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In Early-Years Programs, New Focus Is on Families

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Washington--To help breach the social barriers that prevent many children from succeeding in school, a growing number of early-childhood programs are broadening their emphasis from children to families.

The philosophy behind such efforts, Bernice Weissboard, president of the Chicago-based Family Resources Coalition, told a conference here this month, "is about not just giving the child a good day, but having families be part of the building and help determine what goes on at the center."

Besides fostering children's development, she said, the new, "family-centered" programs are striving to be "a place of involvement" for the whole family.

To spur parental involvement in early schooling, such programs offer parents opportunities to enhance their parenting abilities and cultivate other skills through workshops, volunteer work, counseling, support groups, recreation, and home visits. They also help link families to health, social, and other support services.

Early-childhood professionals from across the health, child-welfare, and education sectors are recognizing the importance of the parent-child bond, Ms. Weissbourd said, and that "you have to make that relationship better if you really want to make a difference."

Ms. Weissbourd was one of several panelists in a forum on family-centered child care held here at the National Association for the Education of Young Children's annual conference.

"You are at the beginning of what we hope is a new movement," the panel's moderator, Ellen Galinsky, told the conferees. Ms. Galinsky is past president of the NAEYC and co-president of the New York City-based Families and Work Institute.

The forum featured directors of public-school, community-based, and Head Start programs that have a strong family orientation.

Besides serving disadvantaged preschoolers, for example, the Parent-Child Development Centers in Oakland, Calif., offer parents support groups, cultural programs, parenting classes, respite care for ill children, and the chance to take an occasional "night out" for recreation.

While the centers themselves are funded primarily by the California Department of Education, the parental-involvement component--known as the Parent Services Project--is funded by a private foundation and was designed by mental-health professionals. Its aim is "to raise parents' sense of importance and diminish their sense of isolation," said Barbara Shaw, executive director of the Parent-Child Development Centers.

At the Rand School in Montclair, N.J., described as a "family magnet" school for 4- to 8-year-olds, the principal and a social worker interview each family the summer before children enroll to establish an initial contact and invite communication.

Teachers there periodically contact parents simply "to have a positive conversation" about their children, said Sandra Yark, the school's principal. And some send children home with written "logs" that allow parents and teachers to exchange comments.

The school also encourages family members to volunteer in school projects and offers parent workshops and family activities on weekends.

A central goal is to "support the growth not only of the child but of the family," Ms. Yark said.

Douglas Powell, a professor of child development and family studies at Purdue University, noted that the nursery-school movement, parent preschool cooperatives, and Head Start historically have placed a strong emphasis on reaching parents.

As a result, he said, early-childhood educators "fare much better than any other level of education in how we think about families."

"We've come a long way from the time we thought we were the saviors of the child and the parent was the enemy," added Ms. Weissbourd.

But as social pressures place families under increasing stress and heighten the need for child care, Mr. Powell noted, many programs are not fulfilling their potential as an "essential system for families."

To achieve that potential, panelists said, child-care providers must draw parents into program planning and find ways to address their needs.

"Parents are eager to learn how to help their children and improve their parenting skills if their self-esteem and cultural heritage are respected, and if they are permitted to make decisions for the program," said Avern Moore, executive director of the Institute of Community Services, a Head Start grantee in Holly Springs, Miss.

"The plan must provide for some mutual, tangible benefit to the family as well as to the staff," he noted.

Ms. Shaw added that offering parents who are lacking financial resources or support a chance to participate in "fun" activities or take a night off from parenting can go along way in drawing their involvement.

Mr. Moore noted that his Head Start program each year conducts a family-needs assessment to identify the "whole spectrum of needs" for transportation, housing, jobs, health care, legal aid, and education.

The panelists acknowledged, however, that comprehensive efforts to address the needs of the whole family will require financial support from diverse sources.

"We are going to need to scour communities and tap businesses and foundations," Ms. Shaw said.

The family-centered approach, panelists noted, will also require new training programs that teach early-childhood educators how to work with families and sensitize them to possible biases.

But in the interim, Ms. Weissbourd noted, early-childhood programs can take "incremental steps" toward a more family-centered approach simply by setting up a "coffee pot where parents can gather around."

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