Early start closes the education divide of rich and poor
Parent Child Home Programme helps those at an educational disadvantage
With 90pc of brain growth happening before the age of five, without early intervention, generations of children's life chances are determined before their first day of school.
At three years of age, there are already big differences in language and mathematical development between children from rich and and poor backgrounds. This gap will widen if not addressed before a child starts school.
A programme pioneered in Ireland in Dublin's Docklands is showing how early intervention, at home, can eliminate that gap. Children from educationally disadvantaged families are now entering school and scoring above the norms of children in middle class schools in English and Maths.
The Parent Child Home Programme (PCHP) is a school readiness programme that aims to nurture pre-school children's early literacy and numeracy skills through educational play.
Over a two-year period, home visitors conduct half-hour visits twice a week with children aged between 18 months and three years during the academic year.
Each week, the home visitor brings a book or toy, and uses it to model play and interaction activities for parents (or sometimes grandparents) and children to do together.
The programme is designed to strengthen the relationship between parent and child, and the books and toys are left after each visit to encourage interaction between the parents and their young children.
The PCHP originated in America in 1965, and was first introduced in Dublin in 2007, as part of the Early Learning Initiative (ELI) at the National College of Ireland.
Many parents are unaware of the importance of play and verbal interaction for their child's development, particularly parents in disadvantaged areas.
They may be working multiple jobs and have little time, there may not be books or toys available, or they may not have had that quality time playing with their own parents when they were growing up.
Dr Grainne Kent, research assistant for the ELI, says: "In families from higher socio-economic backgrounds, parents would have the skills to encourage their kids, but some parents in our area might not have those skills. It's about teaching the parent how to promote the child's development."
Unlike the US programme, all of the home visitors on the Irish programme are local women who receive special training, rather than para-professionals.
The home visits were initially carried out in the Docklands area, but the PCHP is now working in North Wall, East Wall, Ringsend and City Quay.
They recently expanded their reach, as funds from the Katherine Howard Foundation have allowed them to begin working with the Traveller and Roma communities at Pavee Point.
The programme is also being established in Limerick.
There are now 24 home visitors, who visit 61 families. Further recruitment is underway thanks to basis.point, an initiative of the Irish Funds Industry Assocation, which will bring home visitor numbers up to 28 and allow for engagment with 100 families.
Margaret Campion (39) from Artane, Dublin, is in her eighth year as a home visitor with the PCHP. Each week, she visits six families in the Docklands area.
A typical visit involves reading a story, such as Eric Carle's Brown Bear, Brown Bear, or playing with toys like stacking cups, jigsaws and bean bags.
"We talk about what's in the book, and a lot of the time the conversation goes off the book, but it's more about building language skills," says Margaret.
As it is a two-year programme, the home visitor's role is to lead the reading and play for the first year, and then to step back and hand over to the parents for the second year.
"The first few weeks are kind of hard because they're learning to trust me and they're getting used to me coming into their home. But, once you get past that stage and the parents become fully involved, you notice a huge difference."
She adds: "Some of the parents can't read, so you have to keep that in your head when you're going in and out too."
Margaret has four children of her own, ranging in age from eight months to 22-years-old.
"When I was a child, we weren't given books or read stories. I left school at a very young age, and I didn't read to my first child; I was very young. The rest of them, I've put the work in."
One of the children Margaret visited was Leah Martin now seven. Leah's mother, Annmarie (32), says she's noticed that the home visits have had a very positive impact on her family since Leah took part a few years ago.
"She always looked forward to them and loved them. I was young starting my family. I would never have sat down and read books to my children, so it was also teaching me to read with them," she says.
She has two other young children and an older son (14), and says the programme has benefited her whole family.
"The younger ones love the books because Leah's reading them. I have loads of books now, and before I wouldn't have had any books in the house."
She heard about the PCHP through her mother, Pamela, who is a home visitor. She says the visits helped to strengthen the bond between her and her children.
"It's great because it only takes a few minutes but it's a few minutes where you're interacting one-to-one with them. Normally your days are hectic and you don't really get time to sit down together.
'Home visiting benefits everyone in the family'
Pamela Martin (57) has been a home visitor for eight years, and gained a FETAC 5 qualification in Early Childhood Education through the programme.
"I left school at 14, so it was a great achievement for me to go back to school. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I'd even set my foot into a college, so to get to do a FETAC 5 is great."
She believes that books and toys offer "a different type of contact" than electronic products like tablets and smartphones.
"Sometimes the parents don't realise that you can get as much enjoyment out of telling a story."
Pamela has seven grandchildren, some of whom have been involved in the programme.
"You can see the results at the end of it. I can see it with my grandchild Leah, who was in the programme. She speaks so clearly now and has great confidence. It benefits everyone in the family."