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Initiative seeks to help children's social development

A new effort called the Minnesota Thrive Initiative aims to find ways to help the social and emotional development of children from birth to age 5. Research has shown that such development affects a child's ability to learn and cope, said Marilyn...

A new effort called the Minnesota Thrive Initiative aims to find ways to help the social and emotional development of children from birth to age 5.

Research has shown that such development affects a child's ability to learn and cope, said Marilyn Larson, supervisor of early childhood programs for the Duluth school district.

"If children are highly stressed, it can short-circuit their ability to thrive and learn," Larson said.

The Minnesota Thrive Initiative will create networks of local services and resources for children and their families. At each of six pilot sites, community members and people who work with children and families will share their views and shape local projects. The Northeastern Minnesota pilot site includes Duluth, Hermantown and Proctor.

The three-year $2.5 million initiative will be directed by the Northland Foundation in Duluth and five other Minnesota Initiative Foundations around the state. Funding includes a $1.5 million grant from the Bush Foundation, $100,000 from the Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation and $20,000 from the Sheltering Arms Foundation.

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Larson said local early childhood teachers report an increase in the number of children who have social and emotional behaviors that concern them. Behaviors can range from children who find it hard to function around other kids to those who are unable to enjoy playing with toys because they are worried about what the adults in the room are doing, she said.

"The more we're learning about what those behaviors signal or mean, the more we can learn how to help kids," she said.

Early childhood teachers, for example, can help children relax enough to feel safe and have enough confidence to take advantage of the classroom's learning environment, Larson said.

In Duluth, Hermantown and Proctor, teachers in early childhood programs already are trained on the importance of paying attention to children's behaviors and developing a relationship with each child, Larson said.

Giving support to parents and sharing information about how to support their kids at home is important, she said.

"A lot of times the parents' lives are very stressful," Larson said. "It's helpful to bring some empathy and understanding to them."

Larson hopes the initiative helps create a family-friendly community where young children thrive and parents feel supported.

Lynn Haglin, vice president of the Northland Foundation, said she hopes the pilot project strengthens the collaboration of local resources so that families, teachers and caregivers will know where to go for help when they have concerns. The six pilot sites also will work on strategies and share information, she said.

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"I think it has the potential to serve as a model that can help people in other parts of the state and at the national level," Haglin said.

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