstrip: $129 To order: 800‑431‑1934
• "You Would if You Loved Me," Guidance Associates. Video: $209. To order: 800‑431‑1242.