Published December 17, 2020
A program that takes five years to complete is worthy of celebration, so Parents as Teachers (PAT) –– one of First 5 LA’s home visiting investments –– wasn’t going to let COVID-19 get in the way of honoring the parents that had recently graduated from the program. Instead of a traditional graduation with a cake and certificate ceremony, graduating parents and kids were treated to a fiesta on wheels.
Home visitors decorated their cars with balloons and streamers and drove to the graduates’ homes, honking horns and shouting their congratulations to the beaming parents and children. That was followed by a get-together via Zoom.
“It’s such a long commitment, so our grantees had to figure out some way to celebrate their accomplishment,” said Maria Aquino, First 5 LA program manager. “We recognized each family.”
PAT is one of several home visiting programs that First 5 LA funds through partner agencies in 14 low-income communities around Los Angeles County. Mothers are typically approached during a prenatal visit to the hospital where they are due to give birth or after they have given birth and asked whether they’d like to sign up for the free programs. Mothers-to-be are also approached about the program in other family-focused settings, like Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) centers and community health clinics, where providers offer information about home visiting and referrals.
PAT is one of the longest home visiting programs, with services lasting from a child’s birth to five years of age. However, any parents end up not completing it due to moving away or returning to full-time work. That’s why having a group of parents who have lasted the full five years is something to celebrate indeed, Aquino said.
“We give a certificate for the parent and child and always tell them it’s the first graduation of many to come,” she said.
The program involves having a home visitor come to the home at least once a month or more, depending on the needs of each family. During the visits, parents are coached on everything from nutritional best practices to tips on how to stimulate their children’s brain development through play. Parents and children also get together once a month to counter social isolation and allow kids playtime. Due to COVID-19, home visits are now carried out mostly via internet platforms, and the parents’ group is also online.
Home visitors additionally connect parents to social services and resources, such as tenant and immigrant advocacy organizations and free recreational activities, and encourage them to set goals such as earning a GED diploma. “Home visitors are really that bridge,” Aquino said.
For PAT graduate Maria Aldana of Van Nuys, the program turned into a lifeline after she had her daughter. With her family back in her native El Salvador, she felt alone and overwhelmed with caring for a newborn.
“When the baby cried, I cried. I felt frustrated and didn’t know what to do,” she said.
Enter her home visitor, who helped her resolve breastfeeding challenges and brought children’s books. Eventually, Aldana felt comfortable enough to reveal that she couldn’t afford diapers or a stroller. The home visitor was able to get her those items and food. She was also able to provide critical help when Aldana noticed that her little girl was not speaking at the level of other children the same age. The home visitor connected her to a physician who diagnosed a developmental delay and referred the child to an Early Head Start program.
“She has been my salvation,” Aldana said of her home visitor. “I don’t know how I would’ve done this alone.”
Numerous studies have shown that home visiting improves child outcomes across a variety of metrics, including improving parental attitudes, preventing child maltreatment and neglect, boosting school readiness with increased cognitive, social and language development, and reducing illness, injury and emergency room visits, according to a report by The Pew Charitable Trusts, “Expanding Home Visiting Research.”
“Across all measured outcomes, families receiving home visiting consistently did better than families that did not,” according to an analysis cited in the report. For example, children who participated in home visiting programs saw a first-grade retention drop of 50 percent, from 7 percent to 3.5 percent.
Another graduate, Janet Burciaga of Panorama City, said her home visitor was instrumental in improving her son’s development by showing her how to give him massages as a newborn, how to incorporate numbers and colors into conversations, and how activities such as Lego and playdough stimulate cognitive skills. Her home visitor also brought books to every visit, which Janet read to her son every day. “It really calms him down,” she said.
She also appreciated the get-togethers with other mothers and children. “It helps break the isolation,” she said.
Aquino said the overall goal of PAT is to strengthen the bond between parent and child. “This is a program that leverages knowledge,” she said. “The parent is really the child’s first teacher.”