Sunday, November 27, 2011

Some Thoughts On What It Means to Be An Advocate

I entered the field of Early Education some 30 odd years ago as a summer job while in high school, and then again in college to help support myself. As someone who did not see it as a career, I was not worried about the pay or the quality or really even the respect- it was a job that paid my bills which were meager. However, somewhere along the line it became my career and then everything changed. I don't remember exactly when it was that I decided this was my Profession, but I did, and then I cared about the pay, the quality, and the respect. I cared because I knew that I would never be able to support a family without the help of a spouse, I knew that the children in my care received quality but I worried that other children did not and what that would cost us all down the line, and I resented the lack of respect for doing something that I viewed as the most important job in the world. And while that point may be arguable, because after all, all jobs are important, Early Learning professionals (and I would add parents of young children) play a vital role in ensuring the future of our cultures, nation, and world. And without someone performing that role, it would all go. . . well, let's just say downhill.

However, many Early Learning professionals did not choose this field, but rather it was something that they dropped into and when you do not see something as a choice or a career, you are less likely to fight for it. The workers in the factories of the past saw their jobs as something that should support their families, but many Early Learning professionals do not. But this does not make what Early Learning professionals do any less important, and so the job for advocating for a better paid, higher quality, and better respected field falls on those who see Early Learning as their career and a profession. And as more Early Learning professionals advocate for themselves and the field, others in the field will see themselves as professionals and slowly (so slow it may not feel like we are moving at all, but we are) more and more of those who work with young children will see themselves as professionals. While this may seem like a burden for those who are willing to speak up (that's advocating in a nutshell), there are very simple things that anyone can do to make one an advocate and will have a tremendous impact on Early Care and Education.

Nancy Amidel in her article "Policy Advocacy: The Ten Minute Version" gives some easy tips for advocating. She gives 3 steps to being an advocate. The first of which is to be informed so that you can present information in a coherent, understandable manner to those who may not know the facts about Early Education. The second step is to be involved so that you are taking an active role in providing solutions to the problems that have been identified. The final step is to be an advocate which means speaking up, in big or little ways, for the issues that you find important. As she says in her article this is often the most difficult for people, and I think, especially for Early Learning professionals who may not have been given the message that their voice matters. But, of course, it does since those in field who work with children everyday know the problems first hand. A common phrase in most (probably all) Early Learning classrooms is "use your words." It's time to start to model this for the young children we teach by speaking up for practices, such as adequate funding, that support the quality we know young children need and deserve to thrive.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Impact of the Child Care Assistance Program on Quality

Many families drop their child off at an Early Learning program where they trust their child's needs will be met, but few of these families realize how Early Learning funding impacts the quality of the early care and education that their child receives.  However, as with most things in life, funding does impact quality which has real consequences for the children in Early Learning programs.

These consequences, such as children not having care from a consistent teacher, have social and emotional impacts that society will pay for in the long-term. For example, we know that children who do not have consistent, trusting relationships are more likely to develop emotional problems that may lead to the need for special education services and remedial education, failure to graduate from high school, not attending college, and becoming incarcerated.  Unfortunately, as the country continues to struggle with a long recession, states are cutting Child Care Assistance Programs (CCAP) that allow many families whose incomes are at or near the poverty level to work and their child(ren) to be in a quality Early Learning program.

The National Women's Law Center recently published a report titled State Child Care Assistance Policies 2011: Reduced Support For Families In Challenging Times which details how many low-income families are receiving less support towards the cost of child care than they were a year ago. The report, also, looks at reimbursement rates for Early Learning programs and notes that most states set their reimbursement rates below the 75% of market rate that is recommended by the federal government. As states have struggled financially, reimbursement rates for Early Learning programs have fallen from 23 states reimbursing at least 75% of the market rate in 2001 to 3 states reimbursing at least 75% of the market rate in 2011.  The economic impact on already underfunded Early Childhood Education programs is enormous and has led to many programs struggling to maintain high quality practices, such as retaining consistent staff.

