BTC’s Dr. Dewana Thompson on Bringing Touchpoints to School-age Settings


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June 2, 2024

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Dr. M. Dewana Thompson

M. Dewana Thompson, PhD, always knew she wanted to work with children and families. She attributes much of her interest to her mother, who taught for 30 years in New York City’s public schools. “She always brought a sense of understanding to her family, that children were part of a larger system,” Dr. Thompson recalls. 

Exploring the intersection between children, families, and larger systems has been Dr. Thompson’s life’s work. This passion led her to the Brazelton Touchpoints Center (BTC), where she serves as Director of the National Training Team, overseeing 30+ facilitators across the country, and in Canada, who are trained to deliver BTC professional development offerings online and in person. Dr. Thompson became a BTC National Trainer herself in 2011, after participating in a Touchpoints training and then coordinating a Touchpoints Training Site in the Round Rock Independent School District outside Austin, Texas.

“I remember doing my first Touchpoints training in 2007 and thinking, ‘This is amazing. Where has this been all of my life, and why didn’t I know about it?’” she says. The Touchpoints focus on engaging family members as experts on their children as well as partners in children’s healthy development resonated strongly with her core values and beliefs. BTC founder Dr. T Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, BTC’s executive director, were both at that training and turned to each other to say, “She’s a star.”

Dr. Thompson also leads BTC’s efforts to bring the Touchpoints Approach to professionals who work with school-aged children. This year, BTC has launched two new exciting trainings for staff who work in K–6th grade settings — a 5-part workshop series, Strengthening Relationships with Families of School-aged Children, and a 26-hour intensive course, Touchpoints for School-aged Children: The How of Child and Family Engagement

“Why aren’t we bringing in the families?”

As an undergraduate studying sociology at her beloved Hampton University,  Dr. Thompson often questioned her professors about why there was no class offered on “The Sociology of the Child.” Her major advisor responded with words that stuck with her: “There is no course on the sociology of the child, but you should go out into the world and find one, and if you can’t find one — create one.”

Not surprisingly, when it came time for graduate school, she did just that. Dr. Thompson chose a doctoral program in the Department of Family and Child Ecology at Michigan State University, working with Dr. Harriette Pipes McAdoo, who was a pioneering African American woman sociologist and psychologist who studied the experiences of African-American families and authored the ground-breaking, four-volume book, Black Families

“Under the direction of my mentor, Dr. McAdoo, I got really immersed in examining families and children in the context of systems, and particularly looking at families of color through a lens that examined their strengths as well as adversities, and how they affected the entire family system, and ultimately children,” she says. 

From the college classroom to her first job as a teaching assistant in a Pre-K classroom to her postdoctoral work at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center (LSUHSC) working in partnership with public schools in the lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, she continued asking the question: Why aren’t we bringing in the families to help us learn more about their children? It’s no wonder Dr. Thompson is so excited to bring Touchpoints to school-age settings.

Bringing Touchpoints to School-age Settings

After facilitating Touchpoints trainings for several years to professionals who worked in early childhood settings, Dr. Thompson began thinking with BTC’s Professional Development Manager, Mindy May, about how to adapt the Touchpoints training for educators and staff who work with school-aged children in kindergarten to 6th grade.

Dr. Thompson had worked in family engagement in and with schools for much of her career, including as a Family Engagement Specialist for Austin Community College; as a Site Coordinator and Director for a Safe School-Healthy Students federal violence-prevention grant, where she established Parent Resource Centers across the Round Rock Independent School District and supervised Family Engagement staff; and as a national Family Engagement Resource Provider for 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC), funded by the U.S. Department of Education, where she coordinated and provided training and technical assistance to Out-of-School Time (OST) providers across nine states.

From these experiences, Dr. Thompson saw firsthand the positive impacts of school and family collaboration. She also knew that most educators were expected to engage families, but very few received training on how to engage families. So when the United Way of Greater Houston, where she happened to live, approached BTC with a request for training to support its afterschool program staff in their interactions with families, Dr. Thompson jumped at the opportunity to help create one — once again accepting the challenge of her former professors.

“This project married all the things I love — child development, family engagement, out-of-school time, and working with schools,” she says. 

