Published by MOASBO, September/November 2010

Re-examining the Scope of your District’s PAT Program

Your school district’s Parents as Teachers (“PAT”) Program is sometimes the first contact young families have with the district. The PAT program is a wonderful way to connect to the community and to provide resources to parents and children who may not otherwise have access. In many school districts, the PAT offices are not located in the central office, or even in one of the district’s schools. PAT programs are typically run by a long-time district employee with years of experience as a parent educator and are run very efficiently with little problem or supervision from the central office. However, these programs should not be out-of-sight and out-of-mind. Just as with any district operation, it is important to monitor your district’s PAT program and work with program directors to ensure that your PAT program is operating within DESE guidelines.

PAT parent educators are working with families of a variety of cultural backgrounds and varying socioeconomic status. Parent educators are going into the homes of these families and typically form a strong bond with the parents and children that they serve. Due to this strong bond and the desire to help families who may be struggling financially, parent educators sometimes go “above and beyond” to assist these families. While we typically encourage our employees to go “above and beyond” in their jobs, as district administrators, you need to be aware of how far is too far. Recently, we saw a situation in which a parent educator, in our opinion, stretched the bounds and purpose of the PAT program too far. PAT guidelines were disregarded in an attempt by this parent educator to engage in social work while on district time – potentially opening the door to district liability for her actions. Accordingly, it is important to refresh yourself on the basics and purpose of the PAT program and to remind your PAT directors and educators of the importance of staying within the program guidelines.

The primary goal of the PAT program is to provide useful information and guidance to parents as their child’s primary and most important teachers. Also, parent educators are to perform early screening to identify possible delays in a child’s development. DESE Early Childhood Development Act: Program Guidelines and Administrative Manual, 2008. The PAT program guidelines make it clear that it is the role of the parent educator to refer parents to local resources and organizations available in the community when service or assistance is needed beyond the scope of parent education and screening. As noted in the PAT Supervisor’s Manual and Program Administration Guide, “Parent educators are not expected to serve in the role of a counselor or social work.” The guidelines encourage parent educators to offer empathy to families, however stress that the parent educator must be clear about appropriate professional and personal boundaries. The guidelines provide that, “the parent educator needs to be aware that becoming involved in inappropriate ways with a parent may cause personal and professional boundaries to become unclear and may interfere with the parent educator’s judgment.” Supervisor’s Manual and Program Administration Guide. Accordingly, an occasional discussion with your PAT educators and director regarding the maintenance of proper boundaries with PAT families may be prudent and help prevent potential liability for the District should a situation arise regarding a parent educator’s involvement with a PAT family.

Further, it is key to ensure that all parent educators have received and are staying current with their PAT training as the district may only submit PAT services provided by a certified parent educator. DESE Early Childhood Development Act: Program Guidelines and Administrative Manual, 2008. Also, it is crucial to remind parent educators that although they may form a strong bond with the families they work with, parent educators are mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse under Missouri law. RSMo § 210.115. Accordingly, Missouri law and district board policies need to be followed when parent educators observe suspected abuse or neglect in the families they serve. Additionally, you should ensure that your district is following the record keeping requirements for screening and parent visits as set forth in the PAT guidelines. PAT programs receive funding from the state for parent visits and screening and therefore, it is crucial to ensure that DESE guidelines are followed regarding documentation for these visits. DESE’s PAT guidelines are available on the DESE website at http://dese.mo.gov/divimprove/fedprog/earlychild/ECDA/Index.htm.
As the school year is now in full swing, it is time to have a discussion with your PAT educators and directors to remind them about their role in the community and the importance of staying within the guidelines of the PAT program. Maintaining the boundary between parent educators and the families they serve will enable the parent educators to focus on the services that they are there to provide and will preserve the trust in the community between the district and its families.

© 2009 Mickes Goldman O’Toole, LLC