Swapping a Big Circle for Little Squares: NYC-Parents in Action Takes a Virtual Leap with Zoom Parent Talks- May 2020

By Melanie Wells

When the world changes suddenly and explosively, people yearn for the familiar. Our facilitated Parent Talks, a staple for decades, are still here. You can still have one. The substance hasn’t changed, only the format.

Parent Talks, traditionally held in a circle face to face, are now meeting in virtual time, faces still visible but smiling out from Zoom galleries. NYC-PIA has stepped up to keep its promise to parents: we will help you stay connected.  Zoom Parent Talks, or ZPTs, may look different, but thanks to our trained volunteer facilitators, they still offer the warmth of connection, parent to parent.

Laurie Freeman, Ph.D., and her NYC-PIA facilitation team, saw in early March that we were about to face a conundrum – how to help parents maintain vital connection when the very notion of congregating was under scrutiny.  “When the idea of a Zoom Parent Talk first came up in a board meeting, it was still a hypothetical,” says Laurie. “We had just heard about the outbreak in Westchester.” The team did not yet know that gatherings were about to be erased from our lives, but once social distancing was mandated, it became clear. Parents and children found themselves bereft of a constant we New Yorkers take for granted: the gift of casual community contact, in school, at drop-off, at those meetings and coffees on our calendars all year.

“Once we realized there was to be Zoom home-schooling, we thought it would be great for parents if they also could have an informal virtual forum,” said  Laurie.  “We realized there might be a pent-up need for parents to benefit from what NYC-PIA does.” Zoom meetings, where parents could discuss “what they are facing and how they are coping,” would fill “a very basic yearning.”

“Once we realized there was

to be Zoom home-schooling,

we thought it would be great

for parents if they also could have

an informal virtual forum….”

Katherine Weber, on both the NYC-PIA board and the facilitation team, was also involved in the massive effort to get virtual Parent Talks up and running: “Laurie proposed the idea of offering Parent Talks via Zoom at our last in-person PIA Board meeting March 9, which was the week before NYC started shutting down in response to the pandemic. The timing was fortunate, because the Board was gathered and the uncertain future was on everyone’s minds. We were excited about Laurie’s suggestion. It felt responsive to the coming circumstances, and aligned with our mission to help parents stay connected.”

Laurie noted initial difficulties, the “tricky questions” with which her team had to grapple, such as “How could we do it? SHOULD we even do it? Some of our constituents might not be comfortable with technology and we would need to address that, too.”

Lucy Martin Gianino, NYC-PIA Chairman and also on the facilitation team, recalls Laurie bringing the training team together for an in-depth discussion: “We began with data: how many schools had canceled and how many were left on the schedule for the rest of the year? Would a Zoom substitute talk be meaningful to them?” The team began contacting schools who had already scheduled Parent Talks, to gauge interest in a virtual meeting.

Josseline Charas, coordinator and scheduler for facilitated meetings, “reached out to schools that had canceled their regular meetings, asking if they would consider substituting a virtual Parent Talk, if it were available. The response was immediate and it was positive,” said Lucy.

There were technological hurdles, Lucy recalls, but, “Josseline worked hard to make it happen. It was she who addressed the practical details; she set up the account and  figured out how facilitators would actually use it. Suddenly, we had to retrain an entire team” to use Zoom effectively, and to avoid pitfalls specific to online meetings. “We needed to set the confidentiality bar high, as with any professional account” said Lucy.

In addition to Zoom mechanics, there were subtle, complex issues to address: how to match, on screen, the skilled level of facilitation parents have come to expect; how to maintain guidelines for effective, respectful meetings and make them compatible with a virtual meeting space; how to “read a room” without the usual non-verbal cues. And finally, new issues would surface, arising from the stress of living in an altered world. Discussions would range far from the usual bedtime wars, homework battles, playdates, teen angst.

Josseline credits Laurie and the team with tackling these issues with grace and insight: “I wish everyone inside and outside PIA knew about the intelligence, generosity and heart that the Facilitation team, led with great wisdom by Laurie, poured into the quick turn to Zoom Parent Talks. They drafted and revised and reviewed and tested with such a kind, centered attitude. It was delightful to be part of the effort.”

Laurie and her team, with exquisite sensitivity, noted facilitators should “not over-stress the positive” but instead, be careful of offending by appearing to promote an overly rosy view. “That can land very poorly on an exhausted health care worker, or someone coming home to self-isolate, or someone mourning a loss or monitoring a relative in the ICU. We wanted the facilitators to hold on to an awareness of what many people are facing,” said Laurie. The mission was delicate: to help parents discuss an unfamiliar and terrifying experience – parenting in the midst of a pandemic. The facilitation team recognized they’d be leading talks in uncharted territory, for people living in a fraught time. They needed to be prepared.

“On one hand, it feels more

distant, because participants are

looking at each other through screens…

On the other hand, parents are sitting

on their sofas…in sweatshirts, with a

mug of coffee or cat in their lap.”

The small planning group mapped out new ground rules and framework. “We wanted to be sure we included reference to what was going on in the world, to give context to the meeting. We asked people for patience with each other, and with us, as we adjust to differences in meeting face to face vs. on screen,” said Laurie.

Four meetings were held, the first two for the planning team, then two additional sessions with a larger group. They discussed technological issues – whether to use the chat feature, whether to use the hand-raise feature, when to mute, how, and by whom.

“During this phase, we held a mock meeting,” said Laurie.  “It triggered a lot of feelings, even among our own training team, so we understood that intense feelings would likely arise among parents too. We decided to ask everyone to be respectful of others and to recognize how difficult it is to make decisions” in this time.

