Photo from Wikipedia
Photo from Wikipedia

New America Media
Peter Schurmann

There’s a dramatic shift happening in early learning. Whereas once the classroom was seen as the center of a preschooler’s education, today there is growing recognition that the role of the parent – or primary caregiver – is paramount.

In response, educators, child care providers and children’s advocates up and down the state have stepped up efforts to engage families around what it means to foster their child’s education at home.

“We completely understand the importance of ensuring parents are engaged in their child’s early learning,” says Sally Valenzuela, director of Family and Inclusion Services for PathwaysLA, a non profit that works to connect low income families with child care centers county wide.

But for many families whose parents are immigrants unfamiliar with the American school system, or who have limited education themselves, bringing the classroom home also means changing how parents see themselves in relation to their kids.

Accustomed to viewing teachers as authority figures and schools as places where kids go to learn, many parents or families find it hard to imagine themselves in the traditional role of educator.

“We have to help parents see themselves in a different role,” says Clifford Mancussen, founder of Options for Learning, which serves about 11,000 children per year in the San Gabriel Valley, a heavily immigrant enclave east of Los Angeles with a large Latino and Asian population.

“Parents get a lot of value from doing ‘for’ their kid,” says Mancussen. “We have to help them shift their thinking to see their own value … in being the teacher who helps their child learn.”

That means things like talking, reading and singing more – in English or the family’s first language – to encourage literacy and other cognitive skills that give children a leg up in the classroom.

That is the goal of the Talk, Read, Sing campaign launched by First 5, which works to improve California’s early learning infrastructure.

Family, Friends, Neighbors

But the challenge doesn’t just begin and end with parents. Increasingly, it also involves how relatives, friends and neighbors who serve as informal child care providers see their roles.

Some 58 percent of children age 0 to 3 and 33 percent of pre-school age children in LA county get care through what are known as FFN (Family, Friends and Neighbors) networks, according to a study released last year by the LA Partnership for Early Childhood Investment.

Valenzuela notes that Pathways clients rely on informal FFN networks in part because they offer non-traditional hours that can accommodate unpredictable work schedules.

Other factors include familial ties or linguistic and cultural connections that may hold more appeal than an institutional setting for some families.

It’s difficult to outreach to these kinds of providers with offers of professional development and training programs, or home visits and coaching sessions, because “they don’t see themselves as professional child care providers,” says Valenzuela.

Most are also license exempt, she explains, meaning they aren’t required to submit to health and safety inspections, and don’t have to undergo the kind of training that licensed providers regularly receive.

“They are a harder population for us to get into training and services,” she adds.

Bridging generations

Immigrant parents make up almost half of all households with children age 0-5 in LA County.

Trying to adapt more formal educational activities into their children’s homelife can run smack into the child-rearing traditions of their own parents – the backbone of the FFN network in immigrant households. The LA Partnership for Early Childhood Development study found that 80 percent of all parents prefer to have their pre-school age child at home with either a parent or relative.

“Young immigrant parents have a support system at home in the grandparents,” says Sandy Baba, an early learning specialist who spent a year looking at the experience of Chinese immigrant families in the San Francisco Bay Area. Baba, herself an immigrant mother of three, notes “there is sometimes a conflict between parents and grandparents over how to raise a healthy child in this country.”

In traditional cultures, it can be difficult—if not impossible—for young parents to challenge their own parents. Grandparents, for their part, can often feel isolated or unsupported when it comes to caring for children, Baba says. “The stress can get overwhelming.”

But providers like Mancussen, Valenzuela and Baba are excited by the way modeling, home visits and other engagement activities can bridge the gap between traditional child rearing techniques and those used in U.S. classrooms.

“Family engagement,” says Baba, “can help immigrant families understand child development milestones, advise them on where to look for resources, and provide them with a sense of empowerment.”

‘Rock bottom’ funding

The question for these and other providers is where the funding for such programs will come from.

“Agencies are required to do more parent engagement activities and programs for the parents we serve,” says Valenzuela, “but at the same time funding is not tied to it.”

A 2014 Migration Policy Institute report, Immigrant Parents and Early Childhood Programs, notes that efforts to scale up early childhood programs are coinciding with a rise in immigrant populations nationwide, but that support programs for families are “generally under-resourced and disjointed in their delivery.”

Clifford Mancussen says that like Pathways, his programs are all oriented toward parent engagement, but for those programs that rely solely on state dollars, “you can’t do as much” – maybe a couple of home visits, workshops and parent-teacher meetings.

“It’s like rock bottom funding from the state. If we had to do things beyond that … it would be like, close the doors and stop the service entirely.”

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