Dr Travis Wright, assistant professor of early childhood education, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Monday, September 8, 2014

Dr Wright, a teacher and therapist, has just launched the BASES project, a school and community-based intervention for homeless pre-school children, their families and teachers.

Why did you set up the project?

The economic downturn in the US has led to more and more families living in unstable housing and homeless shelters. Madison is the state capital of about 600,000 people and of these about 2,000 homeless children are attending public (state) schools.

The state used to be more rural, but is becoming more urban and diverse, with people moving in from Chicago because cities are expensive. Families are often not allowed to stay in shelters during the day and are left to wander the streets.

There hasn't been a lot of work done on how homelessness affects young children in education. Work has focused on access, but we want to look at what children do when they're there. If your life is unstable it's extra important to have a safe place to learn.

How will you support families?

The project has two goals: to support teachers and also to support young children and families.

It's experiential learning. The volunteers - childcare and early years students - are learning about homelessness and the impact it has on families. We really want them to understand that children can have messy lives. They are also going into pre-schools and schools for one to two hours a week to support children from birth to seven. We're training graduate students to do group therapy with young children and running a weekly therapeutic playgroup. We're also running parent-child learn and play groups. We're providing teachers with professional development on working with homeless children.

What free childcare is available in the US?

Families aren’t able to receive free childcare without a job. It really does vary, it’s patchwork. In some states it is funded at state level. In Georgia, universal pre-school for three to fives is funded through the state lottery. The new mayor of New York has just brought in universal pre-school in the city of New York. There are very few places where children have universal access to care under three. In Madison there is a real dearth of services for under-threes. There are around 250 children under three experiencing homelessness and only 18 dedicated slots of full or half-day care.

At last week's Baby Room Conference you spoke about the challenges of educating children growing up in poverty or with trauma. What can early years practitioners do?

Many times, what's good for children with trauma is good for all. For children who don't feel safe, adults becoming authoritarian becomes scary for the child and children will push back even more. We call it the 'trauma dance' - the back and forth.

Trauma fundamentally changes how kids see the world. We need to find ways to help children feel more in control. They can be too afraid to learn. Children need predictable routines, consistency in care givers, (teachers) not raising voices. We're trying to help teachers develop more emotionally responsive approaches.

Travis Wright spoke to Catherine Gaunt.

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