Meinrad Armbruster is addressing one of the biggest inequalities in Germany: Children from working class backgrounds have significantly fewer chances of success in life and suffer crucial disadvantages at home before the age of six. Meinrad helps these children by making their parents a part of the solution rather than the problem. He empowers poor parents to become responsible mothers and fathers and to create the nurturing family and community environments their children need to succeed in school and in life.
In 2000, an important study of OECD countries found that in Germany, there is a very strong correlation between parents’ class and educational background and the social position of their children. This finding sent shockwaves through Germany and shook the national myth of equal opportunity. While the official reaction was to focus on reforming curricula and the school system as a whole, Meinrad began tackling the problem from a different angle: He believes it is crucial to work with the parents of disadvantaged children as early as possible, because they most influence their children in the formative years before they enter school.
Where others have failed, Meinrad succeeds in reaching poor, undereducated working class parents in depressed areas who have fallen through the German social safety net. He attracts these parents (with children under seven years old) who are typically wary of state welfare services, by offering peer-to-peer parenting support groups, by building ingenious local networks to refer and welcome young parents, and by offering tangible incentives to participate (such as free childcare). His program, Eltern AG (parenting community), allows parents to seek help and advice while avoiding the stigma of institutional welfare dependence.
Meinrad’s community-based, self-help parenting training program empowers poor, isolated parents to form peer networks, to learn alternatives to domestic violence and neglect, and to become loving, capable parents for their children. He has carefully developed his training method, in which moderators focus first on the things that these parents do well, and let them learn from each others’ successes. Trainers quickly involve the parents in running individual group sessions. Working with local partners, Meinrad then links the parents into self-perpetuating community networks—which include doctors, schoolteachers, kindergartens, and childcare organizations. He thus helps his target group overcome their social isolation and improves their children’s prospects. Meinrad has begun spreading these networks—along with his parenting schools—throughout several of the most depressed regions of Eastern Germany.
The most important public study on educational systems, the Programme on International Student Assessment (PISA) first conducted by the OECD in 2000, ranked Germany in the bottom third of the thirty-two mainly OECD countries. This came as a shock to most Germans. Furthermore, the study showed that—contrary to what Germans assumed—there is a high correlation between socio-economic background, performance in school, and social standing later in life. Children born into the poorest, most depressed 25 percent of German counties (approximately 2 million) suffer pervasive disadvantages in their education and their later lives. Meinrad’s research corroborated these findings: He found that the single most important determinant of a German child’s success in school and beyond is the zipcode into which that child is born.
The German state has reacted to the study by focusing on reforming school curricula and by launching extra classes in elementary schools and high schools for disadvantaged students. However, these programs have proven rather ineffective. By the time these children enter school at the age of six or seven, most of the damage has been done. Born to working class parents without much formal education, the children are exposed to a higher risk of violence and domestic conflict, drug abuse, parental neglect, and broken family relationships. By the time they enter the school system, much of the damage has been done. Later in life, they are much more prone to emotional instability, poor school performance, and family trouble.
Parents in these families, many of whom have experienced violence in their own lives, often lack the capacity for peaceful conflict resolution. They have great difficulty showing empathy toward their own children, and they have little confidence in their own parenting styles, which are often erratic. They feel shame and guilt about domestic problems, but do not know how to begin to fix them. This vicious cycle of neglect and deprivation is perpetuated from generation to generation.
The German government does offer parenting support services, but has developed a one-size-fits-all slate of professional seminars that are pitched to a middle-class, educated audience, conveying mostly academic knowledge and failing to reach deprived families. Poorer, less educated parents find these programs condescending and alienating, and see no tangible incentives to participate.
This problem is compounded by the fact that poor parents typically mistrust and fear existing social welfare institutions. They worry that social workers will intervene and take their children away from them, and they also want to avoid the stigma associated with dependence on public welfare. As a result, poor parents in depressed regions usually feel isolated with their domestic problems. They feel they cannot approach Kindergarten teachers or doctors for help. There exist no support networks or groups they can turn to for advice, and society at-large blames them for the problem. Germany has recently experienced a spate of child deaths (from neglect) and incidents of child abuse, and the media reporting on these events invariably singles out low-income parents as the responsible parties.
Recognizing that the state’s response to the PISA study was inadequate, Meinrad started his own parenting school in 2004. He understood that his first and most important challenge was simply to reach the key target group: Poor parents in depressed areas. Meinrad developed a recruiting strategy that has two important parts. First, his teams spend weeks getting to know the target neighborhood and locating spots where parents congregate. They go to playgrounds, soccer matches, local clinics, and supermarkets. They find parents there and invite them to participate in events with other local parents—events such as barbecues, clown parties, bus trips, or simply shopping excursions to the second-hand clothes bazaar. He entices parents with the offer of free childcare during these events, where he gets to know them and invites them to participate in his program.
Second, Meinrad develops a referral network in each neighborhood. The network includes child doctors, midwives, day nurseries, kindergartens, youth and employment authorities, childcare organizations, and health insurance groups that have a local presence. These networks refer parents to his parenting schools and then work with parents who have come through his training program. Kindergartens and day nurseries, which are seriously affected by delinquent parenting, have become most involved, and have provided free space for many of his parenting school meetings.
