Family Resource Center Partner Highlight: Julietta Skoog of Sproutable

Tell us a little about yourself and Alanna (Bebee), and how you started Sproutable:

At Sproutable, we help parents grow remarkable kids. Alanna and I are neighbors and we live here in Wallingford. And I think that’s really important to know, because first and foremost our relationship with FamilyWorks has been as neighbors. I am a school psychologist and a school counselor, and I worked in Seattle Public Schools for over 15 years helping families in that capacity, both clinically (doing evaluations as a psychologist) and then also directly with students within the classroom as a counselor. So I bring that level of expertise as a background. But that entire time, I also discovered positive discipline and very early on in my career became an advanced positive discipline trainer. On the side, I was teaching parenting workshops and classes and doing teacher trainings as well. So doing all of that, working with students in the schools, teaching a couple classes a week, and I was kind of maxed-out, in terms of there was only one of me being able to do all of that.

Then my neighbor Alanna and I realized we were in similar fields (she has a background in public health, and interestingly when the swine-flu happened it was her expertise in getting information to the public very quickly and clearly, so she’s been very helpful this time as well!), and she really saw this lack of good information, good trainings, getting to the right people, to all people. That’s what we realized is that all people need this information. All parents, all teachers, you know? We both were focused on the early childhood years, certainly preventatively and that is just where our passions lie, and Alana (again, as a neighbor like across the fence) said, “Hey Julietta, I have this idea. Are you interested in making some videos?” And I said “I would love to, because I am so maxed out from my hustle of going to all these places and doing all of this in person.”

So that is why we created Sproutable, to create this online platform that could reach parents, caregivers, and teachers through video and online content to bring them this important information, which is Positive Discipline backed, research-based, and parent-tested. We really focus on helping to teach the whole child, in terms of social/emotional development, behavior, brain development, executive functioning, and really thinking about “Who we hope this child will be when they will be when they are 25?” And what we’ve found is every time I ask this question, you know hundreds of times to both teachers and parents, the list is always the same. It doesn’t matter what parent I’m talking to, what neighborhood, what language, what country (now we’re in 16 countries actually, through Sproutable) it’s always the same! Parents want their kids to be responsible, and respectful, and independent, and happy and creative and compassionate and empathetic and good citizens and be in happy relationships and be financially happy.

So it’s really about that. It’s how do we start now, how are we intentional with our parenting and our relationships and with helping children to discover how capable they are. Really starting early with those kinds of skills, through book systems and in our direct responses. So using the challenges that all kids have every day as opportunities to grow those life skills.

So that’s what we’re passionate about. We have an online series that is video-based and self-paced, for preschoolers and one for toddlers. And then a year and half ago, we created a smaller spotlight course from that called “Changing Your Language to Change Their Behavior.” And then we also launched a nanny certification program, exactly a year ago last May. That has been awesome and so cool seeing the feedback from the nannies as they take the quizzes with each chapter. And we are just now in the final editing process of doing a STARS training for Washington State preschool teachers as well that’s video-based. So we’re busy! But the uniqueness of our video content is that we show real Seattle families, diverse families actually using the tools with real kids. So there are no actors and you just kinda see how it works.

We offer the online content and I still do my live parenting workshops, just like I do with FamilyWorks. So we have 7-week series, 5-week series, and individual workshops on things like siblings and early years. Social media wise, we’ve gotten a really great following, especially on our YouTube channel, you know because video is kind of specialty. We pride ourselves on keeping our videos short and sweet and there’s a whole Q&A library on all things behavioral for parents.

You talked a little bit about Positive Discipline earlier, but I was wondering how that impacted your life when you first discovered that?