While it would be easy to point fingers at policy makers for cutting programs, such as CCAP, the decisions to make cuts to these programs reflects a lack of understanding about the value of Early Care and Education on the part of the general public. Unfortunately, as Early Learning advocates, we have not always let the story of why there is value to programs like CCAP.  I urge those of you who have a story to tell about the impact CCAP has had on your program, as well as the families and children you serve to share it with everyone you know, but especially the media and policy makers. As we begin to tell the story of Early Care and Education, the respect and funding our field needs and deserves will follow.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Play: The Basis for Early Learning

I do love serendipity, and since writing my last blog, Scientific American published an article in the October 2011 issue titled "More Than Child's Play: Young Children Think Like Researchers but Lose the Feel for the Scientific Method as They Age" by Sharon Begley which discusses the ways that young children explore their world in order to solve problems.  The research is showing that young children form hypothesis, test their hypothesis, and then form conclusions about the world based on that. And I think any parent who has watched a child work it to get what they want can attest to this skill! However, the article notes that this skill is lost in K-12 students, and draws the conclusion that it is because we do not learn to make the "connection between the abstract and real-world puzzles (Begley, Scientific American, October 2011)." While this may be a question of semantics, I think many early childhood advocates (myself among them) feel that it relates more to the lack of value put on exploratory play, and the emphasis on black and white problems and answers that do not relate to our young people's lives.

In my previous blog, I wrote that as a field we need to be very intentional on how we explain to those outside our field why play matters and this in one such example.  Play matters because it is how children experience decision-making, make sense of the world, and understand their place in that world.  Exploratory, free play allows children to develop their skills at problem solving which is at the heart of human experience. Another article, published in the October 2011 issue of National Geographic ("Beautiful Brains" by David Dobbs), explores why teenagers need to take risks to become healthy, well-adjusted adults.  It is an interesting premise that again depends on the ability to explore new options, apply what you learned to the real world, and to create something entirely new (and, as an aside, is one reason why our field should teach not just child development, but human development so we know where young children are going in terms of development).  As the National Geographic article states our ability as humans to live in so many varied climates is dependent on our ability to be innovative.

In this view of play, play serves the purpose of teaching problem solving and innovation, skills on which our very survival as humans has, and still, depends.  This view holds with Stuart Brown's book titled Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul which explores the value of play for not only humans, but other animals as well.  Mr. Brown cites research done by Bob and Johanna Fagen that shows that grizzly bears "that played the most were the ones who survived the best." (Brown, pg 31).  And if you think about it, play is seen in several animals kingdoms- birds do it, mammals do it, fish do it, and even some insects seem to be doing it.  Play must serve a purpose that enhances survival, and as with grizzly bears, play benefits humans (as another aside, this research is not coming out of the ECE field, but biology and psychology which is why ECE should, in my opinion, be multidisciplinary).  Play is the basis for our ability to adapt to new situations and apply our knowledge to those situations.

So the next time, someone ask you why the children are only playing, you can explain some of the research that has been done on the value of play.  Ask yourself, your colleagues, and the families whose children you care for what you want those children to be as adults, and if the answer is for them to become scientists, lawyers, doctors, leaders, then they need to be playing now so they can solve the problems that they will face in any of those professions and move our nation (and the world) forward. In other words, so they can create the world they wish to live in and one which will be hopefully better than the one we live in now.

Monday, October 3, 2011

How Do ECE Professionals Advocate for Play

Most ECE professionals have had the experience of a parent walking into their programs and asking what their child learned today and when we respond that they played with blocks, trains, dolls, balls, etc, to which the parent responds "I meant what did you teach them. Where are the worksheets with letters and numbers?"  In these moments many providers feel frustrated and angry at the parent, but if we don't explain how play promotes child development how will the parent ever understand?  The problem with play not being accepted as valid is not only a problem of societal norms, but also one of the field of ECE not clearly explaining to those outside of the field why it matters.

As a culture, it has been a long time since we put value on play. Certainly since the Industrial Revolution, but I think with some quick research you would find that it goes back even further than that. The emphases in our culture had been put on work, and play is seen as a luxury that few cannot afford.  However, on some levels, our culture (by which I mean Western) does understand that work and play can go hand in hand- think of A Spoonful of Sugar from Mary Poppins.  Even so if you mention that you enjoy your work the response that you get ranges from a weird look to suspicion to downright disdain, and while all of the responses may have jealousy as an underlying feeling, you rarely get a response that is supportive.

