Teacher’s aide Jacob Sepulveda is a favorite in Classroom 3 at the Cornerstone Center location of the Mohawk Valley Community Action Agency Head Start program.

Students are drawn to him because Sepulveda is different – one of the few men working among an almost entirely female staff.

It’s a demographic that’s typical of the early childhood education setting, and that puts male role models in high demand, said Brenda Donahue, the parent involvement manager for the MVCAA Head Start program.

“**The kids just gravitate toward those men. They notice the difference,” Donahue said. “When a male comes in, it’s exciting (for them).”**

Providing male role models at school has become more of an issue due to the number of children who don’t have them at home. About one-third of children do not live with their biological father, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The local head start has initiated several programs to address that need, including recruiting male volunteers and holding monthly “male involvement days” to help encourage male participation in their students’ lives. Donahue said that interaction can help the students make better life decisions.

During early childhood, children are beginning to define themselves – learning who “me” is, said Patrice Hallock, associate professor of education at Utica College.

Having a role model of the same gender helps children build a sense of identity, Hallock said. She also stressed the importance of having male and female role models in any child’s life to contribute to healthy development.

For that reason, she said, it is very positive for students to be exposed to a male influence, especially in a head start or early childhood setting where the staff is predominately women.

“It’s good to learn that adult men can be nurturing as well, and that the teacher-leader role can come from both men and women,” she said. “Children shouldn’t grow up thinking that the only people who can teach and nurture are women. … Men can as well.”

As children get older, it’s particularly important for boys and young men to have a positive male role model, said Tyson Kreiger, assistant professor of psychology at Utica College.

It’s somebody they can model their own behaviors after. We imitate and follow people who are most like us,” he said.

“Role models can help instill long-term values,” Kreiger added, citing finishing high school, pursuing higher education and picking a career as examples of decisions role models influence.

The National Head Start Association recognized the need for male involvement about seven years ago, and state-funded organizations such as the MVCAA Head Start program later began implementing initiatives encouraging the involvement of both parents, Donahue said.

Today, the program has seen an increase in male involvement, and its monthly “male involvement days” now are better attended than the female involvement days, said Toni Noma, MVCAA director of child services.

Between 250 and 300 men volunteer each month, which accounts for 25 percent of total student enrollment, Noma said. The volunteers include those with children in the program and without.

Donahue said the organization focuses on “male involvement,” as opposed to “father involvement,” because many children have nontraditional households. The male role models in their lives can include fathers, grandfathers, uncles and family friends.

Having those individuals come into the classroom on involvement days makes them available as role models for the rest of the class as well, said Toni Noma, MVCAA director of child services.

The setting can be intimidating for some men, however, so the program has tried to make them feel more comfortable by focusing on activities geared toward their interests. Last year, for example, one father did a bird house project with the children.

The program also has worked to include both parents in all aspects of the children’s lives, including calling both parents in for conferences.

“Parents are the first teachers of their children,” Noma said, adding that students with parent involvement are more likely to succeed as they head into higher education.

And it’s not a one-way relationship. The children have as much of an effect on the men as the men do on them, Donahue said.

Sepulveda agreed saying, “I feel privileged.” He said that the children look up to their teachers, and that working with them is an opportunity he is happy to have.

Four-year-old Liana Marcano, of Utica, meanwhile, thinks Sepulveda is really nice.

“We like to build him castles because he’s kind of our favorite teacher,” she said.

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Source: Utica Observer Dispatch – http://goo.gl/RroGf