A LEARNING ENVIRONMENT
Students get a fresh view of homelessness and its impact on a child’s development.
BY CLAIRE MILLER | PHOTOS BY STEVE THACKSTON
Major changes in any of these areas can shift a family from a stable living situation to homelessness and influence a child’s early learning and development.
At the College of Education & Human Development (CEHD), students studying communication sciences and disorders see this firsthand in clinical practicum experiences at the Atlanta Children’s Shelter (ACS).
Tucked inside North Avenue Presbyterian Church in midtown Atlanta, the shelter has been providing free day care, emotional support and education for homeless children and social services for their families since 1986.
ACS focuses on helping families overcome the issues that contribute to homelessness and achieve long-term self-sufficiency. For the last 12 years, the ACS has also opened its doors to CEHD students who want to work with young children on their language and communication skills.
Clinical associate professor Stacey Wallen first started working at the shelter in 2008. She soon realized a collaboration with the organization could allow students to not only gain valuable experience working with young children but also help Atlanta’s most vulnerable citizens.
They begin with general communication skills for children from infancy through age 5 — things like using one to three words to ask for what they want, answering questions and responding when their names are called — and then move on to more advanced proficiencies, such as letter and sound recognition.
“We found that some of the kids struggled with what we call precursor skills — things like attending to a task, following directions and asking questions,” Wallen explained. “We decided to broaden our focus so we evaluate not just pre-reading skills but overall language proficiency as well, which in turn helps with the literacy process.”
Wallen’s students are equipped to offer annual speech and hearing screenings to children and to identify those with special needs who could benefit from additional services. They consult with the shelter’s educational directors to make sure children are referred to the right source for further testing and follow up with teachers to discuss tips for aiding students who may need more support.
They also lead workshops for parents and create newsletters for families that explain what typical development looks like for each child’s age group.
These efforts to communicate with teachers, parents and families have expanded over the last two years as Wallen and her students have established a Response to Intervention (RTI) program, which allows CEHD students to go into a classroom, reinforce particular skills with a child and talk to parents about the progress their child is making.
“We created this RTI program with the teachers and educational directors so our students learn how to do interventions in a classroom,” she said. “We want to prevent any further difficulties children could face. If we see something concerning, we can point families to someone who can help or offer to help ourselves.”
Wallen hopes the partnership between the college and the shelter can serve as a model for other programs that serve the community.
“Students might come in with ideas about what a shelter looks like and what a child suffering from homelessness looks like,” she said. “The experience of working here opens the dialogue for conversations about deeper issues.
“When we reach the end of the semester, and my students tell me they don’t want to leave, that’s when I feel like I’ve done my job.”