This is part of a weekly series that highlights the organizations or people behind one of the Foundation’s funds.
In 1999, the Centre County United Way conducted a needs assessment that showed that local residents were in need of “high quality, affordable, and accessible childcare” and “activities and educational resources for families to help encourage them with positive role models, and to help prevent problems of delinquency, substance abuse, and violence later on.”
“It pointed to the need for an organization that would take on the challenge of supporting parents and child care providers in offering excellent programming and resources for all parents, no matter what their circumstances,” Eileen Wise said.
So the Centre County United Way, the Centre County Community Foundation and the Child Development and Family Council of Centre County combined forces to create an organization that could address these issues. That organization is Smart Start – Centre County, of which Wise is the Executive Director. The Centre County Community Foundation continues its association with Smart Start through an endowment fund it manages for the organization.
Smart Start focuses on many issues involving young children, including school readiness, and the specific factors involved, such as ensuring physical health, social and emotional skill development, and cognitive experiences. It also provides strategies for parents to help them be more effective when working with, and teaching, their kids. The organization’s goal is for all young children in Centre County to have the best possible start in life through excellent parenting practices, workplace policies, community services, government support, and early care and education programs.
Smart Start participates in many events throughout the year, including “Countdown to Kindergarten,” a fair in which school districts, private and charter schools, and support agencies provide parents with information and answer questions about Kindergarten programs and registration.
The group also has an upcoming event that coincides with Pennsylvania’s Promise for Children Month, which takes place now, in October. (And on Tuesday, at the request of Smart Start, the Centre County Commissioners issued a proclamation stating that “October is PA Promise for Children Month in Centre County.”)
The purpose of the month is to celebrate children and educate people about their needs. Smart Start uses the occasion to shed light on issues involving the social and emotional needs of children. Last year, they held a fair at Nittany Mall, which featured mental health professionals and activities designed to help children deal with their emotions, and recognize other people’s emotions and empathize with them.
“It’s important not to just be concerned about cognitive skills, but also about those interpersonal skills,” Wise said. “We think having solid social and emotional skills is one of the most important things in terms of a child developing in a healthy way. Once those are in place, it’s not as hard to build school skills.”
This year, emotional issues are once again at the heart of what Smart Start is doing, but in a different format. Through its Early Childhood Mental Health Speaker Series, on Saturday, Oct. 22, in the Dreibelbis Auditorium of the Mount Nittany Medical Center, Smart Start will bring in Dr. Cheryl B. McNeil, a professor of psychology in the Clinical Child Program at West Virginia University and co-author of several books on parenting practices and managing disruptive behaviors of young children.
McNeil will give two presentations, one for professionals and one for parents. The first, “Helping Young Children with Disruptive Behaviors: A Unique Approach,” is designed for professionals to learn about Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), a strategy that is designed to change defiant and aggressive behavior in young children, aged 2 to 6 years. It will take place from 9 a.m. to noon. The cost for this seminar will be $40 (plus $6 if a bagged lunch is desired), and PQAS and Act 48 credits will be available.
The second presentation, “Powerful Parenting Techniques: Make the Most of Your Family Time,” is for parents, and will be from 1 to 4 p.m. During this presentation, McNeil will talk about topics including how to make your time with your children more high-quality and positive and how to prevent behavior problems from occurring. The cost will be $15 (plus $6 if a bagged lunch is desired), and parents attending this session can receive a $20 subsidy to help cover childcare costs.
“Cheryl McNeil is a very engaging speaker. She doesn’t talk like a researcher,” Wise said. “People will pick up things that they’ll be able to use right away.”
Wise said some people feel there is a stigma around the issue of mental and emotional health, but she said that just like physical health, a child’s mental health is something that should be closely monitored, and that most parents would benefit from having a solid plan in place for how they’re going to respond to their children’s behavior.
“I was one of eight kids, one of the older ones, and I did a ton of babysitting, but I still really didn’t have a clue when I had my own child,” Wise said. “It’s often not enough to just do it the way you were raised. By employing a few proven techniques and strategies, you can have more enjoyment and less conflict with your children.”
For more information about the Early Childhood Mental Health Speaker Series and other programs that Smart Start holds, check out their website and take a look at a flier by clicking the link below. Though the flier says to RSVP by Oct. 6, Smart Start is still accepting registrations, and encourages people to register by Oct. 12.