Opening good communication

For more than 10 years, the Strengthening Families Program has helped families of Fort Dodge preteens work together to improve communication with each other and to help children understand and communicate more effectively with their peers.

The 11th year of the program will kick-off the week of Jan. 19 at First Presbyterian Church, 1111 Fifth Ave. N., with several session days and times available to best accommodate the most family schedules.

Sherri Schill, team leader for Strengthening Families, said the program will meet in two-hour sessions over a seven week period. If a family and their child are able to attend five of the seven sessions, the child will graduate, and receive a $25 gift card. Children will also receive a $3 cash incentive for each week attended.

“The main influence we want this program to have is for it to strengthen the family,” said Schill. “It is great for the parents to learn skills and strategies to understand and communicate with their child and to have a tool kit for when the issues we discuss come up. The kids like that they get paid to attend and that they learn to be part of a successful family.”

Weekly meetings will be offered on Sundays from 3 to 5:15 p.m., and Mondays and Thursdays from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Monday and Thursday sessions will include a meal, and all sessions will include childcare for younger children.

Through programs such as making a family tree, creating a family shield and The Driving Game, the youths learn how to make good choices, how to seek out good friends and role models, and how to handle peer pressure. They are guided through discussions with a series of problem-solving steps such as: ask questions, name the problem, tell what could happen, suggest another route, start, and ask others to join you.

Parents also participate in their own session for one hour where they watch videos on situations that may arise and discuss how they might handle them. When the individual parent and youth sessions are finished, the families come together for one hour to participate in activities and discuss what they have been learning.

“Parents will get practical tools on how to set limits and discipline effectively,” said Schill. “Improving communication and handling stress is very important at this age level.”

Several trained facilitators including teachers, school administrators and youth workers lead the sessions.

“Most of these instructors have had at least one child go through the program,” Schill said.

Lisa Shimkat, a parent of a sixth-grader, participated in the program for the second time during a fall session in 2013.

“We absolutely loved it,” said Shimkat. “I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to improve communication with their preteen.”

Shimkat appreciated that the program taught youth valuable communication skills in a fun environment.

“They make it fun for the kids,” said Shimkat. “That’s really the cool thing about it. After the first night my child was ready to come back again.”

She said it also allows a special time for parents to focus on one child.

“It’s a time set aside for you and your sixth-grader,” said Shimkat. “They have your undivided attention with no distractions. I would tell anyone thinking about participating to do it. No matter how well you already communicate with your kids, there is always a way to improve it.”

Registrations for the program are currently being accepted online at