Early Childhood Initiative Gives Israel’s At-Risk Children New Beginnings

November 7, 2012


Odelia knew her five-year-old daughter “Tamar” was different. After learning she’d been a victim of abuse at the first day care she ever attended, Odelia was reluctant to enroll her in kindergarten full time. Then she heard about the New Beginnings program at a local kindergarten in Netanya.

An early childhood initiative launched by the Government of Israel and coordinated by JDC nationwide, New Beginnings offers a variety of early intervention and treatment programs designed to improve the future prospects of at-risk Israeli children like Tamar. Among these programs is an early childhood center that brings together a variety of services under one roof. Seeing an opportunity for her daughter to get an exceptional level of care at the early childhood facility near her home, Odelia enrolled Tamar.

When Tamar entered the center’s kindergarten program, her classroom was staffed by two teachers, a psychologist, a physiotherapist, a social worker, and various volunteers, all of whom were invested in her success from day one.

This staffing matrix chosen by the early childhood center in Netanya is just one of the myriad services offered by New Beginnings to help communities meet the unique needs of their local populations. By giving communities grassroots autonomy to choose which services to implement, New Beginnings is making a bigger impact in enhancing the preventative services/practices in health centers, schools, and community institutions across Israel.

This approach, first developed by JDC in working with specific populations (PACT — Parents and Children Together for Ethiopian-Israelis, and ECHAD for Israeli Arabs), was endorsed and adopted by the government of Israel in its initiatives for the country’s most disadvantaged babies, toddlers, and preschoolers through New Beginnings.

In Tamar’s case, it was the classroom speech therapist who noticed that she did not react in the same way as other children to what was happening around her. Upon recommendation, Odelia took Tamar to get tested and learned she had limited hearing — 40% in one ear, 25% in the other. Diagnosing the problem was the critical first step to getting this child on a better path.

Targeting children from birth to age six, the New Beginnings program is currently reaching and tracking the progress of 14,000 children in 72 locations across Israel, with plans to expand to a total of 164 communities—many of them distressed—across Israel over the next three years. In each location, a variety of accessible, quality, community-based services promote positive social, emotional, and behavioral development among young at-risk children; increase support for families, and ensure culturally adapted training for staff.

When Tamar went back to school the specialist in the classroom who’d helped identify the issue then created plans to assist Tamar and monitor her progress and development.

Ida, an educational psychologist at the center explained, “We know assessment and intervention are most effective when they’re carried out in an environment that is familiar to the child.” That’s why the program brings psychologists into the classrooms to identify special needs, plan and implement interventions, track the children’s development, aid the teachers professionally, and provide the parents with counseling. That’s how Tamar got help at her new kindergarten.

Mabel, the Netanya Center’s Director, says her facility offers “rich services for poor people.” Here 150 kids benefit from services, workshops, and the care of her diversely qualified staff. “Every child has the potential to develop and thrive in a healthy and enriched environment—they just need someone who believes in them,” says Mabel. “The foundation of our program is that early intervention is critical to helping kids develop and progress through successive phases to becoming successful adults.”

To date, New Beginnings has identified some 48,000 Israeli children (from birth to age 6) as being at-risk. The factors that challenge their development include lack of proper parental care, inadequate early intervention for special needs, and mounting poverty. While Israel boasts many early childhood services, socioeconomically distressed communities—homes to many of the kids who need them most—often do not fully benefit. Services are either insufficient to meet community needs or inaccessible for those who need them. New Beginnings was designed to rectify this situation and give Israel’s neediest kids a chance for a brighter future.

Odelia could not be happier with her daughter’s progress and the parenting skills she learned from the program, too. “I went to speak to a psychologist and got helpful tools I utilize every day at home, such as how to set boundaries with my child,” she says. “I went to a storytelling workshop with the speech therapist and learned new ways to play with my her—things I never could have done before.”

This is a hallmark of the program: Children receive the tools and support they need to succeed, while parents and educators learn how to foster children’s growth and development.

“I trust the specialists here because they approach my child with love and warmth and are invested in her success,” Odelia says of the center’s staff. “Even without corrective surgery, Tamar is developing and prospering here.”

Sign Up for JDC Voices Stories