New Early Childhood Centers Give At-Risk Israeli Youngsters a Firmer Start in Life

President Obama stressed the importance of educating children from “the earliest possible age” in his State of the Union Address this year, especially “poor kids who need help the most.” The President went on to cite studies showing “that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road.”

Making sure that Israeli youngsters like two-and-a-half-year-old “Danny” do not “start the race of life already behind” is what JDC’s newly opened Early Childhood Center (ECC) in Jerusalem is all about. It is located in Kiryat Menachem, a neighborhood that is home to many new immigrants and other Israelis at the lower end of the economic scale.

Danny’s parents noticed early on that their youngest child was developing more slowly than his older siblings, but they didn’t know how to help him or where to go for guidance. The opening of this center right in their neighborhood gave them an address—and a plan was soon developed to tackle Danny's immediate and longer-term developmental needs holistically.

Recognized as a critical resource in this distressed neighborhood, the center’s ribbon-cutting ceremony was attended by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and other city officials as well as Rami Sulimani, Director of JDC’s Ashalim partnership for children and youth at risk in Israel, and Amara Ingber of the S. Daniel Abraham Foundation.

Situated in a newly renovated wing of the local community center, the ECC offers a range of therapeutic, parenting, and support services to children up to age six and their families. The ECC model is being developed by JDC for dissemination nationwide as part of the New Beginnings early childhood intervention initiative, whose implementation JDC has been spearheading on behalf of the Israeli government.

For kids like Danny, the center means having a dedicated social worker at the ECC who manages his case and maintains contact with the staff and therapists at the multipurpose daycare center that he attends, the speech and occupational therapists who see him regularly at the ECC, and Danny's parents, who sometimes join his therapy sessions so they can learn how to work with him at home.

"Danny's parents are the prime movers in his life," says ECC director Irit. "We see the ECC and the daycare center professionals in supporting roles, giving his parents knowledge, support, and guidance so they can help Danny. They now understand what Danny is and is not capable of doing at this point in his development, and they set their expectations accordingly. That way they are not disappointed, and Danny does not become frustrated. Moreover, they are involved in all the decision-making about Danny's care."

And the payoff in Danny's progress is already evident. In addition to improvements in his motor and language skills, Danny is more cooperative, gets annoyed less frequently, and now understands instructions. All in all, he is a happier child, better primed to advance to the next stage in his development, and his parents are better able to foster his progress every step of the way.

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