The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 26, 2002


SPIN USA, aims to improve the social and emotional development of children by strengthening effective parenting skills

SPIN USA, or The People Upstairs ­ sounds like the beginning of a children's ghost story, doesn't it? If the Mosquito's office were a creaking old Victorian mansion, undoubtedly there would be a wonderful garret inhabited by a large family of interesting, mysterious people endowed with magical powers. However, as most of you know, the Mosquito office is lodged in a very contemporary building at 872 Westford Street, which just doesn't fit our notions of fairy tales. Or does it? There certainly are interesting people upstairs, and surprisingly, they appear to work magic.
President and CEO of SPIN USA Jane Nestel-Patt points out a clip of positive social interaction on the monitor. (Photo by Lois d'Annunzio)

Above the Mosquito is the office of SPIN USA National Institute, the American branch of the international SPIN organization. SPIN is an acronym for Stichting Promotie Intensieve Thuisbehandeling Nederland, which is Dutch for "Foundation for the Promotion of Intensive Home Training in the Netherlands." The model for the American program was designed over 20 years ago by a Dutch psychologist to improve the social, emotional, and cognitive development of children through strengthening effective parenting skills and family relationships. It is based on the principle that although it is easy to condemn the conditions and negative behaviors which cause children and families to go into crisis, we need to acknowledge that everyone demonstrates positive behaviors which support successful families and mentally healthy children. Families must have a sense of their own rapacity to learn and their potential for success, if they are to succeed. SPIN provides a systematized arrangement and breakdown of these positive behaviors and shows families how to identify, use and develop them.

SPIN comes to Carlisle

Jane Nestel-Patt was serving as a management consultant and program specialist helping clients to develop organizational effectiveness when she heard about SPIN from a client in 1995. She traveled to the Netherlands to observe the model at work, and was then trained and certified by the Dutch as a SPIN practitioner. In 1996, she started a small SPIN program at Concord-Assabet Family and Adolescent Services. Funding from the Carlisle Foundation brought Ms. Nestel-Patt's program to its present location, and made it possible for SPIN USA to establish itself as a private, nonprofit organization.

The Carlisle office is now SPIN USA's national headquarters, and trains practitioners to serve organizations and agencies all over the country. In keeping with the Video Home Training/Video Interactive Guidance (VHT/VIG) model, Ms. Nestel-Patt, who is now president and CEO of SPIN USA, and two other members of the national training center staff are supervised by senior practitioners from the Netherlands. As well as Ms. Nestel-Patt, the staff in Carlisle now includes director of program development Terri Pease, national trainer Louise Richmond, curriculum developer Joanne Matthews, program assistant and staff designer Karen Trittipo, and vice president of development and public relations Sylvia Hampton.

Today, 16 countries including the U.S. use SPIN programs in a variety of social and educational services. SPIN USA's promotional literature asserts that the "same paradigm and process is equally effective as a tool for quality assurance and for developing better teachers, supervisors, and managers at all levels of an organization." Currently, SPIN USA trains practitioners to work with families, social service organizations, and schools to support children and improve the effectiveness of staff and teachers, and is studying ways to use the model program to assist other businesses as well.

SPIN USA is located on 872 Westford Street. (Photo by Midge Eliassen)

In the decades since World War II, the proliferation of new psychiatric and social therapies of all stripes indicated innovation and progress in the care and treatment of children and families in crisis, but it also pointed to the equally sharp rise in the number of people who need these services. SPIN USA maintains that "the systems providing services for these families are overburdened by the increasing complexity of problems." These increasing complexities are, in many cases familiar: the necessity for two-income households (without the benefit of shared parenting time); latchkey children; increased substance abuse; mobility and insecurity caused by changing job markets; failure of educational systems to keep pace with the advances of technology, special needs services and other developments; parental neglect; overreliance on the isolation of electronic entertainment; domestic violence; even the demise of the neighborhood and of language itself. SPIN USA says that "the need for effective practice models to assist families in making needed changes has never been greater" as family communication skills suffer at the hands of the clock and the cultural blocks which obstruct our basic need to be attentive to each other. Not only that, but Nestel-Patt points to the rise and fall of the nuclear family itself as a contributing factor to the loss of parenting skills. Without the example of the multigenerational extended family constantly before them, parents have more difficulty observing and absorbing the skills that work to make the effective family relationships that support their children.

How does it work?

SPIN addresses the crises besieging families using certified practitioners who are trained in a rigorous 12- to 18-month program involving real families. Already certified trainers provide supervision and one-on-one coaching to trainees working with these families, and the trainers themselves are supervised by their seniors using SPIN principles. The training program uses the latest developments in infant attachment theory, and the "best practices and current knowledge systems theory, learning theory and brain research, child development, and human ethology ... to build resilience and skills along a developmental continuum... and provides a defined set of observable criteria and a powerful, structured process for assessment, treatment ... planning, and aftercare planning." In the U.S., this training program is administered and facilitated by the people upstairs.

