MIAMI – Little ones need the best start possible and the Early Head Start program at Joyful Learning Center in Miami offers one of the best opportunities for children’s success.

Head Start has helped millions of low-income pre-school children and their families succeed, and the month of October is used to raise awareness during Early Head Start Awareness Month of the need for learning from day one of a child’s life.

According to Head Start Education/Disabilities Manager, Becki Caudill, the federal Early Head Start program was created to give all young children the same opportunities to succeed. Young children living in poverty are more likely to face challenges that negatively impact their development. Research shows that Early Head Start improves a child’s success in school, leads to greater family self-sufficiency and encourages parents to support their child’s development.

In recognition during October, the Early Head Start Program and Joyful Learning invited community members to interact with the program’s children and to encourage them with reading to them through Books Building Bridges to enhance community connection. Miami Nation and Miami Police Officer Dustin Hoffer visited the children and read them stories making a big impression, according to Joyful Learning’s Director Tracie DeLano.

“He came, and he was so generous. He visited all of the classrooms, and it was just wonderful the interaction he had with the kids,” she said. “I definitely do think we built some bridges there. We want to keep building those relationships.”

Early Head Start offers learning and development from birth to three years old, and the program was incorporated into the classrooms at Joyful Learning a few years ago.

“That’s when all that brain development is happening,” Caudill said. “When you think about learning it’s that social/emotional that’s important, and that’s what we’re building. That’s the foundation for all future learning, and this is an early intervention from the very beginning to make sure they have the skills they need, and they have a solid foundation.”

Social skills such as getting along with others, solving problems, and expressing emotions appropriately are all part of early learning that enhance educational skills as children grow and develop to make learning easier. Comprehensive services encompassing a vast variety of needs are incorporated and used in each child’s individual learning plan to include family and community partners to enhance and maximize each child’s potential.

“The idea behind it is to create resources for families and to get the community involved and behind them for support,” Caudill said. “There has to be a need, but it doesn’t have to be financial, they may need some type of intervention. We want to help the entire family.”

Many Early Head Start students are accepted to the program by meeting certain criteria such as a family income below poverty level, disabilities, or coming from homes with challenges such as domestic violence or drug abuse issues, but not all. Family needs assessments, home visits, and parent/teacher conferences are used to assess and help identify the children’s at risk issues and support needed.

Early Head Start and Joyful Learning have partnered over the last three years to broaden services to all children served there.

“This new partnership with Joyful is so you have Head Start children in the same class with non-Head Start children so those children who don’t qualify are getting those services that they wouldn’t have before,” Caudill said. “This is all centered around community and families.”

An Early Head Start Policy Council made up of parents and educators creates community specific policy, procedures, and guidelines directing the program to create an inclusive and comprehensive interactive learning system for all the children. The staff uses those guidelines and assessments to match services and resources to each child’s specific needs.

“The neat thing is about this program is they are in until they age out at age three,” Caudill said. “The goal is by the end of the program the family is more self-sufficient by the time that they leave. We know if you want to help that child, you need to help that family. Everything we do is built on positive relationships.”

The children in the Early Head Start program can then transition into Head Start, which is for three and four-year-old children giving them every possible advantage for development before they begin school.

“It’s a benefit in turn to our community,” DeLano said. “All of the issues we help the family with are a huge benefit to the child, the family and the community in the long run.”

The program’s goal is to meet each child’s basic needs first and to build their skills and learning ability from there on. Each classroom at Joyful Learning is a mixed age group class, and the partnership helps ensure basic education requirements are met and exceeded.

“So you have infants from six weeks to three-year-olds in one classroom, with one worker for every four children per classroom, with no more than two teachers and eight kids in a classroom, so there’s a lot of individual work going on,” Caudill said. “The idea is to function as a family unit. Everything is as homey as possible and on their level.”

A tour of the facility revealed clean, inviting, bright, child-centered classrooms with play areas, restroom and hygiene areas, nap areas, small kitchen areas for snack and nutrition preparation and fun outdoor playgrounds.

The children are cared for by the staff as a family unit with continuity of care to help build trust. Activities such as cooking and eating home-style meals, story time, and fun learning activities are woven throughout the children’s day.

“That’s a perfect example of how all of the children at Joyful benefit from the Early Head Start program going on here, because we have to meet those Early Head Start guidelines not just for our Early Head Start children in that classroom but all of the kids that are in that classroom,” DeLano said. “This raises the bar for all Joyful kids.”

DeLano said the babies’ and toddlers’ interaction is important and wonderful to see.

“It’s sweet when you walk into a classroom and the two-year-olds will tell you, ‘Shhh, the baby is sleeping,’” Caudill said. “It mimics family life and gives them continuity of care and trust which is the base of social/emotional learning and allows them to feel safe and explore their world. It builds an environment that allows them to excel.”

Both Caudill and DeLano stressed that Early Head Start is not a babysitting service but instead a well-rounded learning environment.

Caudill is a testament to the program’s success, as a young sixteen-year-old mother she was dealing with her own son who benefitted from intervention with developmental delays. The program helped her find resources and gain access to assistance. Caudill now works in the same program that helped her and her child succeed.

“I fell in love with the program, because I probably wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for this program,” Caudill said.

“This helps parents build relationships and find needed resources for their children,” DeLano said.

Early Head Start is a federal program using grant funding for non-profit programs such as Community Action to serve children and families for 30 years now. Community Action’s Early Head Start partnership was built with Joyful Learning because of the program fit with the pre-school’s mission, according to Caudill.

Joyful is a Christian based child care center focused on teaching children ages six weeks to 12 years-old, age-appropriate, Christian based curriculum.

“Our children are our passion, and we love what we do!” DeLano said.

“It goes beyond meeting standards, you have to have a heart for making this work,” Caudill said.

Caudill and DeLano welcome all parents to call and learn more about the program offered in Miami.

“It takes a commitment from everybody involved,” DeLano said. “We definitely want people to come in and apply.”

Applications for the program can be made at any time, and more information is available at Joyful Learning by calling 918-542-9241.

Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at mstotts@miaminewsrecord.com or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.