A local pilot program aimed at addressing the social and emotional needs of children just got a boost thanks to the Central Florida Foundation’s “100 Women Strong” giving circle.

The organization provided a $45,000 grant to the Early Learning Coalition of Orange County, which is partnering with the University of Central Florida to implement the program at two family-run centers in Pine Hills.

The funds will provide training for caregivers using techniques of “The Circle of Security” national program to help children feel more secure and boost their relationship with caregivers.

UCF Associate Professor Kimberly Renk designed and implemented a study at one location last year. Renk oversaw the study with the assistance of the ELCOC and Neil Boris of Florida State University’s Center for Prevention and Early Intervention Policy.

Associate Professor Kimberly Renk
Associate Professor Kimberly Renk

The study evaluated whether caregivers in small, family-run childcare centers could benefit from using The Circle of Security model. Research shows that when children feel secure from a young age and their attachment needs are met, they have greater self-esteem and better relationships with parents and other caregivers, such as child care providers. They enter school prepared to learn and are more likely to succeed later in life, program organizers say.

Initial findings show that the child care providers have formed stronger connections with the infants and young children in their classrooms and have gained a better recognition of their needs. For instance, caregivers understand why a baby is crying or making noise rather than just attributing these behaviors to a child “trying to get attention.”

“The initial feasibility study definitely suggests that Circle of Security was helpful to our participating child care providers,” said Renk, director of the Understanding Young Children and Families research laboratory at UCF. “Each of our providers has made a distinction between how they interacted with their children prior to the program and after the program. They now talk about how their children’s behavior tells them something about what the children need to feel safe, and how they are now working more consciously to meet those needs.”

Renk will continue to lead the study at the new family home centers.

According to the 2016 Florida Kindergarten Readiness Screener, 45 percent of children entering kindergarten at Orange County Public Schools did not have the behavioral skills needed to learn due to the effects of trauma and high-stress environments. This deficit can lead later to poverty, crime, financial insecurity, and mental-health issues. The Circle of Security was designed to help buffer the impact of these issues.

“This joint project with Dr. Renk gives child care workers concrete tools to help children build resiliency and self-management skills necessary to support learning,” said Karen Willis, chief executive officer of ELCOC.

Members of 100 Women Strong have been actively involved with the two child care centers in Pine Hills donating books, providing a new playground, and more.

“It was a fulfilling experience to watch the child care providers embrace The Circle of Security,” said Avani Desai, co-chair of 100 Women Strong. “We look forward to expanding the program in 2018 to ensure all children have the foundation to succeed.”