Supporting parents as teachers

Tara Jones plays with son, Cole, during a Bright Beginnings playgroup (Dianne Carroll Burdick)

Teaching a 4-year-old how to use scissors is not necessarily an easy task, but a suggestion from a Bright Beginnings parent educator not only made it a teachable moment for parent Lynn Backowski, but a fun one.

“She told me to get some index cards,” Backowski said. “The cards are smaller and stiffer than paper, making it easier to cut. So I started by drawing straight lines, and then curvy, and then jagged, as a way to practice.

Bright Beginnings parent educator Staci Zuspann conducts a virtual visit with a family (courtesy)

“It might not sound like a lot, but I really appreciate getting ideas like this.”

Resource ideas are just one element of what Bright Beginnings provides. As part of the Missouri-based Parents as Teachers program, the goal of the early childhood program is to offer parents support and services to help them become the best first teachers for their children.

And the national organization that sets standards for it to follow has taken notice. This past fall, Bright Beginnings received Blue Ribbon Affiliate accreditation from Parents as Teachers. It is the only Parents as Teachers program in Kent County to achieve this.

“It shows we are a high-quality, top-performing program committed to helping our families and their children succeed in school,” Lezan said.

To assure the standards are met, the organization established Blue Ribbon accreditation.

To become accredited, Bright Beginnings staff spent a year creating a staff handbook, updating its database and streamlining forms. Lezan said the team worked hard to meet and exceed all standards and requirements including visit frequency, connecting families to community resources, completing health screenings and working with parents to create goals.

“Parents have so many places to choose from, that having the Blue Ribbon demonstrates that Bright Beginnings offers a highly recognized, quality program,” Lezan said.

Bright Beginnings parent educators took a page from Mr. Rogers’ playbook to show parents and children how much they care (courtesy)

Building Block to Success

Bright Beginnings received funding for three new parent educators from the Ready by Five early childhood millage approved by Kent County voters in 2018. A partnership between Kent ISD and school districts, the program serves families with children from birth to kindergarten. The program primarily offers personal home visits around the county, along with screenings and referrals, said Coordinator Karen Lezan. Any family in Kent County can participate.

“Children’s brains grow the most during the first three years of life,” Lezan said. “We would like to be that building block so that they have successful years of school ahead of them.”

‘A great program’

During the 2018-2019 school year, the 15 Bright Beginnings parent educators worked with 466 children, completing 4,874 home visits and hosting 279 playgroups. Bright Beginnings also conducted 2,418 screenings and referred 418 children to community services. 

A key component of Bright Beginnings is home visits. A parent educator works with families through a child’s early years, building a relationship, working with parents, and providing ideas and activities focused on the student’s individual learning and needs.

Bright Beginnings Coordinator Karen Lezan holds the Blue Ribbon certificate from the Parents as Teachers program (Joanne Bailey-Boorsma)

The individual attention was important to Backowski, especially as the focus shifted from daughter, Natalie, to son, Wesly. 

“For my daughter Natalie, this was more a fun thing to do and we just went to playgroups and had home visits,” Backowski said. “For my son, it was a much different situation.”

Her son has separation anxiety, Backowski said, so she has been working with him through Bright Beginnings and the parent educators to help him prepare for school. The playgroups have helped her son socialize and have given him a taste of what school might be like, she said. Also, her being able to talk to parent educators and other parents has built support and positive reinforcement.

Backowski, who has a background in education, said that for her the program is a no-brainer.

“Them receiving the Blue Ribbon is great,” she said. “But I don’t think twice about it being a good program, I just know it’s a great program. Having been in it for so long, I just find it a great resource.”

Eunice Aibueng plays with moving beads during a Bright Beginnings playgroup (Dianne Carroll Burdick)

It’s a resource she hopes more parents will discover.

“What amazes me is this is a totally free program that they provide. I just feel that it’s a shame that more parents don’t know about it.”

Still Reaching Out

The global pandemic that shuttered schools in March did not stop parent educators from conducting home visits. Since March 16, 212 families have received 598 virtual home visits, Lezan said, noting that along with providing parents with ideas for play and routines, staff have connected families to other support resources.

They have used various technologies available to families to visit and check in, Lezan said. Daily updates and videos are provided on the Kent ISD Bright Beginnings Facebook page, and educators have dropped off lessons to families.

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Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma was born in the Detroit area but grew up in Brighton where she attended Hartland Public Schools. The salutatorian for the Class of 1985, she changed her colors from blue and maize to green and white by attending Michigan State University, where she majored in journalism and minored in photography and German. She expanded her color palette to include orange and black as both her daughters graduated from Byron Center Public Schools; maroon and white for Aquinas College where her daughter studies nursing and also brought back blue and maize for Grand Rapids Community College where her youngest daughter currently is studying music. Read Joanne's full bio or email Joanne.

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