The Baby College: Investing in parents for the future of children

If we want to enable more equitable opportunities for the nation's children, then one area of needed attention is to work on better ways of investing in parents with programs such as the Baby College, a part of the Harlem Children's Zone.

A nationally recognized program designed to address the concerns of parents that are expecting or raising children up to age 3, the Baby College is a nine-week intensive program of four-hour workshops designed to teach the different areas of parenting including health, safety, immunizations, lead poisoning and asthma, discipline versus punishment, and brain development.

With an annual budget of around $1.2 million, most of the impoverished communities throughout the country could be served by the $65 billion of unclaimed government resources for low-income families every year. In other words, it's not a question of the program's benefits or even funding. The issue is political will.

As my son's one-year birthday approaches, I find myself reflecting over the past year as a first-time parent. Around this time last year, my partner and I were anticipating the arrival of our son, Elijah. We had done a considerable amount of reading in preparation as well as attended a holistic birth class and felt very comfortable and confident with what to expect. Elijah arrived 11 days late but healthy and without any complications. It was an exciting and happy moment as we finally met the beautiful new addition to our family. When the euphoria of the moment wore off, we were then very quickly confronted with the question "what do we do now?"

We did all of the preparation necessary to prepare for having a child, but we didn't focus as much on what to do after: How to sooth a baby, breastfeed, sleeping patterns and how to cope with our own sleep deprivation, bathing and knowing what's normal. As with any new parents today, we turned to various online resources to learn about the things we didn't anticipate. While the information was unlimited, we weren't always able to decipher what to trust and what not to trust, what applied and what didn't, or what was and wasn't relevant.

Fortunately, we recently moved to Harlem within the catchment area of the Harlem Children's Zone. This enabled us the opportunity to participate in the Baby College program, which offered many incentives — from a $100 check for completing the program to $10 and $20 gift certificates that were raffled off during each program meeting. And, if you have perfect attendance, you were eligible to be the lucky winner of one-month's rent.

Each of these incentives says nothing to the program ethos of making sure their participants are not lacking important resources for their child's development. Breakfast and lunch were provided for each program meeting; child safety kits were provided for each family, including a gate; each week each, parent participant received a children's book to encourage reading with their child; diapers and baby wipes were provided for the parents whenever needed; and, when one of our fellow parent-participants needed a stroller, the program brought one for the parent. Most important, from the minute we walked into the program to the very end when we graduated, the energy and excitement from, and welcome by, the staff was incredible and infectious. This is not a program that tells parents how to parent, but it provides parents with the informational and material resources in order for them to be better able to make informed decisions on parenting.

As a program designed in partnership with renowned pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, the Baby College program is theoretically and empirically grounded in the contemporary theories and research on parenting and early childhood development. For instance, center-based programs with a parenting component like the Baby College have been found to enhance parenting behaviors associated with school readiness, including parental nurturance, discipline and reading and talking with children. In fact, in order to emphasize the importance of talking with children, the Baby College shares the results of the famous Hart and Risley study on the affect that parent-child language interactions have on child learning and development. Each of these processes, along with the known developmental effects of health factors such as nutrition, lead poisoning and asthma, are what Edmund Gordon refers to as education-relevant resources, and he argues that these are necessary for the affirmative development of academic ability.

The Baby College program not only focuses on the cultivation of education-relevant resources for parents, but it has also empirically demonstrated these gains. At the beginning and end of each nine-week cycle, external evaluators collect information on the main program goals. The results have indicated that over 76 percent of parents who read to their children less often at pre-test increased the amount of time they spent reading with their child by the end of the program. Over 75 percent of parents who sang to their children less often also increased the amount of singing they did with their child. Homes were also consistently safer with outlet covers and window guards. And child immunization rates substantially increased.

All of these gains are important given that many studies indicate the importance of parental involvement in their child's development and achievement outcomes. This is especially the case for black males.

The Baby College not only addresses a critical moment of learning and development but also processes that are not addressed by the school-reform efforts of federal education policy. At an average cost of $3,000 per graduating parent, these are substantial gains that do not even account for the potential long-term social, educational and health benefits.

As a program that addresses one area of early childhood education (such as parental knowledge and practices), programs like the Baby College are vital for our children's future. Although the quandaries mentioned earlier are encountered by most new parents regardless of race, gender, class or sexuality, what is clear is that more affluent parents have access to greater resources to more effectively and efficiently work through them. To provide equitable opportunities for our children, we have to strengthen the programs that help new parents with limited means.

Dixon-Román is an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Policy and Practice.

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