Three-year-old Jasper has been a fixture at UpValley Family Center’s weekly Niños Activos playgroups ever since he’s been old enough to join. He loves participating in the activities that facilitator Rosa Cachú plans out every week, and he’s made fast friends with the other kids. But as much fun as Jasper’s been having at each playgroup, both his parents and Rosa have observed what seems to be a delay in the development of his communication skills: he just doesn’t quite seem to be where the other 3-year-olds are.
Together, Rosa and Jasper’s parents recently decided to conduct an Ages and Stages Questionnaire, or ASQ: an age-specific screening tool, available in both English and Spanish, that can help identify developmental challenges early on so that parents can connect with the right supports for their child. Rosa helped conduct the assessment Jasper’s parents responded to the screening questions, and indeed: the results pointed to a delay in Jasper’s communication skills.
The first five years of life are a crucial time for cognitive development – yet millions of kids in California don’t get an opportunity to participate in structured learning activities, let alone developmental screenings, until after they enter kindergarten. Preschool and childcare are expensive, and many low- and moderate-income parents simply can’t afford these opportunities for their children. Across California and the U.S., a disproportionately high percentage of these low-income families tend to be people of color, or immigrants. Here in Napa County, that means that Latino kids are less likely than their white peers to attend preschool or have access to other early learning opportunities.
But precisely because those first few years of life are such an important period of brain development, research shows that preschool attendance is a crucial predictor for later academic and even career success. Preschool helps kids develop their ability to learn the cognitive skills they’ll need to be able to pay attention, participate in class activities, and communicate with their teacher once they enter kindergarten. Preschool also provides a vital opportunity for families like Jasper’s to identify any developmental delays before they begin impacting a child’s school performance — in time for parents to put in place the supports their child will need to do well in class from day one.
When millions of kids from disadvantaged families don’t have access to these resources, the result is a gap in so-called kindergarten readiness that often falls along racial and economic lines. This readiness gap, which can be even more stark for kids whose families’ first language isn’t English, can translate into a persistent achievement gap that stays with a child through elementary and high school, impacting their likelihood of graduating, of successfully pursuing a higher education, and of career success throughout adulthood. In other words, expanding access to preschool or other pre-kindergarten learning opportunities can make a transformative difference for kids from low-income and immigrant families — the difference between a lifetime of success, and one of struggle.
Meeting this need for affordable, accessible early learning opportunities has been part of the UpValley Family Centers’ focus since the Calistoga Family Center opened its doors in 1999. Our twice-weekly Niños Activos playgroups have become a fixture in both Calistoga and St. Helena, offering fun activities that help kids develop the skills they’ll need to do well later on in kindergarten – and show parents how to replicate these activities at home. We couple these playgroups with additional programs that equip parents with the skills and confidence they need to support their children’s development, ranging from the parenting resources and tips we offer through the Positive Parenting Program (or Triple P), to the ESL and adult education classes we coordinate in partnership with Napa Valley College.
Because we know that early detection can be crucial, we also make sure that our playgroups create an opportunity for families to identify and address any special developmental needs their kids might have. When Jasper’s screening confirmed a delay in his communication skills, for example, we were able to connect his family with ParentsCAN in Napa, an organization that supports and guides parents whose children have special needs. ParentsCAN facilitated follow-up testing for Jasper, and helped his parents find a speech therapist who now visits him at home twice a week. Jasper is now making noticeable progress in his communication skills, and has a high likelihood of being completely caught up with his peers by the time he enters kindergarten.
UVFC’s early learning programs have been made possible thanks to a countywide network of organizations dedicated to helping young children succeed – including First 5 Napa County, whose Quality Counts initiative allowed UVFC staff to become trained to conduct ASQ Screenings; and the Napa Valley Early Learning Initiative, which was funded by Auction Napa Valley/Napa Valley Vintners. With Governor Newsom’s interest in prioritizing early learning and supports for young families, we’re hopeful that we can continue to expand pre-kindergarten learning opportunities for kids in our community, setting them up for a lifetime of school and career success.
Do you want to know more about our free Niños Activos playgroups and Ages & Stages Screenings? Please give us a call at (707) 965-5010.