Helping families take Little Steps toward literacy

Published on June 28, 2019 in

We're helping parents spark a love of learning for their children beginning at birth.

Jeff Miles knows that for a worried parent and a child going through a health crisis, a book can provide a lot of relief. The director of innovation and early childhood at United Way for Southeastern Michigan, Jeff received one for free through our Little Steps initiative when his son needed treatment for a respiratory virus and spent two nights in a hospital.

“You’re frantic, your kid’s not breathing, you’re not packing toys or books when you’re rushing to the hospital,” he said.

“We had something right there that we could read to him and comfort him with. It’s such a small thing, but it made such a big difference.”

In addition to a book being something a child can focus on in a difficult time, United Way believes that learning begins at birth. That’s why we want to help parents create a reading habit for their newborns that will last a lifetime.

Part of that effort is the expansion of our Little Steps initiative. In collaboration with several local hospitals, parents receive their baby’s first book, “Tell Me A Story,” during their hospital stay.

“We want new parents to start a daily reading habit with their children, even for just 20 minutes a day,” said Jeff.

“Small changes to a daily schedule now can have big impacts later on.”

The tipping point

Through a partnership with General Motors, the Little Steps program began at three Detroit hospitals —Ascension St. John, Henry Ford and Sinai-Grace. Labor and delivery nurses were trained to discuss the importance of reading while giving Little Steps packets to parents.

Researchers at Wayne State University determined that families who participated in the program were ultimately more likely to have six or more books in their home.

“Having more books in the home helps create a literacy-friendly environment that can support children reading at grade level later in life,” Jeff said.

We want to continue to spread that success. United Way plans to distribute about 100 books a week at Beaumont in Dearborn through a partnership with Dearborn Public Schools. Another partnership with ACCESS will allow us to expand Little Steps to WIC clinics in Wayne and Macomb counties. Parents receive books when they bring their children in for checkups at two weeks old.

“Our goal is to engage children and families as early as possible,” Jeff said.

Layered enhancements

We’re also enhancing the program by promoting other United Way tools that can help parents expand their children’s literacy.

Our Ready4K text tool offers weekly texts with facts and tips that can help parents turn mundane tasks into learning moments.

Jeff has used Ready4K tips with his son when changing his diaper. He rhymes words like nose, toes and blows while blowing in his son’s face.

“We try to layer things on top of each other,” he said.

Another resource that can help is the Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ), which is available for free in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. The ASQ shows whether a child is developmentally on track. Parents or caregivers of children who show delays receive tips and advice on how to close the gap. The screenings typically take place at least twice a year.

United Way is launching a new program in 2020. It will provide free ASQ screenings and  link the results to READY4K. Parents will automatically receive texts specific to their child’s needs based on the answers they provide.

“As parents, we like to focus on the positive and we tend to think everything is perfect, but a few little tweaks here and there can have a big impact,” Jeff said.

Through United Way’s Little Steps initiative, families receive their child’s first book and helpful resources in the hospital.

Making an impact

So far, we’ve distributed at least 35,000 books through our Little Steps program. With additional support, our hope is to continue to expand the program, perhaps to local libraries. Our goal this year is to distribute 20,000 Little Steps packets to families in our region.

That’s tens of thousands of families who learned about the importance of literacy in the first few days of their child’s life.

“It’s absolutely fundamental to try as often as possible to read 20 minutes a day,” Jeff said. “Carving that time out is important.”