A big difference between the old and new format emerged: “With Zoom, we miss all the little non-verbal cues that we automatically register in person, cues that let us know when to jump in and speak – or not” said Laurie.  Katherine Weber noticed this, too, after facilitating a ZPT: “The dialogue and flow can be challenging because the video format makes it hard to see cues like eye contact or body language.”

Katherine, who was present for both sets of meetings, recalls, once new guidelines were set, running the mock Zoom Parent Talk “to get a feel for how it would work” and to identify what should remain, what should change. “We felt many elements were important to maintain, such as having two Facilitators; connecting with the class parents in advance on a live phone call; and sharing our ‘Welcome and Guidelines’ at the beginning of the meeting.” There were changes too: A live, in-person Parent Talk is 90 mins, but ZPT meetings are 60 minutes, as Zoom’s format is “hard to sustain for much longer than an hour.”

After much tweaking and refining, the team was ready to offer training via a mock ZPT, to any facilitators interested in becoming Zoom facilitators.

Laurie says, “We found we didn’t need to anticipate EVERYTHING – we are always learning from what we hear. We are there to let people feel they have space for their opinions, to encourage respect for feelings, and to move the meeting along. We need first to make sure everyone feels emotionally safe and respected and, ultimately, feels invited to participate. This is the same as our in-person meetings, in non-COVID times.”

Josseline praised the attention the team gave to the emotional comfort of the participants, and how that was addressed during re-training. She referred to a new guide, “Facilitator Tips for Zoom Parent Talks,” prepared by Laurie and the team, identifying a list of relevant topics trainees might encounter. Among them are anxiety, concern for ill family members, economic strain and fears; and ruined plans for graduation, camp, internships, family trips or festivities. The guide also states:

There is new information and research coming at families every day. Parents may be in different places, with different decisions and responses, from one day to the next. It’s important to make space and respect everyone in this moment, as we all muddle through.”

How does it feel to facilitate a ZPT?  Katherine says: “Strangely, it’s both more and less intimate. On one hand, it feels more distant, because participants are looking at each other through screens … On the other hand, parents are sitting on their sofas at home, in sweatshirts, with a mug of coffee or a cat in their lap. People are talking about what is happening in their homes right that minute… In that sense it feels very immediate and personal.”

She thought parents were grateful to have the opportunity to connect. “ZPT’s may be providing an important way for parents in a grade to see each other … compare notes, support one another.”

Maggie Lear, facilitator, agreed: “Parents’ desire for connection is stronger than whatever it means to be ‘virtual.’ They are so eager get together and find out how other parents feel.”

Katherine noted parental concern about the loss of ordinary, casual contact among the kids: “Every interaction is now premeditated by a Zoom call or the equivalent.” The same is true for parents who can’t meet casually for coffee after drop-off, or catch up at a sports event.

Maggie observed that, despite living such separate lives, “we still have a need for connectedness. Finding ways to have it is essential now.” Kids “miss their friends…. and parents want to hear how other kids are managing. It’s weird, especially for younger ones who don’t understand it. For parents with younger kids, the discussion focuses on how to talk to your kids about all this.” For parents of teens, the focus may be on college. “Teens are not used to spending time with their parents 24/7. Ordinarily they’d be discussing the coming separation before going off to college.”

Facilitators have a complex task: supporting those uneasy with technology, while monitoring the mood of a discussion where parents face new community anxieties. That can be difficult. “With Zoom calls, you cannot ‘read the room’ so you look for other clues. We must generate questions more, because the system is so new for many.” The preparation, though, matched the challenge: “Laurie did a fantastic job setting us up for success,” said Maggie.

“All were super happy

to see one another

and connect…

it created a safe comfort zone

for all to participate”

Laurie notes the new meeting form may have a plus side – a way to gather data. “One interesting difference we might want to track: whether the ZPT allows a more even playing field in terms of attendance. A full-time working parent may be able to fit it in more easily, or, parents previously unable to  come for lack of a sitter, might now be able to attend.” Conversely, “we might lose some who are intimidated by the technology – perhaps even held back by fear of being seen on video.” Laurie and her team will be monitoring these points, and tracking how parents feel about the experience.

So far, the new format seems to offer parents a positive experience.  Said one middle school parent: “It was a “fantastic connector and kick-starter. We had about fourteen moms spread across NYC, Hamptons, Florida – all the way to Oregon.  All were super happy to see one another and connect.” In fact, this group was so delighted to connect that they continued the conversation informally after the meeting ended: “We quickly regrouped and one mother sent out a Zoom link. Almost all participants jumped back on and continued to chat for an additional hour!”  

Did this parent feel the ZPT served her well? “Yes, absolutely …  it created a safe comfort zone for all to participate.” Some parents had had reservations around Zoom class meetings and “how to handle a large group remotely, but the PIA format worked!”  Other parent attendees agreed, with comments like “So glad we did that,” and “Our [ZPT] was the perfect motivator to get ourselves more connected in this tough time.”

Lucy notes: “We are thrilled that this service seems to be positive for our parents. It shows how much they trust NYC-PIA, to let us come into their homes this way. It’s gratifying that even under difficult circumstances, we can still connect, be relevant and do good work for our parents.”

There is comfort in connection, although in an altered world, it may be bittersweet. As one parent put it:

“So thankful … made me feel less lonely even though it also brought home how much our kids are missing.”

As we sit in our individual homes cut off from our usual habits and haunts, we may rejoice in the chance to connect, even fleetingly, on a screen full of little squares.  For now, it will do. We are not alone.

Melanie Wells, Editor
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