Voices from the Field

Early childhood home visiting programs connect parents and caregivers with the knowledge, skills, and resources they need to raise children who are healthy and ready to learn. In 2018, PHP made its first grant to support ParentChild+’s home visiting program with immigrant and refugee families in South/Southwest Philadelphia.

December 2019

Launched over five decades ago, ParentChild+ is a national and international organization that came to Philadelphia in 2016 with the catalytic support of the Greenlight Fund. ParentChild+ uses education to break the cycle of poverty for low-income families by helping toddlers and their parents access early opportunity.

ParentChild+ Early Learning Specialists visit families in their homes, providing parents with children between the ages of 16 months to four years old with high quality early learning tools and guidance to stimulate parent-child interaction; to develop children’s language, early literacy, and social-emotional skills; and to build school readiness. Early Learning Specialists come from the communities they work in and use a strengths-based approach to identifying and developing families’ parenting knowledge and linguistic practices. Families with young children receive 30 minute twice-weekly visits, for a total of 92 home visits, to support healthy development and learning skills.

The Public Health Management Corporation (PHMC) serves as the ParentChild+ local replication partner in Philadelphia. ParentChild+ Philadelphia is led by Pennsylvania State Director, Malkia Singleton Ofori-Agyekum, who works closely with Katie Rubinstein, Director of Quality Initiatives at PHMC, who oversees four Site Coordinators and seventeen Early Learning Specialists working in three target communities in North, West, and South/Southwest Philadelphia. Across all three sites, ParentChild+ served 265 families through their core home visiting model in the 2018-2019 program year, of which 107 live in South/Southwest Philadelphia.

ParentChild+ South/Southwest Philadelphia works to address the gap in home visiting services and school readiness supports for families with dual language learners. 100% of families served have parents born outside of the United States. A recent report by the Migration Policy Institute outlined the benefits of home visiting programs to support immigrant and dual language learner families, including: supporting parents to foster their child’s language development, providing linguistically and culturally appropriate early screenings, sharing information about child development, and providing connections to early childhood services for families who might otherwise be isolated from support.

In the following interview, South/Southwest Site Coordinator, Vanessa Ruiz shares her experiences working with families to ensure that all children have equal possibilities from the start.

Who Are the Families Who You Work with in South/Southwest?

The ParentChild+ South/Southwest Philadelphia cohort is a vision of diversity. We currently work with families from ten different countries (e.g., Ivory Coast, Uganda, Congo, Togo, Burkina Faso, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic) who speak six different languages. Our ultimate goal is to match each family with an Early Learning Specialist who shares the family’s home language and culture.

When I started working with ParentChild+, I walked the streets of South Philly by myself, naively believing that families would flock to sign up for free books and toys in their home language. Then, the November 2016 elections happened, and any doors that had cracked open shut with a slam. Everyone was scared and trying to understand how rapidly changing policies affecting immigrants and refugees would impact their families.

I understood that reaction from personal experience: While teaching English as a Second Language in college, I met my now-husband, a Mexican man who, like many, had risked his life to cross the border to provide for his family. For the first few years of our marriage, we lived a strange limbo between the life of an undocumented Mexican and an American. The contrast shook me to the core and rewrote everything I had been taught to believe about “liberty and justice for all.” After completing the long, arduous, and expensive process for my husband to become a permanent resident, I began to look for ways to support immigrant community members through my work—ultimately finding Parent Child+.

At ParentChild+, every team member is passionate about providing children and families with access to opportunity. However, it was not until Early Learning Specialists joined our team who lived in the South/Southwest community and shared the same backgrounds as our program families that we began to build trust. Our families were hungry for safety, security, and connection. By coming into their homes twice a week for two years, our Early Learning Specialists build deep connections with our families. They are dependable, bring the parent and child together to enjoy learning, and provide the tools for children and their families to keep having fun long after the visit ends.

Today, some of our former South/Southwest participants work for the ParentChild+ program. For instance, Dulce Morales Ortega was born in Mexico and has lived in Philadelphia for eleven years. A mother of four, she initially participated in the program with her son Roman and now serves as an Early Learning Specialist. In Dulce’s words:

“My son Roman is a child with special needs, and as a Mom, I am always looking for tools to help my son. Through ParentChild+, he learned to share with other people through play and was also able to relate to the books and practice essential skills that a child his age needs to learn. We both learned to spend time together. I learned that as a mom I could do more than just observe but also become part of the game and learn together with my son.

