Opening Doors

United Way values school readiness. Parent volunteers like Samilla Quiroa share that value–and are making it a reality.

Samilla Quiroa was surprised by the unusual request.

Could her two year-old son open the door with just a verbal command? That’s what the Thrive in 5 parent screener wanted to know. No finger pointing, no gesture of any manner; could he respond to his mother’s words? In her topsy-turvy world of stay-at-home mothering, this had never occurred to Samilla; what difference did it make if her toddler could open a door without a pointed finger from his mom?

Today, months later, a parent screener herself, it all makes perfect sense.

It was Samilla’s neighbor who had recommended a visit from the screener. She had raved about the experience. Not anyone to pass up anything that could benefit her children, Samilla agreed, and the resulting experience completely changed her perspective as a mother and caregiver.

Thrive in 5’s parent screeners are deployed to homes, delivering free screenings of children from one month to four years-old. They arrive bearing a variety of toys, props and activities, designed to screen for any potential developmental delays.

Thrive in 5 is a joint initiative between the City of Boston and United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, created to ensure universal school readiness for all of Boston’s children. The parent screener program is a pilot, working out of the Allston/Brighton and Dorchester neighborhoods. Ten parent screeners have screened 191 children to date.

“Screening helps parents understand what development looks like,” said Katie Britton, Director of Resource Development and Communications for Thrive in 5. “It shows them how their kids are doing and what they can do in their home and in their communities to support their children’s development.”

That’s the impact on a micro level; on a macro scale, the screeners are able to generate usable data that gives a broader picture of how young children are faring in Boston. The ultimate goal is to have a system for all young children to be screened in the city.

“We want to get a neighborhood-by-neighborhood view at what early childhood development looks like,” says Britton.

A new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which details policy recommendations to better support children’s early development, has recognized Massachusetts for its high rate of developmental screening. Developmental screening provides an opportunity to identify and intervene early with developmental delays, when services and interventions are more effective.

The centerpiece mechanism for these screenings is the “Ages and Stages Questionnaire” (ASQ), which screeners bring to each parent visit. It is an comprehensive tool, detailing all areas of development: communication, problem-solving, personal-social, and gross and fine motor. The survey adapts as well, with different questions and activities to be used with different ages.

“Parents may not be aware of their child’s development because they don’t have time or are just too busy,” said Samilla. “But these tools really do show you where your kids are doing well and where they need help. If your child is falling behind in any area, the screening will let you know and you can get referred to specialists in early intervention.”

From her position as a mom and a neighbor, Samilla understands that this lack of awareness–of which she experienced–is common in the community. Some families simply don’t know the ins and outs of development milestones. This is what compelled her to become a parent screener herself.

“Parents feel more comfortable having other parents come in their home,” she says. “I’ve found that parents will feel more open and empowered by those who have shared their own experience.”

As someone fluent in both Portuguese and Spanish, she fills a critical role in connecting with non-English speaking families and is of immense value to the Allston/Brighton Children Thrive parent network. Samilla is already seeing results.

“This is causing a big impact in our community,” she says. “It’s a great tool and we are lucky to have access. It’s been done with my own children. It works.”

That first visit, when her son was asked to open the door on words alone, reinforced Samilla’s concerns about her son’s verbal communication. Since then, thanks to the early supports she was able to access, he’s making progress and, as she says, “catching up.” Now it is Samilla who is bringing a bold new approach to child development to her neighbors.

Now it is Samilla who is opening doors.