Early Childhood Reform in Seven Communities - October 1996
The early childhood programs in the study support and encourage parent participation in child development and learning. This family focus reflects the renewed interest in ecological approaches to child development that situate learning in the context of home, school, and community. It is backed by federal and state policies that require working with families as a condition of early childhood program funding. Equally important, early childhood professionals believe greater continuity and mutual understanding between the home and preschool reinforces and sustains the benefits of their work with children. They also recognize the stresses felt by families -- from work or its absence, poverty, single parenthood, or social isolation -- and the need to address these problems if parents are to adequately nurture their children. This ecological approach finds expression in the wide range of activities these programs use to support parents in their roles as caregivers, breadwinners and community members.
Context: Family Needs and Program Characteristics
The seven programs serve low-income families who are struggling to provide children with basic necessities and a warm, caring home. The majority of families are living at or close to the poverty level and a substantial proportion are on some kind of public assistance. Some programs serve families with low levels of literacy while others work with parents who are either attending school or are employed in low-wage-rate jobs. Many of the children grow up in single-parent homes; children in Covington tend to be part of extended families where grandparents play an important role in raising their grandchildren. Both the Jersey City school district and the Parent Services Project work with immigrant families. The overall picture that emerges in one of programs serving multi-stressed, multi-problem families with challenges including poverty and unemployment, domestic violence, illiteracy, social isolation, and substance abuse.
Many of the children grow up in stressful home environments, and staff link the behaviors of the children with their family situations.
One program, the Sheltering Arms agency, also addresses the specific concerns of middle income families. While these families have few of the economic and social service needs of lower income families, they nonetheless need help with parenting issues and managing stress associated with balancing work and family commitments. A Family Service Coordinator observes,
In order to be responsive to families, each of the seven programs has developed services to meet the needs of families in their particular communities.
As shown in the attached chart, programs differ in their capacities and relative emphases on specific services. However, every agency exhibits strategies which address share four core goals and outcomes of family support:
The next section describes strategies programs use to meet each of these goals.
SERVICES FOR PARENTS AND FAMILIES
in classroom &
Family Support and Involvement Strategies
1. Programs seek to enhance parents' skills, knowledge, and motivation to be involved with their children's education.
A core strategy in all seven agencies are parent education services, offered in a variety of forms and settings. Parenting sessions help parents learn about child development, cope with challenges such as discipline and nurturing self-esteem, and engage in developmental activities with their children. Parent education is fostered directly through home visits and group meetings, and indirectly through a variety of exchanges between families and program staff members.
Home visits are special learning occasions where a parent and child receive individualized attention. Home visitors engage the child in stimulating activities to develop motor, cognitive, language, and social skills. Parents and home visitor share information about the child's behaviors, milestones are noted, and parents learn about the value of talking to and playing with their child. The sessions also include child screening for early detection of developmental delays. In two program sites, home visits include other children or the extended family, thus enlarging the network of positive influences on the child. Programs used the Missouri-based Parents as Teachers or the Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) as models, or developed their own curriculums.
The regularity of face-to-face contact, at least weekly in two programs, and the friendly, supportive tone of the home visitors set the stage for a positive exchange of child development information. The home visitors create a special relationship with the family, and parents feel that they have someone who genuinely cares about their child. Parents give top marks to home visits:
Home visitors are flexible in their engagement with parent and child, adapting their practices to fit both the childrearing patterns of diverse groups and the particular situations of families:
While our research provided only limited observations of home visiting, we were struck by the variation of approaches to staffing and service delivery:
Preschool classroom teachers also carry out home visits, to learn more about families and to promote communication with parents. The Jersey City program schedules teacher home visits for parents who have difficulty coming to school to discuss their children's progress. Covington teachers make four home visits during the school year that function as an extension of classroom activities in a home setting.
