Program helps children step into the world
By Kaye Hult
Mountain States Early Head Start (MSEHS) is a home-based, innovative program, helping preschool children, especially in low-income families, step out into the world with confidence.
"It is a school readiness program for children," said Kristin Moody, the parent family community engagement specialist.
Staff work with children and their families—whatever family means to them.
Because staff take pride in being hands-on, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a challenge to their approach.
The four centers in Coeur d'Alene, Rathdrum, Sandpoint and Kellogg have been closed since the onset last spring. Staff stepped up in creative ways to make sure the children and families receive the services they need and deserve, she said.
"Normally, a family consultant is assigned to each participating child and family," said Kristin. "Consultants visit families' homes 90 minutes a week. They share information on child development.
"Being virtual, the meeting time is flexible," she said. "They may do 30-minute video calls. Some do phone calls rather than connecting on the computer."
Relationships are center stage. Good relationships with parents, grandparents, foster parents, step-parents or roommates, whoever holds a parental role in the family, provide the support necessary for children to gain confidence.
"When children's social and emotional development is strong, they have secure attachment to a caregiver who is there for them. They can operate outside the care, knowing they return to the security of the caregiver," she said.
"We support everyone in a family. We aim to meet each family where they are and walk alongside them," she added.
In part, MSEHS is like a resource manual, said Kristin, who helps find resources.
If a family is low on money, needs diapers or has other needs, family consultants help them figure what resources are available.
"One of my roles is interacting with community partners to promote our program and learn about resources and opportunities we can share with families," she said.
Because of social distancing restrictions, staff cannot do home visits, but the children and their families still receive services MSEHS provides.
Mountain States Early Head Start seeks to live their motto, "Parents are the best first teachers," Kristin said, rethinking how to work with families means empowering parents.
Karlie Paschall, child development/disabilities coordinator, works with family consultants to ensure that the curriculum supports parents' role as the child's first and best teachers, and is effective and supported virtually.
Family consultants help families set goals for their children.
Karlie adapts the curriculum to help families meet their goals. In lieu of in-person family visits, she has created curriculum kits for families. They include activities and materials to do them. She tailors them for different age groups.
She includes instructions about why each activity is important. An activity helping develop a child's brain or motor skills will assist in a child's overall development.
Because the program now operates remotely, rather than family consultants observing children and their activities, parents observe and report, Kristin said.
MSEHS also has Zoom play groups. Karlie works with playgroup coordinators in Bonner, Kootenai and Shoshone counties to develop a plan for each playgroup session. There are play groups three times each month in each county.
With her support, coordinators put together developmentally appropriate materials for play groups. These materials are the same for each site to ensure continuity. For example, each child receives the same book and corresponding materials used in play groups in a packet, which is delivered to a family before play group sessions.
Packet contents pertain to the activity, circle time and reading time in the playgroup session. For example, a recent packet contained a shape sorter, scarf, a book called LEAVES, crayons, paper and laminated leaves.
MSEHS reaches into the community too. The play group coordinator, Catie Kotmel, leads virtual play groups Wednesdays on Facebook for anyone. A family does not have to be enrolled to join. Participants can watch online videos any time.
"We normally have parent meetings," said Kristin. "Coffee Connections is a time for parents to meet and learn from each other. They can give feedback, so they have a voice about what they want from us. Because we can't meet in person, we do Zoom Coffee Connections to provide a time for parents to network."
Mari Noonan, staff culinarian and Lakeland Center assistant, created a Facebook cooking class to teach how to create nourishing meals. To teach how to make mac and cheese, and Italian style broccoli, she set up a program like a cooking network show, complete with drawings for a spice rack and large pans of the dishes.
Staff creativity has resulted in greater communication than in-person meetings. People text more. Emails share about resources. Bi-weekly packets provide mental health, community and food resources.
Kristin coordinates everything, connecting to the community to know what is available. She interacts with many different organizations.
She stresses the program's inclusivity. Income eligibility is one aspect. They also consider stresses when deciding what families need the most support.
"We primarily enroll low-income families," she said. "We want to hear everyone's story when enrolling them."
Kristin's drive to work in a caring profession came from growing up in Post Falls in a caring family, who cared for her grandparents and a great aunt.
After graduating from East Valley High School in Spokane Valley, she earned a bachelor's degree in social work at Lewis-Clark State College in Coeur d'Alene in 2017.
Kristin said she did not know what she wanted to do with her degree until she saw a job posting for MSEHS for a community engagement position. It involved involvement with families, staff and community.
"We're here to walk alongside families," she said. "We're not judging or looking into their lives. We meet them where they are."
For information, call 208-765-6955, ext. 271 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, December, 2020