On Friday mornings, a new mom loads her 11-month-old twins into the car and drives them to the old high school in her home town. They are welcomed by two enthusiastic teachers into a classroom full of toys where ten or twelve other parents sit in an approximate circle as their babies either lie on the floor or crawl around exploring the room and people. Hers are already the oldest and most mobile but the other parents don’t seem to mind the boys getting into everything. For an hour and a half, the circle chats and chases babies in between teacher-led songs/activities and mini-lectures on topics in parenting and child development. They have all come there for varying reasons; to meet other parents, to learn how to get their babies to eat/sleep/stop crying, to learn about development, or to let their babies socialize. They are all benefitting from a unique program for parents and children in Minnesota known as Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE).
ECFE started 40 years ago and it is designed to educate parents and children from birth to kindergarten entrance. For parents with infants, classes are non-separating and children stay with their parents the entire time. Classes for older children have a portion with parents and children together, and a portion where they are separated for parent education/discussion and early childhood education. ECFE also provides other family services such as community events, workshops and speakers, and home visits. ECFE is unique in that Minnesota is the only state to provide family education classes through the school districts. The program is taught by licensed parent educators and offers sliding scale fees, with no families being turned away due to cost. ECFE classes are offered in the evenings in addition to day classes and school districts may even provide bus transportation to improve access to ECFE for families in need. ECFE also explicitly reaches out to communities that reflect the “racial, cultural, and economic diversity of the school district” (Minnesota Statutes 124D.13, Subdivision 2), including outreach plans specific to racial/cultural groups and English Language Learner teachers in some classes. ECFE is provided throughout the state and served nearly 130,000 parents and over 120,000 children in 2010.
A veteran mom (over 6 years in ECFE) reflects on the many benefits of the program for her family. Her primary reason for attending was not for her children to socialize, as they had other opportunities for that, but ECFE provided a unique opportunity for her to be truly present with her children, for 90 minutes without the daily distractions of running a household. She also benefitted greatly from interactions with the parent educators as well as other parents. She recalls a particularly memorable episode in which she faced unexpected struggles as a parent of a newly minted toddler. One morning, she and her daughter got into a fight over whether the little girl could wear a dirty, too small, pajama shirt to class. The mom lost her temper and shared that with the parents at ECFE.
During the discussion that morning, the parent educator pointed out a framework to better assess problems when parenting: what is it about the environment that is contributing to this? And what is it about the child’s developmental stage that is contributing to this? The mom gained a new perspective which resonated with her. Years later, she saw a little girl at Target wearing her dance costume. She smiled and thought to herself, “yes, I’d let her wear that too.” A telling example of one of many nuggets of parenting wisdom gained from her years attending such a unique and effective program.
Research indicates that parents, as their children’s primary caregivers, play an important role in their growth and development. Parents often need support in this role, and historically, family support programs have been developed to help boost parenting skills, knowledge of child development, and to help parents overcome other potential stressors. Parent education classes and support groups, as well as parent-child groups and family activities grew out of this ecological perspective. A body of early childhood research suggests that parent engagement in educational programs and services is related to children’s academic outcomes and other indicators of healthy development.
ECFE is a program that reaches new parents at critical times in their children’s development. It instills or reinforces the idea that parents are their children’s first and most important teachers, a concept espoused by national initiatives such as Too Small to Fail, which provide resources and information to help parents be intentional in their interactions with their children. Utilizing the already existing structures of public school systems would be an efficient way to implement programs like ECFE nationwide. In addition, using the school system to extend parent support/education throughout the grade school years and beyond would further meet the needs of children and their parents, who may not have access to these services elsewhere. Finally, building evaluation into ECFE would be a way to learn more about the components that are most effective for parents and children and to guide recommendations for other states looking to scale up similar programs.
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