Parent education also takes place in group meetings which include a blend of presentations, questions-and-answers, open discussion, and activities. Most agencies carried out a series of meetings tied to a specific curriculum and a trained facilitator. Programs used curriculums such as Nurturing Program, Effective Parenting Information for Children (EPIC), Winning Program, and Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP), as well as developing their own materials on topics of interest to parents in their program. Parents give these accounts of positive experiences:
Parent education also occurs as a by-product of other exchanges between programs and parents. In the words of a parent:
Efforts to explain classroom practices offer the added benefit of exposing parents to ideas and strategies which they can use at home with their children. For example, in order to demonstrate to parents that children learn through active engagement with materials, preschool teachers in Jersey City divided parents who attended a workshop into two groups with different methods of accomplishing an art activity. A teacher explains, "One of us acted like the traditional teacher who gave a lecture, passed out ditto paper and asked parents to color in the apple and the orange. Another one of us asked parents to cut up different types of apples and oranges, taste them, talk about their differences and go through a range of other experiences. When we brought them back we asked, 'well, who has something to show?' and of course, it was the ditto group; but when we asked 'who learned more?', of course, it was the hands-on group. Now we hear, parents talking to each other and saying, 'It's okay if the kids are not bringing papers home,' but the first year we were being pressured like crazy with comments like, 'How come you're not teaching them their A, B, C's? How come they don't know how to spell their names?'."
2. Programs support parents in their journey towards education and self-sufficiency.
The seven programs offer parents the opportunity to improve literacy skills, continue their education, obtain employment training, and move toward self-sufficiency. Programs offer direct services, usually through Even Start or similar family literacy initiatives, and they refer parents to community colleges, school district vocational programs, or other services available in the community. Through these early childhood programs, family coordinators help parents prioritize goals and gain access to educational opportunities within the program or in the community. Parents also benefit from the presence of other parents who provide support and encouragement. One advantage of linking adult education services with early childhood programs lies in the friendly, non-threatening, and nurturing settings of such programs. This is especially important for parents who dropped out of school and might have negative attitudes about learning and schooling.
Parents praise the programs for progress they have made in career and personal goals and the repercussions on their children:
Linking adult education and job training with incentives such as job opportunities, transportation, and child care helps attract parent participation. Two programs in particular have developed successful agency partnerships that connect training and job placement:
The seven programs also supplement adult education and job training services with life skills training and decision making responsibilities; together these form a coherent set of experiences that enable individuals to increase their employment potential.
Helping families move toward self-sufficiency is not without challenges, some of them quite formidable. The FACE programs in New Mexico offer a family literacy component requiring parents to attend adult education classes. This is difficult to implement when parents are working, looking for work, or find seasonal employment that interferes with class attendance. To meet policy guidelines while keeping attuned to community conditions, the programs have scheduled evening sessions to accommodate working parents. In other communities it is very difficult to motivate parents because of limited employment benefits:
3. Programs help parents gain access to services which address their needs through partnerships with community agencies.
Programs develop partnerships because they are mandated in legislation, and because they recognize that families have many tangible needs that cut across different service agencies. To program directors it became apparent that families were becoming lost and frustrated with the fragmented and bureaucratic system. At the same time, forming partnerships to improve the accessibility of services involves an investment of time, energy, and patience to overcome turf concerns. Linkages with community agencies take various forms and vary in complexity. There are formal collaborations that involve joint management and operation of a program, or cost sharing of staff positions. There are also instances of directors and staff using informal networks to refer families to services offered by other agencies. Four common strategies and the issues that arise in their implementation are described below.
Referrals are the most common mechanism for extending services beyond what a program can provide on its own. Their success depends to a great deal on the presence of a family coordinator who provides parents with basic information on where they can find assistance, mediates contacts between parents and agency providers, and follows up on initial contacts.
"Last year we were able to help ten inner city families obtain homes with Habitat for Humanity. Habitat representatives have presented at parent groups and family service staff have helped interested parents with the paperwork and other requirements for participation."
Shared services involve linkages with other community agencies to trade services and resources for a common base of families. There are two patterns of shared services: fees for services, such as contracts with health providers to perform examinations and preventive services, and coordination strategies. Six programs actively coordinate their services with other agencies. Partner agencies may arrange a division of labor in terms of recruiting participants, providing transportation and child care, and offering space. Cost-sharing can also become part of the agreement.
- The Northern Kentucky University Reentry Center provides an instructor and materials for a carpentry workshop for unemployed mothers in Covington. The early childhood program recruits the mothers, offers classroom space, and provides child care and transportation.
Only one program, Inn Circle, has developed a case management system for its participants. Inn Circle meets regularly with a team of health, mental health, education, and social service providers to coordinate the services being received by its families.
Five programs are participating in more comprehensive, community-wide systems change efforts to simplify different public programs and funding streams and to provide better coordination of services that involve a common set of families. Over the short-term, programs report ease of making referrals, ability to recognize gaps in services and to remedy them, and progress towards addressing more complex cross-agency issues.
