Peter Tierney’s relationship with his son, Koga, became strained in the fall of 2018, after Koga started attending Timberlane Middle School.
Tierney and his wife, Naoko, would track Koga’s academic performance with Oncourse, the web portal by which parents can review all of a child’s school assignments in the Hopewell Valley Regional School District. Koga was routinely failing to turn in his homework. “We’d be tracking this catastrophe daily,” Tierney says.
When they would approach their son about the missed assignments, he would angrily deny any wrongdoing. They fought with Koga, now 12, over his lying to cover up missed homework assignments. Although Koga’s test scores were high, the missed assignments were bringing his grades down.
Tierney says Koga has been diagnosed with inattentive ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and that ADHD was a reason behind his behavior. Still, knowing that did not mean the parents did not struggle to understand and address his actions.
They worked with their son to help him get organized. When that did not work, they took away games, they took away Koga’s access to YouTube, they took away desserts. Nothing they tried worked.
“It just led to more fighting and less and less work getting done,” Tierney says.
Koga’s failures to complete assignments would earn him rebukes at school, and the misbehavior fed itself.
“He’d feel like an idiot for forgetting (to do his homework) and became even less motivated to do any work. He felt depressed, and we’d be back up at the top of the cycle, but worse,” Tierney says.
Things changed for the Tierney family after they were introduced to a parenting technique that would help them make progress with Koga and quell the hostility in their home. The technique is called the Nurtured Heart Approach.
The Tierneys and many other parents within the Hopewell School District have been trained in this approach in recent years by Christine Abrahams, the supervisor of K-12 counseling services at the Hopewell Valley School District. Abrahams is holding more training sessions in April.
As supervisor for K-12 counseling services, Abrahams works with counselors and principals at all of the schools in the district. She doesn’t work with children directly, but she does work with counselors on their cases and also comes up with ideas for districtwide programming, including the Nurtured Heart Approach.
“As I started training more parents I saw how it was magical with them, they got so much out of it, relationships with their children really blossomed,” Abrahams says.
Upcoming NHA parenting training sessions will start on April 15 and run through May 20. They are given in the Hopewell Valley Regional School District office conference room at 425 S. Main St., Pennington. One session is from 9 to 11 a.m. and the other is from 6 to 8 p.m. Parents in the district will receive a notice this month.
Adjusting a parent’s approach
The Nurtured Heart Approach was created by Howard Glasser. Its main ideas are founded in three principles, or “stands”: ignore the negative, energize the positive, and have clear rules. It seeks to revise how parents approach issues with their children.
Using the approach has put Peter Tierney and his family on a path towards peace. But before that could happen, Tierney had to realize that he needed to adjust his own approach to parenting for his son’s behavior to positively change.
Symptoms of inattentive ADHD include a short attention span, distractibility, forgetfulness and procrastination. So in Koga’s case, scolding had no positive effects, but it did have negative ones. Tierney saw that Koga had begun to lose confidence.
When tensions within the Tierney home were at their worst, a friend suggested that Tierney and his wife attend the six-week training for the Nurtured Heart Approach that Abrahams gives.
Abrahams says that when she first heard about the NHA, 10 years ago, she wasn’t convinced that it made sense. It wasn’t until she took the six-week training program herself a few years later that she knew it was something she wanted to bring to the district.
The district sent her to become a certified trainer in June 2019. As soon as she returned from training she partnered with the Hopewell Valley Municipal Alliance to offer training sessions to parents during the year.
“I [thought], ‘This will solve a lot of relationship issues parents are having with kids, a lot of anxiety issues that kids are having,’ she says. “As I started training more parents, I saw how it was like magical with them. They got so much out of it. Relationships with their children really blossomed.”
Abrahams says a key to the Nurtured Heart Approach is helping parents of challenging children find a way to focus on the positive instead of the negative. The result of this approach is often an increase of confidence and self esteem.
“Kids who are very challenging are used to being denigrated or put down or lectured or yelled at, and that’s what they see about themselves. They don’t see anything good,” Abrahams says. “[NHA] gives them an alternative view of themselves — that they are doing most things right most of the time.”
