Thursday, October 18, 2012

Telling the Story of ECE

As an ECE professional, you spend most of your day making sure the everyday needs of everyone around you are met, but rarely are you able to take the time to advocate for the big needs of the children, family, staff, and field you serve.  However, an election year provides the perfect time and platform for our field to speak up. 
While Early Learning is getting little attention at the national level, education is in general and that gives those of us who work with children everyday the chance to expand the conversation about education to include Early Learning.  You do not have to participate on national television, but just be prepared to advocate for the things you need to make your program better. 
Advocate when you see a news story about education by commenting on how Early Learning contributes to children’s success.  You can, also, add your voice about how Early Learning reduces a child’s chances that they will be incarcerated when you hear stories about ways to reduce crime.   Since ECE rarely gets positive press, invite the local media to do a story about your program and how it benefits your families, or just about how much fun the kids are having scrapping out pumpkins.  Share information with your families about the economics of Early Learning.  Share your stories about how the Child Care Assistance Program benefits the families you serve, or how the reimbursements rates impact your ability to operate your program.   Add your story in the comment section of a news report about Early Learning. Send a letter or email to candidates about what you would like them to do for ECE or to thank you them for what they have done.

Advocacy at it’s very essence is about telling short stories, and I am sure you have one that needs to be told and heard.  So speak up, shout it out, write about it.  I am for one can’t wait to hear what you have to say!

With Kind Regards,


“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
-George Bernard Shaw


Monday, October 8, 2012

The Role of Regulations on Parental Choices

As I was observing a group of preschoolers (who bring a sack lunch) eat lunch, I noted that most of their lunches did not meet the requirements of the USDA Food program, and I began to wonder how we could encourage parents to meet those requirements and the challenges of doing so.  There are regulations that require that all food served to children meet the requirements of the USDA, and it is part of the Environment Rating Scales so on one hand it seems like an easy thing to do, but in actuality it is not easy to get parents to provide a meal exactly as the USDA would like them to.  And as a parent, I have to say that I resent being told what to pack for my child's lunch.

My son, like many children, is not a vegetable eater. The joke around our house is that offer him tongue, octopus, or eel and we have a winner, but suggest broccoli and you might as well have just told him he must eat poison.  When he was a preschooler, he would not eat the vegetables in his lunch, no matter how attractive I made them or even if they were his favorites, so I stopped packing a vegetable.  I did pack a fruit, grain, protein, and milk . . . well, most of the time there was milk.  It just seemed silly to pack something I knew he would not eat, and I, also, knew that he got his vegetables at home (where he would actually eat them) and that we eat a healthy diet- hence, my resentment.

As a result, I do not relish the idea of telling families how they must feed their child, but I do understand the intent behind these regulations, and as a provider would find it easier to tell a parent that the law says you just have to do this.  I want parents to choose healthy food for their children, but I am wondering what role should child care regulations have on how parents choose to raise their child, and how do we encourage parents to make positive choices for their children?

Of course, lunches are only an example of the ways we want to keep children healthy and safe, and issues we need to educate parents about.  So what are the ways you think we can accomplish this and what role do you see regulations playing, if any?

With Warm Regards,


P.S. On a different note, I am conducting a survey to see what the financial needs of preschools are, and what types of funding they are recieving.  If you are an administrator in an EL program, please take a moment to take this survey (I promise it will be quick).
Funding Survey

"The older I get, the more I marvel at the wisdom of children."


Friday, September 7, 2012

Preparing Children and Families for Negative Events

Scary and painful events happen everyday, but the recent tragedies, remind us that young children are not immune from these events.  These tragedies, made by both humans and nature, across our nation sparked numerous articles on how to help children cope with tragedy and trauma.  Luckily, parents will be able to find these resources so they can better understand how to support their child through this time. However, why begin only addressing the negatives in life after one has happened?  We tend to underestimate what children can handle, and avoid subjects we find uncomfortable. For example, a brief search on how to prepare children for traumatic events brought up resources for helping children cope with trauma after it happened, but not how to prepare children for the inevitable challenges we all face in life.

Most parents feel uncomfortable addressing issues that are painful with children, and ECE providers often feel that this is not their purview. However, since many children spend most of their weekdays in some from of care outside of the home- where else is it going to happen and how do ECE providers support parents in helping their child develop resilience around challenges? The two most important things that ECE professionals can do to help children are to promote resiliency within your program and to help children understand that negatives happen but life goes on.

As ECE professionals we cannot ignore painful events that children encounter, and to do so would devalue the child's experience.  However, we can help both parents and children prepare for these events by normalizing that sad things happen to everyone, and support children through these difficult times.  This does not mean that we go into graphic detail of every negative thing that can happen, but it does mean not ignoring that they happen.  Many children's books address these issues in an age-appropriate manner that helps to normalize difficult situations.

