The key to helping kids develop and thrive: Reach the mom

Mom holding newborn

by Judie Jerald


Years ago I visited a young teen parent and her newborn daughter at a local hospital in Vermont. It was the practice of the home-visiting program where I worked to visit newborn parents in the hospital so we could begin to develop a relationship with them and offer our services, which included helping new parents learn the skills they needed to help their children thrive.

I walked into the hospital room with a bag of gifts, and saw the young mom was watching TV while the baby was in a cot by the bed. We talked a bit, and I asked her if she wanted to hold her baby. She said she did. But she was quite uncertain holding the baby, and we spent time unwrapping and checking out fingers and toes as I gave Mom some hints on how to hold her baby so they could have eye contact. I told her how important touching her baby was.

I encouraged her to talk with the baby, and Mom laughed and said, “Why? She can’t understand me!” So we talked about how her baby already knew her voice, and how important talking, and singing and reading was to the baby’s development and for their connection.

I left to make some other visits in the hospital, and on my way out I peeked in again, and was surprised to see that the mom, still holding the baby, was crying.

I went in and asked her, “What’s the matter? Are you okay?”

She responded, with little sobs, “I didn’t know I was supposed to talk to her!”

What a scary thing it can be to be a new mother, and even more so if the mother is hardly out of childhood herself. Did this young mom want to be a good mother? Of course she did. Did she know how? Not yet.

She was fortunate to be part of a home visiting program with the same, continuous home visitor for three years, and also to have her daughter in the high school child care center where she received parenting classes and had a support system. She learned about parenting, she received support from her home visitor and her child’s teachers and she graduated from high school.

The ongoing and continuous, supportive relationships that began early on were the foundation that helped this young mom and her daughter thrive and develop together.

The Critical Elements to Early Childhood Programs

I have spent many years developing and implementing early childhood programs, from pre-birth through age 8, in local communities, nationally and internationally. Regardless of whether the program is in a rural or urban area, or whether it is home based or center based, I have found that certain elements always apply.

With this in mind, I would like to offer and discuss over a series of blog posts, ten elements which are critical when developing and implementing high-quality early childhood programs:

  • Developmentally appropriate and evidence-informed curricula
  • Highly qualified staff
  • Enriching classroom environment
  • Ongoing professional development
  • Family and community engagement
  • Child assessment and individualized instruction
  • Cultural responsiveness and dual language focus as needed
  • Transition to kindergarten planning and activities
  • Ongoing monitoring and evaluation
  • Sustainable funding

Each one of these critical elements needs to be based on strong, positive relationships. They are the foundation for everything else.

The relationship between parent and child, the relationship between parent and caregiver or home visitor, the staff to staff relationships and the community relationships are all critical and necessary in reaching desired outcomes for quality programs and positive outcomes for children and their families.

I will explore these relationships in future blog posts about each of the elements necessary for successful early childhood programs.


Want to learn more about the importance of early childhood education? Judie will be posting a new installment to The Voice for Kids every month. In the meantime, join us to learn about ways you can advocate for high-quality early childhood education.

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Judie Jerald is the Senior Early Childhood Advisor for Save the Children Action Network. Before joining SCAN in January 2016, she served as the Early Childhood Senior Director for U.S. Programs at Save the Children, where she designed and directed the home-based Early Steps to School Success, a signature program for Save the Children that operates in 14 states. Before joining, Judie served as the National Director of the Early Head Start Program. Previous to that, she was the founder and director of Early Education Services, an umbrella agency that provides comprehensive services to young children and their families throughout Windham County, Vermont.