Screenings open district's eyes to city preschoolers' problems
Posted on 4.22.11
Friday, April 22, 2011 03:04 AM
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
The Columbus school district now has an idea of how many problems preschoolers have that could cause them to struggle to learn when they get to kindergarten.
Screenings of more than 1,300 preschoolers who live in the central city and Weinland Park found that:
• Nearly 29 percent needed immediate help and were referred to medical or social-service agencies. Most often, they needed mental-health evaluations.
• About 16 percent were behind in some way, though screeners decided to monitor their development and check up on them later. Their most-common lapse was in fine motor skills, such as gripping a pencil.
• Of the families referred for services, 38 percent were unwilling or unable to pursue them. An additional 39 percent couldn't be reached again after the screening; phone numbers were disconnected or wrong.
"We have our work cut out for us to reconnect with those children," said Cindy Sturni, director of early-childhood initiatives for the United Way of Central Ohio. The preschool screenings were conducted over the past year through Columbus Kids: Ready, Set, Learn, a program run by the United Way. The group commissioned the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs at Ohio University to evaluate its first year.
Day cares, Head Start programs and home-based child-care providers surveyed children between 2 1/2 and 4 years old and some parents to learn whether the children were on track to succeed in kindergarten. Columbus Kids workers screened others at libraries, food pantries and the city's opportunity centers, where people can go for job, food or child-care assistance.
That behavioral problems and not underdeveloped language skills were the primary reason for screeners' concern surprised some officials. Because screenings in the first year were limited to the central city, it's not known whether social and behavioral problems are more widespread.
The district knows that more than one-third of its kindergartners each year are deficient in basic reading skills, such as identifying letters and holding a book correctly. But the degree of behavioral problems - including being aggressive or violent or throwing an excessive number of tantrums - was eye-opening.
The new information makes sense, though, because literacy and social-emotional development are related, said Tobie Sanders, an early childhood education professor at Capital University.
Young children have grown up entirely in tough economic times, and that affects their language and behavioral growth because they learn by seeing how their families cope, Sanders said. "If you're 4 and you're poor, and it's gotten worse and people are stressed around you, that's been your whole life."
Columbus Kids workers often referred families to social-service agencies such as Directions for Youth and Family and St. Vincent Family Center.
"If you don't provide treatment for these children at an early age, by the time they reach elementary school, middle school, it's too late," said Shawn Holt, president and CEO of St. Vincent, which is opening an academy for preschoolers with social-emotional needs.
About one in 10 children who were referred for additional help had fine-motor deficits, and Columbus Kids workers quickly learned why, said Ruth Lomax, outreach manager.
"Parents are afraid to let their kids experiment with scissors, markers or paints. They don't want them to make a mess," she said.
The school-readiness program is screening children in the Linden neighborhood now. In September, screenings will begin on the South Side. Parents now are asked for multiple contact numbers so, if they move, workers can track them down through a relative or friend for follow-up.
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