NORTHAMPTON – Early Education and Care (EEC) Commissioner Tom Weber knows that in order to understand and advocate for the needs of very young children, he must see the world from their perspective even if that means getting down on his hands and knees.
Weber spent a little time on the carpet of the Palmer Monson Family Network Family Center on his April visit to western Massachusetts. “Hi, I’m Tom,” he said as he crouched next to a young boy playing with clay.
Weber also talked to parents and teachers about the services provided through the Family Center, operated by the Collaborative for Educational Services (CES) in Northampton, MA.
As a father of young children, Weber is familiar with the needs of families. However, he said he was struck by the unique challenges parents face in rural areas, such as isolation, lack of public transportation, fewer service providers and resources.
One young mother told him her income was too high to qualify for EEC childcare vouchers, but not high enough to pay for day care. She said the Palmer Monson Family Center offers developmental opportunities for her child to learn, socialize and play with other children, while she gets support around parenting.
Weber said that Family Centers, which offer a variety of free services, are among the few resources available to families in rural communities.
Later that day, he listened to the concerns of over 50 early learning professionals at a Meet and Greet at the CES Northampton office.
Suzanne Ryan, a preschool teacher from Deerfield Elementary School, said many teachers and families of children with challenging behaviors benefitted from consultation through CES’s Early Childhood Mental Health Program. However, that program, which is funded through EEC, has not been accessible to her staff in recent years due to a new restriction limiting this service to non-public school programs.
If the Early Childhood Mental Health consultants were made available, “it would make such a huge difference for us,” she told the Commissioner.
Ryan said CES consultants observed a child’s behavior, talked to parents in their home, and made recommendations to support the child in a classroom setting. The consultants help parents gain skills and find additional resources so they can parent effectively.
“For a couple of these kids, (the consultants) almost literally saved their lives,” she said.
Ryan added western Massachusetts is “rich in untapped resources (and) has a high level of expertise.” Weber agreed, adding that professionals from more urban areas “can learn from a strong network of collaborative relationships in western Massachusetts.”
Several educators expressed their appreciation of Weber’s visit. “He really listened, requested feedback, and took a genuine interest in the families we serve,” said Early Childhood Mental Health Consultant Debbie Roth Howe.
“We are delighted that Commissioner Weber took time to meet and talk with parents and early childhood providers in western Massachusetts,” said CES Early Childhood Director Desiree Lalbeharie-Josias, “We appreciate all that he has done in advocating for the needs of very young children in the year he has been Commissioner.”