Andres Perez immigrated to San Jose, Calif., from Mexico in 1990. He was 24 years old, undocumented, knew little English, lacked job skills, and had a pregnant wife to support. He hit the ground running by completing an ESL program in San Jose City College, and, while working days at any job he could find, at night he earned an associate of science degree with specialization in electronics and computers in 2002. Fortunately for thousands of Latinx parents and their children, he never worked in electronics or computers.
That’s because in 1998, while dealing with his own parenting issues and lack of work, he was invited to attend a parenting class based on Adlerian theories, which emphasize respect and dignity.
“That very class instigated a profound change in my views,” he says. “I started to reflect on my upbringing and childhood and made many changes to my parenting style. I started to get involved in more areas of my daughter’s development and made myself present at school events, such as field trips. My parenting style changed from being an authoritarian parent to becoming an authoritative dad involved in my daughter’s life.”
In 2003, he was invited to observe a court-mandated parenting class for Spanish-speaking parents. These classes were mandated for parents accused of child abuse, domestic violence, substance abuse, anger management, nutritional issues, and more. Perez was not aware of the details of each case, but he was stunned by how the court facilitator treated the parents.
“In this class, instead of educating, the facilitator began insulting parents for their lack of English skills and reprimanding them for having too many children and lacking parenting skills,” he recalls. “I was shocked and disappointed by this punitive approach.”
Inspired by this experience, he decided to learn about ways to support positive change for underserved minorities. As part of this process, Perez became an independent contractor, teaching parenting classes to social services agencies. At the same time, he volunteered as a state advocate for the Rape Crisis Center at the Santa Clara County YWCA, for which the California State Senate honored him with a special recognition. At the same time – talk about multitasking! – he attended college classes at night. In 2013, he was proud to earn a B.A in psychology from San Jose State University, where he had transferred after graduating from De Anza Community College with an A.A. degree in 2007.
Continuing his commitment to serve the Latino community, Perez became a certified trainer at the Positive Discipline Association in 2008. That’s also when he founded Organizacion Edificando Vidas(OEV), or, in English, Uplifting Lives Organization. Its mission is to target the Latinx community in schools throughout the San Jose area and train parents in Positive Discipline principles, which encourage positive behavior rather than disciplinary measures designed to punish. Perez says that PDA and OEV are different organizations, but “we share the same psychological philosophy.”
While working with the medical community at OEV, Perez learned about the science of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). He said that as an undocumented immigrant, he was able to relate to ACEs in general because of the challenges he went through and his own ACEs growing up.
ACEs refers to the groundbreaking CDC/Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study that ties 10 types of childhood trauma, including living with an alcoholic family member or experiencing verbal abuse from a parent, to a host of health consequences. (Got Your ACE Score?)
The more ACEs that people have, researchers learned, the higher their risk for poor health outcomes, as well as social and economic consequences. Having four ACEs, for example, nearly doubles a person’s risk for heart disease and cancer, raises the risk of attempted suicides by 1200 percent and alcoholism by 700 percent. Although the original ACE Study looked at only 10 types of trauma, subsequent ACE surveys can include racism, bullying, involvement with the foster care system, homelessness, being an immigrant, living in an unsafe neighborhood, witnessing a sibling being abused, losing a parent or family member to deportation, etc.
The study, first published in 1998, emerged with a growing body of ACEs science that includes: how toxic stress from ACEs damages children’s brains; how toxic stress has epigenetic effects from one generation to the next; how toxic stress from ACEs results in short- and long-term health consequences; and how appropriate supports can build resilience and heal the harmful effects of toxic stress from ACEs. (ACEs Science 101.)
How does the science of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) fit into the OEV curriculum? Parents are encouraged to tally their own ACE score in the classes, but this is optional, Perez says. He customizes each class based on the specific needs of the parents, which include their ACEs as well as the ages of their children and the special issues they might face.
From its beginning in 2008 to the present, Perez, as OEV founder and CEO, along with a small team of volunteers and certified facilitators, has trained more than 10,000 parents in the Latinx communities in several San Francisco Bay Area school districts, including those in San Jose, Alum Rock, and Campbell, where there is a large Latinx population. His trainings also include Cabrillo Unified School District in Half Moon Bay and St. Helen Unified School District in Napa.