Tierney admits that implementing the NHA did not go so smoothly during the six-week training period. However, he did see improvements. “As soon as we changed our behavior, his behavior changed immediately too,” Tierney says.
The Tierneys looked to focus on Koga’s positive behavior. They praised him when he turned in his homework, instead of castigating him when he failed to do so.
Tierney says after the change in approach, Koga started completing and handing in homework assignments by himself.
“When we stop focusing on the negative and focused on the positive, we didn’t have any more fights with Koga,” he says. “He was doing little things, like taking dishes from the table to the sink, which he’d never done before. It’s a little thing, but we were praising him for the small things.”
The Tierneys stopped checking OnCourse as frequently as they had before. And Tierney says he does not become too frustrated when Koga misses an assignment, because he knows it will be addressed by his teacher.
“We gave up that kind of control,” Tierney says. “Now, he is in control. I think that gave him some of the confidence that he needed.”
Tierney cautions that it can be difficult to always adhere to the method. “It’s easy to slip up and revert to bad habits,” Tierney says. “But what remains is awareness. Even if we do behave in our old ways, we can recognize it, speak to it, and try to avoid it in the future. So when we fail, at least we are failing forward.”
‘It’s about energy’
Abrahams characterizes NHA as a mindfulness practice. “Not a behavioral analysis plan for your child; it’s about energy,” she says.
Deepa Salvi’s daughter Rina is a 7-year-old Stony Brook Elementary School student. One day recently, teacher Basheer Khan told Salvi that her daughter was exhibiting negative behavior in class. She suggested that Salvi get trained in the Nurtured Heart approach.
What Salvi did not realize before attending the December training sessions offered by Abrahams was that it was going to impact her even more than it would affect her daughter.
Salvi attended the training sessions, then began to incorporate the NHA method into daily use in her home. Like the Tierneys, she focused on recognizing and praising her children’s positive behaviors.
“We implemented it not just for one particular behavior but a lot of behaviors,” Salvi says. “We saw a difference everyday. The more we would focus on what she is doing right, which is kind of contrary to how we were parenting, Rina’s behavior totally transformed.”
Salvi even potty trained her two-year-old son Rohan in four days while using the approach. “If he had an accident, we didn’t make a big deal about it.” Salvi says. “In four days, he was in underwear.”
Salvi says in the past, she would have pointed out and put more energy toward her children’s negative behaviors.
“When we would energize the negative behaviors, those would be the times we’d be the most connected,” she says. So sometimes Rina would do things just for the attention, even if it was a negative behavior,” Salvi says.
Salvi acknowledges simple actions such as when Rina and Rohan are playing nicely together, when they clear their plates on their own or empty their school bags. “I have to be present to notice. Even the basic things we energize,” she says.
Praising her problem-solving successes helped Rina build confidence. Now, Salvi says, whenever Rina encounters a problem, she will call herself a good problem solver and attempt to tackle the issue at hand.
Salvi believes it would be a great thing if all teachers became trained in the NHA. “I think it’s a great way to run a classroom,” she says.
Abrahams agrees. In September, with the blessing of Tollgate Grammar School principal Jane-Ellen Lennon and district director of curriculum Rosetta Treece, she trained all staff at the school. “I realized if teachers started doing it … the same message would be getting to the child (from both), that they have inherent greatness,” she says.
Angela Jacobs has always been a proactive parent. She has sought out different parenting techniques and classes over the years as her children, Leo and Emma, have gone through each stage of their lives.
That commitment to lifelong learning has not stopped now that Leo and Emma are in high school. Jacobs attended Abrahams’ training in winter 2018 after hearing about it through an email from the school district.
Leo is 18 years old and has a general diagnosed mood disorder. He suffers with anxiety and is in a learning-disabled class.
“I think that with intellectually disabled people who often have mood disorders, there’s so many challenges that they face—the world can be very scary. Leo tells me that,” Jacobs says.
