‘The Child is the Centre of the Whole Thing’
My Education Week: Sandra Monks Home visitor, National College of Ireland Parent Child Home Programme
Children are amazing. Each one is so different and they all surprise you. Sometimes it takes a bit of trial and error to get them going. This lad I visited this morning was so shy, he wouldn’t say a word. His mother was very shy too. He wasn’t interested in the books I brought, so I tried a different tack, a game of imagination and pretending using little teddies that you can dress up for different occasions and invent stories for. Once he got going he showed great imagination and he was able to communicate his ideas. That’s my job as a home visitor, to model ways that parents can unlock their children’s potential and get them ready for learning.
Originally from the US, the Parent Child Home Programme (PCHP) at NCI engages parents in their children’s early learning and supports them in preparing their children for school. The home visitors, all local people, act as ambassadors for education in the community. There are currently 75 families in the PCHP programme in Dublin’s Docklands.
Every Monday morning I meet with the other 17 home visitors working in Docklands and we compare notes. We all arrive in the blue uniforms that have become so recognisable in this part of the city. In fact, we have people come up to us now in streets as we make our daily rounds asking if we would come to their house and help with their child or someone they know. Twice a week I go in to each of nine houses and the three of us – mother, child and me – sit down on the floor and play. Sometimes it’s a dad or a grandparent, but the child is always at the centre, the point of the whole thing.
Our job is to give parents ideas on how to play with their children in ways that will develop their learning, language skills and imagination. We let the child take the lead. Any teacher of small kids will tell you that they can spot the ones whose parents read to them and play with them at home. We’re helping families in this area who need a bit of confidence to get going.
The meeting with the other visitors was very helpful, as it always is. Arlene Foster from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment came in to talk to us about what we’re doing and how it fits with the plan for early childhood education.
I brought playdough to a house today to try it out with a little boy I’ve been visiting. He doesn’t talk but I could tell by his body language and facial expression that he was not comfortable with it. He couldn’t understand the touch and feel of it, didn’t know how to play with it. I suggested to his mum that she use the Brown Bear book that he already knew and trusted, and introduce the playdough as a prop when reading it. The child and mother were playing happily together when I left. That was a successful strategy that I will share with rest of the group next week.
When we go into a house there are some ground rules. We are not allowed to accept tea or coffee, for example. It would be too easy to slip into adult chit-chat and lose focus. We are there to help the child, and to model behaviour for the parents that they can use when we are gone.
One child I visited today is such a delight – I suppose it’s because we have come so far since I first met him. Both mother and child were very fearful of having me in the house. Now he waits at the door for me. I love that.
Wednesday is my busiest day. I have five visits. I spend two years visiting each family before they graduate from the programme. In the first year I model reading and playing with various toys and books, and then in the second year I encourage the parent to do more.
One family I visited is starting their second year of the programme. When I suggested to the mother in November that she might start reading to her child by herself she said she couldn’t do it. No way. This mother had very low self-esteem, no confidence in herself at all. Throughout December I got her to read one page and I read the other. I gave her loads of praise and encouragement. When I went back today she was so excited to tell me that she had been reading to her daughter over Christmas. She was thrilled with herself. She was also so proud that her daughter was seeing her read, as she hadn’t before.
I’m from the Docklands. I love working here, giving something back. I think this programme is making a difference. It started seven years ago and I’m already hearing from the staff in the local pre-school that they are noticing a change in the parents and children that we visit. In the second year of the visits we cover some of the stuff that the children will learn in pre-school, such as shapes and colours. It’s great to hear we’re doing something right.
You don’t need a lot of expensive toys and materials to do this. We use very simple things. The important bit is to show, not tell, the parents how to link from one skill to the next, from playing and imagination to communication and reading. We are trained in how to do this and we get a refresher course every September. The more you engage the parents in the process the more successful it will be.
Today I’ll write up all my notes and observations from this week’s visit so that I can update the group on Monday. Then I’ll wash my blue uniform and get ready to spend some time with own family.