At a glance: United States of America

Children and parents learn together at Columbia University Early Head Start Centre

UNICEF Image
© Peter Howard
Children at the Columbia University Early Head Start Centre in New York City’s Washington Heights neighbourhood.

UNICEF’s yearly flagship report, 'The State of the World’s Children', launched 22 January 2008, makes a call to unite for child survival. Here is one in a series of related stories.

NEW YORK CITY, USA, 3 March 2008 – Sunlight streams through the windows of the classroom at the Columbia University Early Head Start Centre – part of a federally funded, nationwide, community-based programme for low-income families with infants and toddlers, as well as pregnant women.

The centre, located in New York’s Washington Heights neighbourhood, is bubbling with activity as coordinator Cristina Troya leads an animated discussion on creating a safer home environment for children under three.

“In the bathroom, never leave your toddler unattended, and lock the medicine cabinets. Always conceal electrical power sources with protective covering,” Ms. Troya tells a group of eight mothers.

Parent and child development

At the heart of the Early Head Start approach are a child’s first and most important teachers: the parents.

“If we don’t have parent development, we don’t have the full child development,” notes the Director of the programme at Columbia, Dr. Carmen Rodriguez.

In a similar vein, UNICEF works with its partners in the developing world to empower families and communities so that every child can get the best start in life. These efforts promote survival, growth and development in the critical early childhood years by influencing key household and community practices and addressing the deep-rooted and complex social and economic factors that influence child-rearing practices.

Games for fun and life skills

In the play area set up in the other half of the room and supervised by an assistant teacher, the mothers’ young children are engaged in a lighthearted activity. When two-year-old Enrique begins to weave strips of coloured paper into his curly hair, his young companions follow suit, bursting into peals of laughter.

Apart from being enjoyable, such games also serve a greater purpose in fostering social interaction, developing language and motor skills and sparking the imaginations of young children.

As of 2005, there were 741 Early Head Start Centres across the United States, providing free child development and family support services to nearly 62,000 children under age three.

A sense of community

In Washington Heights, most families in the Early Head Start Programme are first-generation immigrants living at or below the poverty line. Dr. Rodriguez emphasizes that the Centre strives to provide these families with a sense of community and home.

“It is a vibrant community, a family-oriented community. In many cases we have both parents involved, to the greatest extent they can. It is important that the place be a very welcoming environment.”

Like other Early Head Start Centres across the country, the Columbia University Centre offers parent-child group learning sessions as well as home visits from an early childhood specialist, immunization support, health screenings and adult literacy classes, among other services. The centre also offers a pregnancy support programme.

“Our focus is adult education,” explains Dr. Marilyn Figueroa. “How do we create an environment where women feel comfortable, where women can speak? We tell them that the goal of the programme is to have the best pregnancy outcome possible; that we really care for the health and the well-being and the education of their children.”

‘We have learned together’

Carmen Piñeda, 30, has been a participant in the programme for four years. Her experience embodies what Early Head Start has meant for many low-income families seeking the best care for their children.

“The mothers here, we are like links in a chain,” Ms. Piñeda says optismistically, reflecting on her experience with the programme. “We have learned together how to help our children grow in the best way. Here, we simply learn to know our children better.”


 

 

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