Jacobs is familiar with parenting approaches she refers to as “less positive,” such as the star chart method. She would give her children stars for completing responsibilities, and gaining stars would lead to rewards. It worked for Emma when she was younger, but did not for Leo.
“Once he didn’t get a star, the whole day was ruined for him. Or, he would say he didn’t want the reward,” Jacobs says.
She has also tried the technique of counting from 1, 2, and 3 before issuing a time out if her children were engaging in negative behavior.
When counting did lead to a time out, the result was often not what she was hoping for. “I found that my children would escalate in their little quarantine. It never worked,” Jacobs says.
She tried out another parenting approach based on shaming. “A kid is doing something wrong and you bring in an outside adult to become a part of the situation. The theory is that the kid misbehaving is now visible to someone that he does not want to be visible to. The kid feels horrible,” she says.
A lot of these approaches felt uncomfortable for Jacobs, especially the shaming technique. When she started using the NHA and recognizing her children’s positive actions, Jacobs says they immediately noticed.
“If my kids forgot 4 or 5 things they were supposed to do in the morning, but I point out one things that they did well…they love that,” she says. “They both light up when I tell them something that they’re doing really well. Leo’s made a lot of progress because he feels good.”
Now, Jacobs says Leo pull himself out of bad moods within seconds, rather than them taking over his entire day.
“You don’t have to have a war with your kids,” she says. “Normal things like not putting their dishes away, doing their laundry, they’re not fatal…things don’t have to be so serious.”
The NHA is the first approach that has worked and had a positive effect on both of her children.
“Being a teenager is incredibly hard and both needed some confidence boosting. My son has had behavioral challenges since he was younger, and that’s also one of the reasons why I do look at different techniques [parenting],” she says.
Connecting with your kids
Managing four children’s tight schedules and different activities was becoming difficult for Kenyon Petura. He wanted to find the right parenting approach that would work for all of his children, one of which has special needs.
The Nurtured Heart Approach was his solution.
Petura attended Abrahams’ training last spring. His son Cavan, who is 8 years old and attends Stony Brook, has epilepsy and is developmentally delayed. Petura noticed how Cavan was frustrated with how his wife and him were communicating with him.
“We were searching for a better way to get to know our children as they are getting older, and looking for the best way to connect with them,” Petura says.
Once he started energizing his children’s positive behavior, he noticed how they started cooperating with him more.
Now, Petura says connecting with his children is a lot easier. “The challenges we have with Cavan are no different, but now we work as a team together, and it is a much more positive result,” he says.
Sticking with the NHA has been the most challenging part of implementing it for Petura and he compares it to sticking to a diet after the third week.
He believes the NHA’s principles and training is something that needs to be revisited, and he would attend another training offered by Abrahams.
“As parents, the stresses of the day and other aspects of life make keeping to the NHA principles challenging. We have come back to many of its elements as a core approach. With consistency the change in you and your children is very noticeable,” Petura says.
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At its heart, Abrahams says, the Nurtured Heart Approach is a lifestyle change. “You can use it with your spouse, your pets, children,” she says.
Salvi says she has found herself implementing the ideals of the approach in all aspects of her life.
“Initially we were doing it to be better parents. But not only has it changed our relationship with our kids, I think it’s (also) seeped into my relationship with my husband, my relationship with my coworkers, and my relationship with myself,” she says. “That was a very unexpected gift, to have this transformation not only with the intention of transforming others or my children but also to transform myself.”
One of the first things Abrahams tells parents in training is that they’re not there to “fix” their children. Through the Nurtured Heart Approach, “Parents have to look within and work on their (own) stuff, because their buttons are being pushed,” she says.
When parents yell and punish their kids, Abrahams says, the kids become conditioned to get an emotional charge from the negative attention. “Versus if they’re doing something right, they’re not noticed and that’s kind of boring,” she says. “Or at best, a parent will say ‘Good job,’ and that doesn’t rock their boat. When you start ramping up (the positive attention) as a parent or a teacher, that’s what rocks their boat, and they love it.”