EARLY LEARNING: At the Opportunity Early Childhood Education and Family Center in West Palm Beach, teachers engage children in a comprehensive learning environment.



Special to South Florida Times

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – For parents considering childcare services, experts say a high quality early childhood education is key to a child’s development.

“Current brain research shows that 80 percent of the brain’s development occurs in the first three years of a child’s life,” says Alice Eger, executive director of Opportunity Early Childhood Education and Family Center. “It’s not just the personality – which is part of it and is critical in developing those social and emotional skills, it’s the number of connections in the brain. That’s how you learn how to use what you know, for the rest of your life.”

Eger explained, if those connections aren’t made strong, they will disintegrate. The brain continues to develop until a person is about 26, but at a much slower rate.

Playing catch up is possible, but only to a limited degree. If that key part of a child’s development is missed, they are affected for the rest of their life.

“From a teacher’s point of view, it’s very important; it’s the foundation,” said Jessica Feliciano, voluntary pre-kindergarten lead teacher at Opportunity. “You’re building that foundation that they’re going to build those skills on. They’re going to get those early life skills like reading and math. It all comes together with their play and while building those social and emotional connections.”

Experts encourage parents to know and understand the difference between a highly-qualified childcare provider and a babysitter.

“In a babysitting scenario, you really can’t create the social opportunities for learning that you can in a classroom of children,” says Eger. “We have teachers who are trained professionals. They know the pattern in sequence of learning and skills. So, what they’re doing is not only appropriate, but timely. In other words, they’re not pushing the children beyond where they should be; they’re challenging them appropriately. The average babysitter can’t do that.”

Eger goes on to say that, teachers are also trained to recognize red flags that might indicate a need for additional services.

“We use a combination, our basic curriculum is a creative curriculum,” Eger explained. “We have a system where we consistently assess what the children are doing. We base our lesson plans on where the children are and the next stage of where they need to go.”

Opportunity’s overall philosophy is to develop critical thinking skills by incorporating several S.T.E.A.M [Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics] activities. Each child learns at a different pace, so providing a diverse curriculum is key.

“We know everyone is different. Some of our children learn completely different from the typical child and that’s why we do the individualization,” said Eger. “There’s no data that says everyone is ready for the same thing and the same way.”

Providing the appropriate teacher to child ratio means spreading equal attention around evenly.

“You might have a child that needs a little bit more time and attention,” Feliciano shared. “So, if you have an extra teacher, the other adult can give that child the extra support instead of just moving on to the next activity.”

As it relates to disciplining children, the center allows the child to be involved in the disciplinary action to enforce life skills that will be used later in life.

“We don’t use the terminology discipline. We like to build character, resilience and good citizenship,” said Eger. “It starts in our infant room and we use what is called Conscience Discipline. It’s a system that’s been around a long time, created by Dr. Becky Bailey. It really builds a sense of community, respect, coping skills, social interaction and conflict resolution. It’s empowering the children to gain these skills. It’s not just telling them what to do.

It’s creating the desire to do what’s right; by knowing what’s right.”

The teacher facilitates the Conscience Discipline; however, students are learning how to live life. Instead of someone grabbing, pushing or crying, they learn to resolve conflict more effectively.

Opportunity serves 96 children, ages six weeks up to age five, from low-income, working families located in the Westgate/Belvedere neighborhood of West Palm Beach.