Early child­hood cen­ter fo­cuses on the whole child

South Florida Times - - METRO - ERICA VAN BUREN Special to South Florida Times By

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – For par­ents con­sid­er­ing child­care ser­vices, ex­perts say a high qual­ity early child­hood education is key to a child’s de­vel­op­ment.

“Cur­rent brain re­search shows that 80 per­cent of the brain’s de­vel­op­ment oc­curs in the first three years of a child’s life,” says Alice Eger, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Op­por­tu­nity Early Child­hood Education and Fam­ily Cen­ter. “It’s not just the per­son­al­ity - which is part of it and is crit­i­cal in de­vel­op­ing those so­cial and emo­tional skills, it’s the num­ber of con­nec­tions in the brain. That’s how you learn how to use what you know, for the rest of your life.”

Eger ex­plained, if those con­nec­tions aren’t made strong, they will dis­in­te­grate. The brain con­tin­ues to de­velop un­til a per­son is about 26, but at a much slower rate. Play­ing catch up is pos­si­ble, but only to a lim­ited de­gree. If that key part of a child’s de­vel­op­ment is missed, they are af­fected for the rest of their life.

“From a teacher’s point of view, it’s very im­por­tant; it’s the foun­da­tion,” said Jes­sica Feli­ciano, vol­un­tary pre-kinder­garten lead teacher at Op­por­tu­nity. “You’re build­ing that foun­da­tion that they’re go­ing to build those skills on. They’re go­ing to get those early life skills like read­ing and math. It all comes to­gether with their play and while build­ing those so­cial and emo­tional con­nec­tions.”

Ex­perts en­cour­age par­ents to know and un­der­stand the dif­fer­ence be­tween a highly-qual­i­fied child­care provider and a babysit­ter.

“In a babysit­ting sce­nario, you re­ally can’t cre­ate the so­cial op­por­tu­ni­ties for learn­ing that you can in a class­room of chil­dren,” says Eger. “We have teach­ers who are trained pro­fes­sion­als. They know the pat­tern in se­quence of learn­ing and skills. So, what they’re do­ing is not only ap­pro­pri­ate, but timely. In other words, they’re not push­ing the chil­dren be­yond where they should be; they’re chal­leng­ing them ap­pro­pri­ately. The av­er­age babysit­ter can’t do that.”

Eger goes on to say that, teach­ers are also trained to rec­og­nize red flags that might in­di­cate a need for ad­di­tional ser­vices.

“We use a com­bi­na­tion, our ba­sic cur­ricu­lum is a cre­ative cur­ricu­lum,” Eger ex­plained. “We have a sys­tem where we con­sis­tently as­sess what the chil­dren are do­ing. We base our les­son plans on where the chil­dren are and the next stage of where they need to go.”

Op­por­tu­nity’s over­all phi­los­o­phy is to de­velop crit­i­cal think­ing skills by in­cor­po­rat­ing sev­eral S.T.E.A.M [Sci­ence, Tech­nol­ogy, Engi­neer­ing, Arts and Math­e­mat­ics] ac­tiv­i­ties. Each child learns at a dif­fer­ent pace, so pro­vid­ing a di­verse cur­ricu­lum is key.

“We know ev­ery­one is dif­fer­ent. Some of our chil­dren learn com­pletely dif­fer­ent from the typ­i­cal child and that’s why we do the in­di­vid­u­al­iza­tion,” said Eger. “There’s no data that says ev­ery­one is ready for the same thing and the same way.”

Pro­vid­ing the ap­pro­pri­ate teacher to child ra­tio means spread­ing equal at­ten­tion around evenly.

“You might have a child that needs a lit­tle bit more time and at­ten­tion,” Feli­ciano shared. “So, if you have an ex­tra teacher, the other adult can give that child the ex­tra sup­port in­stead of just mov­ing on to the next ac­tiv­ity.”

As it re­lates to dis­ci­plin­ing chil­dren, the cen­ter al­lows the child to be in­volved in the dis­ci­plinary ac­tion to en­force life skills that will be used later in life.

“We don’t use the ter­mi­nol­ogy dis­ci­pline. We like to build char­ac­ter, re­silience and good cit­i­zen­ship,” said Eger. “It starts in our in­fant room and we use what is called Con­science Dis­ci­pline. It’s a sys­tem that’s been around a long time, cre­ated by Dr. Becky Bai­ley. It re­ally builds a sense of com­mu­nity, re­spect, cop­ing skills, so­cial in­ter­ac­tion and con­flict res­o­lu­tion. It’s em­pow­er­ing the chil­dren to gain these skills. It’s not just telling them what to do. It’s cre­at­ing the de­sire to do what’s right; by know­ing what’s right.”

The teacher fa­cil­i­tates the Con­science Dis­ci­pline; how­ever, stu­dents are learn­ing how to live life. In­stead of some­one grab­bing, push­ing or cry­ing, they learn to re­solve con­flict more ef­fec­tively.

Op­por­tu­nity serves 96 chil­dren, ages six weeks up to age five, from low-in­come, work­ing fam­i­lies lo­cated in the West­gate/Belvedere neigh­bor­hood of West Palm Beach.

PHOTO COURTESY OF ERICA VAN BUREN FOR SOUTH FLOR­IDA TIMES

EARLY LEARN­ING: At the Op­por­tu­nity Early Child­hood Ed­u­ca­tion and Fam­ily Cen­ter in West Palm Beach, teach­ers en­gage chil­dren in a com­pre­hen­sive learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment.

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