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Learning with Love sets Latino toddlers on path to learning

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Sopris Sun Staff Report

Asked for an accomplishment from the Learning with Love program, Katie Langenhuizen pauses. “We have had a class in Glenwood that had been together most of last year. At the end of the year, they decided they wanted to see each other more socially. They started hosting gatherings at their houses and in parks, outside the class.”

Continuing, Langenhuizen says, “This isn’t something small for these families. It took them a whole year to trust one another enough to risk making those invitations.”

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Many English-speaking, U.S-born locals will be left scratching their head as to why a potluck in the park could be so frightening. But those who have worked with local Latin-American immigrants can tell tales of Spanish-speaking women who feel so isolated by language that they seldom go out in public. Laid on top of that are fears about discrimination, immigration status and social rejection.

Langenhuizen, who worked as an English as a second language (ESL) teacher before coming to Learning with Love and the Valley Settlement Project says, “There are lots of fears, even in this small community. Our focus is helping immigrant families to connect to the community.” Langenhuizen notes that while the families in the program come from many different backgrounds – hailing not just from Mexico, but all across Latin America — they are united in having strong hopes for their children. “These parents have a strong, strong desire to do well by their families and to give their kids every opportunity.”

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Learning with Love, a project started by the Valley Settlement Project, brings kids and their parents together with a leader twice a week to learn how promote healthy child development. The project empowers parents to become their child’s first and most important teacher.

Fast learning

As researchers have detailed, a child’s brain produces 700 new neural connections every second and learns at an astonishing rate between birth and age three. Because of that, the National Academy of Sciences has issued guides (in English) that tell parents how to stimulate the growth of a child’s intertwined social, emotional, intellectual, language and motor skills. The Learning with Love project puts that same information into a form that Latino parents can use to help their kids.

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Language and income barriers keep children like these out of day care, and that, in turn, deprives them of an opportunity to learn key social skills. So, currently, six Learning with Love parents’ groups, made up of eight families each, meet with a teacher twice a week. Throughout the school year, they learn about early childhood brain development, read picture books aloud, sing songs and play games that help their kids build physical, social and language skills.

Langenhuizen, who is expecting her own child in three months, recalls, “One of the new moms told the teacher that she never knew how important it is to get down on the floor and play with her son.”

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Some new mothers will keep a child in a crib to keep him safe and clean,  inadvertently slowing the process of learning to walk and gaining other motor skills. The teacher showed this new mom how to set up safe floor play. Then, within a single school year, the little boy’s coordination caught up with that of his peers.

“We serve a hard-to-reach population,” Langenhuizen notes, adding that the program originally found participants via door-to-door canvassing. “At this point, though, parents come mostly through word-of-mouth. We have earned a reputation.”

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While the program is headquartered at the Third Street Center, the family groups are scattered from El Jebel to West Glenwood Springs. Staffed by six teachers, the program shares additional support staff — an early childhood specialist and a “community navigator” — with the Valley Settlement Project. Learning with Love is free to participating families and is supported by foundations, grants and individual donors.

VSP: Four programs

Initiated with a $1.2 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Valley Settlement Project (VSP) is a dual generation program focused on school readiness, elementary school achievement, economic stability and community engagement for local families, according to the VSP website. The project’s focus is on low-income families who are not successfully settled or attached to the community in which they live. Through community organizing and partnerships with local nonprofits, schools and government agencies, Valley Settlement Project works to support and empower these families. “We believe that we can reduce school achievement gaps  through this dual generation approach,” said a VSP spokesman.

Valley Settlement Project’s programs were developed after a nine-month planning period, during which community organizers visited 300 households in 25 neighborhoods; gave presentations to 14,400 people; and met with leaders from dozens of organizations across the region including school officials, churches, health and human services agencies, policy-makers, and leaders of our local community college.

The Valley Settlement Project’s four programs are: Learning with Love; El Busesito (the Little Bus); Family, Friends and Neighbors; and FocusedKids™. You’ve already read about Learning with Love. Here are summaries for the other three programs.

El Busesito (The Little Bus) is VSP’s mobile early-childhood education program for three to five year-olds, featuring a fully-equipped classroom in each of the two cherished buses. El Busesito addresses the need to improve school readiness by providing high quality pre-school experiences for low-income children that otherwise lack access to any early childhood education before entering kindergarten.

• Family, Friends, and Neighbors is a program that provides three-hour intensive adult classes in Spanish one Saturday every month to enhance the quality of informal childcare available. Topics include: safety, first aid, and CPR.

• FocusedKids™ is a program created by Kathy Hegberg, M.A., in 2013. Piloted in all the programs offered by Valley Settlement Project, FocusedKids teach children ages 0-4, parents, teachers and caregivers about the developing brain by using a brain chart and puppets. Kids learn how the brains works and, using mindfulness exercises, how to manage emotions so they can focus in the present. Parents and teachers learn how to facilitate healthy development of the young brain in ages 0-4. This is a program steeped in the work by Susan Kaiser Greenland on mindfulness with children, and Goldie Hawn’s program, MindUP, teaching children about their brain. It also reflects Daniel Goleman’s work in his books “Emotional Intelligence” and “Focus”; Adele Diamond’s work on the developing brain; Dan Siegel’s books “Whole Brain Child” and “No Drama Discipline”; and the work at the Momentous Institute in Dallas, Texas. Evidence-based research about mindfulness programs (particularly those based in neuroscience) in schools and homes suggests that the benefits include: improved self-management, stronger ability to pay attention, calmer/less reactive behaviors in the face of difficulties, improved relationships, and better academic performance. Valley Settlement Project is working to develop an outcome measure so that the can track impacts to its participants.

Published in The Sopris Sun on November 3, 2016.

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