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L.A. Program Stresses Nurturance, Understanding

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Los Angeles--The same classroom strategies that work for most preschoolers will work for children whose mothers took drugs in pregnancy, according to leaders of a special pilot program here for drug-exposed toddlers.

"We want educators to know that these kids are nothing to be afraid of," said Carol Cole, one of two teachers in the program.

Operated by the Los Angeles Unified School District, Ms. Cole's program currently serves about 23 children, ages 3 to 6, who were exposed prenatally to some kind of illegal drug. The purpose of the project--one of only a handful of such programs nationwide--is to offer these children a consistent, nurturing environment and teach them the skills they will need to succeed in school.

In developing their pilot nearly three years ago, Ms. Cole and other professionals involved drew largely on preschool guidelines issued by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

"Then we modified some of the things to fit the needs of our kids," said Vicky Ferrara, who also teaches in the program.

Part of their mission now, Ms. Cole and Ms. Ferrara said, is to share what they have learned with other teachers around the country who now or in the future will be dealing with students having similar problems.

Among their recommendations are the following:

  • Drug-exposed children and other preschoolers who are at risk of school failure need predictable classroom routines and rituals.
  • Classroom rules should be limited, allowing children to explore and actively engage their environment.
  • The transition time from one classroom activity to another should be seen as an activity in itself. To prevent emotional outbursts from occurring, teachers need to warn pupils to prepare for the end of an activity, allow time for the transition to occur, and warn the students again that a new activity is about to begin.
  • The ratio of adults to children should be small enough to promote nurturing and allow the children to become attached to the adults in the program.
  • The classroom environmentmust be flexible, with teachers able to remove pictures or other objects that could be too distracting for the children.
  • There should be continuity in the program's staff, with no workers appearing or disappearing without explanation. Adults who visit on a part-time basis should reintroduce themselves to children when they come, tell them when they will arrive again, and stick to their word.
  • Teachers must accept the children and the feelings they have--whether negative or positive--and should allow time for children to discuss those feelings.
  • Close contact with the home is essential--not only to find out what may be troubling a child, but also to support the parent.--dv

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