OEV receives funding from its partners, including the Santa Clara Family Health Plan, a medical network whose pediatricians and dieticians refer their patients to OEV trainings. Medical networks embrace OEV, says Perez, “because our trainings are trauma-informed.”
“Other partners include school districts that understand the impact of ACEs in our community,” he adds, “and use Title I funds (which provide federal financial assistance to schools with a high number of low-income students) to pay for these programs to empower the community.”
Courses last 18 hours and can be scheduled in a variety of ways — nine weeks, with two hours per week, for example — depending on the school.
The parents learn to understand the impact of ACEs and other traumas, such as those related to immigration, health, and common childhood behaviors. Parents are given tools for problem-solving to decrease toxic stress and reduce their children’s exposure to trauma.
The philosophy of Positive Discipline is to focus on solutions and build connections. Parents learn to see the belief behind the behavior so that they can guide their children with a positive approach, instead of punishment. These activities provide an opportunity for the parent to step back and learn how to respond in ways to support the child instead of reacting, often with blame, shame or punishment.
“Instead of punishment or consequences,” says Perez, “we look for positive ways to change the belief behind the behavior.” Beliefs, or how people perceive the world and their roles in it, according to Adlerian philosophy, underlie how people make decisions. If people believe that only blame, shame and punishment can change a child’s behavior, they’ll resort to those punitive approaches. But if they learn about ACEs and brain science — that kids “misbehave” because they’re stressed or are experiencing trauma — they quickly understand that a trauma-informed approach that uses understanding, nurturing and helping kids heal themselves actually results in happier kids.
The trainings are experiential and include lots of role-playing. Classes are provided in Spanish or English. Every class is different based on the issues that parents have and the ages of their children. It includes information about how to recognize the difference between developmental issues and discipline issues.
Over the years, OEV has developed a way to measure results through anonymous self-assessments completed by the participants at the end of the series. One question is whether the parent hits their child(ren). In a study of 109 parents in two different school districts, the trainers found that before the class, 67 percent reported they hit their children. After the class, 56 percent had stopped hitting.
“At all times the parents were engaged in the classes,” says Perez. “The parents felt that the classes were helpful, insightful, informative, and offered constructive means on how to parent, communicate, guide, show love, and respect to their children.” Many of them requested more classes.
As a result of parents’ requests, OEV began a second series that has the parents apply the tools developed in the first series and also goes into more depth about how a person’s view of the world affects their behavior. This is part of Adlerian philosophy, which assumes people make decisions based on how their world is perceived. So, if an only child has a new sibling, that child will perceive that she or he is no longer the focus of parental attention and might believe that she or he is no longer loved. Thus, that child’s behavior will change, usually in “misbehaving.” Punishment would not change the child’s belief, but if parents are given the tools to change the child’s belief and have their child realize that she or he is still loved, then the child’s behavior will change accordingly.
In 2012, OEV initiated a training just for Latino fathers called “de hombre a hombre,” or “from man to man,” at Campbell Union School District. The district superintendent at that time, Dr. Eric Andrew, was skeptical about results, says Perez, because “culturally, the ones who raise the kids are the Latina moms. At the request of the moms, we offered classes to only the dads.”
Forty-two dads showed up to the first class, and they not only finished the class but also wanted to continue when it ended. And then even more Latino fathers asked for the classes. In 2013, 67 men attended the class, and in fall of 2014, another 46 fathers participated. The fathers-only class Is still an option; however, it’s difficult to set up because the classes take place during the evenings, when fathers (or mothers) might have to work.
After the success of the classes in 2013-14, however, “Superintendent Andrew asked if he could submit our program for an award,” says Perez, who has recently become a U.S. citizen.
The result: OEV has won several awards and special recognition, including the Glenn Hoffman Exemplary Program Award in 2015 for significant enhancement of student success because of measurable improvement in attendance, behavior, and grades after the fathers had completed these classes, as well as the coveted Golden Bell Award given by the California State Board of Education.
The results for reducing physical punishment has continued. At Robert F. Kennedy Elementary School in the Franklin-McKinley School District, all the parents who reported spanking their children at the beginning of the class said they no longer spanked their children after the class; they also reported reducing all physical punishment.
As for Perez, he says the work…and the results…are rewards in themselves.