Parents Join in Preschool Teaching

Missouri program enlists `parent educators' to help families impart informal first lessons. EARLY EDUCATION

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

`I WANT my kids to be all-around great,'' says Steve Marsden, whose third son is just over a week old. Mr. Marsden and his wife Elaine are typical parents; they want their children to do all the right things at the right time and be successful once they get into school. But, unlike most parents, the Marsdens are receiving the attention of the local school district even before their preschoolers enter kindergarten.

As voluntary participants in a program called Parents as Teachers (PAT), the Marsdens are getting support in their role as their children's first teachers.

PAT is based on research suggesting that the first three years of life are essential learning years and that parental involvement is an important contributor to a child's success in school.

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``We go through our lives getting grades and raises, but there is very little to tell parents that they are doing [their job of parenting] well,'' says Marsha Gebhardt, who visits the Marsden home every six weeks.

Ms. Gebhardt is one of about 1,400 ``parent educators'' who are trained to work with the 53,000 Missouri families participating in the statewide program. Hired by the local school districts, these parent educators provide home visits, group meetings, and annual developmental screening. This screening program monitors language and motor development, as well as testing for hearing or vision problems. Districts are required by the state to provide this service, but families are free to decline the screening aspect of the program, according to Mildred Winter, director of the Parents as Teachers National Center in St. Louis and a founder of PAT. Records are kept by parent educators and these become part of the child's school record.

Home visits take place every month to six weeks and group meetings are held in which parents can get together to discuss problems and insights having to do with raising children.

The Marsdens joined the program when Luke, now age 4, was 1 1/2. Since PAT concentrates service to parents with newborn to 3-year-old children, Gebhardt's visits to the family now focus on Sam, 20 months, and the newest family member, Matthew.

Gebhardt arrives at the Marsdens' middle-class home looking a bit like Santa Claus. She has two shopping bags full of homemade toys. Soon after settling on the living room floor, she blows up a balloon for Luke and Sam to hit back and forth with cardboard bats made from empty paper towel rolls.

Meanwhile, Gebhardt talks with the parents about adjustments the family is facing in response to 10-day-old Matthew's birth. In the course of a one-hour visit, they discuss a number of typical child-rearing matters. According to Gebhardt, the most frequently confronted issues include discipline, sleep patterns, eating, and toilet training.

``Most of what I'm doing is counseling and supporting parents in their job,'' says Gebhardt, who has a master's degree in social work and two children of her own.

``It's really nice to have somebody say, `This is normal, it will pass,''' says Mrs. Marsden.

``We get things off our chest with somebody,'' says Mr. Marsden, adding that Gebhardt brings good ideas for homemade toys and family activities.

Mildred Winter describes the role of the parent educator as a ``listening ear'' who comes in to help solve parents' problems or concerns.

Parents have an active role to play in the program, says Ms. Winter. ``They're not going to go off and do the ironing while you come in and work with their child.''

All parent educators have some background in education and must complete a 34-hour training institute. Certification renewal is required annually and a minimum of 20 hours of training is requisite each year.

Home visits and parental education programs are cropping up throughout the United States. But Missouri is the only state with a statutory mandate for statewide parent-education.

``One of the great problems of children in our society is the fact that so many of them are lost to view from the time the parent leaves the hospital with the baby until the baby shows up in school,'' says Edward Zigler, a professor of psychology at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

The unique component of the PAT program is the link between parent education and the local school district, according to Dr. Zigler. ``Schools are beginning to see that if you really want a child ready for school you don't wait for them to show up at the age of five,'' he says.

A pilot project was launched in 1981; more than 300 families in four school districts across the state received the services.

At the end of three years, an independent study found that the participating youngsters were significantly more advanced than a comparison group in language development, intellectual abilities, and social skills. In addition, their parents were more knowledgeable about child-rearing than the average parent who was not involved with the program.

A follow-up study done when the same group was in first grade showed that the participating children maintained their early advantage.

In 1984, under the leadership of then-Gov. Christopher Bond, now a US senator, the state passed legislation to expand the program to all 543 school districts in Missouri.

Winter calls the passing of this legislation ``unprecedented.''

``We're a very conservative state and the idea of taking children away from the home in the early years would not have been an acceptable one in many areas of our state,'' says Winter. In fact, Missouri did not have mandatory kindergarten until 1986.

Parent participation in the program is voluntary. Ideally, parent educators begin working with a new family in the third trimester of pregnancy. Participants are recruited through hospitals, birthing centers, and various social service agencies, but word of mouth seems to be the most successful recruiter.

The mandated expansion of the program from four sites to 543 diverse school districts created controversy even among advocates of PAT.

An original consultant and founder severed his ties with the state's program in opposition to the rapid expansion. ``I could not see how they could maintain adequate quality the way they were headed,'' says Burton White, director of the Center for Parent Education in Newton, Mass.

``In retrospect, it was really a blessing in disguise,'' Winter says of the move to statewide implementation. ``It has given us a chance to test out the program with every conceivable population.'' About 30 percent of the state population with children from birth to three-years-old are now participating in PAT.

Although it is designed to serve parents of all backgrounds and socioeconomic status, program administrators make an effort to target ``hard-to-reach'' families.

PAT's budget is $13 million for 1991, up from $2.7 million the first year. The districts are required to provide a minimum of five contacts over an eight-month period, including three home visits. More than half the state's districts provide the same level of contact the pilot program offered, according to Winter.

Most of the parent educators work part time, which allows for flexibility in making home visits in the evenings or on weekends.

Districts set salaries for parent educators, but the average pay is about $12 an hour, says Sue Treffeisen, training coordinator at the national center.

``I don't think there's much argument anymore about the value of this program for middle-class parents,'' says Zigler. ``The issue that's causing some head-scratching is: Is this program effective with inner-city families or rural families?''

A ``Second Wave Evaluation'' is currently being conducted to help answer that question. Results are expected in December.

According to White, the funding, training, and levels of family contact mandated by the state law are insufficient to replicate the results of the pilot project. He expects the study to show ``very little beneficial effect ... nothing like what happened in the pilot studies.''

``A fair number of states have made inquiries about the program through me,'' White says, ``and I tell them all the same thing: `It's a marvelous program if you can replicate the pilot.''

``I would be amazed if we didn't get positive effects with Parents as Teachers in its present form,'' counters Zigler. He points to many other programs showing positive effects from home visitation and parent education.

``Researchers feel you're never really finished fine-tuning and developing,'' Winter says. The mandate to go statewide gave them no choice but to do the best they could, she says.

``Children and families are having a hard time today in America'' and cannot wait for the last word of science, Zigler says. He has spoken out in favor of national legislation to provide $20 million in federal seed money for the implementation of new PAT programs and the expansion of existing projects. Currently, 81 replications of the program are operating in 28 states.

Steve Marsden knows he doesn't want to wait to start teaching his sons about the world: ``To sit and wait for kindergarten to come is ridiculous,'' he says. ``Why not start as soon as we can?''

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