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Jerry Witkovsky with Grandson

The 4th Generation of Witkovsky’s–a new great grandson

Grandparents have a transformative effect on their family when they teach their skills, manifest their creativity and give voice to their passions.

I set up my first Grandparent Connection School Program at Deerfield High School in 2009. The Deerfield High School grandparent program is still going strong. Over 300 grandparents attended the star event for senior year students: The annual Grandparents Day that took place the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Grandparents (or other special guests) shadowed their grandchild—attended their classes, ate lunch together, experienced their world.

“It’s beyond wonderful,” said one grandmother who was there to be with her grandson.

This connection at one of the critical stages of development goes beyond the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. Grandchildren are becoming young adults. Grandparents are the presence of all the adults that precede the grandchild. From distant relatives to the teen’s parents, the grandparent brings knowledge, wisdom and hope to their grandchild.

Teenagers bring different knowledge and wisdom, frequently with anxiety about the present and trepidation for the future. Amazing things happen when these two get together and share stories of their life experience with one another.

The Power of Schools to Strengthen Families

Connecting with school administrators or counselors is a way for grandparents to understand what their grandchild might need at this age intellectually, socially, and emotionally.  In fact, at a gathering of grandparents of freshman earlier in the academic year, questions were less about what students were reading in English class. They were more about if and how their freshman grandchild was making friends, or how students felt about the pressure of transitioning to high school. A panel of sophomore students talked about their experience of a more “holistic” approach to school, being involved with all aspects of school and not just academics: Participating in sports and clubs is a way to make friends; connecting with older students in the peer tutoring program is an avenue to focus on academics and get perspective on high school.

The school connection and yearning for understanding didn’t end there. “How can we help our grandkids? What are they into these days?” asked one grandparent. The initial response was expected, “visit the school website. Read what your grandchild is reading in English class and ask questions about it, attend their events.” But another answer was more unexpected: “Hide your prescription medicines and dispose of them if you are no longer taking them.” Why? Because prescription drug abuse is a national epidemic. National Institutes for Drug Abuse report that in 2014 1,725 teens started prescription drug abuse every day of that year.

Grandparents must know what is going on to be able to be connected and make a difference in their grandchildren’s lives. This difference can be made not only in the relationship to the grandchild but to the school and the community as well. Schools benefit from volunteers in many aspects of school function, including speakers for career days, event and planning committees, tutoring and more. Community residents who are informed and invested in the school’s success vote on bond issues or raise funds for school projects.

Grandparent programs in schools, both secular and religious, add value, and they are catching on: Over the past seven years, the program in Deerfield has moved into a middle school, with plans to add more schools in 2017; programs are established in two Jewish high schools in the Chicagoland area, plus a number of religious schools in Chicago and beyond.

But, the question remains—what are other case studies of success at schools throughout the US? How can we show that when grandparents enter their grandchild’s school world, it can have a positive, lasting impact across the family and community? My theory is that it brings families closer together around shared values; improves mental health for grandparents and grandchildren; provides community support for schools and encourages positive implicit association with aging.

Theory of Change to evaluate the power of establishing Grandparent Connection Programs in secular and religious schools.

When grandparents of teens successfully connect with their grandchildren’s schools, they will become better informed about their world. When grandparents better understand what their grandchildren are learning at school, including not only subject matter but also the emotional, intellectual and social skills/development that their grandchild experiences as they grow toward young adulthood, they can better engage in meaningful discussions and connections.

Both grandparents and grandchildren will deepen their knowledge of one another’s life stories and values, and grandparents will contribute their compassion, wisdom and love through the various transition points of their grandchildren’s young lives. Additionally, grandchildren and their parents gain positive implicit associations with aging and older adults.

Simultaneously, host schools will gain additional support in the form of enthusiastic volunteers, deeper involvement from school age families and positive influence on the broader community via grandparents’ social networks.

For Religious school connection there is an opportunity to engage spiritually and foster conversations at home around religious or cultural issues. It can create a safe space to share personal stories of religious identity, at times when it might have been difficult or even dangerous to practice their faith. Grandparents involved in religious school learning may find an entrée to sharing values such as kindness or generosity, or enjoy passing on family traditions to grandchildren.

Long term, family units will be enriched, contributing profound and enduring impact on individuals, families and communities.

What grandparent school programs are in your community?

Last year I created a Grandparent Connection School Kit to share what I have learned from my own experience and provide a step-by-step guide for grandparents to set up Grandparent Connection programs in their grandchild’s schools. In the coming year, I am embarking on a research and evaluation project to see what works, best practices, and to create a model to expand the program across the country.

What do you think? Are we on to something? Do you have examples of successful school grandparent programs in your community? We’d love to hear from you! Please share–even programs that did not succeed are good to know about, for informing success for the future.

Please contact me at jwitkovsky (at) att.net.

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A long-time social work professional, grandparenting activist, and passionate Grandpa, author Jerry Witkovsky offers fresh approaches to help grandparents enter their grandchild’s world, to leave values, not just valuables, and create a living legacy. http://www.grandparentsunleashed.com

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