The biggest impact for me was that it was before I had my own children. I was deeply working with many students, in fact as a psychologist, your case load is so high and you have about 1,000 students per site, so I was working at three different schools all over Seattle, and I just would drive home in tears seeing the way adults would talk to students and treat students. I think the biggest impact was that it gave this bridge for how to treat children respectfully, mutually respectfully, and also for kids to discover how capable they are. And because it’s brain-based and empowering, it really changed my life in that way where I could help teachers create class meetings, change their language. It really made me discover that it’s not the kids that need the help, it’s the grownups. It’s about how do we shift the perspective for grown-ups to see the [child’s] behavior as language. It’s the child’s way of communicating to you. They’re trying to tell you with the skills that they have, what they need. And this shift, that behavior is an indication of skills that are missing, and so as grown-ups it’s our job to teach them. It’s not our job to blame them, or shame them, or yell at them, or punish them. It’s about teaching them the missing skills. So I think that was the most impactful for me on a professional level, was really helping the grownups shift and being empowered in my role, working on teams to especially help the most vulnerable kids. Because I was in that gateway of Special Education as well, especially for students who were most likely to be referred. For example, a higher proportion of kids of color, the bias that came with that around behavior quote un-quote “problems,” versus just really shifting the lens on what skills are missing and how are we teaching them in a respectful way that invites them to feel safe to learn.

And then of course I had my first child and I thought I knew everything about parenting because here I was teaching it and then I was like, “Oh my goodness, I know nothing!” It rocked my world. So I was just so grateful to have this set of principles and foundations and tools that I had been working with to be like, “okay now I can actually put these to practice.” And oh my gosh it helped so much, to start family meetings when my oldest was six months old, and empower her, by the time she was two and how much she was able to do and for herself. She’s now twelve and she’s so highly capable, such high executive functioning skills, and I really attribute it to being able to have that Positive Discipline framework before I even had children.

I now have three children, they’re 12, 9, and 4. In terms of having a family that just feels respectful and has such a high level of communication, and a system, we all pitch in and the kids do so many contributions. It doesn’t mean we don’t have challenges, but it means we have this set of tools to draw from as the challenges come up.

So you talked a little bit about living in the neighborhood, how did your relationship with FamilyWorks begin?

Okay so I was literally just trying to pull this up, I’m not sure if you have this history. It was before Edsel and Elsie, and before Launa there was a parent coordinator before that and I can’t remember her name, but she had been with FamilyWorks for like 20 years I wanna say.

Was it Shirley?

Shirley! Yes! I can see her perfectly it was Shirley [Ferkingstad, former Family Resource Center Manager]! So she reached out to me, and asked if I would teach a parenting class and that’s how it started. I’ve been doing one to two a year ever since then really. And the parents that have taken the class are so lovely and amazing, and their feedback brings me to tears. They say it’s changed their life, and I remember one dad who would take the ferry over and was just so invested. Did all the reading and was just so determined to learn more and change, so open to change. And it was just incredibly inspiring how open this father was. At the end of the class, he sent me an email that just “if you have changed anyone it’s been my life, and I’m just so grateful being back in my children’s lives. Thank you so much it’s just made all the difference.” So getting those kinds of continual feedback over the years via FamilyWorks has just been awesome.

But yeah, I said I was in the neighborhood and that I’d love to. And I had been a part of the FamilyWorks community as a donor, but also, because I work with families, to be able to say FamilyWorks has all these offerings and refer folks to you.

The last few years, I was invited to come to the playgroup on Fridays and I said I would have to bring my own baby, so they said “Please come!” I would bring my flipchart and 14-month old daughter, Leona, in and that was just so sweet to be with the other parents, learning together. I’d maybe bring a concept each week, but letting our kids play together and having them watch me interact with my own kid when they’re melting down too. Like not wanting to leave or not wanting to wash their hands, that was nice for me to able to step out of that teaching role and be able to be a mom too.

Let’s talk about the pandemic. It created a ton of challenges for caregivers. How did parents in your classes adjust to those challenges?

