In early childhood programs, parental involvement is key

FLINT, Michigan -- Most parents of young children have dealt with feeling anxiety about leaving their young child in the care of someone else for the first time. When Ashara Manns was returning to work last November, though, those fears were eased some knowing that her 1-year-old daughter would be staying with a familiar face -- the same early childhood teacher who had previously taught her 4-year-old son.

“As parents, you’re nervous leaving your child for eight hours per day with a stranger,” Manns said. “So having the same staff members makes me feel safe and makes the kids feel safe. It definitely helps with the transition.”

Manns’ children attend the Genesee Intermediate School District’s early childhood program at Cummings Great Expectations. She’s seen great success from both kids in their development since they started participating.

“My son is ready for kindergarten and school, so that’s the biggest thing,” she said. “And my daughter is picking up on how to communicate. She knows sign language for ‘more,’ she’s not talking yet but she’s working on it. It’s a great program. You’re not just dropping them off at daycare where they play all day. They’re playing, but there’s learning going on in a fun manner.”

The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington D.C., has done significant research on the impact of early childhood programs on child development, finding that participants have better academic success over time but also have improved social and emotional health. Research from Harvard University also concludes that effective early childhood programs reduce stress in children and also provide far greater benefits to society over time than the costs of managing robust programs.

Catrina Wiskur, director of early childhood programs for GISD, said that their goal is to provide resources for child development and also support parents in the programs.

“Childcare is a very valuable job, so I don’t want to simplify that, but we are also required to use a research-based curriculum in our work with our families and babies,” Wiskur said. “So our programs offer more than just childcare can. It frees up families to be able to go and find employment, or go to school, or attend to appointments or take care of their own basic needs whether that’s securing housing or going to the doctor. We’re providing high quality education and care so that parents don’t have to worry about that.”

GISD offers several early childhood and preschool programs and services, which are free and income-based. Those include:
 
  • Early On Genesee County, which offers early intervention services for infants and toddlers up to five who have developmental delays or disabilities.
  • Early Head Start and Head Start, which offers infant/toddler and preschool classes for children ages six weeks to 3-years-old in the Beecher, Carman-Ainsworth, and Flint school districts.
  • The Great Start Readiness Program, which provides preschool classes for 4-year-old Genesee County children in childcare centers in multiple locations in the county.
  • The Great Start Collaborative, which provides resources to assist parents in helping the development in their children from before they’re born through third grade.
  • Successful Kids = Involved Parents (SKIP), which offers opportunities for activities and family support for Genesee County families with children up until they start kindergarten.

GISD’s programs also provide wraparound services for parents interested in connecting with their own education or job training opportunities, housing or other social service resources, and more. A key element of each program is simply engaging the parents in the education of their children early on, and making sure the parents gain confidence and feel supported as well as the children.

“Those relationships (between parents and early childhood educators) are so important,” Wiskur said. “The number one thing that you really see is that the more family engagement there is, the better. And that is true all the way through school, not just in early childhood programs. Really, their education starts when these children are babies. Our programs are helping families understand the importance of early childhood education in setting a foundation for that child’s entire educational career moving forward. Parents are their childrens’ first teachers.”

That importance of having a strong relationship between parents and education providers became even more heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic as students and kids in early childhood programs moved into virtual settings. The success of those virtual environments was reliant on parents and educators communicating well to deliver successful outcomes for the students involved. Even when programs had to go virtual, GISD staff worked on ways to maintain contact, including doing some porch deliveries of activities or games and making phone calls or figuring out other ways to check in.

“We did not lose contact with them, the goal was still to provide as much support as we could to our families,” Wiskur said. “They (the parents) were in the position of providing the care (that would normally be in a classroom). So we moved from not physically providing the care, but still providing the parent with as much emotional and material support as we could.”

Once classes returned to face-to-face settings, classroom sizes were limited, cleaning schedules were ramped up, and GISD has still offered some programs virtually for families not ready to return to face-to-face settings.

“If anything, the pandemic brought a little more attention to the importance of family engagement in education,” Wiskur said. “To really encourage success in school, parents need to be involved all the way through. If they understand that importance early on, they’re going to be showing up for parent-teacher conferences, helping their children get their homework done, and teaching them that education is a priority. They’re having conversations in their homes about what homework is for, what are you learning, why is school important. Having those conversations and putting education and the future of the child at the forefront is so important.”

Information about GISD’s early childhood programs is available online at geneseepreschool.org or interested parents can call (810) 591-KIDS to apply, enroll, or get questions answered.

Read more articles by Patrick Hayes.