Here are some ideas for addressing these issues in your program so that children will not be surprised that negative things happen and they will have the skills to handle them:

  • Share titles of children's books that deal with these difficult topics with the parents in your program, and let them know that you read books about painful events.   
  • Provide parents with articles on how to talk about issues, such as death, divorce, and crime.
  • Encourage parents to talk with their children about events they may have heard on the news, to acknowledge their child's fears, and to reassure their child that they will do everything possible to keep them safe.
  • If children have heard something on the news, do not avoid talking about it with them. Give simple answers that are age-appropriate, and emphasize the positive. For example, if a child hears that there was a shooting, acknowledge it, and remind them that the police are working to keep us safe.
  • As Mr. Roger's mother said, "Focus on the helpers." Help children understand that no matter what there will people who will help them and that they can help as well.
  • Promote resiliency in your program by encouraging children to express themselves, asking children to listen to others, giving children jobs, encouraging children to help one another, and talking about your own emotions.
The path to promoting resiliency in children is rife with dangers of going to far so trend lightly, but don't let the risks keep you from walking that path.  We never know when the next tragedy will strike, and it is better to be prepared than to feel sideswiped.  Our children need to know that they are capable individuals with people who will support them no matter what.  

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Unintended Messages We Send

Recently, I listened to a story on NPR about the young gymnast, Gabby Douglas, and the criticism she received over her hair not looking good enough despite having won gold in the Olympics.  The author made the point that if Gabby can win gold who cares about her hair, and that the message  we should send young women is that the substantive should triumph over the superficial.  I absolutely agree, but it reminded me of a time that I directed a program and was told that the reason the parents did not want their children to get dirty was  because the families were low income and were afraid social services would consider taking their children for neglect if they did not always look their best.  I remember thinking that was silly, that child development demanded that we focus on giving children a play-based, experiential environment, and, of course, social services would understand that.  But even at the time, that comment gave me pause about the messages we send children, and others.  It is the others I am more concerned about in this blog.

For some people looking your best at all times is paramount and to be seen looking less than perfect in public humiliates the person who doesn't look their best.  I think this view transcends race, class, and culture, although undoubtedly all play a role.  This view has historical roots that still persist, although there are people who work to buck this system.  But the prevalence of this viewpoint frequently plays out in ECE classrooms since parents, for various reasons, may not want their child to get dirty. This often leads to conflicts between parents and staff in ECE programs.

Unfortunately, these types of conflicts inhibit a program's or teacher's ability to develop strong relationships with parents.  Parents, particularly those who are disenfranchised, may feel at the mercy of those they see with more power, education, expertise, etc, and will not question them.  However,  even if they are silent they may feel unappreciated, devalued, and unheard.  This bring me back to my experience as a director at a time when I did not fully appreciate parental choices, backgrounds, values, and cultures, and as such did not handle the situation as well I may have.

To be fair to myself, I did try to find solutions such as asking parents to bring in an extra pair of clothes that we would change the child into before they went home, encouraging parents to send their child in old clothes, and having the child wear a smock.  But what I did not do was to appreciate where they parents were coming from, and since we generally know when someone does not respect our point of view, I am sure the parents felt it. And I deeply regret that the message I sent was that the parents were being silly.  

Learning how to really respect, and honor anther's viewpoint means hard work that often requires looking at ourselves in uncomfortable ways, and finding humility.  And who really wants to go through that kind of work?  This is not to say that you can't have a philosophy about messy play within your program, but it does mean that you need to be willing to listen, understand, and come up with a mutual solution.

After all, those are the skills we try to teach the children, and if you want to have a strong, trusting relationship with parents it is work that must be done.   If parents are ever to become our allies in the  fight for recognition and funding for ECE. we must first become their allies.

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Mahatma Ghandi 


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Suspension in the Early Years

In late March, the Huffington Post ran an article by Laura Bornfreund titled Why Suspension Makes No Sense in the Early Grades which summarized recent research on why suspension is ineffective in the early grades.  While working with Early Learning programs, I witnessed suspension being used for children as young as 2.  It is a common practice in our schools, both elementary and preschools, and the reasons for it's use are complex.

Historically, suspension has been seen as a method to motivate students into complying with how the teacher wishes them to behave.  The thinking behind this goes something like this- if you suspend a child they will realize how very egregious their behavior was, and will, never, never do it again.  While again, even in later years, research invalidates this as an outcome of suspension in most cases, it makes even less sense in the Early Learning years when children do not link a behavior they did yesterday to what is happening today. 

