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Brain Child: Roundup of Early Childhood Resources

by Betty Lease, Scripps Howard News Service, May 27, 2003

All over the country, organizations, agencies, government entities, institutes, community leaders and parents are working to make life better for young children and their families. Armed with the latest research on brain development, these programs and efforts are all geared to maximize children's potential.

Here is a sampling of some of the programs.


For more than 10 years, Healthy Families San Angelo, a home-based family support program in Texas, has worked to promote healthy child development and enhance family function for first-time parents. Healthy Families was the second program of its kind in the United States. Its parenting curriculum, "Healthy Babies ... Healthy Families," is used in more than 80 percent of the 450 specialty parenting programs worldwide.

Through home visits and weekly meetings, parents hash out the challenges and joys of parenthood, sharing problems, ideas and solutions. Social workers also provide guidance in selecting age-appropriate activities by teaching basic child development.

Their work with young fathers in the "Dads Making a Difference" program is considered a pioneer in social service circles and is being used as a model in the United States, Australia, Vietnam, Italy, Canada and the Philippines.

"A lot say they work with families and it's 98 percent moms," said Michael Hayes, who directs a fatherhood initiative for Texas' Attorney General. "There are a lot of programs working with dads and a lot working with moms, but very few work together like this. There are a handful of programs in the nation I can look to and say, 'This is the model.' (Healthy Families) is one of those."


Early Childhood Intervention, a federal- and state-funded initiative in Texas, provides in-home services for children ranging from birth to age 3. Early Childhood Intervention collaborates with a network of area therapists, pediatricians and educators to ensure that at-risk children develop at a healthy rate.

During home visits, social workers evaluate the child's growth, social behavior, self-help abilities and motor, cognitive and communications skills. They also provide developmentally appropriate toys and books and refer caretakers to other social service providers.


A program in two Florida counties is giving parents the tools they need to help make those important connections in their babies' brains.

BRAIN Building Readiness Among Infants Now began five years ago and serves about 2,000 families a year. A registered nurse visits the home within the first few days of the child's life and teaches the parents basic safety, health and breast-feeding and answers questions. Parents then have the opportunity to sign up for a second visit focusing on brain development.

This visit occurs when the child is about 2 months old. The home visitor uses a "brain bag" as the lesson plan for the one- to two-hour visit, explaining each item and how it relates to the child's development.

The brain bags include a board book, a video about brain research and child development, a toy, a lullaby cassette tape, a book on developmental milestones, and information on infant sleep, infant massage and where parents can get help.

"Once the company goes home and all the hoopla is over, parents are absolutely starving for information," said Kathy Derringer, vice president of Baby Steps, the organization that coordinates the visits.

The program, funded through money from a property tax assessment for children, continues through the child's fourth birthday with a developmental assessment survey called Ages and Stages. Parents report by mail on what milestones the child has reached, and Baby Steps staff reviews the assessments and calls if there are any red flags.


Begun in 1981 with funding from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and The Danforth Foundation, Parents as Teachers has grown to an international early childhood parent education support program that serves families from pregnancy to kindergarten.

The PAT National Center in St. Louis develops curricula, trains early childhood professionals and certifies parent educators. There are PAT programs in all 50 states and other countries, adapted to suit local needs, but all provide core services of personal visits, group meetings, health and developmental screenings and resource information.

One of those is a Gallup, N.M., program that began three years ago with a conversation between a pediatrician and a preschool teacher who both noted that children they were seeing were far below the standards in health and development, a common phenomenon in McKinley County, the poorest county in New Mexico and the third-poorest county in the nation.

The program is now a partnership between the Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital and the Gallup-McKinley County Public Schools with the Navajo Nation also contributing funding. Four parent educators are serving 125 at-risk families with home visits, resource referrals and well-child checks. Educators teach parents or caregivers about the importance of interacting with and reading to their babies. They emphasize that doing so in the first three years of life is crucial to their children's brain development.

Mary Johnson is the program director: (505) 726-6812 or mjohnson@nedcomm.nm.org.


Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton launched this initiative in his state in 2000, using 25 percent of the state's tobacco settlement money to fund an array of programs. They ensure maternal and child health; improve child-care programs with scholarships, training initiatives and a volunteer rating system; and support first-time parents through a home visit program that includes brain-research-based development tools.

Patton has championed the new brain research findings. In a letter to parents in the program, he said, "Children develop most dramatically before the age of 5, and what parents and caregivers do during those early years makes a profound difference in a child's healthy development and later success in school."


In Ohio, the Greater Cincinnati United Way has made early childhood development a priority. In 1999 it launched Every Child Succeeds, a home visit program for first-time parents that offers ongoing support for the child's first three years, and followed that in 2002 with Success by 6, a continuation program to prepare children from ages 3 to 6 to enter school.

