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Boston’s EMPath Program Uses Science to Fight Family Poverty

The child and adult tools use a bridge metaphor to illustrate how various domains are all important for ultimate success—if a single pillar on a bridge is weakened, according to the metaphor, the whole bridge could collapse. “The Bridge to Self-Sufficiency,” for adults, guides parents to consider family stability, well-being, financial management, education and training, and employment and career management. “The Child Bridge to a Brighter Future” similarly guides children in thinking about health and well-being, social-emotional development, self-regulation, preparing for independence, and educational progress.

“The Family Carpool Lane Tool,” meanwhile, helps parents and their children align individual and family goals. Working together, they can avoid traffic and cruise through the fast lane.

Intergen mentors visit participating families and facilitate conversations that prompt both adults and children to make future-oriented and contextualized decisions, ones that take into account other important domains. Their goal is to help the adults in the families become mentors for themselves and their children. Eventually, they hope, they make their own contributions obsolete.

Stephanie Brueck, the senior coordinator of the Intergenerational Mobility Project, recently sat down with a single mom, Ginnelle V., who asked her last name not be used to preserve her family’s privacy, and Ginnelle’s five children, four girls and one boy who range in age from kindergarten through college-aged.

Over the last year, Brueck has helped the family think through both personal and family goal-setting. Ginnelle’s youngest, 5-year-old Cyres, has a medical condition that likely will require an invasive surgery that can be delayed through certain exercises. The family’s doctor gave them an overwhelming list of dozens of exercises, few of which Cyres can do on his own. Still, exercise became Cyres’s personal goal for the Intergen Project.

Brueck created an easier-to-use fitness plan and helped Ginnelle think about working up to the doctor’s original list—starting with five push-ups, for example, and helping Cyres eventually reach the recommended 25. Looking back, Ginnelle thinks it’s strange she couldn’t break down an overwhelming task into more approachable steps on her own.

“I’m an adult, I have a brain,” Ginnelle said. But she describes her roadblocks much like brain science predicts.

“Depending on how busy your mind is or how busy your life is, you tend to see things in black and white—‘I need to get this done,’ versus ‘If I can’t do this completely I can’t get this done,’” she said, pausing before settling on something closer to reality. “Life is gray.”

In families that have participated in the Intergen Project for at least a year, 86 percent of children demonstrate an increase in EMPath’s externally validated measure of executive functioning, and 86 percent of families report an increase in household order and alignment based on another externally validated measure of “chaos” in the home, according to the most recent program data from Brueck.

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