Anyone who has ever watched young children closely knows that their minds are always working to make sense of the world around them. Every experience in those early years is water and sunlight for the seed of potential.
Some of the most important early childhood experiences happen at preschool. While a preschool program can look like random play to outsiders, those blocks and dress-up clothes help form pathways for young children to more serious academics. But not every family has access to the kind of high quality preschool experiences that can help children enter kindergarten ready for school, and when that early learning is lacking, it can be very hard for children to catch up.
For 23 years, the national Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters
(HIPPY) program has been working to change that, one child – and one family – at a time. Here in Detroit, Neighborhood Services Organization
(NSO) provides the HIPPY program to families at their Harper Multi-Service Center on the city's east side and more recently in the Hope Village neighborhood surrounding Focus:HOPE on the west side.
Trained instructors visit families once or twice a week, spending about an hour with the parents each time. They go over any issues the family may be having in order to connect them with NSO services, and then the rest of the time is spent teaching the child age-appropriate lessons and showing the parents ways they can do the same over the course of the week. Each parent gets a utility box full of materials needed to complete activities in their weekly packets, as well as several children's books over the course of the program.
HIPPY is provided at no charge to the parents, most of whom are low-income.
Families and their home visitors become very important to each other, developing something deeper than the typical teacher-student relationship.
"There is a rapport and relationship that develops between the parent and the home visitor," says Crystal White, program director for NSO. "That relationship transfers and the children also become attached to that home visitor."
That has been the case for Tanisha Adkins and her daughter Ariel, who is four years old and has been in the HIPPY program since September of last year. Ariel adores her home visitor, Vida McCoy. "She told me the day she met her, 'Mommy, I have a new friend!' and she asks for her every day," Adkins says.
Ariel has made great strides from the somewhat withdrawn, shy girl she was when she started, Adkins says. Now she strides right up to a stranger and starts talking about her toy cell phone and jumps in front of a camera yelling "CHEESE!" More importantly, she's very confident with schoolwork, spelling her name, identifying colors and shapes, and showing important pre-reading skills like telling McCoy what happens next in the story they are reading together.
The benefits of HIPPY have spread to Adkins' other children, she says. They all gather around and do homework together, from her two older sons to her baby, Trenten, who is not quite 2 years old. Trenten often wants to mimic what his big sister is doing, picking up books or crayons and paper and trying to read or write.
Adkins was already familiar with ways to enhance her children's readiness for kindergarten since her mother is a preschool teacher. However, McCoy's guidance has helped her better understand the unique way her daughter learns.
"[HIPPY] taught me to let her develop her way, instead of the way I wanted her to," she says. "This helps me learn to not rush her."
McCoy knows the effectiveness of HIPPY firsthand. Before she began working as a home visitor, she was a single, teenage parent with her own children in the program, along with one niece she encouraged to enroll. Her niece is now at Saginaw Valley State University pursing a degree and her son, who is 15, recently was inducted into the National Honor Society. She herself has a certificate in early childhood education and studied criminal justice at U-M Dearborn.
"I was a single parent and a teenage parent, just one more statistic," McCoy says. "There were lots of things going against me. HIPPY widened my expectations of myself and my children."
HIPPY serves parents who are doing their best for their children against a backdrop of poverty. Cuts to things like SNAP food benefits leave these families in a constant scramble to stretch limited income. Since the program is housed at NSO, White says, families have access to a bevy of resources the agency offers, from food aid to life skills classes. Because it's centered around home visits, it also offers an alternative for families who lack transportation to center-based programs.
HIPPY has proved to be an effective program over the years. White says that the children she saw in the program when she started at NSO are now graduating from college, and many of them point to the boost they got from HIPPY as a major reason why. A 2013 national evaluation of the program found that HIPPY graduates demonstrated higher scores on standardized pre-academic, language, and cognitive direct assessment measures. Teachers and parents also rated HIPPY children higher on measures of school readiness, such as adaptability to the kindergarten classroom and meeting learning goals by the end of the year.
HIPPY represents an investment in the future, say both McCoy and White -- not just in children's academic readiness, but in their confidence in their own abilities in the classroom.
"My job is not just to educate," says McCoy. "My job is to help them feel they are a special individual."
This story is part of a series of solutions-focused stories and profiles about the programs and people that are positively impacting the lives of Michigan kids. The series is produced by Michigan Nightlight and is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read other stories in this series here.