This brings me to the second reason suspension occurs so commonly in our schools which consists of the belief that the child wants to get a good education so if this is taken away from them they will behave so they can have that education they so desire.  While that sounds laughable printed out it is a common belief in our culture and for some no amount of evidence to the contrary can contradict it.  Even when the evidence against this continues to mount.  Not everyone values education or sees how it will benefit them. And in today's economy there are some strong reasons (I am a strong advocate of education for more than economic reasons) to think education may not be a benefit.  Secondly, young children cannot see the long-term benefit of their education. They live in the moment and in the moment of suspension it means they get to be home with Mom and Dad. 

Many teachers (and parents) fall back on suspension due to the fact that the skills for handling negative behaviors are simply not taught and as a result teachers are ill-equipped to handle them. Traditionally, many people think that children should just know what to do to as if this is somehow magically transmitted to them in the womb. This removes the burden off the adult to teach appropriate behavior and places it on the child for acting willfully disobedient.   While children do act willfully disobediently at times, removal from social and educational activities creates an easy way out for the teachers  rather than teaching the child appropriate behaviors, how to solve problems, and how to work with others (of course, if you look at politics you see the results of these skills not being taught!). 

Another critical factor of this issue stems from lack of resources such a Mental Health consulting, assessments of child's development, and parent education classes in Early Learning programs.  These resources facilitate Early Learning professionals supporting children with challenging behaviors and/or developmental issues.   However, availability of these resources exist in only a few programs, and often the availablity of those exist at a minimum.  I experienced  waiting, at least, 3 months to have my child's hearing and language development accessed when concerns about his speech arose following several ear infections.   Insurance covers hearing tests, but not language testing.

But regardless of the reasons, the use of suspension disregards all evidence of how young children think and learn. And it is up to us to respond to negative behavior in an age appropriate manner, and to demand the resources we need to effectively meet children's needs. This is a systems issue, and needs to be addressed in a comprehensive manner so that every child reaches their potential.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

What is ECE Most Afraid Of?

A quiet, unassuming discussion group on the LinkedIn Zero to Three Discussion forum highlights an  interesting divide between providers that points to some very different views of what the field of Early Learning should look like, and how providers view themselves.  The discussion about how ECE can attract well-educated professionals to the field turned towards how low pay keeps people from staying in the field and colleges from recommending their students to go into ECE.  However, there are those (few admittedly on this discussion group) who do not see pay as the issue, and point to the fact that they went into the field because they love children, not for the pay.

This brings me back to my early days in the field when I started working with my local Worthy Wage campaign, and people would say to me that if I really loved children I wouldn't ask for more pay and others said they didn't want anyone to think that they were just in it for the money.  And that is the greatest fear of some of those in the field- that if they ask for a living (or, God forbid, a professional) wage they will be viewed as being selfish.  And no one wants to be seen as selfish so the field perpetuates a sense of martyrdom within itself by focusing on affordability at the expense of wages for the professionals who provide direct services to children.

And while it is absolutely essential that the people in this field love children does that mean that they should be martyrs who sacrifice their standard of living? And does relying on people who see themselves this way really meet the needs of children and their families? It is time for ECE to reflect on these issues within our programs and in the larger Early Learning community.  This is not just an exercise in the hypothetical though, how ECE providers view themselves will determine how the rest of society sees the field and ultimately what the field evolves into.   

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Are Tuition Rates Too Low to Fund Quality?

Traditionally, child rearing has been viewed as a personal responsibility, and, as such, funding for Early Learning programs has come from parents through tuition with some subsidies for low-income families from the government and foundations. Since many families have limited resources, tuition has been seen as needing to stay low relative to the actual costs of running a high quality program.  Focusing on keeping tuition affordable has been a reasonable effort considering the little support that ECE receives from the larger society, and the amount that tuition can take from the average families budget.  This amount can range between 7 and 29 percent depending on the parents level of income.  This makes the choices parents make when choosing child care difficult, and leads many to choose to low quality, unlicensed care.

In response. many Early Learning programs do not raise tuition (sometimes for years) to keep parents from leaving for low cost alternatives. Unfortunately, the impact of low tuition has often been at the expense of quality, including recruiting and retaining well-educated staff.  When programs cannot afford to pay staff a living wage, not to mention a professional wage, staff are less committed to their profession, have less education, and are more likely to leave from something with better pay.

