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Bringing parent education to Iceland

A new parent and family education program builds on Minnesota success

In 2010, an ambitious graduate student named Hrund Þórarins Ingudóttir enrolled in coursework for CEHD’s parent and family education program—all the way from Iceland. The program’s classes were available online, but for Ingudóttir, the personal experience mattered. So she packed up her family for a stay in Minnesota.

Susan Walker directs and teaches in the parent and family education program, and she got to know Ingudóttir well. In addition to taking courses, Ingudóttir participated in academic program meetings, professional conferences, and research events.

“She attended everything,” says Walker. “She was a voracious learner.”

The two didn’t know it at the time, but a partnership much bigger than both of them had begun. Ingudóttir wanted to bring her unique experience and knowledge back to students and families in her home country, where parent education was not an established practice.

Susan Walker, Dean Jean Quam,Brynja Halldórsdóttir Gudjonsson, Thorunn Bjarnadóttir, Hrund Ingudóttir.
Susan Walker, left, and Hrund Ingudóttir, right, with Dean Quam and Icelandic alumni Brynja Halldórsdóttir Gudjonsson ’12 and Thorunn Bjarnadóttir ’97

Today, seven years after she first enrolled, Ingudóttir is a faculty member at the School of Education at the University of Iceland (UI). With help from Walker and parent education lecturer Heather Cline, Ingudóttir and UI launched a new master’s degree in parent and family education in the fall of 2015.

“The parent education program at the University of Minnesota remains the best in the country,” says Ingudóttir. “Its faculty are among the most esteemed teachers, researchers and advocates in parenting education. We at UI were so lucky to find such a great program and people so willing to support our long-held dream of bringing parent education to Iceland.”

From Minnesota to Iceland

Minnesota is the only state in the nation offering teacher licensure in parent and family education. One of several academic programs focused on parent and family education, the parent education certificate is offered in the Department of Family Social Science. Most of the certificate program graduates work in the school-district-sponsored Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) programs, where they facilitate classes focused on parenting practices and healthy child development.

Iceland has long been known for its progressive social and educational values. Ingudóttir and UI see their new master’s degree—the first parent education program in Iceland—as an essential but missing piece of their country’s social fabric.

The main goal of UI’s new program is to train practitioners who will help build the field of parent and family education in Iceland. Ingudóttir and her students are the first to bring this type of parent education to Icelandic families.

“For these women to take what they’re learning and start a whole field of practice in Iceland is so cool. It’s impressive.” —Susan Walker

Since 2015, students in Ingudóttir’s graduate classes have been joining CEHD students in two of the same online parent and family education courses that Ingudóttir herself took years ago. The Icelandic students read, write, and participate in online conversations. Walker and Cline grade their own students’ work, and Ingudóttir grades hers—but the groups interact  in the online space.

For the Icelandic students, the courses have given them personal insight into the world of parent and family education. Their relationships with the U.S. students help them gain more than just theoretical experience.

“We had just read about [parent education],” says UI student Ragnhildur Gunnlaugsdóttir. “We were starting to imagine one thing, and when they told us stories, the image would change a little bit. … It felt like one big piece, all of us together.”

In May, Ingudóttir returned to Minnesota—this time with seven students. The group observed a variety of local ECFE classes, spent time with the Minnesota faculty, and met some of their classmates in person.

University of Iceland students Aníta Ösp Ómarsdóttir and Ragnhildur Gunnlaugsdóttir explore a book about Iceland with an ECFE student at Sheridan School in Minneapolis.
University of Iceland students Aníta Ösp Ómarsdóttir and Ragnhildur Gunnlaugsdóttir explore a book about Iceland with an ECFE student during a visit to Sheridan School in Minneapolis. Photo by Ellen Fee

The group celebrated with a potluck in McNeal Hall, complete with Icelandic snacks and desserts the students had packed in their suitcases.

Celebrating a partnership

A week later, Walker was part of a University of Minnesota delegation traveling to Iceland (see sidebar). They met with Ingudóttir and other UI professors to discuss their parent and family education program as well as other shared research and teaching interests.

Walker has high hopes for the future of parent education in Iceland and is excited to watch Ingudóttir’s work become an independent and sustainable academic program.

“I want them to be strong on their own,” Walker says. “That will be an indication of the value and the strength of their degree program and their instructors.”

Family education programs like EFCE—with its focus on community building and shared parent–child learning—are still uncommon. For Walker, the chance to increase parent education access anywhere is a great opportunity.

“Raising children is so critical to continue generations of our society, and it’s such a hard job,” Walker says.

The Icelandic cohort agrees. So far, Ingudóttir’s class has a lot of ideas for implementing parent education in Iceland—almost too many, one student joked. Whether they work within the school system, partner with hospitals and midwives, or create online resources for new families, they’re eager to carry out their new mission.

“The folks there are so enthusiastic, and they are really passionate and committed,” Walker says. “This has been a gift that keeps giving and deepening.”

Renewing Iceland-Minnesota exchange

The University of Minnesota and the University of Iceland are partners in a decades-long collaboration that has included many faculty collaborations and exchanges of students—more than 100 Icelanders are U of M alumni. The University even has an active Alumni Association chapter in Iceland, led by CEHD alumna Jónina Ólafsdottir Kárdal, M.A. ’99.

Dean Jean Quam and Jóhanna Einarsdóttir, dean of the University of Iceland School of Education, sign a memorandum of agreement renewing the schools' partnership.
Dean Jean Quam and Jóhanna Einarsdóttir, dean of the University of Iceland School of Education, signed an agreement renewing the schools’ partnership through collaborative activities.

To celebrate and renew the 35-year partnership, Dean Quam and Susan Walker joined University president Eric Kaler in a delegation to Iceland in May, along with the deans of nursing, science and engineering, and international programs, and the director of the U’s Institute on the Environment.

Dean Quam spent time with education faculty from the University of Iceland discussing shared interests in teacher preparation and technology integration. She also met many alumni and U students working on degrees abroad.

“We have great opportunities for student and faculty exchanges with our colleagues in Iceland,” the Dean said.

Learn more about the Department of Family Social Science and the parent and family education program.

Story by Ellen Fee | Photos courtesy of the University of Iceland except as indicated | Fall 2017