It’s 9:30 in the morning in Fresno, California, and Ramona Ruacho is sitting at a small round table in her home with four children under age 5. The group has just finished reading a book and while infants nap in the nearby darkened living room, Ramona engages the bigger kids in a hunt for letters on cardboard cutouts made from cereal and snack boxes. Three-year-old Felix recognizes the “f” in “goldfish,” and Ruacho shows the children the difference between the F and the letter P.
Experts say these are the kinds of basic practices in teaching and caregiving that can make a real difference in getting kids ready for kindergarten and closing the achievement gap, which starts years before children enter school. This is especially true in California, which has one of the largest populations of dual language learners under age 5.
In California, estimates vary, but experts say roughly 40 percent of children between birth and 5 are cared for in home-based settings. But unlike Ruacho, many of those providers are unlikely to do these kinds of intentional language-building activities with children on a regular basis. At least according to new research that finds striking differences in the quality of care between informal home care providers and more formal classroom-like settings.
Ruacho says she is always trying to learn new things and build skills that will improve her practice. She has been active in the Central Valley Children's Services Network, Fresno County’s child care resource and referral network, which runs support groups and training programs for informal care providers. Most recently, she took part in a series of collaborative professional development sessions with other teachers and care providers, focused on building language instruction and supporting dual language learners.
Ruacho said this training has had a deep impact on her work. Take reading for example.
“Before, I thought: ‘You sit down. You read. You finish the book. And then you go on to the next activity,’ ” she said. “Now [I know] you have to listen to the kids’ conversation. You focus on what you are reading. You use voice inflection and you talk about what you are reading.” Ruacho said that before the training she would have thought it a waste of time to read to an infant. Now she knows differently.
The training, based partly on work by Linda Espinosa, author of “Getting It Right for Young Children from Diverse Backgrounds,” focused on promoting oral language and communication during the day through the use of anchor texts, repetitive reading, and interactive conversations that extend language and children’s understanding.
Ruacho said that in reading a book about strawberries, for example, she may follow up with a discussion of how strawberries grow, or serve strawberries for a snack. Or in reading a book about a girl who steps outside to “feel the breeze,” she stopped to discuss the word’s meaning with her children. That same day, when they took a walk, the children said, “I feel the breeze in my hair.”
Models like the ones in Fresno aim to spread these practices to adults who work with children under 5 to ensure they have the skills to do their jobs well and prepare children for school.
Chris Sciarrino, who works for the Early Learning Lab and helped co-design and support the training in Fresno, said that too often in early childhood work is done in silos—the school district working separately from Head Start, which is working separately from the resource and referral network. This particular project worked very differently, she said. “This project has a great belief that all of the children of Fresno belong to all of us.”
The Packard Foundation is supporting work by school districts and community organizations in San Jose and in Oakland to identify and organize networks of informal care providers to make sure they are included in larger efforts to spread best practices to all adults who work with young children. Nationally, groups like All Our Kin and Tutu and Me also offer models for outreach and training to family, friend and neighbor caregivers.
Ruacho said at first she was nervous to take part in training alongside teachers from Head Start and the public school system. “I didn’t know if I would belong,” she told me. But that changed as Ruacho listened and shared challenges and success with other teachers and care providers.
Participants also learned about the importance of helping students and parents value their home language, and having books and curriculums in those languages. In Fresno, that may mean in Hmong or Cambodian along with Spanish.
“Some families,” one participant said, “are convinced that they shouldn’t speak to their children in Spanish,” because they think it’s going to confuse their children or delay their speech development. “Now,” one participant said, “we know to tell them, ‘That’s what we used to think, but there has been a lot of research showing the opposite.’”
The training, Ruacho says, has made her feel “like a professional.”
Experts say training is just a first step. Catherine Atkin, who ran California’s Preschool for All Initiative for nearly a decade, and now runs the Early Learning Lab, says the state has made progress in expanding access to preschool programs but has not done enough to support people on the front lines.
“When you have a really scarce public dollar,” Atkin said, “what do you do with it to really support the adults who work with children? Because that’s where all the magic really happens.”