With an almost-toothless smile, 15-month-old Tegan Ware toddled around the sunny living room at her Lenexa home, carrying a small photo album. Inside its fuzzy, zebra-striped cover, the sleeves held pictures of family members and a few of her favorite playthings.
What Tegan doesn’t know is that this photo album is an educational tool: It’s a way for her to learn names of objects and people better. And it’s just one strategy her parents, Lindsey and Tim Ware, learned from the Parents as Teachers program.
Founded in Missouri, Parents as Teachers is a national early childhood education program that pairs parent educators with families to offer support and guidance.
“Tegan was early walking, but she wasn’t saying any words for a while, so our parent educator mentioned I could make a photo album for her with pictures of the dog and a ball, things that belong to Tegan or family members,” Lindsey Ware said. “Now she sees (her grandparents’) picture and points to them … and waits for me to say ‘Pa-Pa.’ … They’ll come over, and she’s fine with them.”
In Kansas and Missouri, families sign up through their school districts for the program, designed to reach children from prenatal care to 5 years old. The Wares live in the Olathe School District, which provides the program for children up to 3 years old. All six school districts in Johnson County offer the program.
Home visits are just one part of the program, along with group activities that meet at least once a month, developmental screenings and access to their resource network. Program officials also prioritize helping families whom they consider to have more need for the program because of a child’s developmental issues or a situation that might make things more difficult for a family.
“Our approach is to really look at three areas: development-centered parenting, helping parents understand how they parent and their child’s development,” said Kerry Caverly, director of affiliations and program assistance for Parents as Teachers. “We want parent educators to keep in mind that while children are developing, there are other things swirling around this family. There might be another child with a chronic health concern or a father who is incarcerated. We can’t ignore that.”
In addition to providing strategies and activities, the parent educator also functions as an adult who can offer an unbiased view of a child’s development by observing the child month to month.
“My parent educator did identify a developmental delay in our youngest child that wasn’t being picked up by the pediatrician and by me,” Caverly said. “I believe every parent can use support. When it comes to your own children, you become very biased, and you don’t see things. … A home visitor has an objective perspective.”
With the support she received, Caverly was able to help her child overcome an 18-month motor-skill delay to enter kindergarten on equal footing with the other children.
The program started in Missouri 30 years ago as an idea developed by Mildred Winter, a kindergarten teacher in the Ferguson-Florissant School District in St. Louis County.
“She saw that children weren’t ready when they came to school,” Caverly said. “Governor Kit Bond had a baby when he was in office (at the time) and was interested. They put together a pilot program for four school districts. (Then) the Missouri legislature funded implementation of Parents as Teachers into every school district (in Missouri).”
The program has grown into a national organization based in St. Louis. All Parents as Teachers programs in Kansas are affiliate programs. This means they have agreed to use the national research-based curriculum and implement it to the standards required by the larger group.
Parent educators need a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education or in a related field, such as social work or nursing. Every educator attends an initial week of training at the organization’s national headquarters.
During the first year, educators complete 20 hours of in-service training. After that they must do 15 hours the following year and 10 hours each following year.
Parents as Teachers has a thick stack of research supporting its curriculum, including a 2008 study published in the Journal of Primary Prevention. The study, led by Edward Zigler and Victoria Seitz of Yale University and Judy Pfannenstiel of Research & Training Associates in Overland Park, concluded that Parents as Teachers does improve school readiness. This in turn increases school success by the third grade.
“The cost-benefit over the long-run is huge. … If you can start with that early enrichment, literacy, language and motor skills, (then) when these kids transition into school they’re ready to learn,” said Rochelle Harris, a psychologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital. “If a child starts off feeling like they are bad or a failure in a school setting, that sets them up for a rocky experience.”
Harris said the increase in school readiness can reduce the need for special education and having kids repeat grades. Programs like Parents as Teachers can allow kids from low-income families to enter school on the same level as other kids, she said, but all kids benefit from it.
“The best thing about it is that the parents themselves of these children are learning tools to work with their kids that are going to set them up for lifelong learning,” Harris said. “They’re getting a better understanding of how their kids develop and learn and how they can enhance that. All parents want the best for their child.”
One of the program’s biggest obstacles is funding. In Kansas there are about 1,100 families on a waiting list throughout the state for Parents as Teachers programs.
The money comes from two places for the Kansas programs: the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement of 1998 and the school districts themselves. Prior to that, state funding for Parents as Teachers came from the state’s general fund.
Districts must match the funds they receive from the settlement via the state at a rate of 65 cents per dollar. To get the settlement money, each district submits a budget with goals and outcomes data.
“In their (applications) every year ... they provide goals and reply to where they are with regard to meeting those goals. They report on their data, (and) if their data indicate a decline, they respond with strategies,” said Janet Newton, education program consultant at the Kansas State Department of Education. “Their annual affiliate performance report data is reviewed every year. I can tell a lot from their data, (like) how well they’re meeting model fidelity.”
Last year Kansas distributed $7,237,635 from the settlement money for Parents as Teachers programs across the state. The Olathe School District will receive $442,383 from the state for the 2015 fiscal year. Of the 286 school districts in Kansas, 160 offer Parents as Teachers as an option.
To be able to get daytime home visits in Olathe, parents must get signed up before the child is a year old. For evening home visits, they have to sign up before the child is 6 months old. Even then, not every family can get home visits. Also in Olathe, the program only does home visits for a family’s first child to be part of the program.
Olathe’s program, which has 12 parent educators, also works closely with Parents as Teachers programs in Kansas City, Kan., Leavenworth, Fort Leavenworth and the Turner School District.