When I began working with ParentChild+, I learned many new things about how children learn and how important communication is. I also realized the fundamental role that parents and the family play in teaching little people how to interact with the world. Through each visit, I see how important it is to dedicate time to our children for their growth. Each family is different, but each one of them has taught me something that I did not know before. I have been able to learn about different personalities and that each child is unique and has his or her own way of learning. Working with ParentChild+ has taught me many ways to share with my children, learn at the same time, and look for ways to improve their physical and emotional well-being.”

Why and How does ParentChild+ Focus on Parent-Child Interaction as a Key Lever for Change?

Eighty percent of a child’s brain is formed by the age of three before most children even step into a school. Parents are a child’s first and most important teacher. We know that if we can empower parents to see the critical role they play in their child’s life and give them the skills and resources they need to fulfill that role, that child will enter school ready to succeed. We also know that if a parent truly believes he or she is the most significant person in their child’s life, especially in a country that does not speak your home language or share your culture, that parent will raise a confident child with an unshakable sense of identity and self-worth.

That confidence will then seep into other areas of life. Mom will feel brave enough to advocate for her children at school and for her own basic rights at work. Mom’s children will not be ashamed to stand up for themselves when the teacher cannot figure out how to say their names. By teaching the value of maintaining the home language and creating that early bond, Mom and her children will always have a place to come back to at the end of a long day: their unshakable bond and the joy of having fun together.

As a coordinator, I know that parent-child interactions do not occur in a vacuum but rather flourish when families have access to care and services. A big part of my job is connecting families with high-quality early childhood education and other community services, including making Early Intervention referrals and facilitating visits to high-quality pre-kindergarten. However, it does not end there. Some days, I am a translator, helping a parent address issues at school or with the water bill. Other days, I assist families navigating immigration issues or just sit next to them in court. In other moments, I fill out paperwork or teach someone to use the bus.

For individuals who do not understand or speak English or have someone to teach them the language, simple and trivial tasks can seem like an insurmountable mountain. ParentChild+ is committed to providing the resources that families need to navigate and access the social services available in their community. Families with the knowledge and confidence to seek support are in a stronger place to help their children prosper. 

How Do You Define Success?

ParentChild+ looks for success in increased positive parent-child interactions and children’s school readiness. We assess outcomes using two standardized assessment tools, the Child Behavior Traits (CBT) scale and the Parent and Child Together (PACT) scale, to evaluate behavioral change in children and their parents. Early Learning Specialists complete the assessments for each family at the beginning of the program, mid-way through the program, and when the child graduates from the program.

The CBT scale provides an understanding of child development outcomes linked with school readiness, including independence, social cooperation, task orientation, cognitive ability, and emotional stability. It assesses child behaviors, including: “Child can describe in words or sentences the pictures in a book; approaches play in a systematic way; understands and completes activities that are developmentally appropriate; and expresses appropriate feelings.” The PACT evaluates parent-child interactions related to communication, consistency, affection, and responsiveness. It assesses parent behaviors, including “Parent tries to converse with child; teaches child to perform age-appropriate activities; encourages child to perform activities independently; and verbalizes approval of the child.”

ParentChild+ transforms the lives of families. Children develop a love for reading, and siblings read and talk in their native language. Parents realize that play is a learning tool and a stress reliever. For instance, they gain confidence in venturing to the local library to obtain a library card so that they have access to new resources for their family. Parents take pride in their roles as their child’s first and most important teacher.

The impact of our program manifests in both visible and non-visible ways. I think back to one family who began hanging up pieces of artwork that the father and toddler worked together to create during ParentChild+ visits. While the walls started out bare, soon they were so full that the family began hanging artwork on the front door. In that same household, the positive effects of the program rippled throughout the family: alongside their younger sibling, the older children learned to read in their home language, cut well with scissors, and enjoy playing together. At the end of the school year, both of the older children received awards at school – something that had never happened before. The parent was proud, and so were we. This family graduated from ParentChild+ a year ago and to this day, there is still artwork on their front door. Each time I pass the house, I smile because inside that home there is lasting change: success beyond measure.