The goal at the Bright Beginnings preschool in Southeast Washington is a simple one: to ensure every child who attends is ready for kindergarten by the time he or she leaves. Sometimes, there are challenges along the way.
The main challenge is at the core of why Bright Beginnings was founded nearly 30 years ago: to serve families that are experiencing homelessness. Some of the children in those families need extra attention because they are dealing with physical, developmental or emotional issues.
“I think that with any parent it can be a difficult conversation,” said Shaquita Tillman, education director at Bright Beginnings. For the parents at her school, “it’s like it’s one more thing: ‘My child is already identified as homeless, and now you want to identify them as having a special need?’”
From the start, Tillman and the teachers stress that the school has resources to support their children, including physical and occupational therapists who visit twice a week, along with a speech and language pathologist and a clinical psychologist.
“They’re going to receive intervention so they’re better prepared to enter kindergarten,” Tillman said.
Every new student at Bright Beginnings is screened over the course of their first 45 days using two assessment tools: one called Brigance, the other Ages and Stages. If a problem is identified, teachers prepare either an individualized family support plan (IFSP), for children under 3, or an individualized education program (IEP) for children over 3.
“Early intervention is the key,” said Tillman. “It’s important, because you may have a child who is 17 months and still in the infant room because the child is not walking. Or we may have a child who doesn’t have any language and so they are not able to express their needs. . . . It can be overwhelming to any adult when someone doesn’t understand what they’re saying to them, so imagine how overwhelming it is to a child.”
The school practices inclusion. Students aren’t pulled out of their classrooms for therapy. Therapists work in the classrooms. They also write down strategies for teachers to use and for parents to use at home.
“When the relationship is established and the parents feel comfortable with you or know you well enough to trust you, it’s not so hard to have courageous conversations,” Tillman said. “The reality of the situation is we’re here for the children first. We’re definitely going to support the family along the way.”
Everyone who works at Bright Beginnings approaches their job from a trauma-informed perspective. That means they understand many of the children come from difficult circumstances that can affect their learning and their behavior.
“When parents go through something, the children generally go through something,” Tillman said. “That’s usually how challenging behaviors come into play for our population. If a new person is introduced into the family’s home life, if mom or dad is working an excessive amount of hours and not having enough time to spend with the child, if the child is suffering from sleep deprivation, if there is commotion within the home — those types of things impact behavior.”
Said Tillman: “Financial stability is an issue, but emotional stability doesn’t have to be.”
What is the ideal result when a child’s needs are identified; when a plan is created; when parents, teacher and therapists are all on the same page?
“For our children who are really successful with meeting the goals of their IFSP or IEP, the end goal is for the children to be no longer found eligible for services,” Tillman said. “That means the child has met all of the goals within their plan, and no new goals have been identified.”
And if they still need special help in kindergarten and beyond, Bright Beginnings will have helped lay the foundation.
Said Tillman: “I think my message to the families is why not have your child have all the support that they can have early on?”
Tillman told me Bright Beginnings wants to give its students “the best fighting chance possible.” You can help in that fight.
The school is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand, our annual fundraising drive. To make a contribution to Bright Beginnings, visit posthelpinghand.com and click “Donate.” To contribute by mail, make a check payable to “Bright Beginnings” and send it to: Bright Beginnings, Attn: Helping Hand, 3418 Fourth St. SE, Washington, D.C. 20032.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.