Although Kansas and Missouri offer the program through their school districts, in most other states it’s run by community support organizations, health departments, and other groups and agencies.
“Knowing that there are school districts in every community … the infrastructure is already there to get the services to the local level,” Newton said.
Home visits are easily the most popular part of the program.
A parent educator visits a family at home once a month and brings a plan for age-appropriate activities that stimulate language, social skills and fine and gross motor skill development.
One or both parents will be there when the educator visits, and the parent learns the activities and strategies with the goal of using them with the child after the educator leaves.
The activity may be as simple as making an album of photos to help a child like Tegan Ware learn the names of the grandparents she rarely gets to see. She used to cry when they came over, because she didn’t recognize them. Now she recognizes them easily and doesn’t get upset by their visits.
Another activity might be playing with blocks or making a cut in the top of an empty coffee can so the child can practice putting objects through a slot.
“The magic is not the activity. The magic is how the parent implements that to work on a skill that their child needs,” said Nancy Keel, Parents as Teachers program coordinator for the Olathe School District. With the album, Tegan “worked on language. She worked on social-emotional development. She worked on fine motor skills in turning the pages. She worked on so many areas of development with one simple activity.”
The activity may be as simple as measuring and mixing up cornstarch and water, which is what parent educator Tammy Brizendine did with Shayla and Bryan Moffitt in Kansas City, North, who participate in the program in the Liberty School District.
“We made this nasty, feely goo with cornstarch that my daughter still to this day wants to make,” Shayla Moffitt said. “And we still have recipe card that Tammy wrote out for Addy. … We even got food coloring out, and we made it pink. … I was a little bit hesitant at first, like, ‘She’s not going to want to do this,’ but she got in there, and Tammy was encouraging her.”
Bryan Moffitt helped their two kids build a city out of cardboard boxes, complete with castles, houses, carports and more.
Paper towel rolls filled with beans to use as rattles can be another household toy. Parent educators like to use materials that are normally part of the household — things parents don’t have to go out and buy.
That’s something Sarah VanBibber, mom of 2-year-old Carter, appreciates. She and her husband, Kevin, are enrolled in the program in Independence.
“It seems like toys nowadays all come with batteries. I like that these are just things you have around the house,” said Sarah VanBibber of Independence. “At first, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s playing with toilet paper rolls.’ But what’s awesome about it was not only was he stacking, but he also was counting each roll. So that is amazing for a 2-year-old.”
One more activity might be playing with empty food containers and pretending to be on a trip to the grocery store.
“They get to talk about different things they’re seeing, how much they need, put it in the cart and pay for it. So they’re using all of those words that you hear in the grocery store, and we’re trying to encourage a bigger vocabulary,” said Jennifer Hatten, the parent educator who works with the VanBibber family.
Suggestions like these from parent educators help parents get fresh ideas on how to be involved with their kids’ development.
“We’ve always been open to getting help. I think sometimes parents think they have to do it by themselves, and it is a hard job. We want to be the best parents we can be, whether that’s learning from Tammy or learning from a book,” said Bryan Moffitt. “I think younger parents sometimes think they have to do it by themselves. We were a little bit older when we had kids, and we thought, ‘No, we’re getting some help.’”
Parent educators encourage parents to interact more with their kids. That could mean reading, talking with them or just playing together.
“Learning doesn’t have to be, ‘Sit still and be quiet.’ It can be very engaged and playful,” said Harris, of Children’s Mercy. “The importance of reading to your child (and) talking to your child before they can talk back is huge.”
Keel said that the goal is for parents to take the suggestions of activities and personalize them to their family and what items are already in their house.
“When children know that their parents care about what they’re doing — although she can’t express, ‘Oh Mom, you went to all the trouble to make that book and help me through this,’ that’s exactly what’s she’s saying as she learns,” Keel said. “(Tegan) knows that Dad and Mom are there for her, and whenever you’ve got that kind of social outside emotional support, you’re going to always learn better.”
Parent educators are also there to support parents and help them find answers to questions about their child’s development.
It’s helpful “just having somebody to bounce ideas off of … or if there’s a struggle we’re going through,” Ware said. “She has been a horrible sleeper, and sometimes you need somebody outside your house to say, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t run into the nursery every time she’s crying.’ Then the next month she’ll check, ‘How is she sleeping?’ It’s just nice to have unbiased thoughts and follow-up.”
Parents of young children can often find themselves socially isolated, because of the time and effort that parenting takes. They may not realize that the issues they have with their own child, such as sleeping through the night or getting a child to eat enough, are common and normal.
“I think a lot of people don’t have a sense of what is normative — when do they have to worry that their child is saying ‘wabbit,’ not rabbit’; what is the meaning of play; is it important to play with them?” Harris said. “In a Parents as Teachers program, they do a lot of education about childhood development and the importance of routines, like naptime, which is very critical to brain development.”
Each time the parent educator visits, he or she brings information about developmental milestones, so the parent knows what’s coming next in the child’s development and how to support that growth.
“We provide information on how children grow and develop — what to expect, what not to expect. ... When we talk with a parent, we talk about where their child is developmentally, and that’s the way to parent,” Keel said.
The issues may seem the same at different stages, such as having problems with sleeping or eating, but the way parents respond should be different, depending on where the child is developmentally, according to Keel.
“Everything we give … it’s not my opinion. It’s research-based information,” Keel said.
Parents like Lindsey Ware are grateful for the extra knowledge and support.
“It’s just such a valuable resource,” Ware said. “It’s such a big stress having so much information on the Internet and different books everybody recommends (that) you read on sleep training or nutrition, and it’s just too much information thrown at me. It was nice to pick a source that’s reliable and go with that.”