“Engagement is a collaborative relationship”

In helping to adapt BTC’s Touchpoints training for this new audience, Dr. Thompson emphasized what all BTC professional development emphasizes — focusing on families’ strengths and building strength-based relationships. She believes in drawing a sharp distinction between family involvement — which might be getting parents to attend school events, join the PTA, or chaperone field trips — and family engagement, which is more about building relationships with families when they attend events and even if they do not, meeting families where they are, and building deep and collaborative relationships with families in ways that are intentional and long-lasting. 

“Engagement is a collaborative relationship,” she says. “It means that I, as the teacher, am deeply aware that you, as the parent, know your child better than I do. Therefore, I am having conversations with you. Not just talking to you. Because I want to learn more about your child and that knowledge can help me support their success — academically, socially, and emotionally.”

Dr. Thompson and her team piloted the new training with the United Way of Greater Houston in 2015 and 2017. In 2019, she and her BTC colleague Dr. Catherine Knowles-O’Brien convened a working group of subject matter experts to inform final course development. BTC set a goal of launching the course nationwide in 2020. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, schools across the country moved their learning online, and the training’s debut was put on hold. 

Fast forward to 2024, and BTC has finally begun offering training for staff who work in K–6 settings — both the 5-part workshop series and the 26-hour Touchpoints course. The Touchpoints course teaches the same principles and assumptions as Touchpoints courses for providers working with younger children, but offers six new developmental touchpoints for children aged 6 to 12.

“People have been asking for years, ‘What are the touchpoints for older children? For my 8-year-old or 11-year-old?’” Dr. Thompson says. “Well, now we have touchpoints for these ages. It is so exciting to bring the theory of Touchpoints and its accompanying family engagement practices to professionals who work in schools.”

Mentoring Others to Succeed: Leading BTC’s National Facilitators Team

As Director of BTC’s National Training Team, Dr. Thompson provides leadership, mentoring, coaching, and guidance to a group of more than 30 diverse and talented facilitators with expertise in pediatric and perinatal health, early care and education, mental health, social work, child development, family studies, and other related fields. She has intentionally expanded the cultural, ethnic, and racial diversity of the team to create a community of belonging and inclusion. BTC National Facilitators now live in two countries, 14 states, and the District of Columbia, and speak eight languages — Arabic, American Sign Language, Amharic, English, German, Hindi, Spanish, and Tamil.

“It’s an amazing cadre of professionals , and I have learned so much from them,” she says. “I’m in awe of the amount of experience and expertise they bring to their trainings. But they’re also so humble, and so open to each other’s ideas.”

Dr. Thompson also makes time in her busy schedule to mentor young people early in their career, or even pre-career. She participates in Boston Children’s Hospital’s (where BTC is housed) Community, Opportunities, and Advancement at Children’s Hospital (COACH) program, which offers paid summer internships to high school and college students. She fondly recalls the people who mentored and encouraged her in college and graduate school, and throughout her career.

“People poured into me, and so I just try to pour back into others,” she says. “I try to help the students to be their best selves. I offer a sounding board to support them, not just in their work, but also in their mental health and overall life. It’s important for me as an African American, a PhD, a woman of color to let young people who look like me know that they belong in all spaces, and that they can do what they set their mind to.”

Dr. Thompson is a member of BTC’s Speakers Bureau. She has presented nationally on many family engagement-related topics, including engaging Black families, having brave conversations when we feel exhausted, navigating challenging conversations with families, partnering with families to address behaviors that challenge, and supporting and supervising family engagement specialists. In her talks on partnering with families to address behaviors that challenge, Dr. Thompson centers her focus on the impact that racism and implicit bias have on the disproportionate number of Black children who are stereotyped as being challenging and receive harsher and unjust disciplinary practices compared to their White counterparts. In May, she gave a talk, titled “Building Strengths-based Relationships with Families When We Feel Exhausted,” at the National Community Schools and Family Engagement Conference (CSxFE) in Atlanta, GA.

Dr. Thompson continues to share her passion for family engagement with others and is dedicated to continuing in her life’s work to support parents and families in their role as their children’s first and most important teacher. She does this while balancing her most important family engagement role — as a wife and mother to three amazing children. Contact us to discuss bringing Dr. Thompson to speak to your group.

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