Two-year-old Tymon tries to string beads with his mom, Jessica Henderson, a Parents as Teachers participant.(Photo by: Tina Griego)
On a bright winter day, Mona Berry, a transplanted New Yorker with Long Island clinging to her accent, sits before a 2-year-old named Tymon, puts several cereal bits into an empty water bottle and hands it to him.
“All right,” she says, “now, you get them out.”
Tymon does not know this is a 24-month developmental screening. As far as he is concerned, Ms. Mona is simply an excellent playmate. Just this afternoon, she played catch, rolled a ball toward him to kick back, showed him a picture book and asked him to point to his eyes, nose, ears and mouth.
Now, he looks at the cereal inside the bottle and lifts it to his mouth.
His mom, Jessica Henderson, laughs.
Welcome to pre-preschool, the frontier of early childhood education that revolves around home visitations and one-on-one relationships. Berry is one of 23 parent educators who work with Parent as Teachers (PAT), a program run by the nonprofit Family Lifeline. She’s been working with Henderson since the first-time mom was in her third trimester of pregnancy. Berry talked to her about prenatal care and nutrition. She helped Henderson develop her birth plan, found her a doula and gave her tips on breastfeeding. And, always, Berry talked with her about how Tymon was developing.
“I didn’t know babies could hear in the belly, I was like, ‘Wow!’ ” Henderson, 26, says. “I didn’t know he could respond to light while he was in my belly or that he would respond to my emotions. I didn’t know he could only see black and white after he was born.”
Berry regularly visits Henderson, checking on the toddler’s progress and teaching her about the critical role of playing, reading and talking in her son’s brain development. So, when Henderson asks Tymon to get his boots, she doesn’t just say “boots.” She says “red boots” to expand his vocabulary and teach him colors.
Parents as Teachers is a two-generation model of early childhood education. These models — and PAT is one of three Family Lifeline uses — are focused on the critical years of brain development from birth to age 3. Home visitation approaches are also key in looking for generational solutions to end poverty. The goal is to help parents raise healthy children who are ready to learn by the time they enter kindergarten because a child who enters school behind his or her peers is likely to stay behind.
This reality has nothing to do with who loves their kids more or who is more devoted to their child’s future.
“Parenting doesn’t come with a guidance book,” Berry says. “It doesn’t come with a book of rules. Even someone who is highly educated might not have an understanding of a child’s brain development.”
Virginia adopted the home visitation model years ago, tailoring programs that work with families in different ways, says Emily E. Griffey, a senior policy analyst for Voices for Virginia’s Children. All revolve around the concept that “having someone who is able to be a coach and a champion,” can alter the course of a family’s life. Funding comes from federal, local and private dollars, with a small share from the state.
“It’s not cheap, but what the research shows is that it saves money down the road,” Griffey says. “You avoid the long-term costs of school retention, special ed, possible foster care and later incarceration, and the research shows that the kids who benefitted from home visitation programs are more likely to graduate from high school or to be employed.”
Henderson knew she needed help. She grew up in poverty, did not want children, and, then, while she was pregnant, her fiancé was incarcerated and her father went missing and was found dead. Through all of that, Henderson was working and had re-enrolled in college.
“I was going through a whole lot, and I just didn’t know anything about being a parent,” she says. “I didn’t think it would just come natural.”
She says Berry has taught not only her, but also her mom and sister much they did not know about raising a child. “What I want for Tymon is for him to know that he can be different from everyone else,” she says. “He doesn’t have to be a product of the environment on the streets.”
It doesn’t take the little guy long to figure out he has to turn the water bottle upside down and shake it to get the cereal inside. Tymon offers some to Ms. Mona and his mom, then grins and stuffs the rest in his mouth, the bright, young son of a bright, young woman determined to ready him for the world.
WEB EXTRA: Watch little Tymon participate in a developmental screening as part of the Parents As Teachers early childhood development program.