That’s a great question too. I don’t know if we have the time to get into everything, but it was more survival. The biggest thing I noticed, I mean for sure the collective anxiety. I think that there was such a hardship in terms of the working parents, being home when preschools shut down and our grandparents that were part of our caregiving network (because you know I was in it too), that they suddenly couldn’t help us so that multi-generational lifeline that was cutoff. The relentless of young children who need us constantly brought on the biggest stress for parents. So what I saw was having finally gotten our kids to beds, parents opening up their computers and working until 2 in the morning. Or for the essential workers who were still going to work, that level of stress and mental load takes us out of being able to be present with our kids.

I think about how a lot of these Positive Discipline tools are great, and they require us to be regulated. They require us to be present and in a relationship with another human being. And so when we are stressed, when have our own anxiety, when we are dysregulated, that effects our relationships and our kids. So we go into survival, our fight or flight response, our cortisol is pumping, we’re just trying to get through the day. And I think the biggest emotional burden too, especially you know I work so closely with parents of young children and having a young child myself, is then you feel like you’ve lost this time with them, and that time that’s so precious. So I think what we at Sproutable really tried to do, and again given Alanna’s incredible background with pandemics, Day One we shifted immediately to COVID-19 resources for parents. We shifted all of our content to, how to work from home with your kids, how to make routines with your kids, how to be connected and firm, how to lean on your systems, how to get them to wear a mask, how to get them to wash their hands. How to find the fun, how to still be connected, how to draw from mindfulness practices to address your own stress responses. So we went all in for those first 3-6 months. I did a few interviews with radio stations and wrote guest articles and things like that to try to support parents.

So this is kind of related, I’m sure you experienced it during playgroups at our Family Resource Center, that sense of community I think is so important to the experience of participants at FamilyWorks. Our team transitioned to try and do virtual playgroups and mailing activity and self-care packets to families, and I was just wondering if you could speak to the importance of those social connections for young children.

Oh my gosh it’s everything! Two parts. One, for parents themselves, it’s a lifeline, a social lifeline. You can feel so isolated at home with your child. Parenting is so isolating, especially for single parents or a partnership where you’re the only one home if that’s the division of responsibilities. If you are the primary caregiver it’s so isolating, and again it’s that relentless of the constant need. There are no breaks at all with young children. So the playgroups, you see it in the eyes of the caregivers, being able to smile and laugh and have a grown up conversation. I always love at FamilyWorks that you can get a cup of coffee. It’s beautiful it feels so human, you know! And the beautiful basket of fresh fruit that’s out, it’s those little touches that are so nourishing for the caregiver as well.

For the children, it’s everything! Because the social interaction is how children learn. They are wired to learn through social interaction. In fact, when you look at the research in terms of brain development, kids thrive through the social. It’s not necessarily even just basic needs being met, they have to have that social interaction as well. Of course kids are resilient, they’re gonna get that from their grown-ups, but having interactions with other children is just so powerful and helps their brain grow so much. So yes I think that’s really important.

You know, I thought the shift to Zoom was going to be really hard, having a two-year-old I thought “what’s zoom gonna do?” But it still managed to provide something, you know it wasn’t ideal but it was something. Even seeing my little two-year-old be like “I have my call,” seeing her older sisters be on their calls and wanting her own calls. Just having those interactions with the grandparents or the aunts. I finally just pulled in my extended family and said “you have to sign up for once a week that you’re going to teach my kids something.” And like pick a time slot, pick a topic, and get on board cause I need help!

So FamilyWorks providing that is fantastic and absolutely I’m sure was so helpful for that lifeline.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to the FamilyWorks community?

Well first, just thank you, for entrusting me and giving me the honor of being part of the community for all these years in this role. I will just say that every time I teach this 5-week class, I grow so bonded with the group. The current group that I’m with has I think 4-5 participants that were in my class in the fall, that keep coming back again and again and again. So we’ve become friends over time, and just being so connected, it’s such a support group. It’s never like “one and you’re done,” we really grow as a group. There is such power in a group dynamic and the power of showing up together each week is really therapeutic in and of itself.

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