In addition, low tuition impacts a program's ability to purchase materials to promote learning, replace materials that have become broken, hire support staff, or promote teacher's professional development.  Director's end up spending their time cleaning, cooking, or working in the classroom which leaves them unable to prepare for staff meetings or in-services, develop a strategic plan, apply for grants, mentor staff, or recruit volunteers.   
All of these consequences negatively impact the quality of care that children receive by minimizing the use and understanding of best practices, reducing teacher's ability to be responsive to children's needs, preventing children from forming strong relationships with their teachers, and the lack of  support from other professionals to foster the entire child's development.  Director's often report feeling that they cannot keep up- let alone make gains to improve quality.  It is a situation comparable to Sisyphus who was condemned to roll a stone up a hill only to have it roll back down once he reached the top.

Even when directors understand the impact of inadequate tuition, they and their programs choose to keep it below the cost of quality in an effort to meet parent's needs and to keep parents as partners.  However, parents need a high quality, stable, educational environment for their child and that can only be sustained with adequate funding. 

As Tony Robbins said "By changing nothing, nothing changes" and funding will not increase unless ECE professionals demand it.  It is time for Early Learning programs to charge the true costs of quality care as all other industries do.  It will be a difficult conversation to have with parents, but it is up to ECE professionals to help parents understand the costs involved, how it benefits their children, and to engage their support in working towards a system that funds quality. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Impact of the Ryan Budget on Early Learning Programs

Tomorrow the House of Representatives is slated to vote on the Ryan Budget. This budget would have a drastic, negative impact on funding for Early Learning programs by forcing cuts to all domestic discretionary spending.  The cuts would be across the board and not made based on effectiveness so Early Learning programs would be cut despite a record of both accountability and success.

Economists note that the benefits of quality Early Education range from increased success in school to less need for remediation and special education services to reduced incarcerations to increased life-long earnings.  Economists estimate that for every dollar invested in Early Education, 7 to 15 dollars are saved.  Early Education is a smart investment.

Please take a few moments today to call or write your legislators to urge them to vote no on the Ryan Budget and to tell them your story of how Early Education funding has benefited you, your program, and the families and children you serve.  These benefits may come from:
  • Having the opportunity to attend a college course that you could not have otherwise afforded and therefore improve your practice:
  • Being able to purchase materials for your program; 
  • Having access to a Mental Health Consultant or Quality Improvement coach; 
  • Being able to serve children from at-risk families through funding such as the Child Care Assistance Program; or
  • Receiving subsidies through the Child and Adult Care Food Program. 
In most cases, all of these programs rely on federal dollars and for them to continue a federal contribution is needed.  The gains that Early Education has made in recent years in increased funding only meet the tip of the iceberg in terms of need for these services.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children has an easy link to writing to your legislators: NAEYC'S Take Action Page.  Remember your stories of success are one of the most effective advocacy tools we have so tell yours today!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Some Thoughts on the Comparing the Costs of College and ECE

Approximately, twenty years ago I joined the Worthy Wage Campaign to help bring attention to the fact that Early Childhood Educators were among the lowest paid workers in the United States.  Unfortunately, while wages for Early Childhood Educators have increased several recent reports still show that Early Learning is one of the lowest paid fields in the US and this is despite parents often paying a significant portion of their income on tuition.

This leads many to compare the tuition costs of Early Education and the cost of a college education, but the differences between the two are difficult to compare as they have different structures.  One such difference is student to teacher (or faculty) ratio.  The ratios in Early Learning programs are often much lower than at a college or university.  For example, U.S. News found that "among the 1,311 institutions that provided data to U.S. News, the average student-faculty ratio is 14.8. "  However, these numbers may be misleading as the reported college ratios do not reflect actual class size which may be as high as 500.  The highest legal ratio for infants in Colorado is 5 to 1, 10 to 1 for preschool, and 12 to 1 for prekindergarten. Colleges have a choice of where to set their ratios, regulations (justifiably so) limit a Early Learning program's ability to do so and best practice demands even lower ratios in order to meet children's needs.  

The Cost, Quality, and Outcomes study (Suzanne Helburn, et al; 1995) found that Early Learning programs spend, on average, 70% of their operating budgets on salaries, whereas according to Trends in College Spending:  Where Does the Money Come From?  Where Does it Go? (Wellman et al, 2009) colleges spend between 53% and 64% on instruction. In general, the recommended percent a business should pay for labor is around 35 percent.  Again, the numbers are not comparing identical markers, but it does provide some insight into the cost of operating each type of program as both industries are labor intensive.  The highly labor intensive nature of a college education is one reason why colleges have been able raise capitol to cover expenses.

