When the Parents as Teachers (PAT) program launched in Kalamazoo County last year, its home-visiting educators learned early on that sometimes the only thing standing between a baby and an exciting learning experience that will boost school-readiness is … a full diaper.
Now, Parents as Teachers is more about nurturing a child’s development than diapers, but it’s difficult to help with parenting skills when a baby needs a clean diaper. For many low-income parents, high-quality diapers are simply too expensive to stock up on, and food assistance programs don’t cover them. Our parent educators were asking, “What do we do when a baby’s diaper is so soggy they can’t even toddle?”
Thanks to the uniquely collaborative model of Parents as Teachers in Kalamazoo County, that unexpected problem has been solved — and popular demand for PAT’s services is growing among parents of all income levels.
Parents as Teachers is an evidence-based home visiting program that supports parents in helping their children — from birth to school-age — learn, grow, develop and realize their full potential. Working with trained parent educators, parents gain tips on how to engage in learning through play, encourage verbal skills, watch for developmental growth and more.
In 2014, the Kalamazoo-based Community Healing Center received funding from The Learning Network of Greater Kalamazoo and United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region to provide Parents as Teachers to area families with children ages 0 to 3. In a unique consortium dubbed Seeds for Success, CHC partnered with other organizations to gain PAT accreditation as providers, including: Kalamazoo Regional Educational Services Agency (Kalamazoo RESA), Comstock Community Learning Center, Advocacy Services for Kids, and Catholic Charities-Diocese of Kalamazoo.
One year later, the effectiveness of the agencies coming together has been awesome, according to Sally Reames, executive director of the Community Healing Center. Case in point: Those soggy diapers. Parents as Teachers staff teamed up with Kalamazoo Stripping & Derusting and its generous employees to collect an entire truckload of diapers. Now, parent educators can bring a supply to home visits, and babies can focus better on learning new skills.
Kalamazoo County now has 19 parent educators serving more than 300 families through Parents as Teachers. With visibility, demand has grown. Parents are intrigued to find out they can receive supportive tips and resources, in their homes, at no cost, to nurture their youngsters’ development. Reames says she never anticipated the number of self-referrals they’re getting through word of mouth.
Another draw: There’s no stigma attached. Parents aren’t ordered to participate in PAT; they volunteer for it. Talk to most first-time parents, and 90 percent will tell you they wish they’d had someone to support them along the journey.
The program’s parent educators often work with parents who are “green” at childrearing, either because they are a first-time parent, or because they never had an example of what it means to have good parenting skills. So it’s up to the educator to let the parent know: ‘I’m not here to tell you you’re not a good parent or to tell you how to parent. I’m here to help develop the parenting skills within you, so you can help your child grow and develop into a healthy boy or girl who will have the needed tools for success when it’s time to attend school.”
That approach appears to be working. While the program is still young, it is demonstrating that it can improve child outcomes and readiness for school and life.
Each agency involved in the program has connections to different populations and other community service providers, and these networks enable PAT to reach more families. Reames, for example, hadn’t initially thought of the YWCA’s Domestic Assault Program shelter in terms of home visits, yet she realized that the shelter was their home until they could find a safe place on their own. PAT parent educators now work with YWCA clients as well as residents of the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission, where PAT visits are incorporated into the shelter’s parenting program.
On the other end of the spectrum are families who are neither in crisis nor economically disadvantaged. They might include young families that are new in town — say their spouse is attending Western Michigan University — and may feel isolated. You don’t have to be poor to qualify for this program. You just need to be a parent of a baby or toddler who wants some support for a while.
Nationally, PAT has racked up an impressive record of success. The organization reports that teachers have rated PAT children significantly higher than non-PAT children on multiple developmental indicators of school readiness, including emotional well-being, fine motor development, expressive language, receptive language and social competence.
Locally, the consortium is taking an innovative approach to measuring results. The Learning Network has helped ensure all five PAT agencies are using the same language and system for data collection over the long-term, and sharing it collectively.
In the program’s first year, the consortium mainly collected basic information: demographics, number of visits, etc. This year, we’ll be assessing developmental stages and evaluating the data to see what we’re learning.
In the meantime, Kalamazoo’s PAT effort is gaining attention beyond county lines: The program’s three supervisors recently submitted a proposal to the Parents as Teachers 2015 national conference that was accepted and will be presented at the gathering in Dallas this fall. Their topic: “Coming Together as a Community,” the process of bringing agencies together toward a common vision and the positive outcomes of collaboration.
They should have plenty to talk about.
To request information about Seeds for Success and PAT, contact Patrick Conley of Kalamazoo RESA, (269) 250-9647 or Tara Slone at Community Healing Center, (269) 343-1651, Ext.168.