Teachable moments become part of the classroom toolkit

Teachable moments become part of the classroom toolkit

(Ky.) What to many might seem an obvious instructional tool has been formalized into a growing curriculum – teaching parents how to use life’s ordinary moments to prepare their preschool-aged children for success in kindergarten and beyond.

Supported by $1.4 million from a federal early learning grant, Kentucky officials have expanded by 24 a network of learning academies proving successful at engaging parents and readying preschoolers for kindergarten. These additional courses, officially known as United Way Born Learning® Academies, bring to 72 the total number of parent teaching workshops now operating in the state.

 “It is so needed, so needed,” said Carol Kees, director of the Family Resource Center at Stevenson Elementary School, which is hosting Born Learning® for the first time. “The program is really about letting parents know how much those kids learn before they get to preschool, much less kindergarten, and helping equip them to be able to make sure they’re kindergarten ready.”

The Born Learning® Academies are just one of myriad ways states are addressing the early learning needs of children from birth to age five, all with the goal of closing academic achievement gaps between more affluent students and those less likely to have high-quality educational opportunities.

This demographic is also the focus of one of President Barack Obama’s priority programs, his Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Grants to support states in building systems that raise the quality of early childhood education and development programs and increase access for children with high needs so that all kids enter kindergarten ready to succeed. Since 2011, more than $1 billion has been awarded for projects in 20 states, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Kentucky was one of five states receiving a RTT-ELC grant in 2013. The state’s four-year award totaling $44,348,482 will be used to create new early learning and development standards, redesign the state’s preschool and child development program rating system, expand professional development opportunities and support and engage families.

The curriculum and teaching material for Born Learning®, developed by Northern Kentucky University early childhood faculty members Dr. Helene Arbouet Harte and Dr. Jaesook Gilbert, is provided through the program but schools may choose the method by which they deliver each of the six lessons.

At Stevenson Elementary, a preschool through grade five campus, the Born Learning® curriculum is delivered through a series of six, two-hour school-site workshops. Each workshop has a theme, such as health and nutrition or reading, and includes hands-on activities for both parents and their children.

A typical evening workshop, said Kees, begins with a sit-down meal that all participants enjoy together, followed by break-out group sessions for the parents and fun activities for the kids, who come back together later in the evening to work on a lesson-based project.

Many of the lessons are fairly basic and center on quality interaction and communication between a parent and a child – even during mundane tasks such as shopping or giving a toddler a bath.

“Anything that’s hands-on and puts the child with the adult during the interaction, reinforcing a positive connection and positive feedback,” Kees said. “It’s just these things that you forget to do or things you take for granted…putting down the phone, turning off the TV or if you’re going to do TV, make sure it’s something that you’re interacting with the child on and it’s not being used as a babysitter.”

The lessons are important, with most parents reporting in post-workshop surveys that they do use what they learn at home. But even simply having the families come together at school for the workshops is a benefit to preschoolers.

“Part of this concept, and why we do this at a school instead of at a community center, is that we want these parents comfortable in our school building before their child ever enters,” Kees said. “So many of our parents didn’t have a good experience as a child in school and they’re the ones who tend not to support a child in school the way parents who had a good experience do.”

Kees said registration for the Stevenson Elementary Born Learning® academy was targeted at families with at least one 3- or 4-year-old. The group of 20 families that signed up this year covers a total of 40 children, with 20 in the 5- to 10-year-old age group and 10 each in birth-to-2, and ages 3 to 4.

Through the program, these children – especially the younger ones who have yet to start kindergarten – are already coming to school and seeing some of what it’s all about, she said. And parents learn the importance of being involved in their child’s education, in or out of the classroom.

An off-shoot of United Way of Cincinnati’s Success By Six® program, funding for the initial expansion of the Born Learning® Academies came from Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky.

In addition to the 72 Born Learning® Academies in Kentucky, 22 others have also been funded in Indiana and West Virginia.

“Research shows children begin learning at birth and the first and most important educators our children have in their lives are their parents,” West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said in a statement. “This program helps parents engage with and learn teaching methods alongside teachers and other community members to give our children the best opportunities to succeed.”