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Q&A: How a Boston-based program coaches families out of poverty

Q&A: How a Boston-based program coaches families out of poverty

Picture of Lauren  Whaley
[Photo by Ishai Parasol via Flickr.]

Life coaching is not just a luxury for the upper-middle-class. A Boston-based program is combining personal mentoring with brain science to equip low-income families with tools to deal with the economic and social stress that comes with poverty.

The Economic Mobility Project, or EMPath, has developed a pilot program that assigns a mentor to work with family members from toddlers to adults. By helping each person set and achieve individual goals, the mentor — and program — aims to improve the entire family’s education, finances, careers and stability.

The project is still in the early stages: 66 participants have been served in the past year, comprising 25 households. Of those, 88 percent of heads of households have made “significant progress” toward starting school, jobs or savings, and 79 percent of children have shown measurable improvement on self-regulation, according to EMPath. That early success had led two other organizations — one in Seattle, Wash. and one in Jackson, Miss. — to start testing the program, with 50 families each, according to EMPath.

I sat down with EMPath President and CEO Elisabeth Babcock to learn more about the Intergenerational Mobility Project, known as Intergen. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Let’s start with the brain science. What does poverty do to people’s brains?

A: People under stress do what’s known as tunneling. They think about one thing at a time. When you know that, you know that it’s a challenge to do a sequence of thoughts and to array the money, the credit problems, the history of being evicted, the kid’s asthma. You have to be able to begin to problem-solve in a multitasking kind of way, and the brain doesn’t let you do that on poverty.

Q. How is your program’s approach different from other early interventions?

A: Intergen is unique in that it doesn’t try to train adults or children to do things, like teach adults how to read more to their children or teach kids how to be better in school. It doesn’t tell anyone, adults or children, what their problems are or what their goals should be. Instead Intergen seeks to help adults surface their own problems and set their own goals, and then to coach their children on how to do the same. It also seeks to harness the strong bonds of love parents and children have for each other and use this power to help families strengthen their capacity to create a home that is a place where adults and children can unfold and develop into their best selves.

This sounds very loose and unstructured, but it is deployed in a very opposite way. The tools and processes we use give a strong framework for adults and children to understand where they are, define where they want to go, and lay out clear steps to get there. The coaching process strengthens executive functioning and behavior regulation skills that poverty itself compromises and strips away. The careful measurement that is done at every stage allows adults and children to see if they are making progress — and if they are, to revel in it, and if not, to create a new plan to get back on track.

Q. Describe what mentors do with children in families, and how often they meet.

A: Family mentors in Intergen help all family members assess their strengths and challenges, think about where they would each like to be in the future, and set clear goals and concrete strategies for achieving them. Children have goals set by their parents until they begin to engage and set goals for themselves. The most important tool used for this assessment and goal-setting process is the “Bridge to a Brighter Future,” for children aged birth to age 18, and the “Bridge to Self-Sufficiency,” for adults ages 18 and older. Both of these brain science-informed tools help permit people who are under stress to better sort out multiple challenges, how they are interconnected, and how to tackle them. They also learn how steps they might take to change their lives will impact their futures. The child version of the program allows children and their parents to set priorities in age-appropriate ways in five key areas shown to most contribute to healthy child development: health and wellbeing, social development, self-regulation, preparing for independence and educational progress.

Once every family member has a plan for how each one wants to make positive steps forward, then the family meets to assess themselves. They use a one-page sheet that asks each family member to assess their family on where they are stronger and weaker at things — like how they use their time, money, and space and whether their family routines and problem-solving approaches are helpful or getting in their way.

When the families do this, there is almost always a problem area that pops up around which the family agrees they need to do some work. They then set goals to fix the areas that are bothering them so that the home can run more smoothly and home can be a place that accelerates rather than sabotages everyone in the family getting ahead.

Family mentors from our program usually meet weekly with all family members until everyone is assessed, has set individual goals, and has agreed on their family plan. The staff meet regularly after that to check-in on how things are going. These meetings may happen as often as needed, but usually are at least once a month.

Q: What outcomes are you measuring with the kids?

A: We measure two things that are science-based measures of family alignment and kids’ executive functioning.  We do what’s known as Rothbart’s score, a measure of executive functioning. And we also measure family alignment: Is the family becoming a more supportive environment, or that still a problem? We use the CHAOS score, again an independently validated score of how supportive the family environment is, which is directly correlated with positive child development.

Q: Are you a parent, and if so, has doing this work made you reflect back on your own parenting?

A: I’m definitely a mom. When I was doing my Ph.D., for example, I already had two kids, and another one on the way. I was working and going to school, and raising a family at the same time. I was writing my dissertation, and that’s a miserable lonely process. And my daughter, she made me a crayon calendar that counted down, with a page I could tear off every single day, with something encouraging that she had written on it every single day. And counting down the days to when this period of time would be done. And projecting out what that was going to mean to me.

Do kids alter parents’ lives? Do they affect you and how you think about yourself and what you can do? You know they do. Absolutely.

[Photo by Ishai Parasol via Flickr.]


The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 National Fellowship will provide $2,000 to $10,000 reporting grants, five months of mentoring from a veteran journalist, and a week of intensive training at USC Annenberg in Los Angeles from July 16-20. Click here for more information and the application form, due May 5.


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