Children experience profound brain development in the first few years of life. This brain development allows them to acquire skills like language, information processing, and emotional regulation.
Early childhood experiences strongly affect this brain development and skill acquisition. But a variety of early childhood interventions have been shown to counteract developmental delays and provide children with an equal opportunity to achieve school readiness, and lifelong employment, income, and health.
A variety of early childhood interventions have been shown to counteract children’s developmental delays and provide them with an equal opportunity to achieve school readiness, and lifelong employment, income, and health.
For Paula Watkins, maximizing children’s early development is a passion. Watkins is a coordinator for Hennepin County’s Follow Along Program. Follow Along is a statewide initiative that engages parents in their child’s early development from birth to three.
Parents in the program receive an ages and stages questionnaire (ASQ) every three to four months which they fill out and mail back to Follow Along. The questionnaires assesses their child’s social/emotional development, and overall development in communication, growth motor, fine motor, problem solving, and personal/social skills.
ASQs help parents and practitioners track a child over time, and determine whether he or she is developing like other kids the same age.
If delays are identified or specific concerns are shared by the parent, Watkins and her colleagues follow up with the family and can refer them to supportive services.
Follow Along also sends parents handouts with examples of simple, fun, and age-appropriate activities that they can do with their child to further support learning until the next scheduled ASQ. In one activity that targets fine motor skills, for instance, children thread beads or noodles together with a shoe string.
Watkins names Hassan and Samlali Ziadi as an example of parents whose child benefited from additional early childhood supports. The couple are co-owners of Moroccan Flavors at the Midtown Global Market and parents to daughter Rim.
The family was initially connected to Waktins through the Minnesota Department of Health’s Lead and Healthy Homes Program (LHHP), which had determined that Rim had high blood lead levels. In addition to showing the family how to minimize lead exposure, LHHP referred Rim to Follow Along for developmental monitoring.
When Watkins first consulted with the Ziadi’s in October 2015, she identified several developmental risk factors. For instance, when Samlali gave birth to Rim the labor and delivery was complicated. And Rim and Samlali, who had immigrated from Morocco to join Hassan, were socially isolated in their new country and not well connected to school-based supports. Additionally Rim, a native Arabic speaker, spoke minimal English and didn’t finish her sentences. And her parents said that when she needed something, she didn’t ask for it, she just got upset and cried.
In 2016, Hennepin County enrolled 631 new children in the Follow Along Program. That year, they also sent out 3,121 ages and stages questionnaires to families.
With help from LHHP, the Ziadi’s learned how to limit Rim’s lead exposure, and her blood lead levels were back within a normal range within six weeks.
Meanwhile, Watkins sent Rim’s parents a 27-month ASQ to help establish Rim’s developmental baseline.
Anticipating that the ASQ would identify developmental delays and a need for school-based supports, Watkins referred the family to the Minneapolis Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) program for home visiting.
ECFE is a program for Minnesota families with children between birth and Kindergarten. Each Minnesota school district has its own ECFE, and the program helps parents provide the best possible environment for their child's learning and growth — through offerings like home visiting, personal phone consultations, and connections to other school-based early childhood programs.
An ECFE parent educator observed Rim at home, answered Hassan and Samlali’s parenting questions, and shared information about early childhood resources within the school district. “To be able to access that extra set of professional eyes in the home and get the family acclimated to their school district was really beneficial,” Watkins says.
When the ASQ results came back, they confirmed that Rim was below target in fine motor and problem solving, and at the monitor level in communication and personal/social skills.
An ECSE team of professionals completed a thorough evaluation of Rim’s development and determined that she qualified for services. With parent input, they created an individualized plan to address Rim’s needs and assure that she would be ready for Kindergarten. Shortly thereafter, ECSE professionals like a speech language pathologist began visiting Rim at home and day care.
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Through Watkins, the family was also assigned a Hennepin County social worker named Barb Wiley for short-term case management. Wiley helped Rim enroll in Head Start, an evidence-based school readiness program that provides low-income kids with a variety of learning, health, and well-being services.
For instance, through Head Start, Rim learned how to socialize with other children, and she mastered toileting and self-care skills like brushing her teeth.
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Today Rim is four years old, and she’s still enrolled in Head Start. Her English is improving, she’s acquired skills she’ll need for Kindergarten, and she’s made friends her own age.
Watkins says Rim’s progress underscores the lifelong benefits that children can derive from early childhood interventions, especially when multiple organizations collaborate. Additionally, she believes that Rim’s story shows the importance of a proactive approach.
“If we can provide early childhood development supports and encouragement, it really does save money down the road,” Watkins says. “And the earlier the intervention, the more positive output we can have. Helping our young children and their families thrive is very important.”
Written by: Lori Imsdahl