Once a week for the past eight months, Jennifer Thomas has invited Dion Chavis into her home. They sit together at the dining room table, two adults playing school.
Thomas listens to stories, practices counting and does matching activities that Chavis leads, all the while picking up tips about how the lessons work.
Later in the week, she repeats the same activities with her 4-year-old son, Jamison.
Thomas, 33, and her son are part of the Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters program, or HIPPY, an international model that aims to support parents in their role as their child’s first and most important teacher.
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The goal is to create a foundation for academic, social and emotional success that children will build on when they enter school.
The role-playing process is at the core of the program, which sends visitors like Chavis to meet with Wake County families of children ages 3 to 5.
“How many arms do I have?” Chavis asked one day, to help illustrate a point in a lesson about body parts.
“Two,” Thomas said.
“Let’s count them,” he said.
“One, two,” she said, pointing, just the way she knew Jamison would later.
The lessons sometimes provoke laughter, as Chavis and Thomas play parent and child, but understanding a child’s perspective gives Thomas greater insight into the way her son learns.
“It’s a great program,” Thomas said. “It helps me deliver the material in a better way.”
The Family Resource Center, based in Raleigh, is wrapping up its first HIPPY session, which lasted for 30 weeks for 50 local families with 3- and 4-year-olds.
This fall, the program will begin again, adding a 15-week curriculum for 5-year-olds. Families qualify for the program based on income, as well as factors such as a child’s developmental delays or limited literacy skills.
Chavis, a family support specialist at the center, said he’s seen changes in the families he works with, from how much they read with their children to increased interest in parent meetings where they learn more about their role as a teacher.
“One of the things I’m taking away is that parents are really seeing how important it is to be their children’s primary educators,” he said.
First in N.C.
Wake Smart Start, a nonprofit that aims to prepare children from birth to age 5 for success later in life, is the primary funder of the HIPPY program in Wake. The organization provided more than $500,000 to help run the program in its first two years.
Pam Dowdy, executive director of Wake Smart Start, said the skills children develop in their early years affect their performance in school and eventually their roles in the workforce and community.
“You really do have to begin with a solid foundation for learning,” she said.
The HIPPY model was developed in Israel and is used in countries throughout the world. In the United States, the program works with 15,000 families in almost 140 communities. The Wake County program is the first in North Carolina.
HIPPY was an appealing program to bring to Wake because of its success elsewhere, Dowdy said. Not only do families report that they like it, but research shows the program can have positive effects on school readiness and performance. The program is rated an evidence-based home visiting model by the federal government.
Further research is needed to understand why the program sometimes has produced mixed results in studies and to find the best program designs for communities with varying needs, according to the HIPPY USA National Research & Evaluation Center.
Chavis said the Wake program measured each child’s performance and parent-child interactions before the curriculum began and also at 25 weeks into the program. They will use those results to better understand how the program is working in Wake.
They’ve already made tweaks to ensure the program runs as smoothly as possible, such as building small breaks into the curriculum to give families time to process what they are learning.
Chavis is looking forward to starting a new round of the program, with a year of experience behind him.
“You reduce so many risks when you prepare these children for school,” he said.