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Mister Rogers' work inspires St. Vincent's early-childhood training being taught in China

| Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, 9:57 p.m.
It was submitted art of Junlei Li, co-director of the Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at St. Vincent College. He filming childcare workers at an orphanage in rural China as part of the Center’s “Simple Interactions” training program.
It was submitted art of Junlei Li, co-director of the Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at St. Vincent College. He filming childcare workers at an orphanage in rural China as part of the Center’s “Simple Interactions” training program.

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood has gone global.

More than a decade after Fred Rogers' death in 2003, researchers from the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media at St. Vincent College near Latrobe are in Shanghai training 250 early-childhood experts from China in a simple protocol developed from the work and papers of the soft-spoken children's TV icon.

Child-care experts from every province gathered this week at the China Welfare Institute Information and Research Center for “Simple Interactions” training, center spokeswoman Yvonne Ning said.

Unlike the most basic courses for early-childhood providers that run 30 hours complete with textbooks, PowerPoint presentations and tests, this course runs about 4½ hours. It consists largely of videos of adults and children from each facility engaged in “simple interactions” that the researchers capture on film during visits to the classrooms.

Film clips highlighting a toddler's reaction to a child-care worker's smile, an encouraging comment to a child, a pat on the back or a 15-second vignette showing a baby respond to a caregiver's gentle coos while the child is being diapered make up the bulk of this learning experience — making it worlds away from the annals of professional pedagogy.

The program grew out of the work of St. Vincent researchers who have been mining Rogers' papers and videos of the Mister Rogers' Neighborhood television show to gain a better understanding of the philosophy that drove his work on public TV and behind the scenes.

“Fred Rogers produced a TV show, about 895 episodes were taped between 1968 and 2000. But behind it, he did a lot of work to support the work of the people who supported children — parents, firefighters, police officers and teachers. He often talked about ‘the helpers.' Our China work is part of the legacy to ‘help the helpers,' ” said Junlei Li, co-director of the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media.

Although many U.S. universities have started programs in science and engineering to Asia, few in the humanities have attempted the feat.

But “Simple Interactions” transcends culture and language, Li said. It has earned rave reviews in venues as varied as public schools in the mountains of Westmoreland County, after-school programs in Pittsburgh's city neighborhoods and orphanages in remote China.

Ed Moran, principal at Ligonier Valley's R.K. Mellon and Laurel Valley elementary schools, said preschool teachers in his buildings initially were wary when the program was introduced last year. But by the end of the school year, they were the program's biggest boosters.

“The comments I got from teachers were things like, ‘I didn't realize the things I do can mean so much,' ” Moran said.

This fall, the program that began in pre-K and kindergarten classrooms has expanded to first grade.

“The Rogers Center people focus on the things they don't teach you in teacher schools — a smile, a pat on the back, a kind word or a hug. These things that are spontaneous and simple and beautiful mean the world to children in early childhood classrooms,” Moran said.

Li, who grew up in China before coming to the United States for college studies at Notre Dame and graduate work at Carnegie Mellon University, is a professor of psychology and human development and Rita M. McGinley Chair in Early Learning and Children's Media at St. Vincent.

He said the Rogers Center began taking the “Simple Interactions” program to orphanages in rural China about six years ago to see how effective it would be in an institutional setting.

“Fred always believed that children grew up best through relationships. And even in an orphanage, the development of children would depend upon the quality of relationships they have in that orphanage,” Li said.

Word of the Center's success there, training young farm girls to interact warmly with their young charges, spread quickly throughout China.

Ning said she learned about it from her tutor, a professor in Shanghai's East China Normal University.

“It is very useful. It can promote our educators' behaviors and educational levels,” she said.

Among Li's supporters closer to home is Tom Akiva, a University of Pittsburgh professor in the department of psychology and education.

“I spent years working for an after-school organization, doing training. I've been doing this for decades, and this is by far the most well-received program we've done,” Akiva said.

“When people find out that we're not coming to find out what's wrong with your program, we're coming to strengthen what's right, they're surprised,” he said.

Rogers would probably smile over the program's success, Li said.

“Fred was always affirmative. He referred to himself as the appreciator. ‘If you really care about changing the world,' Fred would say, ‘think about the difference an appreciator would be as opposed to a critic,' ” Li said.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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