Along with many others, the Parents as Teachers program holds as a core value the belief that parents are their children’s first and most influential teachers. In that framework, parents become the most critical actors in promoting the early childhood development that is vital to putting children on a positive life trajectory. It is, therefore, essential that parents be supported in acquiring the skills that allow them to provide the best possible parenting. That need is particularly acute for high-risk, high need children in disadvantaged environments where parents may be less knowledgeable about the dynamics and techniques of child development.
The needs of children should be addressed and supported in the context of a family, and the needs of the family supported by the community in which they live. The issue then becomes one of what communities can do to equip and support parents in making effective provision for meeting the essential developmental needs of their children.
The City of St. Louis and the State of Missouri have had two bright moments in the arena of early childhood development. The first was in 1873 when educator Susan Blow founded the first public kindergarten in the United States. The second was more than a century later in 1981 when the Parents as Teachers (PAT) program was initiated as a pilot project with support form the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Danforth Foundation. In 1985, PAT was implemented in all Missouri school districts. It now operates in all 50 states and seven other countries. Although, sadly, in 2010 in the face of the state’s budget crisis, funding for Parents as Teachers was reduced dramatically by the Missouri Legislature.
Parents as Teachers and many other programs directed to helping parents acquire the skills required to understand and support child development, proceed from a set of core values:
- The early years of a child’s life are critical for optimal development and success in life and school.
- Parents are their children’s first and best teachers.
- Parent education and family support efforts should be research-based.
- All young children and families deserve the same opportunities to succeed.
- Understanding and appreciating the history and traditions of diverse cultures is essential in serving families.
The Parenting Collaborative of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services adopts a broad definition of parent education and support programs that includes efforts to promote child well-being and safety by: 1) increasing the strength and stability of families; 2) increasing parental confidence and competence; and 3) affording children stable and supportive home environments. The specific goals of the initiative are to:
- Promote children’s development
- Improve child/parent attachment
- Improve child/parent communications skills
- Enhance the self-esteem of participants
- Improve child/parent social control, and
- Reduce aggressive behaviors by children and their caregivers.
Parent education and support programs pursuing goals similar to those outlined above usually are directed to addressing children’s needs across all developmental domains – physical, mental, and emotional – while attending to the nature of those needs at different ages and developmental stages. Some programs target specific needs, such as social-emotional development, father support, or the needs of children with developmental delays.
Increasing attention is being paid to home visitation programs which has become a focus of the Obama administration. The Administration for Children & Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services note that home visitation programs offer a variety of family-focused services to pregnant mothers and families with new babies and young children. They address issues such as maternal and child health, positive parenting practices, safe home environments, and access to services. Home visitation programs directed primarily to infant and child health, such and Nurses for Newborns, are discussed in the Maternal and Child Health fundamental needs area. According to the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, there is strong research evidence that home visitation programs can improve outcomes for children and families and yield cost savings.
Virtually every parent and family can benefit from education and support programs focused on child development. Young parents as those raising children in a culture of poverty are likely to benefit the most from such programs. The challenge – particularly in an environment where Parents as Teachers funding has been cut and services reduced – is how to make adequate provision for addressing this critical range of needs.