Helping parents become more skilled as a child's first educator

``You get more information with your new car than you do with your new baby,'' says Burton White, a respected specialist in early-childhood education, an author, and the director of the Center for Parent Education in Newton, Mass. Most new parents would agree.

To help such parents, the state of Missouri, with assistance from the Danforth Foundation, launched an experimental program in 1981 called ``Parents as First Teachers.'' Based primarily on the ideas of Dr. White, it was offered at no charge through the public schools in selected districts. It was aimed at helping parents -- regardless of whether their child was in day care, preschool, or at home -- become effective early educators during their child's first three years.

By the end of the three-year test period, the experiment had proven so popular and successful that the state decided to make it available to parents in all school districts last fall.

The parents who enroll receive monthly, one-hour home visits from ``parent educators.'' Or, if the parents prefer, they can attend monthly workshops conducted by a parent educator.

These educators are generally certified teachers or people with backgrounds in early-childhood development. Preferably they're also people with experience as parents themselves. Paper credentials are not as important as practical knowledge and skill in counselling. Each parent educator receives special training and may have as many as 60 families at a time to work with.

According to Debbie Murphy, director of the early childhood section of the Missouri Department of Education, the underlying goal of the program is not to make two-year-olds act like six-year-olds. ``We want the child to be the best two-year-old he or she can be,'' she says. ``We help [parents] become aware of their child's environment and how to make the most of it. . . . We want to work with the parents to identify and correct problems early.''

Carol and Tom, a couple in their 20s who live in suburban St. Louis, are like many of the parents who have taken advantage of the program. They signed up for the test program three years ago, when their first son, Mike, was born. They stayed with the program for three years with Mike, and re-enrolled when their second son, Jason, was born 11 months ago.

Sue Treffeisen was the parent educator assigned to this family during the three-year period with Mike. Sue, a mother of two teen-agers and now a program trainer at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, visited them once a month, watching as Mike grew and progressed and offering counselling based on Burton White's ideas.

``We've really enjoyed it,'' Carol says of the program. ``We're going through it a second time with our second child, and we'll stick with it until the baby is three. It's been terrific.''

In an era of belt-tightening, how can the state justify the expenses associated with Parents as First Teachers?

``We're paying now versus later -- and paying now means paying less,'' says Ms. Murphy. ``The cost of prevention is a lot less than remedial programs. Our program costs the state $150 per child per year, with some districts supplying funds in kind. That compares to the state's cost of $2,000 to $4,000 a year per child for special education. We feel we can largely prevent the need for this type of education down the road through our program which identifies and eliminates the problems early.''

Former Governor Kit Bond, under whose administration the program was started, says, ``I feel it is the most important thing that has been done in Missouri in the past dozen or more years. This program is a pace-setter for the nation and has great potential. Working with families in this way has so many other ramifications, and its significance is being recognized by authorities in the areas of mental health, child abuse, corrections, and social services. If parents can understand their kids, so much else can be done.

``This program isn't intended to lessen the importance of supporting formal education,'' he adds. ``That is very important, too. But with this program, we are not just selling education; we are looking at broader implications. It is a broad-based program to help families. Education is certainly part of it, but not the whole thing.''

Parents as First Teachers has not been aggressively promoted but has caught on mainly by word of mouth and is now being offered in 530 of Missouri's 537 school districts. While current funding allows each district to provide the program for only 10 percent of its families, there may be additional funds available next year that would raise the limit to 20 percent.

The concept of Parents as First Teachers'' began when Mildred Winter, then director of the Early Childhood section, attended a conference conducted by Dr. White, who had directed a 13-year study of early development made by the Harvard University Preschool Project. His research took him away from the traditional clinical observations of child education and development and into the home, where he studied what parents did or did not do to.

Impressed by this research, Winter became the driving force in starting the parent training program in Missouri, with White as senior consultant.

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