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191 Early Childhood Programming Prepares Students and Supports Families

191 Early Childhood Programming Prepares Students and Supports Families

For families in District 191, there are options to set the youngest learners up for success

Public school districts are known for the hard work that goes into educating students from kindergarten through 12th grade, but that is not the whole picture. Through early childhood community education and special education programs, there are opportunities for lifelong learning. As with most things, getting a strong start is so important for young learners and their families. 

Early childhood services are available for infants, toddlers and preschoolers thanks to a dedicated team of professionals who work together and with families and caregivers. The common threads through these programs is student success, identifying needs early on and providing connections to resources. 

With services from birth to 3 years of age in early childhood family education and special education, leading to preschool options like Voluntary Prekindergarten (VPK), District 191 works hard to meet the needs of students, create strong connections with families and help every single student to succeed. 

Birth-to-3 Special Education Services - Identifying Needs and Providing Resources

sarah erbes

An amazing opportunity for families to know about is the Early Intervention Program with Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) teachers like Sarah Erbes. The Birth-to-3 team works with families of infants and toddlers under the age of 3 via home visits or visits to a daycare setting. After a referral is made, an evaluation team screens and assesses children to decide  if they qualify for special education early intervention services. If a child qualifies for services, a Birth-to-3 service provider connects with the family to develop a plan for them and their child  using a coaching model to guide and support parents through different activities to support the child’s development. 

Children can qualify because of a health condition or if they are showing a delay in areas of development like communication, cognitive skills, play skills, adaptive skills or motor skills. Anyone can refer a child for an evaluation through the Help Me Grow portal with most referrals coming directly from parents. The team assesses the needs of the child and works closely with families to develop plans and goals. 

“We work with the family to come up with a plan to work on priorities that they identify,” said Erbes. “We ask families what is important to them, what is going well, what we can build on, as well as areas that we can support or guide. It’s a very team-centered approach and the most important team member is the child.”

The team consists of professionals from multiple disciplines who can step up to help if needed. Whether it’s a speech pathologist or occupational therapist, there are options to provide different interventions and support based on the needs of the child including speech skills, motor skills or other needs. Participation in early intervention services is voluntary. If a family decides their child is meeting the goals or no longer wants services, they can end them. Each home visit involves the four steps of identifying priorities, choosing an activity, practicing new strategies and reflecting on what worked.

“It’s always a celebration when a child is meeting their milestones,” said Erbes. “We want to work with parents in a meaningful way so that their day is less stressful. We don’t work for twenty minutes and leave. Our home visits are meant to model behavior and give them the tools they need to make it work for the priorities they set.”

Parent concerns vary but often involve delays in speech, getting into routines and preparing for the transition to the next step, which for most children is preschool. Ultimately the goal is to provide resources to families so they can learn about and support the development of their child. 

Each service provider has a number of families they support and will try to complete three or four home visits in a day. Plans are developed directly with parents who are also connected with a variety of resources throughout the district and in the community. These types of services offered through school districts are unique for Minnesota and create more opportunities to prepare families and their children for future transitions. 

“The family is a child’s first and most important teacher,” said Erbes. “They know more about the interests and motivations of their children and we are able to connect with that through play and other activities to help them achieve their goals. I don’t want to give the parents homework, but I do try to find a daily routine that they can add some learning and play to.”

These services are provided to families at no charge and adjustments are made to plans based on progress, milestones and watching for new concerns. Visits and plans are always completely individualized to each child with the goal of providing resources if needed. 

“ECSE is so important because we know that early intervention is key,” said Erbes. “We can’t predict a child’s progress over 2-3 years, but we can predict the best outcomes with early intervention. Ultimately we want healthy families and healthy children!”

Ready to Grow and Ready to Learn - Caring and Purposeful Childcare 

District 191 has many ways for young children to start learning the skills they will need to succeed in any path they choose, including childcare options from ages six weeks to preschool (Ready to Grow) and early care and education for 33 months to five years (Ready to Learn), both of which embrace the need for creating connections and letting children learn through play. 

Seeking reliable care for their child is often a family’s first introduction to the school district, and they are greeted by incredible people like Wendy Jordan, the infant/toddler coordinator. The goal of Ready to Grow is to help parents feel comfortable leaving their child in a safe place, building relationships that support any questions or concerns and working with young learners on milestones and skills while they are there. The program is open from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day with part-time options and before and after care for students in VPK programs. 

wendy jordan

“Our day-to-day activities vary a bit based on schedules for infants but are more focused on developing routines for toddlers,” said Jordan. “We really believe that connections govern behavior and that kids need to feel safe in order to be able to learn. With toddlers, it’s about building relationships through good interactions and expressing themselves in appropriate ways.”

Through a routine that involves table activities, individual play, time in the gym or outdoors, art and more, children from a variety of backgrounds and ability levels get to interact and grow together. Five staff members are focused on infants and toddlers and trained in a variety of resources including first aid, CPR, shaken baby and SIDS training and other tools that they experience during their required 24 hours of annual professional development that cover the core areas from the Minnesota Knowledge and Competency Framework for Early Childhood Professionals. 

