One-year-old Za-Naya has mastered her first words.
By the time they’re 3, researchers say, children like Za-Naya will understand the meanings of about 500 words.
While that sounds like a lot, it’s not.
Researchers say kids like Za-Naya from low-income families understand fewer than half the words of a 3-year-old child from an affluent family.
The consequences can be devastating as children with limited vocabularies fall behind their classmates and may never catch up.
Last fall, however, a visitor showed up at Za-Naya’s front door in Omaha offering to help her parents build an alternative future for Za-Naya and her siblings.
Convinced that intervening early can improve a child’s life trajectory, the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties is dispatching home visitors to help low-income parents interact better with their infants and toddlers.
The home visitors in the pilot program underscore to parents the importance of reading to babies, playing with them, talking and singing — things that might be missing from low-income homes.
The visitors also establish a relationship between that family and the school that the child will eventually attend.
The goal is to ultimately help erase achievement gaps between disadvantaged children and their more-affluent peers.
The program was developed by superintendents in the 11 Learning Community school districts with assistance from the Buffett Early Childhood Institute.
Similar programs are in place across the country, drawing upon research studies that confirm the importance of exposing infants and toddlers to a rich language environment.
Two University of Kansas researchers, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, observed parents of various economic means interacting with their children. In their 1995 study they estimated that a child from a low-income family will be exposed to 30 million fewer words through conversation and interaction than a child of high-income parents by the time he or she is 4 years old.
The gap of 30 million words is a “staggering” difference, said Dale Walker, a professor and researcher with the Juniper Gardens Children’s Project at KU.
Hart was her mentor, she said, and Walker subsequently built on the work of the two researchers.
The benefit of a rich language environment lies not just in the amount of words spoken but the quality of the interaction, she said.
“It’s not just hearing words. Just turning on television doesn’t work. It’s engagement,” she said.
Walker studied the same children from the Hart and Risley study as they moved through elementary school.
Children with parents who talked more often, who used more commenting and labeling and open-ended questions, and who were positive with their children entered school with larger vocabularies, she said.
Those kids did better on standardized assessments and had higher reading scores.
“Frankly, I always knew, for the most part, where I would find the children who had entered school at a disadvantage, because they were the children who were unfortunately sitting in the hallways more often, outside the principal’s office, because they were having more behavior problems as well,” she said.
The visitor who came to Za-Naya’s front door was Tierra Stennis.
She is one of 10 home visitors who have recruited 54 families into the voluntary program. The plan is for each home visitor eventually to have a caseload of 15 to 18 infants and toddlers, or a total of 150 to 180 in the program. A full-time home visitor has a bachelor’s degree and is paid around $35,000, about the same salary as a starting teacher.
The visitors are working at schools in six districts: Omaha, Millard, Bellevue, Douglas County West, Westside and Ralston.
To recruit volunteers, Stennis circulated fliers at a women’s clinic, a Target store and apartments. She called child care centers and also the counselor at Omaha Northwest High School to reach out to teen moms.
She asked students and teachers at Pinewood Elementary School in Omaha, the school where she is assigned, if they knew of families that might benefit. About three-quarters of the students at Pinewood qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches because their families are low-income.
When Stennis asked Za-Naya’s mother, Jamie Greene, to participate, she jumped at the chance.
“I was all for it,” she said. “Anything to help our kids, just because it’s been a little stressful with Derion.”
She calls Derion, 3, her “super boy.” He is autistic.
Her 6-year-old daughter, Alanna, is the oldest and attends Prairie Wind Elementary School. Greene said Alanna probably wasn’t well-prepared for school. She couldn’t write her name or address and would have benefited from going to day care, she said.
Ricky is 2. They sometimes call him “Little Ricky” to distinguish him from his dad, Ricardo Lessley, 35.
“We figured if Tierra comes in, there’s a little more structure and a little more things that they can do and learn to get them ready for school,” Greene said.
The home visitors don’t just wing it during visits. They use a curriculum called Early Steps to School Success developed by Judie Jerald of Save the Children.
They focus on educational issues and are instructed not to stray into areas better served by social workers. If they discover problems such as a refrigerator on the blink or the gas shut off, they can refer families to others who will help.
Greene and Lessley, who are getting married in July, have not been to college. She wants to get her GED and attend college. He works at a Taco John’s. She stays home with the kids. They live in the Bluffs at Cherry Hills complex near 108th and Fort Streets.
Greene said she attended Omaha Public Schools, a private church school and was home-schooled. She said she loved school, especially the science fair.
Lessley said school was hard for him.
“Sometimes I hated school, I’ll be honest. But then I loved school when I finally got out of it, and I got to graduate,” he said.
He’s a bit of a joker.
During one of her weekly visits last month, Stennis brought a full pack of information and activities. Everyone sat on the living room floor, and she delivered children’s books, handouts and advice.
“I did bring some more stuff, ’cause I know you guys are potty training Ricky,” Stennis said.
One handout listed signs to help parents know whether their toddler is ready to potty train.
“We want to have him potty trained so he can be ready when school comes,” she said. “You don’t want him to go to school and have to be diapered.”
Another handout explained what Za-Naya should be doing at her age — developmental milestones — and some ideas for activities Greene could do with her.
“So what have you been doing since our last visit?” Stennis asked.
“A lot of reading and a lot of playing,” Greene said.
Mom explained how she let the kids play with the books alone and turn the pages. Little Ricky is learning to give up his pacifier — reluctantly. Za-Naya’s balance is getting better, and her language skills have improved over the past few weeks, she said.
Stennis told mom and dad that with all the kids able to run around now, it’s probably time to childproof the house.
Stennis brought out a sheet of paper and pencil so Little Ricky could next practice drawing — a skill he will use in school. When he drew some circles, his mom applauded.
“That’s so nice,” she said.
Stennis handed out construction paper, white glue, cotton balls and Cheerios and Froot Loops cereal. Mom and dad led the kids in a craft session, though a substantial share of the cereal wound up in Za-Naya’s mouth. Stennis pulled out some stickers and empty water bottles that the kids transformed into noisemakers by dropping cereal inside.
Greene said Stennis explains how to use inexpensive household objects to engage the kids.
“It does help us to be more creative,” she said. “Like with that macaroni she brought last week. I wouldn’t have thought to ‘Oh, let me take out the macaroni and make a project.’ ”
The hour went by fast.
Stennis penciled in a time for the following week, and left.
“I think Tierra coming and being a support helps us help our kids help themselves,” Greene said.
The home-visiting program is part of a broader early-childhood education initiative the Learning Community is funding with a half-cent property tax levy. The levy generates about $2.5 million a year to pay for home visits, high-quality preschool, and a program to deliver consistent curriculum and support for children in kindergarten through third grade.
Lorraine Chang, chairwoman of the Learning Community Council, said that once parents understand how they can help, it opens a whole new avenue for relating to their kids.
“I think it’s really necessary for any change to really take hold,” Chang said.
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