By Ofelia Gonzalez
When Lisa Zorita’s daughter was born, the Phoenix business woman put her career on hold to care full-time for Catalina.
“My primary role while she was young was to be present for her,” Zorita says, adding that she had no idea all that would entail.
A friend suggested she check if there was a family resource center in her area.
First Things First (FTF) funds family resources centers throughout Maricopa County. At these one-stop centers, families of kids birth to 5 years old can attend classes on topics like early literacy, the importance of play to children’s learning and how to deal with challenging behaviors. They can also get information on other programs to support their child’s positive development.
It’s here that Zorita learned she and her husband were Catalina’s first teachers.
The first-time mom and daughter soon became regulars at the Paradise Valley and Deer Valley family resource centers, visiting them up to three times a week. The centers served as hubs for Catalina’s early learning.
“We did everything from sign language to education readiness prep,” Zorita says.
She describes an art play program that worked on each child’s social, emotional and developmental skills. “The children learned how to express themselves and how to process their emotions through art,” Zorita says.
The centers also allowed for her to engage and interact with Catalina in meaningful ways. “They always say the parent is the best teacher,” she says. “That is the wonder of the resource center; it provides families with unforgettable experiences.”
Resource centers are just one of many early childhood programs supported by FTF to give more Arizona children the opportunity to arrive at kindergarten healthy and ready to succeed. From strengthening families to improving the quality of child care and preschool and expanding access to preventive health services, FTF’s work centers on the fact that babies are born learning, so the job of helping kids succeed in school starts the day they are born.
In fact, research shows that 90 percent of a child’s brain develops before age 5.
It’s a statement that may surprise some, but it’s an important fact for everyone to understand, especially families. The early years are when a child develops critical skills such as motivation, self-discipline, focus and self-esteem. They learn those skills through high-quality interactions with adults.
“I didn’t realize the sheer amount of capacity that a child’s brain has through age 5,” Zorita says. She sees it clearly now that Catalina recently started kindergarten, a few months shy of her fifth birthday. “We hadn’t anticipated enrolling her so soon,” Zorita says. “But after visiting with the kindergarten teachers at her school, they said, ‘She is school ready.’”
Being school ready is key to the success of new kindergartners like Catalina. By the time children are 3 and 4 years old, their vocabulary, attention and general knowledge are predictors of third and fourth grade reading comprehension. In turn, third grade reading ability is one of the best predictors of high school graduation.
The investment that Zorita and the other families at the centers are making in their young kids’ lives will pay off in the long run. Research shows that young kids with quality early learning experiences are more ready for kindergarten, do better in school, and are more likely to graduate and go on to college.
For Zorita, the joy of watching her daughter learn is an unforgettable gift. The first day Catalina wrote her name, Zorita was there.
“I saw the sparks go off in her brain,” Zorita says. “She turned to me and said, ‘I did it!’”
Another of the center’s programs helped Catalina discover her favorite book of all time, A Mother for Choco. The book, with its tattered edges, is one that Catalina has read thousands of times.
“I never would have found that book if not for the Raising A Reader program,” Zorita says. She also found that the resource centers provide a place where parents can share and help each other and found value in having her daughter interact with families from all walks of life.
“The fact that this was a one-stop shop for families was important,” Zorita says. “It took the guess work out of having to research hundreds of different community programs and allowed for parents to be more present in their children’s lives.”
Zorita also saw first-hand the positive difference resource centers can make for families in helping build critical skills such as self-discipline and self-esteem in their young children.
“I’ve seen parents actually change their less-than-ideal parenting style to a safer, more positive approach after seeing other parents and hearing other examples,” she says. “I’ve seen and been a part of the building of community among parents, grandparents and caregivers from diverse cultures and socio-economic backgrounds all in the name of growing healthy little ones.”
It also helped Zorita realize that quality early childhood learning environments can happen anywhere, not just a preschool.
FTF digital Parent Kit
Covering a wide-range of topics from pregnancy, child development, safety, physical and emotional health, to finding quality child care, the digital Parent Kit provides useful tips and online information and resources to help parents do their best in supporting the healthy development of their baby, toddler or preschooler. It is available at FirstThingsFirst.org/Parent-Kit.
Birth to 5 Helpline
Arizona’s only toll-free helpline for parents, caregivers and professionals with questions or concerns about children ages birth to 5. Topics include: child development, sleep, fussiness/colic, challenging behaviors, parenting, feeding/nutrition, and support to child care/preschools. Call the Birth to 5 Helpline at 1-877-705-KIDS.
FTF Family Resource Network
The 30 family resource centers across Maricopa County offer referrals to community resources and offer free or low cost programs for families of young children. To find a family resource center near you, visit FamilyResourceAZ.org.
FTF Quality First Website
Choosing a child care setting for your infant, toddler or preschooler is a big decision. Quality is one of the most important factors to consider, as research shows that quality early learning settings help children develop skills that are crucial to their success now and once they enter school. To find a Quality First center, or for more information on what quality early education looks like, visit the Quality First website: qualityfirstaz.com.
About First Things First (FTF) is a voter-created, statewide organization that funds early education and health programs to help kids be successful once they enter kindergarten. Decisions about how those funds are spent are made by local councils staffed by community volunteers. To learn more, visit FirstThingsFirst.org.