“We are a bunch of gears working together with the various early childhood programs,” said Jordan. “We have childhood indicators of progress and teaching strategies built around different milestones, and if they are not meeting milestones they can be referred through the Help Me Grow portal for a special education evaluation. We use a method called scaffolding where we look at where the child is at and help to introduce the next steps. If a toddler is stacking magnetic tiles we may encourage them to stack particular shapes or try a 3D shape and by the time they are in preschool they are building castles and villages!”

Parents do pay for childcare but, thanks to its location at Diamondhead Education Center, special education team members, such as speech pathologists, occupational therapists and special education teachers, are available for consultation or to provide direct services to eligible children attending the program, which is a huge benefit. If a student is not meeting milestones, teachers and team members work together to develop strategies to help children learn important skills. The program is also a great way to give young learners an introduction to a school setting and the routines that go with it. 

While toddlers may feel like they get to play and work on art projects, what is really happening is that they are getting help with language development, learning how to be independent and developing incredibly important social-emotional skills. The team uses signs and pictures to help children relate to one another since not all students have the words to say what they are feeling and thinking. The teachers use conflict as an opportunity to teach with common things like sharing and taking turns. 

“It’s interesting to look at how you can expand on one topic depending on the development of the child and see how behavior changes the next time conflict happens,” said Jordan. “We focus on helping children understand their emotions and express them in appropriate ways and help them learn to develop positive relationships with others. I think we give excellent care and it’s a very high quality program!”

Early Childhood Screening and Early Childhood Family Education - Providing Parents Information, Tools and Resources 

Many young children aren’t quite sure what to think when they get to their legally required early childhood screening. Some may think they are heading to a doctor’s appointment, so it’s safe to say that they are pleasantly surprised when they are greeted by name and asked if they came to play games today. 

danny o'brien

The state of Minnesota requires early childhood screening for all children ages 3 to 7. It’s intended to identify possible health or developmental concerns that may need further assessment in areas such as physical or emotional health, communication or cognition. Half the screening measures a child’s progress in five areas of development with the other half being a health screening with a nurse to check height, weight, hearing and vision. A screener like Danny O’Brien leads each child through a series of games and activities, with the session taking between 20 minutes to an hour depending on each child. 

“Most of the time the screening is fun for the child and a major relief for families,” said O’Brien. “Parents are always excited when the results are positive but we also have really great conversations with questions about some behaviors that maybe didn’t go as well and we can help connect them to resources.” 

During the screening, children get to build with blocks, do matching games and draw shapes and lines. While they are having fun, the screener is testing fine motor skills and other milestones. Parents can watch the screening behind a window, but mostly focus on their own paperwork. Interpreting and translation services are provided for a wide variety of languages. 

“We provide a really positive environment for our families,” said O’Brien. “I try to bring good energy to welcome and encourage them with my primary focus being on the child. Even if we don't speak the same language, I talk directly to the parent and create a strong connection. These screenings are so important because the sooner we catch potential issues, the easier it will be in the long run for the child and their path in education.”

In addition to early childhood screening, O’Brien is also a parent educator. Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) provides parents focused time with their children to learn and build a community together. Through ECFE classes, parents spend time with their children in a classroom setting working on activities and building relationships, as well as dedicated parent-only time with a teacher to have discussions about issues they are facing and learn new skills. 

“We engage in very real discussions about how their day is going, talking about tantrums, anti- racism in parenting, engaging in multicultural society when things are so polarized, and what we can do as a group of parents to support each other,” said O’Brien. “The ultimate goal is that parents know that they’re not alone. They might feel like they are going through something unique to them and their experience, but parents can commiserate or lift them up in some way.”

Classes range from being very structured on a specific topic to being more open where parents can share their joys and concerns for their child. The small groups of parents from diverse backgrounds are able to connect with each other and grow close over the course of the classes. Parents are able to see a window into a world that they may not experience in a safe and supportive environment that is focused on giving them the tools they need to help their child succeed. 

“Our team in ECFE does an awesome job and we have great programming that are things the community wants and needs,” said O’Brien. “We see a very diverse group of people from all walks of life but they come together and want to connect in support of their children. Whether we are talking about potty training or anti-racist parenting, we see parents engaging in really meaningful dialogues and I am excited to be a resource to hear and help them.”

Early Childhood Special Education - Supporting the Journey of Young Learners

Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) provides no-cost services and support for infants, toddlers and preschoolers whose development is delayed and their families. Children between the ages of 3 and 5 receive specialized services in a variety of community and district classroom settings including child care, Head Start, district elementary schools, and at Diamondhead. 

