by Malcolm Schmitz, guest contributor and freelance writer
Whenever I meet a kid for the first time, I ask them this question: “Do you like dinosaurs?” Most of the time, the answer is “yes.” I can’t count the number of interesting dinosaur facts I’ve learned from talking to kids. Younger kids—as young as three or four—can sometimes pronounce complicated dinosaur names like Quetzalcoatlus and Pachycephalosaurus. They know how dinosaurs’ footprints were preserved as fossils and that Deinonychus had three long, sharp claws that it used to hunt its prey.
Kids are information sponges. They soak up as much knowledge as they can about the world around them, whether it’s the rules that the world follows, the way that people talk, or the interesting dinosaur facts that they saw in their favorite book. They’re growing and developing in so many ways that the influences surrounding them can shape their lives forever.
Parents and teachers need to help kids learn and grow. They also must let kids have opportunities to explore and make choices. Instructors and mentors let kids play, while also teaching them the basics of how to be a healthy human being. Early childhood education is critical in this development and progress.
Unfortunately, not all kids have the same level of support. Kids growing up in severe poverty, kids at risk of homelessness, kids who are refugees or foster children, and kids who’ve fled from abusive families are all at risk. Through adverse and traumatic circumstances, some kids learn to believe that the world is a scary place and that they should be perpetually frightened. Those children could have trouble growing, learning, and developing at the same pace as peers.
Early childhood education is absolutely crucial for all children, but especially these kids. If they have access to a good early childhood education program—and their families have support from the community—children who have faced trauma can catch up to peers who have faced less challenges. These children can make progress, get ready for kindergarten on time, and learn that it’s okay to be inquisitive and creative.
YWCA Greater Cleveland has an Early Learning Center that’s designed specifically to help children who have faced adverse conditions or trauma (such as homelessness). This innovative program is the only one like it in the state. YWCA’s teachers are degreed, well-trained, and able to implement customized education plans, working to focus on children’s social and emotional development goals. These teachers are supported by Family Engagement Specialists who focus as much on the parent and family unit as they do on the child. This innovative model also incorporates an Early Childhood Mental Health Consultant, coaching staff to ask children and families questions like “What happened to you?” instead of “What’s wrong with you?”
The Early Learning Center (ELC) works with both kids and their families to help kids get ready for kindergarten. The ELC helps kids’ families set goals and create game plans to help them attain the highest possible level of self-sufficiency. The ultimate goal is to help kids reach their developmental milestones and empower families to advocate for themselves.
As a community, we can support the ELC with volunteer work, donations, and spreading the word. Let’s ensure that kids who have faced trauma spend less time struggling to cope and catch up with peers and more time excitedly learning the differences between a plesiosaur and a pteranodon.