September 3, 2004

UC teaches parents to help children get off to a good start in school

No matter their educational level or English proficiency, parents are their children’s most important teachers. That’s why two University of California Cooperative Extension advisors have developed a program that gives parents new ways to enrich their children’s early years.

The seven-lesson program, Off to a Good Start, begins by building parents’ confidence in their own ability to teach. Some parents mistakenly believe only bona fide teachers have the skills to educate children. “Off to a Good Start” shows that just by talking, playing, singing, reading or sharing stories — in any language — parents are preparing children academically, socially and emotionally for school.

The well-documented connection between early exposure to books and reading skills later in life led the program authors — Sue Manglallan, 4-H youth and family development advisor of San Diego County, and Sharon Junge, 4-H youth development advisor of Placer and Nevada counties — to incorporate books and reading exercises into each lesson.

“There is so much children learn from being read to, such as what a book is like, you read from left to right, there is a story line, characters and something happens,” Manglallan said. “Hearing words enlarges their vocabulary base, exposing them to language that isn’t part of everyday life.”

The curriculum incorporates a wide variety of simple activities parents can do with their children to promote learning. For example, in one lesson, parents learn how to make a “sound-a-phone” for their children out of PVC pipe and elbows. The instructors demonstrate how parents can help their children use the phone to hear sounds and practice conversation skills.

Listening is one of the best ways of building vocabulary and improving comprehension, but learning to listen takes lots of practice. The sound-a-phone is a great toy for pretend play and conversation, as well as a tool for helping children hear the detailed segments of words, according to the UC Cooperative Extension advisors.

At the end of each session, parents receive handouts describing additional activities to complete with their children. For example, one of the at-home listening games is called “find a button.” The handout advises parents to hide a small object like a button someplace in the house. Then, the parent gives two or three directions for the child to remember, such as “take five steps forward, bend down, lift up the paper.” As the child masters the short set of directions, the number may be increased.

The Off to a Good Start curriculum is being implemented in Placer, Nevada and San Diego counties by program representatives funded by grants from First 5 California, an initiative of the California Children and Families Commission. In San Diego County, the program is conducted in three communities along the border, where most participating families are low-income and of Mexican descent. In Placer and Nevada counties, the program is taught countywide to parents and child care professionals.

”We encourage Spanish speakers to read to their children in their native language,” Manglallan said. “The children can pick up English when they get to school, but reading is important.”

”We talk about getting kids immunized, healthy habits, establishing a routine and we point out the importance of visiting the school ahead of time,” Junge said. “We want parents to be aware of what will be expected of their children in kindergarten. In fact, we developed the curriculum around the expectations.”

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