By Mary Kate Gulick
The Broken Bow Sixpence program is a partnership between Broken Bow Public Schools (BBPS), Central Nebraska Community Services’ (CNCS) Early Head Start and the Central Plains Center for Services (CPCS).
That’s a lot of acronyms. The alphabet soup of organization names might make you think the Broken Bow program has too many cooks in the kitchen to be effective.
You would be wrong.
Broken Bow’s Sixpence program is a model example a multi-organization partnership that works seamlessly, to the benefit of the babies, toddlers and young parents it serves.
Tucked away in an office near the cafeteria of North Park Elementary School, the Broken Bow Sixpence program works with around 25 families. Each week, parent educators conduct 90-minute home visits with each family on their caseload to teach parents about their child’s development.
“It’s very beneficial for the parents to understand that playing with Play-Doh is NOT just playing with Play-Doh,” said Early Head Start Educator Brenda. “It’s building the finger muscles and motor skills to later be able to write.”
Learning the “whys” of different activities is just as important as the activities themselves, and it’s one of the primary strengths of home visiting programs like this one. By understanding the changes their babies are going through, vulnerable or isolated parents are more likely to be patient, understanding and nurturing. Sure, parents learn what activities are best to help their babies learn new skills and explore their world. But they also get acquainted with the remarkable inner workings of their child’s brain – and that increases the frequency and quality of engagements between parent and child.
Those who qualify for the program include teenage parents, those who qualify for free or reduced lunch, families where English isn’t the primary language, and families whose children are premature or of low birth weight. And as parents learn how to be their child’s best teacher, they also get the benefit of regular assessments and screenings so they know their babies are developmentally on track. Families also benefit from monthly “socializations.” These get-togethers provide an opportunity for program participants to meet with other families and learn from one another, as well as their parent educators. The April socialization is where I got to see the Broken Bow Sixpence partnership in action.
Meeting the team
I arrived at North Park Elementary while the partners were setting up.“I’m from CPCS,” Jackie Chandler told me about herself. “These ladies are from CNCS,” she said about Jeanette Birnie and Brenda Stupka. Jo Ward is from Broken Bow Public Schools.
If I had any confusion about the multi-organizational nature of the partnership, I forgot it quickly. These four educators worked together seamlessly toward a common purpose. Each one is an experienced early childhood educator, and each had a clear understanding of the day’s purpose.
Brenda talked about how she was a teen mom, and had a lot of family support. “I guess I just always wanted to give back,” she said. She has a decade of experience with Head Start and Early Head Start. Her Early Head Start families join the Sixpence-enrolled families for monthly socializations.
Jackie has been with Sixpence since the beginning of the Custer County program in 2008. “It’s very rewarding to be able to help families,” Jackie said. “It’s great to see your parents at the store or at some event doing the right things with their kids.”
Jeanette works with Sixpence through CNCS. She tells me that Broken Bow now has five early childhood classrooms, meaning there’s far more availability for 3- and 4-year-olds to have educational experiences than there were a few years ago. “There’s still a bit of a gap,” she says about those children who don’t have access to preschool slots, “But we’re closer to closing it than we were.”
Jo is the newest to the group. Hired by BBPS, she joined the Sixpence team two years ago and takes child welfare very seriously – both personally and professionally. “My whole goal is to have an open home where it’s a safe environment for children, that’s a real passion of mine,” Jo said. “My husband and I are about to become foster parents – we’re licensed and ready to go.”
Parents started rolling in at around 4:30 with their young children. While Sixpence is designed for children from birth to age 3, many of the parents brought in their older children as well. “We’re never really sure how many kids we’ll get at a socialization,” said Jackie. The team had set up a play area for kids older than three, and sure enough, they gravitated to it the second they arrived.
Meanwhile, parents and babies made their way over to a rug in the center of the room. Before the program started, there was plenty of time for parents to talk and introduce themselves to one another. Many parents were in their late teens or early 20s. They seemed glad to have other parents to talk to.
“Today, we’re going to do puppet play and learn about emotions,” Jackie told me before the program started. “Then we’ll work on making sock puppets and stick puppets that the parents can build with their kiddos.” The socialization officially started with the welcome song, led by Jeanette.
After that, Jo provided information and tactics for talking to babies and toddlers about their emotions. Doing so consistently, she said, would get them in the habit of being self-aware and using words to describe their feelings instead of lashing out.
Jackie led the group in a puppet play activity. Watching the parents interact with their children (especially such young parents) was an eye opener. There was some very positive parenting happening in the room. I couldn’t help thinking that when I had my children in my 30s, I wasn’t as well informed about parent/child interactions as many of these much younger Sixpence parents.
At the end of the evening, families gathered for a snack. The team had assembled a spring cleaning basket for each family. While everyone was enjoying their snacks, Jo stood up and gave some tips about cleaning to keep everyone healthy now that flu season had passed.
This night was about more than play and snacks.
Custer County Sixpence’s monthly socialization event acts as a two-hour protective factor generator. The six protective factors are teachable attributes that counteract common risk factors that lead to child maltreatment. Not only are these children getting ready for kindergarten thanks to the outstanding educational team and parents in the Custer County Sixpence program, but each family is being infused with the protective factors to keep them bonded, healthy and out of the child welfare system.
Each parent-child interaction at the socialization was meant to increase nurturing and attachment.
The activities and educational elements at the event immediately increased knowledge of parenting and child development.
Parental resilience was being reinforced throughout the night, as educators gently redirected negative behaviors and modeled positive ones without judgment.
Social connections were core to the event, both for parents and children.
Concrete supports for parents came in the form of resource sheets, the cleaning supplies and the “just call me if you need anything” comments that could be heard from educators as they were talking parents through issues.
And the social-emotional competence of children was the educational theme of the night.
2 hours. 6 protective factors. 10 families walked away better equipped to handle what life throws at them.
So why does this partnership work so well?
The quality of the educators is definitely a factor. But Brenda provided another clue. “It’s not just Broken Bow . . . it’s all of Custer County,” she said when I asked if they felt the program got a lot of community support. “When something happens, there’s a whole county ready to provide support.”
The other educators agreed. The level of service they provide wouldn’t be possible if the community culture didn’t embrace the idea of stepping up to help families who need support. But they also acknowledge that there’s still a need.
Each of the educators in the Custer County program, and all of us at Nebraska Children, are committed to continue working to close that gap and ensure that every child in Custer County has the resources to reach their full potential.