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For Foster Kids, Preschool Can Be A Place To Catch Up Socially and Emotionally

Michelle Faust/ Side Effects Public Media
Volunteer Latoya Barnes reads to 3 year-olds at a head

Three-year-old Jaime is excited to talk about what he’s learning in school today. “I’m happy!” he declares while showing off a card with a smiley face and the word “happy” at the bottom. Why?  “My mommy loves me!”

Interacting with these feelings cards is part of the curriculum at Jaime’s preschool, a federally-funded Head Start site in Rochester, New York.

“Having young children identify how they feel and helping them with the words to identify how they feel is just good behavioral health for all of us, much less for three-year-old children,” says Loretta Kruger who oversees Head Start programs in Monroe County through the nonprofit Action for a Better Community.

Her organization is one of several groups teaming up to make sure curriculum-based early childhood education is available for a particularly vulnerable population: kids in foster care.  A county-wide survey shows that less than 20 percent of preschool aged foster kids here are enrolled in such programs.

Unlike many daycares, curriculum-based preschool programs like those at Head Start are designed to give kids the building blocks for their future education, including social-emotional skills, personal hygiene, and basic pre-reading skills. They also include screenings for developmental delays.

A local doctor, Garrett Coles, a pediatric resident at the University of Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital, is leading the push to connect foster children to high-quality pre-K education.

Coles says these are important skills foster kids might miss out on at home.

To the general public it's like, 'Yeah, my mom and dad taught me that.' or 'Yeah, I knew that skill before I went to school.' [But] these children may not get those skills. they may not have had those lessons. - Dr. Garret Cole, pediatrician

He says environment and family life affect kid’s health. “As a pediatrician I’m interested in the whole life of the child,” Coles says. “I view education as just another way that I can impact their health.”

The coalition is taking steps to try to reach that missing 80 percent of foster kids. They recently offered a special trainings for social workers on how to connect foster kids to pre-K. These children are automatically eligible for the program but were often falling through the cracks.

Next they hope to tackle logistical problems like transportation. Foster families could use help getting kids to specialized preschool programs. Coles hopes in two or three years to see more than 80 percent enrolled.

He says foster kids need to be a priority for the local community.

“They've been through so many transitions. They've had a lot of chaos in their life. They’ve had family stress,” he says.  “So they, more than other children, should be a high priority into getting into these high quality programs.”

Kruger says her organization has found foster care children in Head Start have three times more developmental delays than other kids, such as speech and language delays.

“And that [indicates] the environment hasn't been stimulating, that they haven't been exposed to the spoken word a lot, and they don’t have very rich vocabularies,” she says.

A program, like Head Start, is a place where adults can identify and help kids with delays. Kruger says as soon as a child is enrolled at Head Start he or she is screened for social and emotional development delays.  They do a further assessment within 90 days to identify what supportive services may be needed.  

Coles says the sooner kids get help with all of their developmental and educational needs, the more likely they’ll have healthy, successful lives in adulthood. “Foster care children receiving services earlier on have many of these benefits moving forward,” he says.

And for kids who may have a past of neglect and abuse, preschool is a stable place to be, with caring adults.

“It's a familiar face, someone that they know is invested and cares about them, that they see every day, or every other day,” Coles says. “It’s someone that sees their progress and can commend them on it. It's someone in their corner.”

Michelle Faust, MA, is a reporter/ producer whose work focuses strongly on issues related to health and health policy. She joined the WXXI newsroom in February 2014, and in short time became the lead producer on the Understanding the Affordable Care Act series. Michelle is a reporter with Side Effects and regularly contributes to The Innovation Trail. Working across media, she also produces packages for WXXI-TV’s weekly news magazine Need to Know.