Babies are born ready to learn and we believe parents are their child's first and most influential teachers. Yet, we also understand that babies are not born with instructions, and often, parents, regardless of experience or demographic, could use a helping hand. Offering such support is the Parents as Teachers (PAT) program, an evidenced-based parent education and home visiting model that serves families throughout pregnancy until their child enters kindergarten. Grounded in the most recent research of children's brain development, the program aims to support families through direct interaction with children and parents in the most intimate of settings: their home.
Households in today's economy generally have a parent who works full time, and in many cases, two parents who work full time. At the end of the workday, parents are have limited time to spend with their families. It becomes increasingly important that this limited time be quality time, and that each moment is maximized to best serve the family and meet the child's needs.
Although passive entertainment like television and video games is convenient, it takes away time from creative play and parent-child interaction. It is important that parents are aware of the benefits of simply sharing time with their child.
However, child-driven, unstructured play can be a challenge for some parents, especially first-time parents. This is where knowledge of child development can be very influential. Daily routines like getting dressed in the morning or putting on pajamas in the evening, if it's done in a playful and unhurried way, can be a fun opportunity for parent-child interaction. Parent educators through the Parents as Teachers program introduce and help parents build new skill sets while providing them with resources to enhance parent-child interaction.
The Parents as Teachers program recognizes that being a parent is a hard job. Dirty diapers. Noise. Crying. Tantrums. Stress. Parents may be pushed to the limit at times and sometimes children are hurt, neglected, ignored, and abused.
In light of the Choose Respect campaign, we know that in an environment of abuse and neglect, children aren't able to learn, grow, and develop to reach their full potential. Risk factors for child abuse and neglect can include a lack of parenting skills, unrealistic expectations of a child's capabilities, parental stress, and a lack of support networks for parents.
Parents as Teachers equips families with the information and tools necessary to provide a healthy and safe home. Parents enrolled in the PAT program showcase improved parenting practices, increased knowledge and practice of positive discipline techniques, more realistic expectations of age-appropriate developmental milestones, a home environment conducive to healthy child development, parent-child attachment, reduction of stress, fulfillment of basic needs, opportunities to interact with other parents, and increased awareness and access to sources of information and support. This results in strong communities, healthy families, and children who are healthy, safe, and ready to learn.
It is important to highlight that the Parents as Teachers model is not a "do this/don't do that" approach to parent education. Rather, it is the foundation by which the parent educator helps parents to understand and act upon their child's developmental stages and recognize the opportunities each stage offers for learning.
Currently, the proposed state budget cuts threaten services to nearly 75 of the 271 families in the program.
There are few investments that have the rate of return that early childhood programs do. Investing in Alaska's families, beginning in children's earliest years, produces significant long-term benefits not only for program participants, but our communities as well.
Invest in a program built on the principle that all parents, regardless of personal circumstances, can be empowered, can gain control over difficult circumstances, and can interact with their children in a way that facilitates healthy development.
Estrella "Star" Lee is state coordinator of Parents as Teachers, a program of RurAL CAP (Rural Alaska Community Action Program).
By ESTRELLA LEE