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Educators struggle to reach at-risk families before kindergarten

by Dennis Sharkey

Early childhood development experts say forming positive brain development needs to start as early as possible but different forces at work make it difficult to reach at-risk children.

Superintendents, principals, teachers and preschool caregivers attended a seminar last week at Keystone Learning Services to discuss the importance of reaching at-risk children early but the conversation quickly switched to the challenges in doing so.

The morning discussion was led by Doug Bowman, coordinator for the Coordinating Council on Early Childhood Development Services. The council is a division of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. The council is a result of federal legislation and state legislation and serves as an advisory board to government concerning early childhood development.

Bowman led the discussion with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation developed by Dr. Gayle M. Stuber, early childhood coordinator for the Kansas Department of Education. Stuber also spoke to the group later in the day.

The brain is a work in progress and the capacity to respond is greater than the actual thought, but thought patterns are ingrained over time.

“It behooves us to identify those as soon as possible,” Bowman said.

Educators try to meet the needs of all students but Bowman said reaching out to at-risk students and meeting their needs has to happen as soon as possible, preferably before they reach school.

“We don’t give up on anybody, but it does narrow the window of opportunity,” he said.

Bowman said the most important factor in a child’s development is to have a lifeline. Someone who loves the child unconditionally. When a child doesn’t have that person to go to things can go wrong and emotional stress starts to change the brain’s chemistry.

The change to the chemistry happens over time. Day in and day out toxic stress such as abuse or depression becomes ingrained.

“Their brains end up being wired differently than the typical person,” he said.

A study that was conducted in Kansas over a 10 year period and released in 1995 exposed the need for positive language reinforcement to children between the ages of seven months to 36 months. The study was conducted by Dr. Betty Hart and Dr. Todd R. Risley and put into a book titled “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.”

One particular part of the study measured the amount of language and positive language a child was exposed to in the home. What the study found was that children who live in poverty were exposed to less language at home and heard eight times less positive language reinforcement than children who live in affluent homes. The study showed the results also trended down for middle class families.

“Most parents don’t try to be bad,” Bowman said. “They just don’t know.”

Bowman said some families seem to be in crisis mode constantly and move from one bad incident to another. A couple of bad incidents in a child’s life won’t completely change the brain’s chemistry but a constant cycle will. Bowman believes society in whole will benefit if the negative cycle can be broken.

“The thing we need to do is to be sure the bad stuff doesn’t start adding up,” he said.

The obvious solution of reaching at-risk children can easily be determined but solving the problem of reaching them cannot.

The biggest program for reaching children at the earliest age is the Parents as Teachers program. The program helps parents primarily from prenatal to the age of 36 months develop curricula that supports a parents’ role in getting the child ready for school and for healthy development.

The Parents as Teachers program is primarily funded by local school districts that also receive matching state funds. But, the last three years have seen cuts to programs or the complete elimination of programs. Bowman said Parents as Teachers is usually on the list of cuts when superintendents are presenting plans to school boards for budget cuts. Most school districts have long waiting lists for families seeking services.

Some school administrators say that it pains them to have to turn away some families that they know need services. Who receives services is determined by a point system that is primarily weighted on income.

Some families cannot be reached or don’t want to be reached. Shannon McMahon, a school board member of USD 340 Jefferson West and an educator, said that some families show up at enrollment and nobody knew they existed. She said she knows of at least 10 children who have enrolled in the last couple of months who could have qualified for services but did not receive any.

“Sometimes you don’t know about them and they don’t reach out,” she said.

Another issue is finding services for children between the ages of 36 months and Kindergarten. Bowman said there are not a lot of programs available and funding is limited.

Like most educators Bowman blames cuts to budgets as the main culprit of the problem but also recognizes why the cuts have came.

“We are in an economic downturn,” he said.

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Posted by on Oct 11 2011. Filed under County News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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