Every Child Succeeds combines emotional and practical family support with strong developmental tools, showing parents how to nurture their children's mental and emotional growth.

That program marked its third year in 2002 with 95 percent of the participating children progressing at normal development levels in language, 93 percent in social abilities, 94 percent in gross motor skills and 94 percent in fine motor skills.

The program served 914 families in four southwestern Ohio counties and 610 families in three nearby Northern Kentucky counties, where it shared the Kids Now funding. The United Way initiatives combine the resources of several agencies and hospitals to create the new programs.

United Way Success By 6 is a national, community-based movement of public and private partners, with programs in more than 350 cities throughout the United States and Canada. Its roots are in Minneapolis, where it began in 1988 as a collaborative effort guided by long-term research on brain development, quality child care and early intervention.


In Northern Kentucky, Children Inc., the area's largest childcare and development agency, has become the area's expert on early brain research programs. For five years the agency has joined with 28 partner organizations to sponsor a national brain research conference in Kentucky, drawing experts in brain research, child development and education. The child-care agency incorporates brain research in its nine child-care centers and one of three providers for the Northern Kentucky home visit program for first-time parents.


Kenton County School System in Northern Kentucky works with the local hospital to contact new parents with child development information. The school district continues to send a "Healthy Steps" newsletter regularly until the child is 2. The newsletters include development information, parenting tips, health and safety information, and interaction suggestions designed to instill security and stimulate brain development, including language and reasoning.


Babbling, cooing, rhyming and letter sounds may sound like child's play to some, but those sounds are the building blocks to ensuring a child is ready to read.

And the St. Lucie County School Readiness Coalition in Florida is making these skills, known as pre-literacy, a priority this year. Nancy Archer, the coalition's executive director, said the organization elected to focus on pre-literacy in the coming fiscal year because of interest expressed by child-care providers and the emphasis on standardized testing for school-aged children.

"The first three years of life are so important," Archer said. "With the brain research that has come out, we know we need to give them as much saturation with words as we can."

The coalition is training its child-care providers in ways to work with infants through 4-year-olds on these skills. Books are provided at the centers for parents and children to check out. Parenting workshops on the topic also are planned.


Actor-director Rob Reiner and his wife, Michele, founded the I Am Your Child Foundation in 1997 to help spread the word about the importance of the prenatal period and a child's first three years of life.

The foundation helped develop two White House conferences on early brain development and child care; worked with Newsweek to create a special issue, "Your Child: Birth to Three"; and produced an ABC television special with Tom Hanks as host and Reiner as director.

The foundation produced a seven-video series that discusses critical issues in early childhood development. The series, with accompanying parenting booklets and resource guides, is used by a variety of government agencies and community organizations.


A national nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., Zero to Three is dedicated to promoting healthy development of babies and young children. Founded in 1977, it distributes information, trains providers, promotes model approaches and standards of practice, and works to increase public awareness about the importance of the first three years.


Guided by the belief that parents play a critical role in their children's education, the HIPPY program, based in New York, helps parents provide educational enrichment for their preschool children.

The HIPPY curriculum for 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds consists of 30 weekly activity packets, nine storybooks and a set of 20 manipulative shapes for each year. The cognitive-based curriculum focuses on language development, problem solving, logical thinking and perceptual skills. It also promotes social-emotional, fine and gross motor skills. Trained home visitors provide help and support for parents.

HIPPY, an international program that began in Israel in 1969, has spread to a number of countries. It came to the United States in 1984 and serves more than 16,000 families and children across the country, both in English and Spanish.


At the private Beauvoir School in Washington, D.C., teachers in February listened to a "cerebral fitness trainer" from Harvard University who combines cognitive neuroscience with applications for educational practice. Gessner Geyer, president of Brainergy Inc., told them how movement can help students focus as well as how to harness brain chemicals that could lead students to become frustrated and unwilling to learn. His site is www.brainergy.com.


Parent Voices is a grass-roots organization of parents in central and northern California that works to make quality child care available and affordable to all families. It is a project of the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, and its members have testified before legislative committees, helped draft legislation, organized candidate forums, registered voters and encouraged scores of parents to become active members in its chapter organization.

The Parent Voices Web side is www.parentvoices.org.


Baby's Space: A Place to Grow is a Minneapolis "educare" center serving about 30 infants and toddlers primarily from American Indian families living in subsidized housing. It features a high staff-to-child ratio and assigned caregivers for each child to maintain consistency.

The program incorporates American Indian culture at the center, which opened in 2000. The facility was designed by borrowing principles from the Minnesota Children's Museum HABITOT Learning Landscape, an interactive learning environment. It was collaboratively developed by early childhood organizations and the University of Minnesota.



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