Pediatric brain research indicates that 80-85% of a child’s neural network for cognitive learning is “hard-wired” and in place by age 6. This neural network development occurs through cognitive stimulation of the child through activities such as reading, coloring pictures, etc. Beyond age 6, the brain’s neurons that are not linked into this network are slowly reabsorbed by the body as it shifts its focus to physical growth and development. Children who do not experience such stimulation exhibit a reduced capacity for learning. Related research on kindergarten readiness indicates that children from economically disadvantaged families exhibit the greatest gaps in their school readiness skills.
Unfortunately, many preschool children from economically disadvantaged environments are denied an opportunity to develop their cognitive skills owing to a lack of learning supplies, as well as information for parents about how to promote their learning and derivatively, brain development. This problem is especially acute in urban areas where the demographics indicate that in addition to grinding poverty, other variables contribute to poor learning outcomes such as single parent families, low birth weights, teenage mothers, crime, etc. As a consequence, children from these environments arrive at school woefully unprepared for kindergarten. Furthermore, the brain research referred to previously tragically indicates that these unprepared children are in a severe deficit-learning situation from which it is almost impossible to recover.
The Legacy Center for Community Success (TLC) has developed a Preschool Tool Tote (PTT) program to address this problem. PTTs are a series of four canvas tote bags filled with various preschool learning supplies such as books to read, crayons, coloring books, construction paper, marker pens, etc. that are designed to stimulate neural network development among economically disadvantaged children. In addition to the supplies, PTTs contain an easy to use parent’s guide (actually a professionally designed curriculum, simplified into straightforward bullet points) that seeks to engage parents of preschoolers to work with their children to develop school readiness skills.
Most typically, the totes are given at six-month intervals to three- to five-year-old children enrolled in the federally funded Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. WIC’s mission is to provide food, food vouchers and nutrition information to economically disadvantaged children from birth through age five. Children must be presented at the WIC clinic by their parents at six-month intervals where the WIC personnel verify the family’s income and the child is weighed and measured to assure her/his physical growth and development.
TLC uses these six-month intervals to provide the original PTT at age three, and then replenishment totes at ages 3½, 4, and 4½. Each successive tote contains similar preschool learning supplies and a parent’s guide, but their content is gradually increased in age-appropriate difficulty. TLC also collaborates with several other agencies providing child care in distributing its PTTs. The PTT program is unique in several dimensions:
- The totes are distributed preferentially to economically disadvantaged children
- TLC requires that participating children are evaluated regarding their cognitive/developmental skills at the onset of their participation and then a every subsequent six month interval as they receive the next tote
- The PTTs are replenished at each six-month interval which provides an incentive to continue participating
- The parent guide engages parents in teaching their children and facilitates the children’s learning in their homes. Our focus groups with parents indicates that in general, they did not know or understand that they had a role in their child’s development and that the PTTs gave them an opportunity and the courage to engage their child at home which they value greatly. This in turn tends to create a culture of learning and encouragement that center-based programs cannot easily duplicate because in most cases, they do not directly address the environment in which the child spends the majority of his/her time.
The results realized thus far are very encouraging as depicted in Figure 1. Four year-old children participating in the PTT program outperform their economically disadvantaged incoming 5-year-old kindergarten peers who have not participated in the PTT program in the random recognition of letters, shapes and colors. By 4½, they exceed their peers in all categories and exceed or are at parity with the general population of incoming 5-year-old kindergarteners.
TLC currently is serving multiple populations in several diverse geographic areas with their PTT program as follows:
|Location||Number of Participants
|Midland (MI) County||1,200|
|Saginaw (MI) County||700|
|Bay (MI) County||500|
|Charlevoix (MI) County||50|
|Luce (MI) County||25|
|2 Programs – Beaufort (SC) County||200|
In addition, TLC has recently engaged in a PTT program with the Midland County Education Services Agency (MCESA). PTTs are supplied to their Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) to four year-old children who are enrolled in the program because of risk factors other than poverty (e.g., low birth weight, developmental disability, etc.). This program involves distributing 3 PTTs to participants in the fall of the year, at the semester break at the beginning of the year, then at the end of the school year (this encourages learning through the summer when the GSRP is not in session). The Midland County United Way is underwriting the costs of this program.
Preschool Tool Tote Assessment Results – Midland Michigan