Welcoming Older Adults into the Head Start Classroom

The benefits they bring and tips for a successful partnership

“The children we work with every year inspire me so much. When you see the progress the children make, it means so much and makes me feel so good. I look forward to trainings, meeting new people, and going to the classroom every year.” — Jackie, Jumpstart-Foster Grandparent Program Volunteer for 5 years

Guest Blog Post by Atalaya Sergi, Vice President of Strategic Partnerships & Programming at Jumpstart

As Head Start employees nurture our nation’s greatest asset — our children’s successful development, our nation’s older adults are a vast national resource standing at the ready to help. Every day in the United States, 10,000 people turn 65 years of age and they are seeking meaningful ways to spend their time. Surveys done by AARP and federal agencies such as The Corporation for National Service find that older adults, like Jackie, are eager to support children and will stay engaged for multiple years.

At Jumpstart, our older adult volunteers, many of whom volunteer in Head Start classrooms, are partnered with small groups of children. They read high-quality books, implement small group activities, and work in partnership with teachers.

Older adults can be highly effective at helping children reach their goals. Pre- and post-tests of Jumpstart children (ages 3–5) show growth in the development of language, literacy, and social-emotional skills. Nicole, a lead teacher, shared that the older adult volunteers have benefited her classroom most in the areas of story reading, vocabulary development, and language development and that “volunteers have had an impact on every student in the classroom.”

I’ve helped Head Start teachers and directors engage volunteers for the past 10 years, and I understand your charge to find the most effective and supportive programming for children. I also know it helps if that programming can seamlessly fit into your day.

Here are three lessons I’ve learned when pairing Jumpstart’s older adult volunteers with Head Start centers — all three will have a positive impact on your children, teachers, and center!

1. Orientation Is Key

High-quality orientations help volunteers understand all aspects of the center and classroom, grounds them in the importance of their role, and sets them up to support children and teachers. In addition to showing new volunteers around the center, collecting tuberculosis (TB) test results, and getting background checks completed, you’ll want to:

  • Share the overall goals and philosophy of Head Start and of your specific staff and families. This will give volunteers a holistic view of the organization and deepen their commitment.
  • Explain the rules and regulations you operate under as a Head Start center, both the programmatic and operational requirements. For example, share why it’s so important that volunteers sign in and out. Let them know that tracking is not only about safety, but also supports grant compliance and has a positive impact on funding.
  • Make classroom observations on their first assignment. This will allow volunteers time to understand teachers’ routines and where they will fit in.
  • Include time for teacher-volunteer debriefs where volunteers can ask questions and teachers can set expectations and share important “to-knows” about their classroom, their teaching style, and their children.

2. Focus Older Adults on Direct Service to Children

In the classroom, engage volunteers in helping children meet their goals. We know that the more young children can engage in small groups, conversations, and relationship building, the more skills they will master.

  • Take the time to explain the learning outcomes for different activities and areas of the classroom, and how volunteers can support them. For example, volunteers may not understand why children serve themselves at meals. Share with them how meal time encourages social skills, healthy eating, and oral language development. Knowing this will help volunteers focus on these goals, instead of worrying about children getting a little messy.
  • Be intentional about volunteer assignments. Spend time thinking about what children or classroom activities need support and prepare volunteers to help you in these areas. If volunteers are working with an individual child or small group, make sure they understand the activity and the goals that children are working on. Explain how they can help you measure children’s progress.
  • Invite volunteers to your professional development days. This not only helps to build volunteers’ skills and competencies to better support children, it also gives them the opportunity to better understand how learning happens in the classroom. I’ve found that volunteers who don’t have an Education background are amazed at how much young children learn through play and how intentional teachers are in their interactions.

3. Tap Older Adults’ Interests and Connections

Think about all the wisdom and knowledge older adults have from their work lives, hobbies, and groups they’ve been a part of, not to mention from just living day to day. Allow them to enrich your center and classroom by sharing that knowledge.

  • Encourage volunteers to share their skills and hobbies. Invite volunteers to connect their lives to children’s interest and your curriculum. Jumpstart volunteers have bought in musical instruments, taught children their favorite recipes, and explained how to make dolls.
  • Engage volunteers as bridges between school and home. Older adults who volunteer may live in the same communities as your children, some might even be their grandparents or neighbors. Engage them in being ambassadors to the community and to your families. As respected elders, they can help you build a strong working relationship with your families and community.

One of our volunteers named Emerito has been involved in the Jumpstart-Foster Grandparent Program for over 6 years. He noted, “watching the children progress from what they are this day to what they will be tomorrow, hoping and wishing that these children will have the opportunity for a better future” is what drives us to be in the classroom. I can’t think of a better way to mobilize older volunteers than in the support of our youngest citizens. I hope you will welcome them to your classrooms and centers.

Atalaya Sergi is the Vice President of Strategic Partnerships & Programming at Jumpstart and an Encore Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.