June 6, 2007 Edition

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Play prepares children for the future

By Mandy Durham
Guest Writer

A captivated audience listens to the "Caterpillar Dance," while there are sounds of Chilean sticks, maracas and cymbals heard in the background. Walking through the room is a doctor, a cheerleader, a postal person and a mommy for the day. Where does all this activity, plus lots more, take place? ~ Preschool.

Approximately 20 years ago the Northeast Arkansas Education Cooperative (NEAEC) early childhood program began with three classrooms serving about 30 children. Today, the program has 20 classrooms in eight of the 14 cooperative school districts. The integrated classrooms consist of three- to five-year-old children, both children with special needs and those developing typically. Funding for the classrooms has come from the Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) program. The early childhood program employs 60 staff members who serve 343 children. Two hundred of these children have special needs.

School districts are federally mandated to provide special education services for students ranging in ages 3 to 21 years of age. The NEAEC early childhood program provides special education services for children who are the ages of three to five within most of the local school districts, located both on and off the school campuses. These locations include the ABC classrooms, Head Starts, public and private daycares and home-based daycares.

It is anticipated that 400 children will be served next year by combining various funding sources through the ABC grant. Within the ABC classrooms, each child is screened to determine developmental abilities and school-readiness skills. If needed, speech/language services, developmental services, contracted occupational and physical therapy services and any other necessary referrals are provided to assist children identified as educationally at risk.

Those serving the children in the Early Childhood program include the coordinator, Mandy Durham, and the ABC supervisor, Bonnie Cain. All teachers have Arkansas teaching certification. Para-professionals have obtained an Associates of Arts degree in Early Childhood or Child Development Associate certification.

Those who serve the classrooms and off-campus facilities include speech pathologists, itinerant special education teachers, occupational therapists, physical therapists and an early childhood behavior intervention consultant. The special education program also includes a clerical assistant who reports to Medicaid, and two secretaries who perform other office duties.

Strong parental and community involvement are key elements in the NEAEC ABC programs. Each site has a Parental Advisory Council with a parent information center where parents have access to handouts about other services, developmental information, current help wanted job information and various other information to assist parents in every way possible. Some of the special activities to encourage parental participation, in addition to parental meetings, include Mother's Day Tea, Donuts for Dad, Grandparents Day celebrations and ice cream socials.

Much of the program's activities and services are made possible through in-kind donations from the school districts, community leaders and businesses. In-kind donations include sharing supplies with the classrooms, as well as the sharing of occupational skills. The programs can also benefit from donations from community organizations, such as Lions Club, County Extension Office, Health Department, hospitals, local fire and police departments and libraries, to provide information, workshops and services for the students and parents.

The NEAEC ABC programs provide a variety of opportunities to their students. The classroom experiences allow the children a world of exploration and discovery. The NEAEC early childhood staff believe that play is the most important way for the students to learn new skills. The hands-on approach to using materials and interacting with others helps children develop a sense of competence and control of their environment. Play also gives children a way to accumulate vast amounts of basic knowledge about the world around them and ways to interact with their surroundings. Play prepares children for the future.

A significant portion of each day in the preschool classroom is provided for free play activities. Opportunities are provided daily for gross motor play, both indoors and outdoors. An emphasis on teacher-facilitated activities, rather than teacher-directed activities, allows the students to use creativity and imagination. Children are encouraged to investigate, touch, explore and interact with their surroundings. Materials are organized for independent use. Meals and snacks are served daily providing opportunities to explore new foods, encourage language, reasoning and self-help skills.

Classrooms have ample space for children and adults to move about freely. Space is also accessible to children and adults with disabilities. Acceptance of diversity is encouraged, without stereotyping or violence, using dramatic play, music, cooking, literature and family members to learn about different cultures.

Mutual respect is encouraged between children and adults. Our program promotes positive interaction among staff members, children and parents. Each classroom is currently implementing an anti-violence curriculum, which targets empathy training, emotional control and problem-solving skills.

The program also provides students with an easier transition into kindergarten. Every parent is provided with kindergarten readiness indicators. Each student's progress of achievement of these skills is monitored throughout the year and reported to the parents. The preschool children become familiar with the school campuses.

Most preschool children eat lunch in the school cafeteria when the kindergarten classes are eating. The preschool children see the kindergarten teachers throughout the school year. The children learn how to function on the school campus.

At the end of each school year, the transitioning students tour the campus to meet teachers, principals, secretaries and cafeteria staff. They also have the opportunity to spend time in the kindergarten classroom with peers. Parents are informed when kindergarten registration will take place and are assisted in making sure all paperwork is current.

Also, the teachers make sure special recommendations are noted with school personnel about food allergies, medical problems, medications and any other special needs. Transition conferences between NEAEC special education staff, parents, and the school district staff are held each spring to discuss the educational needs of children receiving special services.

The NEAEC early childhood program takes quality very seriously. All programs have met quality approval childcare standards and are licensed by the state. The Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS) is used as a guideline/resource to implement classroom structure and procedures. ECERS trainings are attended by all staff members, and the classrooms are monitored on a regular basis to ensure excellent performance of the programs.

For further information on the NEAEC early childhood program and the ABC program, call 886-3212 or visit 211 West Hickory in Walnut Ridge. Come, let's play together!

(Note: This series of columns will be written by different employees of the NEA Educational Cooperative to inform the public about the services provided by the co-op.)

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