Pam Toler: Helping children make the most of their preschool years

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published September 16, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated September 14, 2012 at 10:27 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Pam Toler is an early-childhood-development specialist who focuses her efforts on helping child care facilties improve their childhood-developement services.

— Pam Toler said she believes a good education is vital for a young person’s success in life, but she is passionate about how children develop before they go to their first day of kindergarten.

“By the time a child reaches age 5, their brain is fully developed,” Toler said. “Many babies are in child care more than they are at home with their parents, so what preschool teachers are doing every day is life-changing.”

The Bryant resident works as a program specialist for Arkansas State University’s Childhood Services — traveling around central Arkansas visiting preschool and child care centers to provide help and assess their operations.

“I work with the early-childhood community to raise the quality of the childhood-development experience for those under age 5,” Toler said. “Sometimes I can provide technical assistance for teachers. They might say that their classroom schedules are not working, or that they have a biter in their class and need help dealing with it.”

Biting is a common problem that is encountered by preschool teachers, Toler said.

“It is very development-appropriate,” she said. “Children bite because they don’t have the words, and they need to communicate something like, ‘Get away from me,’ or ‘That’s mine.’”

The solution, Toler said, is to keep the child busy and engaged in activities designed for development.

“Don’t strap a child to a chair and give them a doll,” she said. “They will only bite more.”

The training of preschool teachers is part of Childhood Services’ job, as well as evaluating a center’s performance according to state and federal standards.

“I make environmental assessments and follow teachers around for a day, and their performance is tied to funding for the program,” she said.

The state Department of Childcare and Early Childhood Education, part of the Arkansas Department of Human Services, contracts with preschool programs and child care centers to provide funds from a $100 million grant program that supports early-childhood-development programs.

The Arkansas Better Chance program readies disadvantaged children for kindergarten, starting at age 3. Toler said the state’s Better Beginnings program is a voluntary system that requires child care providers to constantly improve the learning environment for the children in their care.

The ASU program, where Toler works, makes those evaluations that allow child care providers to be licensed by the state and make sure they meet program requirements.

The grades received by each facility are posted on the Better Beginnings website, www.arbetterbeginnings.com/child-care-providers/, as a resource for parents to help them make informed choices about the child care providers they use.

Toler, who was born in Jacksonville, Fla., said that once she got over a childhood desire to become a dentist, she chose psychology as her major in college, then went on to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., where she earned a master’s degree in social work.

While she was there, she met her husband, Drew, who was also studying at the seminary.

After graduation, the couple married and moved to Alabama, where he was a chaplain at a children’s hospital. Before moving to Bryant in 2003, the Tolers and their family lived in Kansas City, Mo., where Pam’s husband was a chaplain at Children’s Mercy Hospital, also in Kansas City, Mo.

“Like a lot of people, we came to Bryant for the good schools,” Toler said. “Before we moved here, we looked up the school scores and picked Bryant.

“Now I work with kids to get them ready for good schools like we have in Bryant.”

When the family first arrived in Bryant, Toler wasn’t working, but she stayed busy as a “professional volunteer.”

“Jill Dabbs (now the mayor of Bryant) and I ran the swim team, and I was PTO president” Toler said. “I helped in the campaign to pass the tax that built Bishop Park, and the one for the new Bryant High School.”

In 2005, she was offered a part-time job with ASU Childhood Services.

“It was what I am doing now, but I worked those days when I could,” Toler said.

The job became full time in 2009.

“I travel four days a week, visiting centers,” she said. “Then I have one day a week doing paperwork. I love the work. I go somewhere different every day and meet a lot of people.”

Part of the enjoyment for Toler is watching that “light bulb” moment when a teacher gains a new insight into a child’s development, or seeing children pick up some vital skill or knowledge they will carry with them through life.

“What a teacher does is so important for young minds,” she said. “Anyone who spends a lot of time working with a child plays a critical role in determining their health, personality and behavior for the rest of their lives.”

Bringing her work home to her own community, Toler helped form the Bryant Early Education Coalition, or BEE.

“Under the umbrella of ASU Children Services, BEE was created as a group of all the licensed child care providers in Bryant, and we meet once a month at the community center at Bishop Park,” Toler said. “The members partner with the school system, the city, ASU and HIPPY (Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters).”

When the BEE Coalition started last year, there were only two child care providers that had the credentials to be licensed programs, she said. Now most of the care programs in the city are licensed providers, and some have advanced certifications.

Along with creating BEE, Toler got involved in the Imagination Library of Saline County, which provides free books every month to preschool children in the county up to age 5.

“I was asked to get involved, and I went crazy about the program,” Toler said.

After its first year, the Imagination Library, started by country-music star Dolly Parton, is sending books to almost 700 children in the county. The project is now looking for funds so that the estimated 5,500 eligible children can sign up and receive the books.

Toler has recently been elected president of the committee overseeing the county’s free-book program and said it works right along with her professional mission and goals.

“One thing you can do for a child is to read to them,” she said. “The number of words they hear will help determine when they are ready to learn to read.

"A child that does not read at grade level by the time they are in the third grade is more likely to drop out of high school.”

Toler said she might like to have another career someday, but she is still excited and passionate about her work helping children grow and learn.

She has recently been asked to join a state leadership group for Strengthening Families, a program sponsored by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences that provides training for teachers of preschool and beyond to identify children at risk of abuse and neglect.

“It is a framework to help protect children and prevent abuse and help teachers work with their students and the parents,” Toler said. “The program will integrate into all we are doing now.

“There always seems to be something new coming up for me to sink my teeth into.”

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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