This leaves ECE professionals not only needing to explain the fairly new research on play and the brain, but trying to undo thousands of years of cultural norms.  As a result  and as a field, we have often chosen to use words that we think people can relate to, such as school readiness.  However, I do not think that we have always done a good job of explaining what this means.  For example, when you hear school readiness what do you think of?  Most likely, you think of knowing the letters, numbers, and being able to count to some arbitrary amount.   Does your program spend the time to let parents know that this means much more, and that knowing the letters, numbers, counting, etc are actually mid-steps in developing reading and math skills? Do those in influential positions within the field spend the time with funders and decision makers to do the same?

It is not that these words are bad to use, and it is easier to expand the meaning of a well-known word than to try to change the meaning of a word.  When I led tours for families I used the word academically appropriate for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, but I explained what I meant. For example, when I talked about academics for infants I talked about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, attachment, and responsiveness as the basis for all future learning.  Though, not all parents will relate to this, the parents I worked with (well-educated, and mostly middle income) did.

It is unlikely that everyone agrees with language that is being used, but like it or not it is where we are at.  As  advocates for high quality ECE programs that implement best practices (which can look very different), it is important for us to carefully evaluate the types of language that we use, and be sure that we are clearly explaining what that means to those who work outside of our profession (and sometimes, might I add, to those in our profession!).  Once we know what words we are using and why it will be easier for us as a field to explain concepts, such as play, to parents, the media, funders, and decision makers.  Next time, I will write more about how to explain the value of play to those (both inside and outside of the field) who may not understand it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

What It Means to be an ECE Professional: More Thoughts

As I have been thinking about the issues brought up by the educational qualifications within ECE, I have wondered what how these educational requirements will impact our field.  I have long been a proponent of educational requirements within the field, and if I had my way anyone who is in charge of a classroom would have an AA, and all directors would have a BA.  And I understand the financial impacts of doing this, but see the impact of generations of children being inadequately prepared for life as far worse.  My concerns about the current manner in which educational requirements are being implemented all relate to the practical impact I see them having.

First of all, I am concerned that by putting the emphasis on very specific criteria these regulations promote a  pedagogical bent that is not all inclusive.  Children are not robots who need  the same pedagogy in which to thrive, but rather they need a system that supports their individual differences, as well as honors the values and culture that they are being raised within.  The system by which we educate our ECE providers is the foundation of how the field honors individual differences, as well as respects the cultural varieties that our field claims to hold dear.  I saw this first hand when I was in California where teachers are required to have 12 credits of college.  While that sounds great on the surface, the ECE college curriculum is dictated by the state so that at many of the ECE programs I visited the same songs were sung, the same art projects were done, and the same lessons were taught.  How does this fit with what we know is the benefit of a reflective, responsive curriculum that honors all children and their families?  Having a vibrant, diverse choice of pedagogues for families to chose from honors both family and individual differences.

Other examples of this include how we teach when a child must be off the pacifier, bottle, sleeping through the night, feeding themselves, and stop nursing.  I often hear people criticize a family whose child who is not self-feeding by a certain age, and yet we know that children who grow up in cultures that put a value on interdependence lead happy, productive lives, and are not crippled psychologically.  The real question is who gets to decide what is best for the child- the field of ECE, or the family and culture within which that child is raised?  If we truly valued diversity we would teach child development from a multicultural perspective rather than on white, middle-class values which is were the vast majority of research we use to justify our practices comes from.

My second concern is that the current educational requirements will lead to the field becoming a vocation rather than a profession as I wrote in a previous blog.  Why would someone with 20 years of experience, a BA or higher, and currently director qualified want to take classes at the community college to earn the same money? If they already have an education degree they can simply move to a job in an elementary school and make more money.  While the the problem of poor pay in ECE will not be solved immediately by more focus on college degrees, it will in the long run create a field that is viewed as a profession rather than a vocation, and that will lead to better pay.