The schools run a free, five-month program targeted specifically at parents with children under six. Most of the participants are single mothers. It is facilitated by two trained mentors and consists of twenty weekly sessions, each designed as a stand-alone module to accommodate parents who cannot attend every time. Meinrad understands that these sessions will not work unless they are informal and participatory and involve peer-to-peer learning rather than lectures from experts. Parents must feel that they are in charge of their lives, must experience some quick successes at home, and must not be made to feel inadequate or delinquent.
He has designed the training program in three phases. In the first phase, mentors or other trained parents discuss some basic problems and strategies in child education (for instance: How to deal with a defiant child). The group decides beforehand which problems it wants to address and collects “best practices” to resolve them. In the second half of this phase, parents take over the sessions and present to one another. The parents learn how to wind down—physically and emotionally—and be more calm and reflective about their parenting choices. The mentors teach exercises designed to reduce stress, and teach the importance of avoiding impulsive, angry decisions. The third phase is the most personal: Once trust has been established in the group, parents share their own recent parenting problems and explore solutions together.
The training schools have shown remarkable success. Three-fourths of the parents who become involved stay involved through the end. Sixty-five percent of the parents who complete the training sessions continue to meet informally with the other participants. The relationships and skills developed in the schools then spill over to other community activities. With the mentors’ encouragement, many parents have gone on to initiate self-led workshops on relationships and marriage, unemployment, addiction, and other important topics. They also feel much more confident reaching out to local authorities, especially doctors and schoolteachers, to discuss their children’s well-being. Meinrad conducted a study with a team of academic researchers that shows how the parents he reaches come to feel much more comfortable as parents, and that their children show demonstrably fewer learning disabilities and perform better in school. (Their development significantly outstrips that of other children whose parents did not participate in Meinrad’s program.) These findings will help Meinrad enormously in his expansion and will open doors in other states, via other universities.
So far, Meinrad has trained 80 mentors, resulting in 100 parenting schools in the state of Lower Saxony, a depressed region of Eastern Germany. He has reached 1,000 parents and 2,500 children. His vision and strategy, however, extend far beyond this initial pool of clients. Meinrad is launching a social franchise system that will allow the more rapid expansion of this program to other parts of Germany. Though his organization is currently financed primarily through grants from foundations and state health ministries, he plans to rely more heavily on payments from his network of franchisees, which will draw their funding from youth authorities, health insurers, foundations, and the private sector. Toolkits for franchisees will cost roughly €2,500 (US$3,300) and will include mentoring training, training materials, supervision (especially in the early stages), and yearly evaluations and content updates. Meinrad is launching this system first in the poorer states of Eastern Germany, where the need is most acute, and will then spread into Western Germany.
Meinrad is also planning to expand the slate of services offered, and to expand the target population to include children ages seven to sixteen. He wants to work directly with these students to teach them how to relate to their teachers in school and how to handle academic expectations. He has also begun working with teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds; to help them make vocational decisions and to manage the transition from school to work. In this work, he uses the same participatory, peer-to-peer training methods that he developed for his parenting schools. This is a fledgling project, but as he perfects it he will expand it along with his parenting schools, using the networks those schools are already building.
Understanding that his support to parents is limited in time and that his families need recurring encouragement to continue reaching out, Meinrad plans to work with the German Midwives Association to tap into new volunteer networks. Interested citizens can become after-program mentors who accompany parents to school and interact with state authorities until parents are familiar with the system and can continue on their own.
To change the very system of support offered to poor parents, Meinrad also works from the top down. Using his status as a part-time Professor at the University of Madgeburg, he is creating the first university degree program in Germany that trains teachers in pedagogical strategies designed specifically to empower poor children and parents to take responsibility for their lives and decisions. Once in place, this program will create additional multipliers for his vision and strategy.
Meinrad was born to parents with no formal education. His father was a manual laborer, his mother a farmer. Neither believed in the value of education. In the fourth grade, when Meinrad told his teacher that he wanted to get a high school degree, he was ridiculed. This only fueled his desire to succeed in school, and he attained the best results in his class. It also created a desire—which would motivate him throughout his life—to help children from poor backgrounds succeed.
As a young man, Meinrad interrupted his studies in psychology to become a peace observer in Guatemala and El Salvador during the civil wars—to help prevent outbreaks of violence. He was strongly tempted to stay and start an educational program for local youth, but felt he should finish his degree in psychology, so he returned to Germany.
He spent his early career as a social worker in poor German cities. Seeing that too many children in these areas were tagged with learning disabilities, he founded a program to help children aged five and six, to acquire basic skills to gain access to regular schools. He was able to lower the number of children formally labeled with disabilities substantially, from 70 percent to 20 percent. At thirty-three, he became director of a local outreach center for at-risk youth.
When a young child he worked with was beaten to death at home, Meinrad extended his work into the local hospital system, where he founded a center for domestic abuse prevention. The center offered special training to healthcare professionals, to help them detect abusive conditions. Meinrad succeeded in increasing the detection rate in the region five-fold.
Meinrad’s desire to reach more families led him to eventually accept a position as Chair of pedagogy at the University of Applied Sciences Magdeburg-Stendal in 2004, where he researched the findings of the PISA studies and developed the nucleus of his parenting schools. He understood, however, that the program could only flourish outside of the confines of the university, so 2006 he created an autonomous CO to run and expand the Eltern-AG, his system of parenting communities.