In San Jose, One School District Trains Local Family Members, Friends, and Neighbors to Get Young Children Ready for School

Blog Post
May 2, 2019

Michelle Zhao raised a daughter in China before coming to the US. As a mother in China, Zhao’s focus was on ensuring her child would get a good job in adulthood, be well mannered and successful, she said through an interpreter.

On a late March morning, Zhao is sitting in a classroom at an Educare center near her home in San Jose, along with other grandmas, aunties, parents, and infant and toddler teachers, learning how to help her two-year-old granddaughter, Mia, with things like sharing, self-regulation, and how to cope with powerful feelings.

The training is part of a series of sessions designed by the local school district and partners to help get kids ready for school by helping the adults in children’s lives support their learning and development. Building the capacity of infant and toddler teachers and other caregivers isn’t on the radar of most school districts across the country. But, it should be.

This training is geared toward adults who care for children in home settings, often grandmothers like Zhao. Many lack easy access to information about child development or resources about best practices in early learning.

Zhao, who cares for Mia while her parents are at work, said she is grateful for the opportunity to learn about child development. Through a translator, Zhao said she feels that her old methods of childrearing were “outdated” and by learning about children’s social emotional development she is better able to better understand how to guide Mia “along life’s path.”

The impetus for the training came when the school district began identifying children struggling with self-regulation in the early elementary grades, said Melinda Waller, the school district’s outgoing director of early learning.

The school district began by training their transitional kindergarten teachers and has since expanded it to include pre-K, kindergarten and first grade teachers. But learning begins at birth, so leaders knew it was important to reach other adults in children’s lives earlier. In California, experts say roughly 40 percent of children between birth and age five are cared for in informal, home-based settings.

“We tend to undervalue the work of those who care for children in our communities,” said Shirley Van Tran, a community worker with the Franklin-McKinley Children’s Initiative. The initiative, of Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County, offers programs in several low-income neighborhoods in San Jose. “They are underpaid, it’s hard, they are with children, often more than one child, all day, often without much support.” In Tran’s experience, women are hungry for this kind of information, and for camaraderie given that work with young children can be isolating. The training uses an adapted version of the Teaching Pyramid model from the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning.

The benefits will pay off, the school district knows, because healthy social emotional development is a cornerstone to lifelong learning.

“I really appreciate what the school district is doing,” said Rosalia Estrada, a family resource center supervisor with Catholic Charities, “because usually they just focus the training on teachers, but that’s too late.”

“Behavior,” Dr. Tweety Yates, the trainer at the front of the room, tells the group “is a form of communication. So, what is the toddler trying to tell us when he exhibits challenging behavior like biting or pushing?” Yates stops often to ask or answer questions, and she makes a point to tailor the information to topics the group is interested in. One woman raises her hand to ask how to handle her son who screams a lot when he is frustrated. Running, biting, and tantrums come up a lot.

Yates goes over how to help a child get regulated after a tantrum, which may mean letting them cry and checking in regularly to see if that child is yet ready for a hug. Several women say they have used this strategy at home with success.

Several factors have helped this program succeed. The long-running organizing efforts of the Franklin-McKinley Children’s Initiative helped lay the groundwork for this work. The trust they have built in the community is essential to the program’s success. Zhao, for example, said she came to the training for the first time because of the close relationship she developed with Tran, who is translating in Mandarin and Vietnamese.

The school district is also working closely with the local Educare California at Silicon Valley to align the school district’s professional development work with the training for caregivers of young children to build a system of support for children from birth through third grade. Educare is designed to be a professional development center and laboratory for educators who care for young children in Santa Clara County, including those who work for other community-based centers, those in the public school system, and family, friends, and neighbors. Waller said the sharing that happens between the different kinds of educators and caregivers is particularly helpful because each can offer different wisdom and insights.

Programs to train family, friend, and neighbor caregivers of young children are rare, but growing. In California, for example, Visión y Compromiso, a nonprofit organization in California’s Central Valley has had success training local community members called promotoras (or health promoters) to conduct outreach and training to those who care for young children. The training is conducted in Spanish and Mixteco, an indigenous language from Southern Mexico. The goal, as in Franklin-McKinley, is to share information about how to ensure healthy child development with those who care for young children every day.

Zhao said she has really appreciated the opportunity to attend the training sessions and specifically, the social emotional focus. She’s learned a lot about how to create an environment for Mia at home that will help her succeed – like how to respond when Mia is upset, how to read and do projects with her at home, and how to create family routines - something she’s sharing with Mia’s mother as well.