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The best start in life

Center optimizes development and well-being of young children and their families

“Our philosophy is that children thrive when they are in a caring, warm and fun learning environment, and we strive to create that for them,” says CDC Director Kathleen McDonnell.

The center, part of Oregon State’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences, accomplishes this through learning, service, community outreach, research and teaching.

Early learning at its best

With playtime, snack time and outdoor recreation, the center seems similar to other prekindergarten programs. But on closer evaluation, the CDC’s classrooms comprise children with diverse socio-economic backgrounds.

Seventy-six of the 114 slots are dedicated for children enrolled through the Head Start program, which comes with waived tuition and support services. The remaining slots are open to the greater Corvallis and OSU community, resulting in an ethnically and culturally diverse learning environment.

“When you look in our classrooms, you’re not able to distinguish between Head Start and tuition paying families,” Kathleen says. “We welcome families from all backgrounds.”

Facilitating access to health

Instilling healthy habits is an integral part of the center’s history. In the 1940s, children were offered cod liver oil as part of the nutrition program. Today, snacks typically consist of whole grains and fresh, local fruits.

Meals are a time for preschoolers and human development and family sciences (HDFS) practicum students to enjoy each other’s company, practice table manners and try foods such as lentil soup and quiche.

The preschoolers also learn practical skills to build a foundation for lifelong health. “They learn about washing their hands, covering their coughs and brushing their teeth,” says Health and Nutrition Services Coordinator Dana Crawford. “All things we hope will contribute to positive health outcomes.”

Integrated family services

Family Services Coordinator Jacquie Keller says to help children get the best start possible, they also work closely with parents, taking family goals and needs into consideration.

Family advocates partner with parents to make sure they know about and are comfortable accessing community resources such as crisis services and temporary housing, medical and dental services, and training and education opportunities. Family advocates and teachers also visit Head Start families throughout the year.

“The visits are individualized for the family and the child,” Jacquie says. “There are parenting education and goal-setting elements for parents, with support and resources from the program. This strengthens the working relationship between home and school.”

Dana says they work with families to identify goals for their children’s health and help set measurable and attainable targets.

“Rather than telling folks to do this laundry list of things to achieve health, we look at each child and family and where they are right now,” she says. “If we’re talking about nutrition, we discuss what their child eats in a day and offer suggestions like ‘make half your grains whole grains.’ We support parents’ success with small steps toward better health.”

Advocates in the community

Head Start families, due to generational or circumstantial reasons, are at or below the poverty line. “Part of our role is advocating for these families,” Dana says. “We connect with our community partners to stay up-to-date with available resources and to advocate for the needs of children and families.”

The center gives its families information that aligns with the American Academy of Pediatrics and is in regular contact with local pediatricians so they can be aware of any health concerns trending in the community.

For instance when parents had questions about the meningococcal B outbreak on campus last year the program brought in a local pediatrician to speak with parents and address concerns, highlighting the importance of regular immunizations.

An active research and training lab

Megan McClelland, Hallie Ford Director for the Center for Healthy Children and Families, says the center provides researchers the opportunity to conduct and translate research with children and families from diverse backgrounds. Research topics, such as self-regulation and cognitive problem solving, have been integrated into daily activities.

“The research topics have varied over the years,” Dana says. “We’re a good fit for various disciplines on campus.”

Oregon State students enrolled in HDFS 430 also have access to the center as an internship location, and students frequently accompany family advocates on home visits.

“They get a new perspective and a more complete understating of who the kids are,” Jacquie says. “Home visits offer an opportunity to connect with parents and families in a personal and meaningful way.”

Yeng Thao, ’15, was hired as a behavior technician for children with autism immediately after graduating. “I was hired on the spot after telling them about my experience with HDFS 430 and the CDC and how much it has impacted me,” Yeng says.

Dana says practicum students particularly enjoy the hands-on learning offered by the preschool environment. They have the opportunity to lead fun, healthy classroom activities such as tasting tables, where preschoolers may be surprised to learn they like baked kale chips.

Kinesiology students in Jennifer Beamer’s Facilitating Physical Activity for Children and Youth course lead children in 20-minute physical activity lessons. “Typically, they work on gross motor skills and touch on the cognitive and emotional learning aspects related to physical activity,” Jennifer says.

“We are a multi-faceted program,” says Kathleen, who taught for five years before becoming director in 2014. “We respect and honor the uniqueness of everyone who walks through our doors and offer support to hone the skills needed to be successful once they leave our program.”