360 Communities Dakota Healthy Families prepares kids for school

column Krekelberg jennifer MUGby Jennifer Krekelberg
Special to Sun Thisweek
Dakota County Tribune

The start of the school year is underway and 360 Communities is making investments to ensure that students are well-prepared. We work with community partners to collect school supplies, connect families with resources for food, healthcare (immunizations), and housing, and provide parenting support to ensure parents are able to send their kids to school ready to learn.

Each year a new group of students enters kindergarten and their future experience in school hinges on how well prepared they are intellectually, motivationally and socio-emotionally. That preparation begins at birth and the quality of early childhood education plays a critical role in a child’s future success.

A child’s first teachers are their parents. 360 Communities Dakota Healthy Families works with first-time parents to ensure they have the skills to develop strong relationships with their children that strengthen emotional bonds and promote the development of socially confident children entering school.

All parents want their children to be successful in school.

However, according to the 2011 Minnesota Department of Education Minnesota School Readiness Study, more than 40 percent of children entering kindergarten are not ready in areas of literacy (41 percent are not proficient), math (48 percent are not proficient), and socio-emotional development (44 percent are not proficient).

Gabriela and Mateo are one couple who decided to access the DHF program to ensure their child would be ready. They were both 21-year-old Ecuadorian immigrants who moved to Minnesota from New York.  When their daughter Maria was born in 2007, the hospital referred the couple to DHF.

Gabriela first moved to the United States when she was 12 and is bilingual. Mateo had just recently immigrated to this country and did not speak English.

The couple had financial stress and little support from family. Neither of them had experience with infants, and they did not know what to expect in terms of developmental milestones.

DHF Home Visitor Ana Rivera connected with the family and, being bilingual, she was able to communicate with the couple in Spanish and establish a strong relationship.     The couple took turns taking care of the baby while working opposite shifts because they could not afford child care. During the first two years, Ana worked with both parents together and one-on-one until Mateo needed to return to Ecuador to take care of his immigration papers.

She supported the parent-child relationship by facilitating fun activities and interactive discussions with each parent. These activities provided important early learning opportunities for Maria and helped Gabriela and Mateo develop a keen awareness of Maria’s communication cues. This helped them respond to her in a nurturing and sensitive manner.

While Mateo was in Ecuador, Gabriela lived as a single mom. Ana was there to provide regular support as Gabriela struggled to manage everything on her own.  Ana’s strength-based approach helped boost Gabriela’s confidence as a parent and gave her the tools needed to focus on Maria even during times of great stress.

A 2002 research study by The Kauffman Early Education Exchange reported that “(the) quality of early relationships (is) a far more significant influence on early learning than are educational toys, preschool curricula, or Mozart CDs … A solid base of emotional security and social competence enables children to participate fully in learning experiences and form good relationships with teachers and peers.”

When parents respond to their baby’s needs in an empathetic and sensitive way, children develop a secure attachment and learn to regulate their strong emotions.  The ability to self-regulate will eventually help them to maintain focus and attention in school.

According to the Kauffman study, the preschool years are also a pivotal period for development of school readiness. In the preschool years, the activities during DHF home visits promote a sense of achievement and motivation. The parent’s involvement and pride in their child’s accomplishments as preschoolers is also an important factor to develop school readiness.

The 2009 Metro Alliance for Healthy Families Summary Report found that of families in the metro area participating in the home visiting program, 95 percent of children tested in the average range for behavioral and emotional milestones.  Eighty-five percent of children tested in the average range for cognitive and physical development. In 2012, our DHF staff provided in-home visiting to 102 families, completing 1,240 home visits.

Gabriela, Mateo and Maria graduated from the DHF program in 2012. At a recent pre-kindergarten screening, Maria tested at a first grade level!

“I cannot believe how smart she is!” Gabriela told Ana, “You helped us so much – I do not know what we would have done without Dakota Healthy Families!”

In the past year, Mateo was able to return to the United States and recently, Gabriela gave birth to a second daughter, Isabella.

She called Ana to see if she could continue with Dakota Healthy Families. Ana told her that the couple didn’t need her anymore – that Maria’s progress was the result of the couple’s hard work and that she and Mateo were now skilled parents who knew what to do.

Gabriela and Mateo’s experience with 360 Communities Dakota Healthy Families is not unique.

In a parent satisfaction survey, 93 percent of DHF parents reported that they felt their home visitor supported them in their parenting and helped them to better understand their child. Eighty-seven percent stated they would recommend this home visiting program to other parents.

Studies have shown investment in early childhood education has far-reaching impacts. The development of strong, confident and self-sufficient adults begins at birth. When kids are supported early and develop strong relationships with parents, they have a greater opportunity to flourish in school and later in life. For society, this is an investment that pays off with a more productive and contributing citizenry coupled with a decrease in generational poverty and crime.

Jennifer Krekelberg is supervisor of 360 Communities Dakota Healthy Families, which is a member of the Metro Alliance of Healthy Families. 360 Communities is Burnsville-based nonprofit that provides hope and support to people by engaging communities to prevent violence, ensure school success and promote long-term self-sufficiency. For more information about 360 Communities, visit 360Communities.org or call 952-985-5300. Columns reflect the opinion of the author.