However, one of the biggest differences is that colleges are not asked (though there are exceptions to this) to pay their employees poverty level wages. Nor are they demanded to accept 30-50% of their tuition in order to receive a subsidy for low-income students.  They are subsidized at 100% of the cost of tuition, or they provide a scholarship from other funding sources.  Let us start to demand this for Early Education professionals as a start to paying Early Learning professionals a decent wage.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Pay: A Key Factor in Quality Improvement

The research for developing a system to improve the quality of Early Learning programs often sites a well-prepared, professional workforce, but rarely are the salaries of those who care for our youngest members of society mentioned.  Many people seem to feel that improving teacher performance, education, and training can be done while still offering Early Learning professionals near poverty wages.  Somehow paying a skilled workforce a professional wage does not enter the equation even while many other fields fight to keep wages high in the name of attracting the best and brightest. 

 According to a report by the Government Accountability Office entitled  HSS and Education Are Taking Steps to Improve Workforce Data and Enhance Worker Quality  "average yearly income ranged from $11,500 for a child care worker working in a child's home to $18,000 for a preschool teacher."  The poverty rate for a family of 4 in 2009 was $22,050 (Department of Health and Human Services) which means that many Early Learning providers do not earn enough to support themselves or their families.  This is in spite of the research that shows that the brain will develop more than at any other point in life, and the foundational skills needed to be successful in life are built during this critical point in development. 

There are many reasons for the low pay in Early Education, but the biggest reason it stays low is that few people are talking about it or are willing to address it as an issue related to quality.  Money is tight, particularly in these times,  and the evidence for how quality is improved by how much and what type of education is inconclusive so there is little incentive for policy makers to address this issue.  However, if Early Childhood Care and Education is ever to be a respected and well-paid field that attracts the best than pay is central, and shouldn't the field that lies the foundation for a person's future be encouraged to attract the best and the brightest like any other business?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

What We Want for Our Kids

'What we want for our kids' is the phrase that finds its way, in one form or another, into almost every speech politicians make, and this year, like every election year, is no different.  But does our nation really have a vision for what it wants for our children?  On the recommendation of a friend, I am reading The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans DeWaal.  It is an intriguing read for anyone who is interested in social issues and creating a society that supports children and families.

DeWaal takes on assumptions that are perpetuated within our nation's myths and legends about the selfishness of humans, and the ability of humans to succeed entirely independent of society.  These assumptions are reflected in concepts such as 'pulled himself up by his boot straps,'  survival of the fittest, and that greed is good.  These ideas, also, make it one way or another into many political stump speeches, but they do not reflect the reality of young children's lives nor what happens in the average early childhood classroom.

Young children thrive, not when they are told to pull themselves up by their boot straps, but when they have loving, responsive relationships surrounding them.  As DeWaal affirms "The point is that we are mammals, which are animals with obligatory maternal care. . . This bond provides the evolutionary template for all other attachments, including those among adults." (DeWaal, page 11) There are few policies in the United States that support the bond between parents and their children so it is up to Early Childhood professionals to advocate for those policies in the long run, but also for practices within the field that support the relationship between parents and children. 

Practices that support the parent-child bond include daily sharing of information, continuity of care, the teacher and parent knowing one another as people, regular conferences, and flexible child care days and hours are practices that most Early Learning facilities can be implemented with relative ease. But policies, such as job sharing, flexible work schedules, and paid parental leave will be a longer battle.  However, such policies must be implemented if we are to truly promote the welfare of children and families, and should be considered a critical part of any comprehensive Early Childhood system.

Monday, January 16, 2012

There has been much written about what it means to be an advocate, as well as about the skills that are needed for effective advocacy.  Most of these skills focus on activities, such as being informed, well-organized, and communication skills, however, as I have reflected on this, I feel that something more basic is missing. I know of people who have all the above skills, and yet, they still do not advocate, and what they are missing is the passion that comes from having to tell a story.  I touched briefly on this in my last blog, but all advocates see a problem and feel that they must tell their story in order to make change.  This passion and a sense that something must change underlies their work, and creates their motivation to advocate. 

The work of advocates in any field is to promote change in order to address a problem that they see or to promote an activity or policy that will benefit those who are impacted by their issue. In Early Learning, this problem, activity, or policy can be anything from asking manufacturers to make a soap that doesn't say "Keep Out of Reach of Children" to parents understanding why play is important to rules and regulations governing Early Childhood Education to Child Care Assistance Program reimbursement rates.  All of these things promote a better, more efficient system for caring for and educating young children.

The trick then to being an advocate is finding your passion- big or small.  What is the thing that you want to change about Early Childhood Education , and how would this thing make Early Childhood Education better for children and families? What story do you want to tell?  We all have one and we all love hearing stories. The news eats them up- so start telling yours. You will find that you will have a ready audience, and you will have become an advocate!