Sometimes, getting children into preschool requires an early start. Take the Carole Robertson Center for Learning’s Parent-Child Home Program, which works with low-income children as young as 15 months. The program, modeled on a national initiative launched in the 1960s, sends home visitors out twice a week to read to children and play with them using carefully chosen books and toys that the children get to keep.

The visits show parents the best ways to play with and talk to their children in order to enhance their development. The immediate goal is to raise children’s pre-literacy skills and school readiness levels, and to increase parents’ awareness about the importance of early education. The long-term goal is to steer at-risk youngsters into preschool once they are old enough.

Advocates say the strategy is effective with hard-to-reach families because the program comes directly to parents in their homes, an environment that is less intimidating than a school setting. In addition, home visits can help support parents and stabilize a child’s home life, an important prerequisite to helping children learn.

“Home visiting develops relationships and builds trust between workers and families,” says Leslie Janes, the director of quality assurance and program development at the Robertson Center. “If  [families] need services, we can help them get the help they need in a safe way and with people they trust.”

Younger parents, in particular, also learn about the importance of education when their children are toddlers, Janes adds, so that once their children are old enough for school, they are more comfortable and receptive to coaching and advice on parenting. 

Since the program’s inception in January 2008, the number of children served has risen from 37 to 53. Families are recruited in North Lawndale and Little Village.  The Robertson initiative is just one of 150 such programs for infants and toddlers in Illinois; 44 are in Chicago. Last fall, the Illinois Early Learning Council created a task force that will serve as an advisory body for the Strong Foundations Project, a federally funded effort that aims to develop a coordinated network of infant and toddler programs throughout the state. Also in January, the Illinois Department of Human Services received a five-year, $500,000 federal grant for the project, which will include training for home visitors, resources to expand programs and an evaluation by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.

The Early Learning Council says there is a huge demand in Illinois for infant and toddler programs that serve poor families. In Cook County, 53,565 children under age 3 live below the poverty line, according to 2005 data from the Illinois Early Childhood Asset Map, a database of information on early childhood programs and demographics. Another 48,877 are not at poverty level, but, under federal guidelines, would be eligible for subsidized programs. (Data for 2005 are the latest available.)

A 2006 report by Chapin Hall and the Ounce of Prevention Fund reviewed research on infant and toddler home-visiting programs around the country. Some of the research found positive outcomes for children who participated, including development of better social skills and early literacy skills.

“The question is, how do you get children eager and socialized to learn in the classroom?” says Judith Walker Kendrick, the director of the Chicago Coalition for Site Administered Child Care Programs and a member of the Early Learning Council. “You can do that in a variety of ways.”

Janes says many families served by Carole Robertson’s program also face serious problems in addition to poverty, such as mental illness or alcohol and drug addiction, and parents facing these difficulties are not focused on the importance of preschool. Home visitors give these families more than lessons on how to work, play and talk to their children: They connect parents to community resources and social services.

“These families need this program the most,” says Janes. “By spending time with them, we can help them and get them what they need.”

For the past five months, Julie Landfair of the Carole Robertson program has visited Crystal Cook and her four children in their West Side apartment twice a week. Although Cook is not among those parents facing the most serious difficulties, she is unemployed and a single mom. She sent her two older children to preschool but still had lessons to learn about how to enhance the youngest children’s learning experiences, Janes points out.

“She didn’t automatically know to read to her children,” Janes says. “We worked with Crystal on this.”

When Landfair visits, she reads to the children and teaches them through play and games.

She also models for Cook the best ways to enhance the two younger children’s pre-literacy skills—such as identifying the alphabet, colors and shapes—and to foster their curiosity about the world. (Robertson’s home visitors receive 18 hours of training on literacy, early childhood development and how to encourage parents to be active participants in their child’s learning. A degree is not required for the job.)

Cook says that the way she interacts with her children, and the way they interact with her, has improved.  “I’m reading to my children more and asking [them] more questions, and they are questioning me,” Cook says. “I’m finding out they know things I didn’t know they knew. Like Karla [her 2-year-old]—she knows what an ironing board is, and she is naming other things around the house.”

Landfair notes the importance of honing in to provide the specific help parents need. One parent she worked with had difficulty reading, so the parent shied away from reading to her child.  “I told her she should use picture books to do it,” Landfair says. “Now she feels better about herself.”

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