Coaching works: Congress, support home visits for at-risk children

Coaching works: Congress, support home visits for at-risk children
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There’s a lot to be said for coaching.  

You don’t have to be an Olympian to know that.

Good coaching can be a difference-maker, whether in sport or in life. A coach provides another perspective — another set of eyes — that helps guide you during a crucial phase of development.

My coach was a trusted guide who had already competed and coached at 10 Olympic Games before mine. Knowing that my coach possessed knowledge and experience gave me a sense of security. I was confident that I would face the biggest moment of my life with someone whose expertise and guidance would give me the best opportunity for success.

I can’t imagine going into a moment like that alone.

But so many at-risk children and parents face that exact scenario, with stakes much higher than winning or losing an athletic competition.

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Children don’t come with an instruction manual. Many young, first-time parents don’t have the knowledge, experience, or supports to take care of themselves or their children during pregnancy and in the first few years of life. Voluntary home-visiting programs can help change that sad fact, especially during the critical prenatal-to-three timeframe.

Early childhood home visiting matches new and expectant parents with a qualified, designated support person, usually a trained nurse, social worker, or other early childhood specialist. This service is voluntary and provided in the family’s home or an alternate location of the family’s choosing, which helps reach socially or geographically isolated families. Home visiting programs are a “two-generation” solution that assist parents as well as children.

The federal Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program helps fund these services in all 50 states. MIECHV includes an evidence-based approach that equips parents with the tools to be the coach their child needs. MIECHV helps parents or guardians provide care while teaching their children to succeed.

MIECHV acknowledges a fundamental truth I learned during my years of competition: No one achieves anything extraordinary without the support of others and the personal drive to do so. These home visitors empower parents to set goals for their futures and help them to provide a safe and stable environment for their children. Participants in voluntary home visiting programs are typically new and expectant mothers, many of whom are single, low-income teenagers who need these supports the most.

I became interested in this program because of the focus it places on the importance of family and its recognition of the transformational power of a coach to change one’s life for the better. That’s also what drew me to Washington to testify and meet with members of Congress this summer. I went to Capitol Hill with other members of the national, bipartisan nonprofit Council for a Strong America, along with home-visiting experts from the organization Parents as Teachers, in order to show our leaders the absolutely vital importance that MIECHV can have in helping parents and strengthening families.

The benefits of evidence-based home visiting programs are as impressive as they are diverse: stronger families, better educational outcomes, and a reduction in child abuse and neglect. Research highlighted by Champions for America’s Future underscores this point. One study found that the Nurse-Family Partnership program cut verified reports of child abuse and neglect in half. Another showed that the Every Child Succeeds program reduced infant mortality rates by 60 percent. Meanwhile, the Healthy Families America home visiting program reduced dependence on special education in elementary school by 27 percent.

Unfortunately, funding for MIECHV expired on September 30th.

I now urge Congress to work together to reauthorize MIECHV immediately. Our lawmakers should pass a five-year reauthorization of the program that increases the investment in MIECHV over that time period and makes a statement about how important these programs are to American families.

The research is clear that the impact of MIECHV can last for years, and the positive effects ripple out, touching the rest of the community. That’s why MIECHV is the kind of investment that we must continue and expand.

The at-risk children and parents of this nation deserve that much.

Sasha Cohen is a former U.S. Champion figure skater, a 2006 Winter Olympic silver medalist, and a member of Champions for America’s Future, a nonpartisan group of athletes and coaches working to level the playing field for at-risk kids.