Janet French, a recently retired pre-kindergarten teacher, understands the importance of preparing 3- to 5-year-olds for kindergarten, even when others scoff at the notion.

French started teaching that age level 23½ years ago, a time when many believed pre-kindergarten amounted to nothing more than just babysitting.

According to a United Way of Danville Area initiative, Success by Six, early learning is critical to an individual’s success later in life.

In 2009, the Danville agency was licensed to become a Success by Six United Way, and as such also is the local contact for Born Learning, a nationwide public awareness campaign that states children begin learning at birth; their emotional, social and cognitive development starts the moment they enter the world.

During the first few years, a child’s brain is twice as active as an adult’s brain, so a child’s environment — which should be filled with loving, nurturing relationships and social experiences — has a long-lasting impact on his or her ability to learn.

“We studied the research on early childhood development that resoundingly illustrates that during the first five to six years of life, it is crucial to nurture children in order to help their brains develop to their full capacity, as during those years 80 to 90 percent of their learning takes place,” said Jeanne Mulvaney, president of the United Way of Danville Area.

Success by Six in Danville provides local resources and services for parents, grandparents and guardians of young children “so they can raise their child successfully.

“We aim to provide resources to nurture and interact with parents so their children are ready for school and ready for life,” she said. “We want to ensure our children are safe, healthy, cherished and enter school ready to learn.”

Some of the resources available to local families through Success by Six are the Family Yellow Pages, a guide filled with information about schools and health and human services organizations; the Community Help Line, an information and referral line and database for young families and people of all ages; and new parent packets distributed to families with newborns at Provena United Samaritans Medical Center.

Another Success by Six resource is the Born Learning organization, which Mulvaney says works hand-in-hand with the United Way.

Born Learning research shows that when adults interact with young children, they stimulate language and vocabulary development and build foundations for learning to read.

“We believe their early years are crucial,” Mulvaney said of children. “During the early years, the foundation for learning is built.

“If they can read by third grade, they will perform better in school, have an easier transition into middle school and are more likely to graduate high school.”

High-risk children

By age 5, many children in high-risk environments are already developmentally behind. This gap continues to grow over time, undermining school readiness and success in life, according to Born Learning.

The East Central Illinois Community Action Agency in Danville oversees the local Head Start program, which serves 431 children in Vermilion, Iroquois and Ford counties at 10 sites.

The age breakdown of the children in the local Head Start program is: 31 percent are 3-year-olds, 54 percent are 4-year-olds and 15 percent are 5-year-olds.

Many of the children come from what could be considered high-risk environments. Eighty-two percent of the children are enrolled in Medicaid, and 13 percent have been diagnosed with a disability.

Of the 389 Head Start families served locally, 66 percent needed education, literacy or employment training, and 79 percent were below $15,000 annual income.

“There are a lot of factors,” Danville Head Start Director Jean Cunningham said when determining if a child is at risk.

“Most of the families we serve are at or below the federal poverty guideline,” she said. “Right there, the child is at risk.”

Cunningham described Head Start as a “comprehensive services program.”

“It’s not just educational; it’s about social, emotional, cognitive and physical growth, too,” she said.

Head Start also makes sure children are well nourished so they will be ready to learn.

Depending on whether the child is enrolled in a three-and-a-half hour session or the six-hour session, Head Start provides the child with one-third to two-thirds of their daily calorie requirement by serving them breakfast, snacks and, if they are enrolled in the full-day session, lunch.

“Basic development starts with good nutrition,” Cunningham said.

French ended her career in June at East Park Elementary School in Danville, but she previously taught the Head Start program at Fair Oaks, where she said she brought “literacy to the kids.”

French said administrators and principals now realize the value of teaching this age level to get them ready for kindergarten and beyond.

District 118 Superintendent Mark Denman said he heartily agrees that “early learning experiences are key for the community and education, specifically.”

Furthermore, Born Learning cites a 40-year longitudinal study that followed infants into adulthood which shows that investing $1 in early learning saves $17 down the road, with tangible results measured in lower crime, fewer teen pregnancies and higher individual education and earning levels.

Other studies show children with better-quality early education have stronger language, pre-mathematics and social skills.

Born Learning, however, contends too many children aren’t getting enough quality early learning experiences.

Specifically, Born Learning points out:

–Kindergarten teachers estimate that one in three children enter the classroom unprepared to meet the challenges of kindergarten.

–Forty-six percent of kindergarteners come to school at risk for failure.

–The poorest children start kindergarten one to two years behind in language and other skills important to school success. One in three children is born into poverty.

Higher expectations

French admits what youngsters must know before entering kindergarten is much more rigorous than generations past.

“A lot is expected of them,” she said. “That’s what kindergarten teachers expect.”

Each week, French introduced youngsters to a new letter of the alphabet.

“They have to know and identify a minimum of 20 to 25 letters before they get to kindergarten,” she said, adding that the alphabet she teaches actually contains 52 letters because youngsters have to be able to recognize and identify uppercase and lowercase letters.

“They also have to be able to identify the numbers between one and 10 and count from one to 20,” she said. “They’re also supposed to know how to write their name.”

Just a couple of decades ago, few parents bothered enrolling their children in pre-kindergarten or trying to teach them letters and numbers, believing that their children would learn it when they got to kindergarten.

“When I went to kindergarten, we learned all of that there,” French said. “Parents didn’t have to do that.”

However, teachers nowadays expect parents to work with their 3- to 5-year-olds on basic skills before their child arrives for the first of school.

French said she can detect immediately which children have parents who are actively involved in their education.

“At the first parent-teacher conference, I come down hard on them,” she said of the apathetic parents. “The parent is the first teacher. I tell them they can do it.

Still, some parents resist reviewing alphabet letters and numbers or showing their children how to cut with a scissors.

“They’ll tell me, ‘Well, he’ll be OK,’ or ‘she just doesn’t get it,’” French said. “I tell them, ‘You need to practice at home. Do you think we’re just playing here?’ There are social and behavioral skills and academics being taught.

“It’s aggravating as a teacher to have parents like that,” she said.

Head Start’s Cunningham echoed French’s sentiments. “Parents are the first and best teacher, and we help them with parenting skills,” she said.

“We look at the whole family and teach them the skills so their children do well in a formal educational setting,” she said.

Mulvaney also agrees that a child’s first teacher is his or her parents, grandparents or family members who care for the child during the day.

Born Learning points out:

–What families do to support literacy in the home is more important than family income or level of formal education in predicting future success.

–Sensitive and responsive parent-child relationships are associated with stronger cognitive skills in young children and enhanced social competence and work skills later in school, illustrating the connection between social, emotional development and intellectual growth.

Unfortunately, today’s apathetic parents are the product of their own apathetic parents, according to French.

“If some parents don’t care and don’t go to the parent-teacher conferences, it’s because their parents didn’t care and didn’t go,” she said. “A lot of it is the home environment they grew up in.”

In the long run, it’s the child who suffers the consequences of not being prepared to learn at a young age that leads to problems later in life.

French said she recently taught a boy who was born on Aug. 20, but whose mother said he was born prematurely and should have had a September birthday.

The boy struggled to keep up in pre-kindergarten and should have been enrolled in the following year’s class when he was older, more mature and ready to learn.

Unfortunately, the boy was going to be retained, but because the school district does not allow children to repeat pre-kindergarten, French feared the boy would lose a year of learning time.

“You want to support them. I feel sorry for the kids,” she said.

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Source: Danville Commercial News – http://goo.gl/LbxQ5