Partnership relationships also involve difficulties. For example, the assumption behind making referrals is that services are available, whereas in many communities programs encounter demand that is greater than their capacity to respond:
The logistics and management of collaborative strategies can also be daunting:
Coordination is also difficult when agencies do not share the same philosophy of working with families. While early childhood program staffers try to model respectfulness, they are wary of agencies that are more punitive than empowering in their relationships with families. Staff members sometimes find that there is no point in referring families to agencies where "they won't be treated right." Program directors also work hard to influence social service agencies to take a preventative approach instead of waiting for a crisis to spur intervention. Additionally, family coordinators feel stymied by the fast turnover of personnel in other, larger bureaucracies. It becomes frustrating to keep informing new staff of their program's existence and to develop a relationship that facilitates access to services.
4. Programs create "caring communities" for parents by providing social support and catalyzing participation in community institutions.
The process of helping families become self-sufficient involves a careful blending and sequencing of provided needed services, reducing family isolation, expanding social support networks, and giving families a chance to contribute and be valued by their community. Programs have learned to begin with building trust, addressing tangible needs and providing social support. Over time, staff members introduce more challenging forms of involvement, such as confronting literacy, occupational, substance abuse, or marital issues. Ultimately, programs help parents to function as contributing members, decision makers, and sources of support to other parents.
Very often the relationships between parents and staff have the most impact on parents' involvement with the program. When program directors, teachers, and family support staff make an effort to welcome parents, help them, and build trusting relationships, parents respond by making the effort to work closely with them and to live up to their expectations. Parents feel they belong to a community that respects them, takes their needs seriously, and gives them the opportunity to change their lives. Time and again satisfied parents refer to the program staff as "family," reflecting the comfort, security and support of an intimate group:
When staff members listen to parents and act on their suggestions, parents feel empowered and begin to take a more active role in the program. For some parents, this engagement catalyzes broader involvement in community affairs and advocacy for children.
Parents appreciate the personal commitment of staff members who combine roles of teacher, adviser, advocate, and liaison to other resources in the community. Parents also find in the centers a supportive setting that helps relieve family and work-related stress. In one program where staff members join parents in social activities, they, too, benefit from stress reduction:
Parent-to-parent relationships are another important source of support and an opportunity for parents to extend themselves as contributors in a program setting. A Covington parent says,
Another parent who had been isolated for many years developed friendships at the preschool center and formed a group session called "Can We Talk?" after the television show of the same name.
While support group sessions tend to draw mothers, the Parent Services Project in Fairfax (CA) also makes a special effort to draw fathers:
Through support groups and workshops, the parents feel that their self-esteem is nurtured; that there are others who listen to them and encourage them; that they are not alone in facing the pressures of being poor, of losing a job, or of handling domestic conflict. Being a part of these groups requires limited commitment but parents reap immeasurable benefits: they feel a sense of "belonging" and a sense of worth.
The Inn Circle initiative in Cedar Rapids has developed a conceptual framework to convey the importance of community-building for families. At the core of this framework is the belief that "families need to be part of supportive relationships with other families, individuals and groups." (Carman, et al., n.d.). Instead of passive clients, they need to become part of community structures that recognize their skills and value their contributions. Some specific activities that flow from this framework include social activities to develop bonds among families, creating a skills/resource exchange that identifies the expertise of participants and enables families to turn to one another for support, and forming parent coops to offer practical group solutions to the needs of working families. Parents have the opportunity to demonstrate their "gifts," a potential that is often overlooked when their children get into the programs because they are "at-risk."
These activities widen the network of reciprocity and sense of belonging from the program to the community. Based on the idea of community as "the basic context for enabling people to contribute their gifts" (McKnight, 1987), this approach seeks to "recommunalize" participants, enriching their lives and their communities.
A final strategy which equips parents to contribute to their communities is experience in decision making. The majority of agencies invite parents to participate in various forms of policy committees, with responsibilities for giving input to program decisions in areas such as budget and service priorities, evaluation, fundraising and staffing. These committees give parents experience in many skills which they can use as they participate in other community agencies and associations. For example, Parent Services Project sites empower parents by having them manage a small discretionary budget. As a staff member explains:
Programs report positive carryover from these experiences as parents move out from their agencies. FACE parent meetings attract more participants than regular PTA meetings in some communities. In one BIA school, 14 of 16 parents participating in a training session for middle school parents were alumni of the FACE project. Or, as a former parent in the Jersey City, New Jersey program said:
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