Children ages 3-5 may be referred for a special education evaluation through the Help Me Grow portal. Children who participate in Birth-to-3 early intervention services are also evaluated to determine whether they continue to qualify for special education services at the age of 3. For students who require extra support, special education teachers like Kelsey Blood provide individualized instruction to students with a range of disabilities and needs, as well as supporting general education PreK teachers with strategies. Children who qualify for special education are able to get services in a variety of classroom environments, connect with their peers and get used to the daily routine of a school day.

kelsey blood

“I want to give teachers the tools to address different needs with strategies and ways to support kids,” said Blood. “The goal is to reduce the amount of direct support children need from adults by developing skills students need to be more independent and successful at school when they start kindergarten.”

Whether it’s visiting different classrooms or connecting with students in child care or who are homebound, the goal is to provide the activities that happen in school with individual, small group or large group lessons. Teachers and other members of the team work together to develop and adjust education plans. Connections are made with students by using pictures or signs if a child is non-verbal, or writing a social story that helps students learn about dealing with different parts of their day. 

“We had a student who had a hard time riding the bus, so I wrote a story about riding the bus that goes through what to expect,” said Blood. “We include that it’s OK to feel nervous and try to help students understand what to expect and how to overcome their fears. We try to give students space and help them learn skills to be successful. For many of our students we are focused on teaching about the ‘how’ to be at school, like following routines and participating in groups with their peers. They may not need to write their name just yet, but we do want them to be able to listen to the teacher and follow directions.”

For many students, the day-to-day routine of the school day provides a lot of opportunities for social interaction and learning. Often an important focus in ECSE is social-emotional learning where children are building skills in how to communicate their needs and wants, interact with their friends, share toys, or take turns in positive and appropriate ways. For students who are non-verbal, staff use a variety of pictures or devices to help students communicate their wants and needs. Side-by-side with teachers, educational assistants such as Michelle Bachmeier help students through their daily schedules and support teachers in classrooms at Diamondhead and VPK elementary sites. 

“Kids (in ECSE) all have goals and we are trying to meet and further those goals,” said Bachmeier. “We have a lot of kids who are not regulated which means they may buzz around the room without support so we work with them to focus (on specific skills) to learn how to play appropriately with toys, engage in table activities like art, and large motor activities.” 

ECSE support is incredibly important for students and their families and District 191 has shown a dedication to this work. 

“The majority of kids we work with haven't been in any schooling yet so we are setting the stage for them to do better in kindergarten and beyond,” said Bachmeier. “It’s amazing seeing a friend who may be having a really tough time start to connect with others and have those ‘aha’ moments. Sometimes it’s a little overwhelming but it’s so rewarding to see the baby steps that the kids are making.”

Voluntary Prekindergarten - Getting Students on their Path

The last step in the early childhood journey before beginning kindergarten for many students is a Voluntary Prekindergarten (VPK) program housed right in their neighborhood elementary school. This free-for-families option is three hours daily with math, literacy, outside time and lots of opportunities for social interactions with peers and program staff like Gideon Pond’s Sharon Smith-Lossiah and Ubah Yusuf. 

ubah yusuf

For families who are new to the district, VPK is often among their first connections to their local school and being able to connect with a caring and passionate person like Yusuf is a great way to start that relationship. 

“Ubah does an amazing job with translating and connecting with the parents and walks them through the routine or helps them with technology,” said Smith-Lossiah. “Our program is really focused on introducing students and their families to us in a friendly, helpful and informative way for what comes next.”

The structure of the day allows for a variety of great activities with a play-based curriculum that is largely led by students and tied to a play-with-purpose model that provides structure and meaning to the play. Students are provided free lunch and transportation to their neighborhood school and are able to connect with special education teachers, occupational and speech therapists, and other resources as needed. 

Smith-Lossiah and Yusuf connect with students every day, getting to know them and building the skills they need whether it is holding a marker, cutting paper or playing with others. An exciting aspect of their program is being able to use the outdoor spaces at the school during Forest Fridays, when students can explore, investigate things in nature and look for seasonal changes. 

sharon smith-lossiah

“PreK is important because it is that separation from home to school, that first experience that shifts from the family dynamic to a group of peers,” said Smith-Lossiah. “We are looking at the important social-emotional pieces, following directions, being more independent and getting ready for that transition to kindergarten.”

The district has seen the VPK program grow from three sites in 2018 to nine sites by 2023, including one in each of the district’s eight elementary schools and one at Diamondhead. Recent early literacy data showed that 80% of students in District 191 VPK programs last year met or partially met expected benchmarks in early reading skills. Kindergarten teachers often share that they can tell the students who have been through VPK programs because they are prepared for the school day and know how to listen and share in a group.

“There is an old saying that when the teacher opens their heart, the student opens their brain,” said Yusuf. “We build relationships with parents and others so they are welcome and they have whatever they need. By the end of the year we see all the hard work we have been working on with our friends and it’s hard to have them leave, but then we get new friends.”

Classes cover skills like motor skills, spelling, writing and literacy, but the biggest focus is building those relationships and being ready and prepared to learn. 

“VPK sets up kids for success in kindergarten and we always hear from teachers that they can tell which students were in our program,” said Smith-Lossiah. “I feel so strongly that having a strong foundation in the first five years with the kids and parents sets everyone up for success.”