And, of course, my goal and vision for ECE is that of a well-paid, honored profession that meets the needs of individual families and children by offering them a large plate full of choices from which they can choose the one that fits them.  So I purpose that instead of putting the emphasis on specific classes, we as a field focus instead on college degrees that are either specifically in ECE or as a certificate program once a degree has been received.  ECE is a field that requires generalized knowledge, a love of learning, and a deep passion for those we serve which is why, I believe, studies show that the better educated the provider the better the quality of care, even when that education is not in the field of ECE.  Once someone has a degree or if they are getting a degree in ECE (and let's start with requiring an AA), then the college  programs need to promote not just the prevailing pedagogy of the day, but include an in-depth study of all the different pedagogues; a multicultural understanding of child development from birth to adulthood (since we need to know where they come from and where they are going); an understanding of psychology, sociology, and the impact of culture; the different theories of business, including organizational culture, leadership and communication styles, how to develop a strategic plan and vision statement, budgeting, as well as other business practices; theories of how children learn; as complete an understanding of how the brain develops and functions as current science allows; a cross-cultural understanding of nutrition and how it impacts development; an understanding of all current local, state, and federal regulations governing our field; an understanding of family and community dynamics, including a study of impact of different economic situations; an understanding of the different methods of curriculum development; and require that at least one course is taken in each of the general areas (such as history, science, math, etc) that ECE providers need to know in order to respond to the wonderful questions children pose.  And let's make the focus on all of these courses not that the students can regurgitate the knowledge back to us, but rather than they can apply, reflect on, and analyze what they are taught.  After all, I have met very few children who fit the textbooks and often had to adapt that knowledge in order to meet the needs of the child effectively.

So, I have given you my vision and proposal for our field, but I urge you to comment about what yours is.  I, also, urge (nay, BEG) you to let the decision and policy makers who are deciding the course of our field know exactly what you think about these issues, and I beg you to do so whether or not you agree with me.  Let's start making our voices heard.  I would love to hear what you think so you can make me think a little harder and clearer about these issues.

With the greatest respect,


Thursday, September 1, 2011

Times They Are A Changing

It has been a long-time since I last wrote in this blog and a lot is happening in Early Childhood Education in Colorado.  There is work being done at the state level to create a new Quality Rating Improvement System, new licensing standards for center-based Early Learning programs, and the state is going to submit for one of the Challenge Grants that the Obama administration has authorized.  It is an exciting time to be in ECE, and a scary time. Programs are unsure of what all of these changes will mean for them, and often wonder if their voice will even be heard.  The proposed changes to licensing are one such change that is creating both excitement and fear, and is garnering national attention from news outlets such as ABC, Fox, and the Washington Times. 

Some news outlets are reporting this as child care providers complaining about the cost of having to buy crayons and dolls, and while that is a reason for some I am sure, it is not the most common reason that many, both inside and outside, of the Early Learning field are wary of the proposed changes.  Crayons and dolls are cheap, and most Early Learning programs, in general, are in favor of regulations governing their operations in order to create a level playing field and to protect the health and safety of all children. What is concerning about the proposed rules and regulations is the micromanaging of every detail in the operations of Early Learning programs, and the impact this will have on program's ability to meet the needs and values of the families and children they serve.  These regulations include having 3 races of dolls, 10 of the same type of art supply, and 6 blocks, but quality is not having crayons, 3 races of dolls, or 6 blocks in the classroom. The outcomes for children in Waldorf and Montessori programs demonstrate that blocks and pictures on the wall are not the key to quality.
Quality should not be something that parents need to shop around for- it should be a foregone conclusion, but the key to quality comes from responsive, individualized care that reflects the values, desires, and needs of the child and family.  Since no single program can be all things to all families, parents (regardless of income) should have access to a variety of programs so they can find one that is a good fit for them and their child to support  positive relationships between the providers, parents, and children.  These relationships make all the difference in outcomes, and we will only get consistency with positive outcomes for children when there is a well-paid, well-educated, stable work force caring for young children. Detailed regulations for stuff cannot and will not create positive relationships between Early Learning professionals, children, and families.

Programs will take the detailed regulations and they will throw those materials into the classroom, but in many cases, they will not know what to do with them.  Anyone who has worked directly with programs knows of this phenomenon first hand.  Yes, the programs meet the material requirements for the Environment Rating Scales, but they do not know how to use the materials or why they were there.  The materials are there because the teacher had been told to put them there, and consequently the children gain little from their presence.

What we need to create instead are Early Learning programs that offer intentional, reflective care for children, and honor the unique circumstances, culture, and family that each child is born into.  Not cookie-cutter programs that make us all feel good because the classrooms look like a catalog, but are devoid of anything more substantive than that.  A one-size fits all approach is the type of thinking that has lead to the proliferation of charter schools and calls for voucher programs in the K-12 system, and it will ultimately have the same effect for Early Learning.