Early childhood education program teaches parents to be teachers

Jennifer Hatten (left), a parent educator with the Independence School District’s Parents as Teachers program, worked with Sarah VanBibber and her son Carter. “When a family buys into our program,” Hatten said, “they realize that these activities are not just fun, but they’re going to make a difference in their (child’s) development.”
Jennifer Hatten (left), a parent educator with the Independence School District’s Parents as Teachers program, worked with Sarah VanBibber and her son Carter. “When a family buys into our program,” Hatten said, “they realize that these activities are not just fun, but they’re going to make a difference in their (child’s) development.” Special to the Star

When Carter VanBibber was born, he arrived two months early and spent five weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit. His mom and dad, Sarah and Kevin VanBibber, knew he might have learning problems as a result and were worried.

The VanBibbers turned to the Parents as Teachers program, which Sarah’s mom had used when Sarah was a child.

“Being a special-ed teacher myself, I was very concerned about his development,” said Sarah VanBibber. “Growing up with Parents as Teachers in our own home, I knew it was an extremely invaluable program. We needed support and some ideas on what we could do for our son.”

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 VanBibbers live in the Independence School District.

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.

“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.

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.”

Although the Independence School District provides the program for children up to 5 years old, the number of visits decreases after age 3. District officials also prioritize helping families who 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.

“I have families all over the spectrum. I have homeless families. I have families that live in nice neighborhoods,” said parent educator Jennifer Hatten.

The homeless families Hatten sees stay at the Hope House shelter in Independence.

“We really encourage play, because it’s so important to bring their child into a more developmentally ready place. In a shelter … they’re probably not going to get that as much, because Mom’s trying to put her life together, so we encourage that a lot,” Hatten said. “When I go back, I never know if they’re going to be there, so I have to be prepared with activities for lots of different age groups.”

One of the program’s biggest obstacles is funding. In the last fiscal year, Independence’s Parents as Teachers program served 609 children from 497 families. Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education gave $202,955 toward the program during that time.

When funding falls short from the state, the Independence district compensates for the difference between that and normal program expenses, according to a district representative.

After all the Parents as Teachers programs in Missouri lost about 60 percent of their funds from the state four years ago, programs had to downsize. In Independence, that huge cut meant that the district lost 16 of its 20 parent educators, and it is not able to serve nearly as many families.

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.

The activity may be as simple as stacking plastic containers or toilet paper rolls. Parent educators like to use materials that are normally part of the household — things parents don’t have to go out and buy.

“It seems like toys nowadays all come with batteries. I like that these are just things you have around the house,” VanBibber said. “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.”

Another 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 Hatten, the parent educator who works with the VanBibbers.

Hatten loves to see families take ownership of the tools she gives them.

“If our families are using (the activities) after we leave, that’s what makes the difference. When a family buys into our program, they realize that these activities are not just fun, but they’re going to make a difference in their (child’s) development.

“They use them, or they make their own,” Hatten said. “That feels so good when I come back, and they’ve made their own activity or they’ve modified it.”

Carter looks forward to Hatten’s visits.

“When it’s time to go, Miss Jennifer puts the books away, and he digs in her bag, trying to get them back out,” VanBibber said.

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.”

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, “she 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.”

Shayla and Bryan Moffitt of Kansas City, North, 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,” Shayla Moffitt said.

Addyson, now in kindergarten, has finished with the program, but the Moffitts are still involved through 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.

The Moffitts still do activities they learned from parent educator Tammy Brizendine, such as measuring and mixing up cornstarch and water.

“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. Paper towel rolls filled with beans to use as rattles can be another household toy.

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 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.

“It’s really about building relationships. When I first go in, a lot of families are very quiet. They want to hear what you have to say, and (then) they’re very open and talking about their babies. We want to know what their babies do well, (and) if there’s any challenges,” Hatten said. “As you come back month after month, things get noisier, and they’re excited to talk to you.”

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,” Sarah VanBibber said. “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.”

Parents of young children can often find themselves socially isolated, because of the time and effort 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 to expect next in the child’s development and how to support that growth.

For Sarah VanBibber, the help has been invaluable with Carter, who is now 2 years old.

“The first time really he picked up a crayon and scribbled all over the paper, he was so excited about it. From there he learned his colors. I have a fridge covered with his artwork now,” she said. “The confidence in him and his excitement … he’s saying one-word sentences and repeating a lot of what I ask him. He’s come a long way from where he was.”