Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

Imagine a citywide approach to helping young children prepare for school.

That’s the city New Bedford is striving to be. The city’s public school system is working with local center-based preschool providers, as well as diverse stakeholders including the New Bedford Art Museum, the city’s housing authority, and the United Way of New Bedford to develop school readiness programs.

“We’ve never really had that alignment conversation,” Diane Sullivan said in a recent interview. Sullivan is the supervisor of Early Childhood Special Education for New Bedford Public Schools.

Sullivan helps lead the Birth through Third Grade Alignment Partnership effort, which has been underway in New Bedford since fall 2014. The work is funded by the Department of Early Education and Care, using federal Early Learning Challenge funds.

Taking what Sullivan calls a “good first step,” New Bedford has decided to focus on helping preschool-age children build strong social and emotional skills. 

Sullivan says more parents are concerned about their children’s social and emotional skills and child care centers are seeing an increase in the number of children who need emotional and behavioral support.

Among the likely causes for this increase: children are witnessing a lot of trauma. In addition, the poverty rate for New Bedford families with children younger than 5 is 26 percent, according to 2013 U.S. Census data, twice as high as the statewide rate of 13 percent.

To tackle this problem, New Bedford turned to Kelly Rodriguez at Justice Resource Institute (JRI). The program director of JRI’s Early Childhood Training and Consultation services, Rodriguez is running a series of training programs for adults on children’s social and emotional development.

The content of the programs comes from CSEFEL, the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning at Vanderbilt University. CSEFEL is “a national resource center for disseminating research and evidence-based practices to early childhood programs across the country.”

The secret ingredient to this approach: Don’t wait for bad behavior to happen.

Instead, the model is based on a conceptual “pyramid.”

The pyramid rests on an important base: a well-trained and effective workforce.

The next level of the pyramid and the first step to take is promotion, which means creating supportive, high-quality environments where adults are well-prepared to handle behavioral challenges and where children can find the resources they need to proactively develop strong social and emotional skills.

“Lets look at the whole classroom environment and lets put in classroom-based strategies” that help all children, Rodriguez said in an interview. “One of my favorites is the solution wall,” where adults and children can go to consider a list of potential solutions such as “share” or “ask a teacher.”

The next level of the pyramid is prevention: making sure that children who are at risk for troubling behavior get targeted help.

And at the top of the pyramid is intervention for the small percentage of children who have on-going behavioral challenges.

A video description of this model is available on the website of the Technical Assistance Center on Social Emotional Intervention for Young Children.

The model helps teachers feel safe and develop skills, Rodriguez says, and that’s important because teachers typically don’t get the chance to work on challenging situations in a safe environment. The training can also help early educators develop stronger bonds with each other, making them role models for children and strengthening their professional work. And once classrooms start using this approach, parents can, too, Rodriguez adds.

In addition the CSEFEL website is full of information and tools in Spanish and English that anyone can access and share. These include:

• family tools

• research syntheses

• state planning resources, and,

• training modules

New Bedford’s training sessions dovetail with emerging state policy. The Department of Early Education and Care is finalizing standards for social-emotional learning, based on evidence from research and practice that shows “the strong connection between social and emotional learning, academic learning, and success in life.”

So far, 170 people – including early educators, public school teachers, and parents — have attended these training sessions. Sullivan hopes to train 100 more people by the time the grant ends in December.

Of course, one training session is only a start. Rodriguez says that on-going coaching would help early educators build their skills. And Sullivan says follow-up mentoring would be valuable.

Funders and philanthropists could meet these needs by funding more training sessions as well as mentoring or coaching programs.

Providing New Bedford’s young children with strong social and emotional skills should help them enter school ready to succeed, and put them on a path to success in school and beyond.

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To support the larger Birth-3rd effort — which is also tackling early literacy, kindergarten transitions, and improved use of data — New Bedford receives technical support from David Jacobson, who works at Cambridge Education and at the Birth Through Third Grade Learning Hub. Jacobson has blogged about these efforts here and here, and he has worked with several other communities across the state on similar early learning efforts.

Strategies for Children also provides technical support for New Bedford’s work. Stay tuned: In the months ahead, we’ll provide an update on New Bedford’s progress.