The Village Approach to Creating a Solid Foundation

by Angela Bracero, Early Childhood Teacher, Warren Village

Part 1  –  “Preschool Me”

That mullet-adorned three-year old with the pearls is “preschool me.” It was 1988, and my then single mother was a full-time working schoolteacher and I went to full-day preschool. I started my foray into the world surrounded by teachers, classrooms, students and a preschool teacher named Mona who made such an impression on my young mind, that to this day, I have my own preschoolers partake in activities that she did with us thirty years ago. So yeah, I can definitely say preschool had an impact on me. I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today had it not been for preschool.

Years of investigative studies, advancements in neuroscience, and the fascinating attempt to understand how human beings develop have all revealed something critical: our earliest experiences as young children are the biggest contributing factors in our ability to become successful, confident and emotionally healthy adults later in life.

In the last few decades, neuroscience has discovered that newborn babies are born with a vast amount of brain cells, but what these new brains lack are “connections.” Connections, which we also call synapses, help lay down the foundation and then eventually the entire structure of the brain. Synapses form at an incredibly rapid rate during the first three years of a human’s life. Rich learning experiences, a healthy and supportive relationship with parents and caretakers, and a safe home environment all help lay down a solid foundation. But what happens when a child is born into poverty? What happens when a parent doesn’t have a strong support system and is struggling to meet their family’s basic needs? What happens when a child doesn’t receive rich early learning experiences? The answer is, the foundation is weakened.

I’ve been in the education world for about fifteen years now, and have always been drawn to working with high needs communities, where poverty seems to linger like a heavy cloud over the lives of the families and children I’ve connected with. After spending a few years teaching English as a Second Language abroad, I decided to accept a teaching position at a Denver-based non-profit called Warren Village. I was immediately impressed with the program as it is comprised of a family service center, an NAEYC-accredited learning center, safe and affordable low-income housing, caring social workers and amazing teachers who all work hard to provide support for single-parent homeless families in urban Denver.

I’ve been teaching at Warren Village for almost six years. I even took a year off to teach fourth grade at a charter school in Aurora, but I was pulled back; I missed my village. I’ve worked with both parents and children, with infants, toddlers, preschoolers and school-aged children, and I can honestly tell you from years of personal experience and observation that poverty affects children profoundly. I’ve seen the effects begin in children who haven’t even had their first birthday yet. The effects can permeate a child’s whole being. Poverty and trauma can result in physical, language and cognitive delays. These children are more likely to have trouble with emotion regulation, anxiety and depression. I’ve noticed problems with fine and gross motor skills, and have seen poor nutrition, which can cause its own host of medical issues.

From the outside it can seem like a momentous task to tackle, but from the inside it’s actually quite manageable IF you have the right resources. Together at Warren Village, we’re an educational team, made up of dedicated and well-trained educators, social workers and administrative staff. We work hard to assess areas in which a child might be struggling, keeping in mind these are infants through preschoolers. We take a holistic approach to figure out if a child is struggling socio-emotionally or cognitively and if we notice a child having language problems we refer them for speech services. Sometimes children qualify for occupational therapy. We have therapists who can work with children who are having eating issues. We have an on-site mental health therapist who provides mental health services for children and sometimes parents. She also provides support in the classroom. We have an on-site medical clinic, and we work hard to establish IEPs (Individual Education Plans) for students who may continue to need help once they move on from our care. We identify where a child’s foundation may be weak and try to fill in those cracks.

We work hard to try to reverse the adverse effects that poverty and trauma can have on the human psyche, because teachers inherently know, just like Frederick Douglass did in the 1800’s, that “it is easier to build strong children than it is to fix broken men.”

Editor’s note:  In part 2 of this series, Angela will discuss strengthening the foundation. Content and views expressed are exclusively that of the blogger.

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