Education

Parent engagement is crucial to early learning

Parents and students take part in family literacy night at Lincoln Park Primary School in Pensacola, Fl. Thursday, April 23, 2015. (Michael Spooneybarger/ Pensacola Today)

If you have a child from birth to 5 years old, chances are pretty good that your little one someday will be going to kindergarten. But what about your child’s chances of being ready when school starts?

No matter if the first day of school is a few years away or right around the corner, there are things that you, as parents and caregivers, can do to help your child with early brain development and kindergarten readiness.

Research shows that kindergarten readiness is among the most important measures of a child’s academic progress. And parent involvement is the No. 1 predictor of early literacy success and academic success.

Children who are behind in kindergarten are more likely to be behind in third-grade reading, and they rarely catch up throughout their school careers.

That’s why kindergarten readiness is among the 16 measures in the Pensacola Metro Dashboard. The dashboard was developed with the University of West Florida to provide a snapshot of the community’s educational, economic and social well-being.

In Escambia County, one out of three children — 34 percent — start behind in school and statistics bear out that they rarely, if ever, catch up.

That makes it critically important that we invest in those children before they get to school. That means making quality preschool and early childhood education a top priority in our community.

It’s clear that the relationship children have with their parents and other caregivers are vital to early childhood development.

That’s why experts in education insist that the home is the first school and parents are the first teachers. These relationships are the foundation of the approach to promoting child development through home visits.

Assigning nurses or social workers to visit pregnant women at home and help them through pregnancy, childbirth, and the first years of their child’s life has been shown to have enormous positive impact.

A nonprofit in Martin and St. Lucie counties has for nearly two decades conducted a home-visit program for all new parents that focuses on the importance of early brain development.

At the Studer Community Institute, we are in process of implementing a similar program involving brain bags distribution to new moms through area hospitals and agencies.

Through Northwest Florida are a number of agencies and organizations that offer a variety of voluntary in-home service at no cost to families that qualify.

Those agencies include Children’s Home Society, 90Works (formerly Families Count), Escambia County Health Start Coalition, Early Steps and Community Action Program Early Head Start.

Home visiting, in fact, is one of the many tools used to prevent child abuse and improve well being by providing education and services in homes through parent education and connection to community resources.

Whether through state, local or federal tax levies, better-paid and trained teachers or more focus on in-home visits, we have to show that early education is a priority that requires our utmost attention and best investment.

Early Head Start invited me to take part in its parent engagement and home visit programs. Starting in January, I will be involved with the Early Head Start program team leaders and social service advocates in make periodic home visits with children  ages 0 to 3 and five pregnant mothers.

Twice monthly those groups of children and mothers meet at A.A. Dixon Early Head Start. While the children are together, playing and socializing, the parents get together to get assistance in parenting skills, job training and other activities to improve and enhance their lives.

The goal is to move families toward employment and empowerment through early childhood and adult education, housing and safety assistance and financial management.

Home visiting programs help parents provide safe and supportive environments for their children. When families are fully engaged, home visits build strong relationships that can help lead to long-term and lasting benefits for the children and their families.

The key is providing parents with the information, support and encouragement needed for their children to reach his or her optimal development stage during the crucial early years of life.

Parents who are involved at the early childhood level are more likely to stay involved in the elementary years, according to the Harvard Family Research Project. Interviews conducted through the organization showed that involved preschool parents were more likely to visit the kindergarten classroom and build relationships with other school parents.

Early involvement may help prepare parents for the transition to elementary school by teaching them how to work with the school. Seeing how involvement benefits the child in preschool may encourage continued involvement.

Preschool children soak up bits of knowledge from everyday interactions, both at home and at school. Their teachers provide learning opportunities for them, but parent involvement supports their development in many areas.

The critical importance of parental engagement cannot be understated in ensuring a young child will be ready from day one for success in school and in life.