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Jerry Davich: Program aims to help parents be teachers

Four year-olds Jordyn Stinchcomb EllFerrell both Michigan City play with pinwheels Joy School Michigan City as parents children prep for

Four year-olds Jordyn Stinchcomb and Ella Ferrell, both of Michigan City play with pinwheels at Joy School in Michigan City as parents and children prep for a photo for Dunebrook's campaign for National Child Abuse Prevention Month in April. Dunebrook, Inc., a not-for-profit organization that advocates for children and positive family support. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: August 20, 2013 11:08PM



“Parents as teachers.”

You would think this simple, even primal concept would be so obvious that a nationally recognized program isn’t needed to remind young parents. However, you would think incorrectly, as I did.

Every day, dozens of potential teachable moments take place in young children’s lives but too many parents are not aware of them, experts say.

Say, for example, a routine visit to a grocery store, which is jam-packed with possible lessons for eager young minds.

“A grocery store can be like a children’s museum if you frame it that way,” said Gail Johnson, public advocacy director for Dunebrook, Inc., a not-for-profit organization that advocates for children and positive family support.

“Every store is filled with shapes, colors, numbers, words, counting, pictures, and social interaction.”

Johnson said a good barometer to gauge parenting skills, or lack thereof, can be found at any grocery store. All you have to do is watch and listen to how they talk to their children.

“Are they bullying their child or yelling at them?” she asked. “Are they keeping them very close, not allowing them to experience anything? Or are they using their shopping list to teach how to write, count, and find the items they need?”

Dunebrook, formerly known as the LaPorte County Child Abuse Prevention Council, was initially developed to increase community awareness of child abuse and neglect, and to coordinate services for victims and their families.

The Michigan City-based agency has since expanded its mission, services, and locations, with offices now in Valparaiso and Winamac, working with faith-based partners, child service groups, and government agencies.

The agency also serves as Indiana’s leader for the Parents as Teachers program, reminding parents that they are their children’s first and best teacher. Period.

“It’s easy for parents to forget this fact with their busy lives, jobs, and responsibilities,” said Pamela Henderson, Dunebrook’s director of development and communications.

I recently met with Henderson and Johnson, where I learned a few eye-popping statistics about our state and country’s youth.

Indiana lags behind in early education, with two thirds of our fourth graders reading below their grade level. American 15-year-olds rank 25th in math and 17th in science among 34 developed countries. And only one quarter of young people ages 17 to 24 would qualify to serve in the U.S. military, unable to meet the physical, behavioral and educational standards.

“This is why it is so important for Northwest Indiana children to improve their early learning and kindergarten readiness,” Henderson told me.

During their first years, babies grow trillions of brain cell connections, and children develop most of their ability to learn between birth and age 5, research shows. From the moment they’re born, kids can’t wait to start learning and they become sponges for new information, insights, and habits.

“More businesses are realizing that investing in early childhood education and experiences impacts the entire community,” Johnson said. “Plus, more employers are realizing that this is what their workers want for their families.”

Grow Up Great

For instance, PNC Bank has launched a $100 million bilingual program called “Grow Up Great,” including a kid-friendly brochure that’s filled with tips for young parents.

The pocket-sized brochure, available at any PNC Bank branch or via online at pncgrowupgreat.com, offers a weekly lesson plan for parents.

Monday: Learn to count and find colors by asking your child to identify vegetables on their plate.

Tuesday: Help your child learn teamwork by having them draw a picture with friends or make a paper chain with siblings.

Wednesday: Foster imagination by giving your child an old key and pretending it opens the door to invisible lands. Ask them what they see, who’s there, and what’s happening.

Thursday: Make a list together for anything, showing them that writing is important in everyday life.

Friday: Share your feelings by letting your child know when they do something nice such as giving you a hug or a present.

“Everyday moments are perfect opportunities to explore the world around us,” the brochure states.

Yet too many parents fail to do this, instead allowing young kids to live in their “caves” called bedrooms or basements.

Dunebrook works collaboratively with several agencies to provide parenting education and support programs, including home visits or at schools, libraries, churches and other places in the community.

“We have a program called Body Safety where we have presenters go into preschool and elementary schools, spreading the message that children’s bodies are their own and no one should touch them inappropriately,” Johnson said.

The agency is currently working with the state’s Child Protective Services by assisting police agencies with forensic interviews of child victims. Plans are in the works for a similar partnership with the Porter County Sheriff’s Police.

“This arrangement may work out well for everyone,” said Porter County Sheriff David Lain. “Officers don’t enjoy this type of interview and Dunebrook’s staff is able to have more of the specialized training required to be effective. They also present a softer persona to these younger, more delicate victims.”

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month and Dunebrook shared with me a list of upcoming events to spread awareness. This includes its second annual walk on April 6 starting at Ames Field in Michigan City, another walk on April 17 in LaPorte, and by selling “Prevent Child Abuse” window clings for $5.

Dunebrook will also take part in a statewide rally at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis this Wednesday. For more information on all the upcoming events, or for the agency’s many programs, visit www.dunebrook.org.

If today’s column does nothing else, I hope it at least gives new parents a fresh perspective of a routine trip to the “grocery store learning center” with their young children.



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