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Students Create Parenting Book to Provide Resources for Tibetan Families Living in Exile

Posted by on Thursday, December 1, 2022 in News.

When Emma Hart embarked on a study-abroad program to Nepal, she never could have imagined that it would result in the creation of an impactful resource for Tibetan refugee families, and that she would get to collaborate with so many amazing people.  

Scene from the book of main characters who live in Nepal

For four months, January 2019-June 2019, Emma, a Peabody Alumni ‘20, who studied Childhood Development and Public Policy, completed a study abroad program specifically focused on the historical, religious, political, and socio-cultural realities of Tibetans living as refugees in Nepal and India. This opportunity allowed her to become immersed in Tibetan culture and introduced her to the oppressive political context Tibetan families face. Through her research, Emma learned about the challenging landscape for refugees, particularly in Nepal, where most Tibetans do not have government-provisioned identification, which limits opportunities to pursue goals such as higher education, the creation of their own businesses, and travel outside of the country. Despite these constraints, Emma was amazed by the strength of the families she encountered.  “It was inspiring to see the resilience that families exercised in being loving to their little ones, and their wishes for their children to do and be all that they want in the world, despite larger socio-political contexts,”  she said. 

Discovering a Need:

For one month of her program, Emma conducted a research project focused on Tibetan parents’ conceptions of early childhood and dreams for their children. Through conversations with thirty  parents across several Tibetan refugee settlements in Nepal, Emma discovered a shared hope for their children to achieve academic success (see more on this research here). Some parents expressed a desire to have materials about how to support their children’s early development, and Emma realized the acute lack of Tibetan-focused parenting resources to support parents with critical developmental stages in a child’s life, a resource that is readily available to families in America though a variety of modalities. Indeed, most educational materials that were available were not written in the parents’ native language and were lacking in cultural relevance. “There were a lot of videos and resources that were either in English or Hindi, and specifically created for Indian families, but nothing within the Tibetan language, or actually created for Tibetans,” Emma said. 

Tenzin Dekyi, the Pre-primary Coordinator of the Department of Education for the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) at the time, served as a crucial mentor throughout the research process.  Founded in 1959, the CTA is non-profit, political organization, which is the primary governing body for Tibetans living in exile. The input and partnership of the CTA would prove to be a critical resource throughout the project that followed Emma’s research, as they provided additional context, supplied critical and consistent feedback, and ensured that the finalized materials would reach families living in Tibetan settlements throughout Nepal and India. 

Forming the team:

Upon returning to the US, Emma was the President of Vanderbilt’s chapter of Design for America, which is a network of innovators who use design thinking skills for social impact. Utilizing this network, Emma formulated a team, made up of Estelle Yu, Charis Ling, Chidinmma Egemonu, Jong Eun Jung, alongside Professor Kevin Galloway, Director of DIVE and Director of Making at the Wond’ry, and with additional insight from professors Amy Booth and Julia Noland to investigate ways they could design an effective and easy to use resource for parents about using day-to-day interactions as opportunities for learning.

2019 Pre-Covid Team (left to right): Nadia DeGeorgia, Estelle Yu, Jong Jung, Emma Hart, Chidinmma Egemonu, Sophia Chirayil, Matthew Stanton, Myung Kyung

“I thought it was such an interesting idea because it would allow me to have a more international view of education, and learn how to make tools that are culturally appropriate for a diverse group of people,” said Vanderbilt Senior, Chidinmma Egemonu, who is studying Cognitive Studies and Human and Organizational Development.

For the whole team, it was imperative that they create something that was designed with and for Tibetan families, as opposed to one dominated by a Westernized lens. Working with the CTA, and Tenzin Dekyi, proved imperative. The team became familiar with Emma’s research and then began working on the development of a resource for families. The project spanned over two years and utilized the design thinking process to answer a variety of “how can we” statements. They arrived at the following statement, “How can we create a resource that will support Tibetan families in creating moments for development through everyday interaction?” The initial plan was to create a series of videos with a Tibetan family in America highlighting suggestions for parent-child interaction.

Navigating through the Pandemic:

In the spring of 2020, the team was set to arrive in Chicago to begin filming the videos. However, the global pandemic occurred and reshaped their plans. Through discussions with the CTA, the team pivoted, and brainstormed the possibility of creating a book, with the help of a Tibetan illustrator and translator. They also planned to create an ebook, which would ensure both physical and digital distribution.

Unlike the videos, which would have been filmed and edited in quick succession, the creation of a book allowed for an opportunity to focus even more on human-centered design. They were able to involve the CTA in greater depth, allowing for the incorporation of their rich  feedback throughout the writing process. The creation of a book also eliminated a barrier to entry by removing the need for parents to have access to technology.

“Getting the videos to remote communities and having everything work properly proposed far more challenges. Books are enduring, they get passed from one family to the next, so you’re not limited by technology, and it taps more into the culture of passing stories between the generations,” said professor Kevin Galloway, who was the advisor on this project, in partnership with the Wond’ry, Vanderbilt’s Center for Innovation.

Creation of the Parenting Book

Book cover depicting the father in the story reading the book with his child

The parenting book includes two different, simultaneous storylines through the eyes of a one- and three-year old who are later revealed to be cousins when their families come together for the Losar holiday at the end of the story. The storylines were crafted to both highlight developmentally-supportive parenting behaviors, with text providing additional details on suggestions for parents, and to provide a picture-based story for parents to engage with with their child.The suggestions focused heavily on broad-strokes tips for day-to-day ways to engage in responsive parent-child interaction (e.g., engaging in back-and-forth conversation during a trip to the market) that have been recommended by organizations such as the Harvard Center for the Developing Brain. The two storylines feature practices at  two different developmental periods to be of use for parents of children across multiple stages of early childhood development. The book starts with a user guide of sorts, stressing that parents are the experts on their own children, and should view the contents of the book as simply a set of suggestions that they should use, or not use, as they see fit. It also contains some background information about early brain plasticity.

“Tibetan parents could not only learn about evidence-based practices that would help their child’s brain development, but they could also practice and model those interactions by reading the interactive book with their children,” said Charis Ling, a team member, who is pursuing her Master’s degree in Special Education at Vanderbilt.

The CTA printed 2500 print books, along with an e-book, which have already been distributed throughout Tibetan settlements in Nepal and India, where many Tibetan families reside. 

Book recipient in Nepal

The CTA was very pleased with the final product, and with the team’s efforts and collaboration. “The Department of Education, Central Tibetan Administration would like to thank Emma and her team from Vanderbilt University for collaborating with us in preparing and developing the much-needed parenting book, as part of the ECCE Project of our department. This book has been a book to Tibetan parents and caregivers, and will be used positively in bringing up their children,” said Tenzin Dorjee.

One recipient stated, “I would like to thank you for the book we received, which is very helpful in many areas such as learning education, social activities, and understanding the emotion of a child towards other things.” Another parent emphasized the importance of having this resource, saying, “I felt so proud for my child when I learnt about the book, as it is a precious resource for the children, and also the coming generation. It is important for our children and society, and helps as a contribution towards a healthy environment to live in.” 

Reflecting back on the project, Emma could not be more proud of the team and what they created:

 “I am amazed by the persistence of our team– working for several years on this project and pivoting many times to make it possible. It was a lot of hard work and persistence in staying true to the design process. I’m really proud of our commitment to the design process and persistence in making it come to life. I think that each members’ deep interest in, and motivation around, the project made this all possible!”

To view the e-Book, you can click here.