Shayla and Bryan Moffitt first got a taste of the creative activities that go with the Parents as Teachers program when their daughter Addyson, now 5, was an infant and a toddler.
“We’d take three pages and staple them together, and we had a book. … We still make books, and she writes stories and colors pictures,” said Shayla Moffitt of Kansas City, North.
Addyson, now in kindergarten, has finished with the program, but the Moffitts are still involved with their 21/2-year-old son, Cayson.
“As each child is different, the problems are still kind of the same, but there are new challenges,” Shayla Moffitt said.
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Founded in Missouri, Parents as Teachers is a national early childhood education program that pairs parent educators with families to offer support and guidance.
In Missouri and Kansas, families sign up through their school districts for the program, designed to reach children from prenatal care to 5 years old. The Moffitt family lives in the Liberty School District, which provides the program for children up to 5 years old.
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. The program also prioritizes helping families considered 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. The Parents as Teachers program in Liberty is an affiliate program. This means district officials agreed to use the national research-based curriculum and implement it to the standards required by the larger group.
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. Four years ago, all Parents as Teachers programs in Missouri lost about 60 percent of their funding from the state.
Last school year the Liberty district’s program served 760 children from 626 families. There are nine part-time parent educators with the district. During that time, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education provided $121,084, while the school district contributed $77,482 to the program.
Not every family gets home visits like the Moffitts do. The program in Liberty, like many of the Parents as Teachers programs, can’t fund enough parent educators to visit every family that wants to participate. Some just go to group activities and have access to the resource network and developmental screenings.
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,” said Janet Newton, education program consultant at the Kansas State Department of Education.
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 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.
“It’s not about what’s the newest, latest, most developmentally appropriate toy. It’s helping them learn from their environment, so really reinforcing and promoting parents to let them know that the things that they’re doing (are good),” said Sarah Birk, director of Parents as Teachers in the Liberty district. “When they’re doing laundry and helping them match socks, they’re working on sorting and matching, just using things from their everyday environment.”
The activity may be as simple as measuring and mixing up cornstarch and water, which the Moffitts did with parent educator Tammy Brizendine.
“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 a 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 kids build a city out of cardboard boxes, complete with castles, houses, carports and more. Both the cardboard city and the goo are examples of how Parents as Teachers encourages parents to create learning activities from everyday household objects.
Other household toys can be paper towel rolls filled with beans to use as rattles or a coffee can with a slot cut in the top so kids can push items through the top. 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.’”
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 their parent educator.
“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.”
The activity may be as simple as stacking plastic containers or toilet paper rolls.
“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.”
Parent educators like to use materials that are normally part of the household — things that parents don’t have to go out and buy. That’s something Sarah VanBibber, mother of 2-year-old Carter, appreciates. She and her husband, Kevin, are enrolled in the program in the Independence School District.
“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.”
Playing with empty food containers and pretending to be on a trip to the grocery store is another thing parents can do with their kids.
“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.
Not all interactions have to involve making toys. Just reading to kids, talking with them or playing together can make a difference.
“Learning doesn’t have to be, ‘Sit still and be quiet.’ It can be very engaged and playful,” said Harris at Children’s Mercy Hospital. “The importance of reading to your child (and) talking to your child before they can talk back is huge.”
Parent educators are also there to support parents and help them find answers to questions about their child’s development.
“Tammy would come to our house, and we always knew she had our back. She was on our team,” said Shayla Moffitt. “We were so frustrated. We were not getting any sleep, and she would come in and give us the tools … (and) different strategies to battle the sleep issues we had.”
For parents, the support of their parent educator can be crucial.
“I think my most memorable time is when I was at my lowest with (Cayson) … having Tammy come in and not being embarrassed to cry and say, literally, how hard it was to be a parent at that time. He was a very difficult child, and (I said to her), ‘You are my lifeline, and I need help.’ She didn’t fix any problems but gave me the reassurance to know that it’s going to be OK,” Shayla Moffitt said. “She honestly was our cheerleader and said, ‘You’re doing a great job.’ It didn’t feel like it, but she still gave us that confidence.”
Parents of young children can often find themselves socially isolated because of the time and effort that parenting takes.
“It’s someone there to tell you you’re not in this by yourself. This is something that a lot of families go through, although (when) you’re in the trenches, you feel like, ‘Are we ever going to move through this?’” Birk said. “It’s nice to have that other person come in and say, ‘This isn’t that atypical. Here are some things we can do to support you and help move you through this little bump in the road.’”
Parents 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 to expect next in the child’s development and how to support that growth.
“Sometimes, I think the idea gets out that we’re coming in to tell them what they’re doing wrong or say, ‘This isn’t right.’ The whole purpose behind Parents as Teachers is to empower that parent and make them feel really good about where they’re at and what they’re doing,” said Brizendine. “As a parent educator, you have to go in and really be ready to listen and see where they’re coming from. While you may have the idea in your head that you’re going to discuss a specific topic that day, it may not go that way.”
For parents, especially first-timers, the support of their parent educator can feel like a lifeline.
“I feel like I had so many concerns at the beginning and so many worries about his development—walking, talking,” said Sarah VanBibber, whose son was born prematurely. “I think it’s just the excitement of (seeing her) every month (when) she comes over. I got to show him off a little bit—‘Look at what he’s doing now, because of your ideas that you gave us and support.’ That, to me, is the best.”
Shayla Moffitt appreciates that support too.
“If there is a family that’s even thinking about if they should do Parents as Teachers, I could not encourage them enough to take that leap and enroll, because it’s a life-changer,” said Shayla Moffitt. “It’s somebody on your side of life that is helping you through the challenges.”