Keeping Your Head in the Game – Coaching parents to achieve economic mobility goals

Jennifer Lowe is a vice president at EMPath, an organization that provides coaching to help people and families get out of poverty.

Q: What does it mean to be a mobility mentor?

A: A mobility mentor partners with a program participant to help support them in their goals. In every organization it might look a little different. At EMPath, we’re a family shelter provider and we also offer multi-year programming for families outside the shelter system.

For example, when families get placed with us in shelter, they get paired up with a mentor who will work with them until they can find safe, affordable, permanent housing. The mentoring helps families think about their goals beyond housing. The family might have goals around going back to school, working more, taking care of physical and mental health, engaging others in their lives, or getting their child into daycare. Mentors pair up and meet weekly with families to self-assess, strategize, set goals, check in, and celebrate wins as they achieve those goals.

Q: What does self-sufficiency mean for parents working towards financial independence? 

A: It’s going to mean something different for each family because each family has a different journey. What we mean at EMPath is to be able to support your family without relying on public benefits or support. However, what that means to each family might be not worrying about bills day-to-day, being able to get by, being able to have choices and options. We try to focus on five major life domains supporting people around family stability: well-being, financial management, education and training, and employment and career. Optimizing all of those five domains help move people out of poverty. 

Q: Families living in poverty face daily challenges and can experience a lot of stress. How can a coach help them reach their goals?

A: A lot of families we work with want some guidance and support as they work toward their goals. As folks are experiencing the stresses of poverty, they want time to be able to focus on themselves and their family and those longer-term goals. Day-to-day, people are incredibly resilient and make sure they are taking care of work, school, and bills. The coaching relationship can help you take a step back from the daily grind and focus on your long-term goals and give you support in achieving those dreams. That relationship has to be built through trust over time, though. We would never start off a relationship expecting someone to begin with full trust.

Q: How do coaches work with families so that the family’s needs come first?

A: We do a lot of training and reinforcement here at EMPath and with member organizations to make sure that people understand that as a staff person you are a coach. Visualize a football coach, they are not on the field playing the game, they are on the sidelines. Players have a ton of experience and a ton of training. Families we serve have a ton of life experiences, they are the players of their own lives. You need to have that trust, to respect that people know what’s best for their families and we provide guidance and support. 

For example, if you come to me saying you want to get your GED, as a coach, I’m not going to jump in and say, “Here’s where to go.” I should say, “That’s wonderful, Have you look around at GED programs?” I’m not stepping in as the expert, they’re the expert in their lives. It takes a lot of training to break that more traditional role that staff can fall into. 

Q: Achieving goals is a process that has a lot of ups and downs. How can a family recover when the feel like they are not on the path to achieving their goals? And how can a coach help?

A: It happens to all of us – all of the goals we have in our lives. We can get discouraged, it doesn’t go as planned, things come up. We expect that to happen. Coaches try to make sure that they’re helping families remember why they wanted that goal in the first place, see if that’s still really important to them. Sometimes the goal is still important and they are losing the momentum. We can help families set smaller, more reasonable action goals. We recognize that it’s hard to stay on the path long-term for folks. It can be very complex, so we tie in financial incentives and non-financial recognition. We have some funding to be able to celebrate those wins. 

If we talk to someone and realize a goal is no longer important, that’s OK, they don’t have to stay on that goal. We help them revise their goals and find out what is important and why. Our job is a combination of planning, recognizing, celebrating, but also assessing if it’s still important. 

Q: How can coaching help a family deal with toxic stress?

A: We try to make sure that coaches understand how and when folks are impacted by stress. For example, a coach can help someone who is incredibly strong with organizational skills, but might feel it’s hard to hold on to impulse control under stress. Through coaching, that person can start to recognize the stress coming on and the impulse control weakening, then use their organizational skills to reduce their stress. What you find is that people are able to reflect and be incredibly thoughtful, and start recognizing what stress feels like and how it could affect them and find and practice strategies to become more able to stay on track in the moment and over time. 

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