A Partnership for Success

As the former Executive Director of a Richmond-area early childhood education program, I truly believe that the quality of the investment we make in our children early in their lives has a direct impact on the quality of our world later in life.

By Shelia Pleasants
Director of Community Giving

Early childhood education gives young children the opportunity to experience social, emotional and cognitive support, build literacy and STEM skills and experience arts and culture – all of which builds a foundation that encourages our children to see the possibilities of the world and their place in it.

Having been a part of the early childhood education (ECE) community for 24+ years and working as an executive director for more than 14 of those years, I know this community of educators still fights to be recognized as more than babysitters and caregivers. But I know their work is critical to the long term success of our communities and our region as a whole. I believe early childhood educators should be recognized for the important work that they do every day to educate and build foundations for our young children and their families–foundations that are critical for a successful start in kindergarten. Those that work in the ECE field have a great calling on their lives to help build that foundation in young children from birth. In order to be successful, early childhood educators must see each child as the individual that they are, recognizing each child’s unique abilities, strengths and gifts, and then use those insights to foster a partnership with the parents, each child’s village of support and their community. This is how you build a foundation for lifelong learning. But success requires support from all sides!

Key Factors for Success in Early Childhood Education

Early childhood education centers come in many shapes and sizes. Some are center-based, some are in-home providers. Some receive federal or state funding. No matter the type of program, the fundamental elements of quality are always the same. A quality early childhood program’s philosophy, curriculum, techniques, equipment/materials and parents/family engagement opportunities should all be connected and should all speak to supporting the whole child. The most important component, though, is the connection between programs and families. As providers, we must offer an inviting, stimulating, safe and nurturing environment for each child and their family. This means the program and the parents must work together. Parents and families need to be a natural part of the ECE culture and environment.

Here are some important ways for both parents and programs to work together:

  • The program should provide an open door atmosphere that ensures families feel welcome and have a voice.
  • The program should be connected to agencies that can provide needed support for the families who may have an array of needs.
  • Families should be community advocates for the program by understanding the role the program plays in the development of their child.
  • Families should volunteer and donate their time and talents to their child’s program.
  • Both the program and the family should understand the importance of being a team/partner for each child.

How Families Can Support Early Education

Parents and families play a critical role in supporting their children’s education—particularly in the early years. Parents should feel supported and respected in their role, and parenting support and empowerment groups should be a part of the learning environment. Parenting groups help both parents and program leaders better understand and work together around the needs of the child. These groups help programs and families connect and understand the importance of early education concepts such as: child’s choice, the importance of attendance, play, positive discipline, reading, screen time, physical activity and more.

To help reinforce early education at home, parents should show their child that they are valued and respected. Take the time to make sure your home environment encourages learning and creativity the same way a classroom does. You can do this by making sure you have materials in your home such as crayons, paper, pencils , paints, play dough, scissors etc. Work on special projects with your child and encourage the importance of their work. Find ways to volunteer with your child in school and in the community. Help build early literacy skills by reading books or other printed materials at home and while you are out at the grocery store, the library, museums etc. Go on family field trips in your community and/or town. Stay connected and seek ideas from your child’s teachers, parenting groups, pediatrician, family, friends, social media or local early childhood development organizations.

You’ll find there are opportunities to encourage learning everywhere you go.

Lastly, stay connected to your child’s school – even after your child has moved on. No greater compliment can be given to early learning program employees than when a former parent reaches out years later to acknowledge the importance of their work and thank them for building a foundation for success in kindergarten and beyond.

Language Technique: Scaffolding

One good technique for parents to use to increase language skills is called scaffolding. The idea is to have conversations with your child in which you guide him or her to build on concepts by asking questions that allow the child to pull from knowledge he or she already has. For example, say your child is playing dress-up and has chosen their parents’ hat, pants and shoes to wear. Ask your child questions about the activity that cannot be answered with simply a yes or no. Ask questions that encourage your child to think about the who, what, when and why behind their choices, and find ways to connect those ideas back to experiences they may have already had.

Access for Low-income Families

Low-income families have the same hopes, dreams and desires that all parents have for their child’s success when they enter kindergarten. The difference is that low-income families may not have access to the same quality providers that meet the needs of the child and family at a cost that is affordable. For households with tight budgets, it can be difficult or even impossible to find an affordable, quality program in their neighborhood.  We need to continue working on affordable quality childhood education models that support the needs of ALL children and their families as early in life as possible. We should not wait until children are three or four years old to begin their education. That said, there are some steps low-income families can take:

  • Sign up for early registration in federal and state programs such as Head Start and Virginia Preschool Initiative. Space is often limited in these programs. The Richmond Public Schools 2018 registration runs from March 6 through June 14. You may check the dates of other localities by visiting your school system’s website to obtain the information needed to begin the process.
  • Learn about the quality ratings of providers in your area. You may contact your local department of social services directly to receive information on quality ratings (for center-based and in-home providers that are a part of the Virginia Quality Rating System) as well as additional information for all programs that are licensed by the State of Virginia.
  • Reach out to community agencies, such as private early childhood centers, that work with the department of social services. ChildSavers and Smart Beginnings of Greater Richmond have links to the local Department of Social Services information for child care. You may also gain information by dialing 2-1-1. United Way’s 2-1-1 service can connect you to a trained professional who can provide referrals to health and human services and help families seeking quality child care centers.
  • Speaking of community agencies, United Way proudly supports Family Lifeline, FRIENDS Association for Children, Greater Richmond ARC, Greater Richmond SCAN, Quin Rivers, Sacred Heart Center, Smart Beginnings of Greater Richmond, YWCA Sprout School and Virginia Quality. We encourage families to visit these organizations’ websites and contact them to learn about additional opportunities that may be available.
  • Register your child early for kindergarten. Early registration helps school systems better prepare for the incoming kindergarten class and ensure they have enough teaching staff, materials and space. Early registration also provides information to you, the parent, to help get you and your child ready and excited to begin “BIG SCHOOL!”

How You Can Help

Do you want to support early learning in your community? Here are some things you can do:

  • Become an advocate for all children to have access to quality and affordable early childhood education. Share information about the importance of early education and make sure all of your friends and colleagues have the same understanding as you!
  • Donate to United Way to help support our work in this area. Click here to make a donation. Use the “Investment Options” tool to direct your gift to support the “Prepared for Kindergarten” component of our Steps to Success framework.
  • Reach out to your child’s ECE program and ask about ways to volunteer. Or contact us! Visit our Volunteer and Events page to learn about upcoming opportunities, or email volunteer@yourunitedway.org to ask about other ways you can get involved.
  • Support and celebrate early childhood educators and programs! If you know an early childhood educator, take a moment to say thank you and acknowledge their hard work. ECE professionals play a critical role in shaping the future for all of us, so it never hurts to let them know we appreciate and support their effort!
Shelia Pleasants, United Way’s Director of Community Giving, worked in early childhood education for more than 20 years, including 14 years as Executive Director of a Richmond-area early childhood center. We asked her to share her thoughts on the importance of early education and the critical link between programs and families.