April 8 kicks off 2019’s Week of the Young Child™ (WOYC), which was established in 1971 to focus public attention on the needs of children from birth through age eight, and to celebrate early childhood programs and services that make a difference for these children! Inspired by the WOYC and mindful of the popular adage that “it takes a village to raise a child,” we welcome this opportunity to celebrate the many individuals who impact children during these critical years.
Meet the Experts Who Make a Difference
We spoke to four professionals whose work complements each other and discussed some of their shared goals and experiences.
A School District’s Early Childhood Director…
Heather Harris, Early Childhood Education Director for the Lynwood Unified School District, conveys equal parts empathic warmth and focused determination. She displays—to borrow from author Tom Wolfe—the “right stuff” for effectively managing a district of nearly 700 preschool students and 75-plus staff members. Heather credits her choice of profession to the influence of her own “sweet and organized” preschool teacher, who set an example of providing care tailored to each individual child—and who even attended Heather’s college graduation ceremony.
A Community Leader…
It’s difficult to imagine a more passionate community advocate than Amy Williams, Child360’s Director of Community Engagement. Her department oversees work within Best Start communities—focused on health, education, safety or community improvement—throughout South LA, East LA, and the Antelope Valley. Amy’s been working to strengthen communities and families for more than 13 years: before coming to Child360, she was integral in establishing First 5 LA’s Best Start community improvement efforts.
An Expert in Family Engagement…
Ana Maria Duarte is a Family Engagement Specialist with Child360; her role is to support and enhance early education programs by acting as a bridge between providers and parents to achieve whole child development. After only a few minutes in conversation with Ana, it’s easy to see how she makes such deep connections with the teachers and families she works with, and how effectively she functions as a voice to help all parties support each other’s shared goals.
An Expert on Best Practices in ECE settings…
Program Coach Erica Salazar is someone preschool teachers rely on for support with their ongoing learning, using the Child360 strength-based coaching model to provide tools and strategies for supporting children and their parents.
The Role of Parents at Preschool
Our experts agree parents are key: they are a child’s first teacher and most important influence. Ana Duarte talks about building parental engagement with a successful “Parent Cafe” model, where families gather for a “roundtable” at the school for coffee and refreshments. Given a general topic, such as “positive discipline,” they simply share ideas and hear other perspectives with no right or wrong answers. She utilizes a “Make & Take” model, that builds on this interaction, providing hands-on activities and projects to make there and utilize at home, reinforcing strategies brainstormed by the group. “Families benefit from feeling professional support for their parenting,” she explains, “and when children see their parents involved, they want to attend school. Modeling positive behavior has a deep impact on young children, and seeing a parent assisting others builds self-esteem and encourages kids to seek leadership roles.”
Amy Williams shares the same enthusiasm for outreach events to bring parents into the programs, drawing upon her experience to craft unique events like a recent movie night. Before screening “The Incredibles,” moderators gave a short presentation on the five “protective factors” that contribute to family well-being and school readiness, including a take-home reference guide. “After the film we asked questions tying [plot elements] to things such as resiliency and social connectedness,” Amy explains, “[to help parents] understand.”
And movie night is just the beginning: Amy runs through a long list of opportunities. “We offer free trainings on things such as advocacy; we … provide food and hold raffles for local gift cards; we also provide transportation assistance and bring translations services. We do everything we can to eliminate barriers to participation.”
Parents often approach Heather Harris to voice their desire for their child to learn English; she estimates 97 percent of her preschool students are English language learners. “Research shows children lose the ability to connect with grandparents or parents in their home language [as they transition to English schooling],” she points out, “and we reassure [parents] that we also honor and respect the home language; our goal is to promote learning in both languages.” Lynwood’s effective bilingual curriculum includes Preschool GLAD® (guided language acquisition design) strategies, and the classroom vocabulary is shared with parents in English and Spanish via the school’s website and monthly newsletter as well as online programs and monthly parent advisory committee meetings. “[This] gives parents the opportunity to explore upcoming activities,” says Heather, and parents are invited to “give input to ensure we include their culture and language in the classroom.”
Rising to Everyday Challenges
Every workday brings new challenges to each of our experts, who shared often-dramatic stories from the field. For Ana Duarte, it was the mom who attended a recent Parent café in a seemingly fragile emotional state. “She was at her end,” says Ana, “She was crying, felt like she couldn’t do it anymore. So many parents need support, to know they’re not alone.” In addition to learning about a free community parenting class, this mom was connected with counseling services. Ana stresses the importance of making sure parents are mentally and physically okay and able to assist in their child’s education. “We all know that if the parent is not okay, that child’s not going to be successful in school,” she explains. “They’re going to be thinking about what’s going on at home.”
Heather Harris carefully considers the role she and her staff play: “From the beginning, we really think about our customer service and welcoming our families into the educational experience,” she says, “because for most of our families this is their first time as parents in the educational experience; our goal from the moment they contact our office is for them to understand they’re a crucial collaborator in their child’s educational success.”
Heather also stresses the importance of early screening for school readiness. “Before our children enter the program, we screen them for [cognitive skills] as well as social-emotional,” she explains, “and receive a physician’s report that will alert us to conditions such as hearing difficulty, autistic-like behaviors, etc.” Identifying the unique needs of each child enables the school to individualize instruction and to support that child in the classroom.
Teacher burnout is always on Erica Salazar’s mind, so she considers positive feedback a vital tool. “Every time I meet [with a teacher] I make sure to highlight something they did great in the classroom,” says Erica. “I prompt teachers to approach problems from a different angle, to reflect and feel pride in what went well, while also questioning whether there is anything that can be improved.”
Inspiration is a Job Perk
Witnessing personal transformations fuels Amy Williams’s passion for her work. She tells the story of a mother who, lacking childcare, brought her eight-year-old daughter along to an advocacy meeting. “[She] was surprised to see the girl listening to everything,” Amy says, and even asking questions. Their local Assembly member briefly spoke, emphasizing that community members determine policy. “This little girl responded by asking for change in her neighborhood: she told of garbage on street corners and broken streetlamps that had been reported but not addressed.” By the next week, seeing the lights were repaired and the trash cleaned up, she told her mother she wanted to come to all the classes: it felt like magic to her, being able to effect change. The mother reports her daughter now wants to help address the neighborhood homeless crisis, to get more community members involved, and they are both now committed to being active agents of social change.
Ana Duarte remembers a teacher who was feeling frustrated with an unpredictable parent. “This mom consistently showed up late, often in pajamas,” Ana recalls, “and the teacher interpreted that as a lack of caring.” So Ana asked the teacher to focus on the positive (the child does attend school consistently, for example), and consider how to support this parent’s needs by building a better relationship. “It ultimately turned out the family was going through a divorce, and that teacher learned a powerful lesson about being a servant leader for the entire family.”
The principle that guides Heather Harris is simple but powerful: Everything has to equal student success. “I challenge staff all the time, whether you’re a specialist, office assistant or custodian. Does every decision you make best serve our students?” Heather says this focus is essential for their students to be successful. “As long as we lead with that question,” she insists, “we may not be perfect, but that’s our guiding force: to do the best we can for our kids.”
Thank you to these wonderful leaders, whose combined efforts support the whole child from every angle. To bring the WOYC into your classroom, or at home, visit our March Book reviews, which coordinate with the daily themes during this special week.