HOT DOCS gives parents the tools to guide children’s behavior toward positive growth

USF Health pediatric psychologists are using funding from the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County to give parents problem-solving tools to guide their children toward healthy, positive behaviors.

Many parents know the frustrations and tears that come from a child who fights going to sleep or devours mac n’ cheese while pushing away icky green vegetables. Or one parent makes late-night runs to the grocery store while the other parent stays home with the child prone to tantrums in the frozen foods aisle.

For some parents, the challenges of parenting may be further complicated by a diagnosis of autism, developmental delay, or a learning disability.

Helping our Toddlers, Developing our Children’s Skills, or HOT DOCS, is a parenting program focusing on childhood behavior up to the age of five. Developing our Children’s Skills K-5, or DOCS K-5, is for parents with children in kindergarten through fifth grade.

Christine Gonzalez took DOCS K-5 in late 2022. It was exactly the right program at the right time.

“I felt like this is something that I’ve been wanting to do since my kids were born,” Gonzalez says. “It’s really relevant regardless of whether you’ve got a child with special needs or not.”

Gonzalez learned of the parenting program when she enrolled her now five-year-old son in speech therapy in the SEEDS program at the nonprofit Children’s Home Network. SEEDS, or Supporting and Empowering Educational and Developmental Services, is a program funded through the Children’s Board and the School Board of Hillsborough County.

Gonzalez also has a nine-year-old daughter who has been home-schooled. And, she says, COVID -19, brought new stresses because of the lack of social contact her daughter had.

“It put a lot of pressure on our relationship,” she says.

It was a balancing act between giving her son the attention he needed while also being a teaching coach for her daughter. 

“There are so many demands on parents now,” Gonzalez says. “You have to do your parenting, but you’ve got jobs and kids’ activities. I think scheduling becomes a really critical issue in terms of how you balance your time.”
DOCS K-5 gave her a new perspective on what her children need from her.

“It’s a no-brainer,” she says. “It’s definitely worthwhile.”

HOT DOCS began in 2006 when USF pediatric school psychologist Kathleen Armstrong applied for a five-year grant from the Children’s Board for a group-based parenting program.

At the time, Armstrong provided individualized services for families who had children with challenging behaviors, says Heather Agazzi, director of the DOCS Parenting Programs at USF Health. Agazzi is also a board-certified child and adolescent psychologist and a professor of pediatrics at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine.

Agazzi says Armstrong realized more was needed to aid the many families seeking guidance. HOT DOCS is the result. DOCS K-5 followed as a natural extension for parents with older, elementary-age children.

“We adopted the program to be more relevant for the types of social, emotional and behavioral challenges that children age five to age 11 present in everyday life as well as content for caregivers on how to advocate for support in school systems,” says Agazzi. “Schools have the ability to serve children who are struggling behaviorally and obviously academically.”

For each program, about 10 to 15 adults attend two-hour weekly sessions for six weeks. The group sessions focus on everyday hassles and behavior issues for parents with children from birth to age five. English and Spanish language classes are available.

Topics covered in HOT DOCS include sleeping, eating, following directions, temper tantrums and calming down. DOCS K-5 tackles homework, safety, following directions, challenging behaviors and calming down.

Parents often are referred by USF Health Pediatrics, community-based pediatric centers and school counselors. Agazzi says the Children’s Board Family Resource Centers also refer parents and provide classroom space.

Gonzalez is typical of parents who enroll in HOT DOCS or DOCS K-5.

“What we hear initially is parents feel inadequate. They don’t feel confident. They feel like they’re alone, like no one else has a child like they do,” says Agazzi. “One of the beautiful aspects of bringing people together in a group is all these parents learn there’s other people out there. I’m not the only one in this boat.”

One strategy from DOCS K-5 that Gonzalez found especially helpful only takes five minutes a day.

She allows her children to choose a creative activity. It can be drawing a picture or playing with dolls or trucks or making something with Play-Doh. The playtime makes her children feel listened to, she says.

“It’s anything they want to do,” Gonzalez says. “I didn’t realize until I tried it how much my kids really wanted it. It really meant something to them and then it’s like you’ve established a bond. I really think that this isn't just something that's going to help now. I think that years from now when they're older and they want to talk to you about something you've already got the groundwork laid.”

Agazzi emphasizes that HOT DOCS and DOCS K-5 are for all parents, whatever behavior issues or diagnoses their children have. They are founded on strategies and behavioral principles that are proven effective for all people, she says.

“The outcome for parents who complete the course is more confidence that they know how to prevent some behaviors,” she says. “It gives them a sense of relief that I’m not alone.”

For more information, visit USF Health HOT DOCS and Children’s Board of Hillsborough County
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Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer who lives in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. She previously covered Tampa neighborhoods for more than 15 years as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. She grew up in Georgia but headed north to earn a BA degree from Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. She backpacked through Europe before attending the University of Iowa's Creative Writers' Workshop for two years. She has a journalism degree from Georgia College. She likes writing, history, and movies.