For many families, the first day of school is scary. It is frightening not only for children but for parents, who must learn to live with their children leaving home each day and spending their days at school. This is especially difficult for immigrant and refugee families who are sending their children into the American school system for the very first time.
To alleviate this challenge, Clarkston Development Foundation’s Parents-as-Teachers staff collaborated with parents to design a two-week school transition camp. The goal of this program was to ease the difficulty of children’s transition into Head Start, a federally-funded early childhood development program, for both the children and for their parents.
On the first day of the summer program, parents originally from Somalia and Bhutan wished emotional goodbyes to the eight children enrolled in this program. But by the third day of summer program, these same parents were surprised to find that their 3- and 4-year old children, most of whom had never been away from their family, were all smiles.
The camp offered the children a real “school day” experience to help them with this transition. The lead teacher, an early learning professional as well as storyteller, kept the day fun while maintaining a routine that the children could follow.
Each day, the camp started at 9 a.m. and ended at l2 noon. The children experienced music and movement, art, free play, dress-up, and outside activities. The children also circled up for story time and asked the story teller lots of open-ended questions.
Two teacher aides, one a parent studying for her nursing degree and the other a grandparent and Bhutanese leader, worked one-on-one with the children, speaking to them in English as well as their home language. The children were encouraged to speak whichever language was most comfortable to them, while the story time included stories in multiple languages.
Children participated in creative play in the blocks area, using their imagination to build houses, bridges, and more. A “Word Wall” proved helpful when commonly used words were sounded out in English and the students’ home language. Music time was a favorite, and families reported that the children were singing the songs at home.
Staff was able to provide feedback to each parent about the children’s participation and to share activities that the parents and grandparents could do with the children during the weeks before Head Start began. Stories about change and transition were particularly helpful as the children talked about what it would be like to go to a “big school.”
Now, the children are better prepared to get the most out of the Head Start program. Each family attended the Head Start orientation together prior to the first day, and with the help of Clarkston Development Foundation the families are developing a good relationship with the Head Start family advocate.
The families are getting ready for their first parent-child conference and are putting together questions to ask the teachers. A translator will be present to ensure good communications and CDF staff member Beena Dahal, who knows the children and families well, will be at the conferences.
The program’s goal was to smooth children’s transition into the American school system and help families cope with and benefit from the transition. We anticipate that the children will thrive in Head Start and beyond and that the families will remain engaged in their children’s early learning.