STEP Program Provides Training for Parents

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 By Ashley Claire Simpson

How are you supposed to confront your child about the dangers of experimenting with drugs or alcohol? Or, is there a way to warn your kids about potential predators without paralyzing them with fear? Although no one has all the answers, the Prince William County office of Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) provides a parenting program that offers effective resources and solutions for some common dilemmas.

“We are in this season of the omnipresent parent, who is always around, oftentimes hovering, ready to solve the problem for our kids without hesitation or question,” said Rozlyn Giddens, VCE parent education volunteer coordinator. “Sometimes that means parents are ready to solve problems before they even come up. But, our kids need to practice and develop confidence and skill to solve problems.”

STEP-ping up to the plate

In 1914, Virginia Tech and Virginia State University joined forces with local, state and federal governments to establish VCE. As land-grant universities, Virginia Tech and Virginia State University educate communities about agriculture, science and engineering. It is through cooperative extensions like VCE that land-grant universities carry out programs to do so. If you’ve ever been part of a 4-H club in Virginia, for example, you’d be familiar with VCE. In conjunction with the Prince William County VCE team, the Virginia land-grant universities launched a search for a systematic training curriculum for effective parenting. The result: Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP), a program written by the late parenting education expert Dr. Don Dinkmeyer Jr. and his son, Gary D. McKay.

“STEP focuses on communication’s role in alleviating conflict, so that’s how our office started using the seven-week STEP program,” Giddens said. “It sets forth guidelines of normal behaviors and reactions. There are even video lessons with scenarios featuring children of all ages and the issues they bring to the home.”

Even after all these years, STEP remains the foundation for most of VCE’s parenting classes. “We keep the base curriculum the same, but we supplement where we need to, especially when it comes to challenges and issues that teens face today,” Giddens said. “We know, for example, that teens are vaping, sexting and facing online bullying—things that didn’t exist even ten years ago, let alone in 1993. It’s not an exact science, and we share materials and resources with other partners. Then we can combine those with STEP.”

The VCE parenting education team—composed of a small part-time staff and a village of volunteers—improves the quality of life in Prince William County by tackling the building blocks of society. They know it all starts at home. “We want to create opportunities for parents to learn how to improve their communication, and in turn, relationships, with their children,” Giddens said. “When we impact the relationships between parents and kids, it can trickle into the community. The people who take our classes end up using the same skills they learn with coworkers, other parents, and so on.”

VCE’s Forms of Parent Education

VCE offers multiple parenting courses. First, there are the STEP programs, which last seven weeks and are broken out into three different age groups – one class specializing in young children, one for school-aged children and one that targets teenagers.

The STEP programs are mostly led by volunteers, who facilitate the classes only after going through extensive training. She added that there is often a roster of 30 volunteers, and many of them have been on this list for more than a decade.

The Prince William County office of VCE also offers two courses led by professional, paid staff: the eight-week Juvenile Justice Parenting Program (JJPP) and the three-week When Families Get Angry (WFGA). JJPP is a program that focuses on teenagers, who are, for whatever reason, no longer in school and are a part of the
juvenile justice system or kids, who are at-risk for any other reason.

“The JJPP program actually uses the STEP book for teens, so most skills taught are based on the STEP curriculum,” Giddens said. “With this program, however, there is a little more in-depth focus on drug use and other situations kids face–sex, human trafficking, and other heavier topics–that are not necessarily appropriate in the other classroom environments. The JJPP program curriculum comes from various resources, including STEP. This class is also different because for every class of parents, there is also a class that their adolescent children may attend.”

When Families Get Angry (WFGA) is designed to help parents deal with the varying degrees of anger that inevitably develop within families. Virginia Tech and VCE staff collaborated to develop the curriculum, and even though it isn’t based on STEP, it’s clearly working for the community.

Through it all, VCE has touched thousands of families across Northern Virginia. “We didn’t start recording the numbers until 2000, but in the past decade alone, we’ve served approximately 10,000 individuals – and that doesn’t even include the children and families affected,” Giddens said. “For that, we use the 2.5 multiplier. We offer about ten classes every quarter, and today, our average class size runs eight to fifteen people.”

VCE parenting classes are available to anyone for a nominal $40 fee. Being so accessible, there is no telling just how large a community VCE will impact over time. “Typically, if you wanted to get parent education, it would come in the form of therapy, which requires insurance or other forms of funding,” Giddens said. “We find this is a very positive, viable option. Our programming has been consistent since the start, so we’ve been able to establish partnerships and relationships that help us to continue the good work that we do.”

Something for Everyone

If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “Wow, I sound just like my mom,” or “I’ve really turned into my father,” you’re not alone. It’s one reason why anyone can benefit from exploring and honing their parenting skills. VCE parenting classes are so relevant that even the facilitators continue to learn new skills and approaches. “Even facilitators
who have been leading these classes for a number of years say they are reminded of so many techniques each teaching cycle,”Giddens said. “The beautiful thing is that we live in an extremely diverse area, so there are always so many different people coming from different places and situations that you will learn from. Both students and teachers have plenty to learn from each other.”

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Ashley Claire Simpson ( is a corporate communications professional by day, but her real passion is learning more about this community and the world by writing. 


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