Video clips of family activities

The core of the SPIN program is called a "strengths-based approach," which allows parents to identify and understand the behaviors that sustain good family interaction and to build upon them. The practitioner makes a short videotape of the family engaging in its daily activities. These tapes invariably reveal negative behaviors, but the SPIN practitioner finds and focuses on those behaviors which elicit positive responses among family members by demonstrating successful efforts to pay attention to each other.

Nestel-Patt says that this technique can begin with something as small as a two-second clip of a smile. The practitioner begins training the parents to notice what elicited that smile. Did the parent turn to face the child? Was there verbal or nonverbal contact? Did the parent respond to the child's initiative or the other way round?

One advantage to the use of videotape is the ability to separate and distinguish verbal (sound) behaviors from physical (visual) ones, simply by muting the sound. Parents learn to understand that paying attention to each other and to the child means practicing responding to children's initiated behaviors, making eye contact, encouraging response, relaxing body language, maintaining contact. Once the parent recognizes all the behaviors that elicited that two-second smile, he feels empowered. He knows he can create these behaviors, and that he is not a bad parent. Even if the parent or child is performing for the video camera, they can learn to recognize that, through performance, the behavior exists and can work.

The practitioner helps family members to identify positive behaviors they can observe over and over again on the tapes, developing strategies to augment those behaviors and improve the environment of the family circle right in their own homes. Over time, they become more adept at recognizing their children's nonverbal and verbal "initiatives to engage with them and with their environment" and to "support those initiatives ... using both verbal and nonverbal cues."

From the breakdown of simple, observable initiatives and responses, splintered families gradually advance to more abstract communication techniques, like structuring discussions. Tapes give families a chance to keep analyzing and assessing their progress. The program is called Video Home Training (VHT). One mother in Holland summarized the way the program worked for her. "At first I mistrusted video home-training. But as soon as I saw what I was doing, everything fell into place. It's so concrete, you see. The trainer kept on showing me the things I did right. I realized that I was actually quite a good mother. That's what turned the tables."

Building feelings of competency

A study published in 2000 by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine called "From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development," edited by Jack P. Schonkoff and Deborah A. Phillips, points out that "every child is wired for feelings and ready to learn." SPIN teaches adults in the child's life to realize that children make "initiatives", and to "identify, receive, and affirm" the child's initiatives, creating the "nurturing environment" that the study deems essential. The next steps are "building feelings of competency" and developing "persistence in learning situations." The SPIN techniques stress competency on the part of parents and children by recognizing and "microanalyzing" their successful and effective behaviors, and encouraging "persistence" by developing skills, knowledge, understanding, and goal-setting.

In business and education

Senior practitioners, building on the success of the early VHT program, began training staff using the same strengths-based, video-assisted analysis and assessment program, and the results were impressive. A SPIN history reports that, "Leaders in the model's development began to recognize the model's potential to be used ... for training, supervision, leadership development, and team building. This led to the birth of Video Interaction Guidance (VIG) as a powerful tool for maximizing an organization's potential for helping its most vulnerable children and families."

Training management and staff in the model reaffirmed its value in practice and improved results in many social service organizations. Case studies show that by "microanalyzing" the tapes of their own behaviors while running meetings, management can learn to establish a supportive environment for individual staff to develop and for establishing goals that build a strong team.

The same principles have worked in the classroom to increase a teacher's effectiveness and a student's success. In a case in Norway, a teacher who expressed complete frustration with a problem student agreed to have herself taped while teaching. She was worn out, felt like a failure, and admitted that she had learned to bypass the child in order to avoid potential negative behavioral incidents in class.

Her agreement to participate in a SPIN program constituted the first step in the student's future progress, since it put her into alliance with the child's parents, who, as frustrated as she, were blaming the school for allowing their son to fall through the cracks of the education system. Parents and teacher became collaborators on the project. The SPIN practitioner helped the teacher recognize, label and expand on moments in the day when she picked up on the child's initiatives, made eye contact with him, listened attentively to him, made a suggestion, and allowed him to figure out and understand his work, and then gave him affirmation for the job he had done. The student began to respond positively to this teacher and to others in the school instead of acting out, and to enjoy successes in the new academic environment, and the teacher's confidence in her own abilities was restored.

Better family relationships

Over the years, the SPIN program has demonstrated some remarkable successes. A 1994 Dutch report revealed that after over 1,000 families had concluded SPIN services, there was an 18 percent drop in the number of children requiring residential care, a 47 percent drop in the number of families reporting child-rearing and relationship problems, and a 30 percent drop in the number of families with multiple problems. "Two years after SPIN, 78 percent of parents reported that their family situations were as good or better than they had been when SPIN ended."

Evaluations of the U.S. program are only just beginning, but case studies show that the SPIN USA program has led to better family relationships and interaction, fewer out-of-home placements and social service interventions, decreased school behavioral problems and successful foster care experiences, and even a successful adoption of a formerly troubled child. Jane Nestel-Patt says, "Clearly, I believe strongly in the model. The Dutch have fashioned a program which enables us to do a far better job at improving outcomes for children and families." From where the Mosquito sits, it looks like there are some pretty impressive people upstairs.

2002 The Carlisle Mosquito