The Many Branches of Early Education Advocacy: Making Lasting Change

When it comes to early education advocacy there is no “final” branch. The lack of high-quality early childhood care and education stretches its reach far beyond the families and children that we have mentioned in the previous articles of this series. If we look at the larger picture, we can see how it impacts businesses, communities, and our greater country. This is to say that no single individual is immune from its impact, whether they have direct connections to children or not. When we think about the future of our town, our state, our country, and our world, early education should be at the forefront as a highly impacting agent of change. To really delve into how others are impacted by this issue, we must think about our Country and the values that we promote. As early educators, we have included a hope for the future of all of our students in our philosophy. Our hope was for the students in our care to become happy and joyful members of  our democratic society. This includes teaching individuals social and emotional skills and language when their brain is forming these connections prior to reaching the age of five. Early childhood education is the gateway to happy and well developed children who can fulfill this hope and contribute to our society.

Fulfilling this hope will provide significant benefits for the workforce development of the future. However, we also can see how a lack of access to early education directly impacts the businesses of today. Employers rely on their workers to be present and productive. If their employees have access to affordable, high-quality child care options, they CAN be present and productive. This diminishes turnover in the workplace. When a talented employee decides to leave their position due to lack of affordable high-quality child care, the employers are left with the costly task of recruiting and training a new worker. In this way, they lose money and productivity at their business. The good news is that businesses can turn this around by providing a family-centered workplace that supports the field of early education and care.

So how can this happen? The systemic problems that the field of early education are advocating to change can feel monumentally overwhelming. It does not have to be! The greatest, and most impactful change comes from small steps which can create a larger movement. Some of these small steps are already in place. Organizations such as Let’s Grow Kids are working to inform the public about the benefits of early care and education while simultaneously representing the voice of the people in the state house. Early educators, families, and community members are already sharing their stories in hopes that they can encourage change. Parents are participating alongside their children in public events to voice hope for a better future.

How can YOU impact change?

Share your story. Talk to  your family, your friends, your neighbors, your workplace, your representatives. By telling your story you are helping to initiate a movement to support the youngest citizens and the future of our country. Your story might be simple – the cost of early care and education was a burden for your family or that you are aware of the burden it is to others who are less fortunate. It also might be complex – perhaps you had to leave your job due to lack of high-quality care. Either way you can be a courageous advocate just by sharing your story!

Be informed. Knowing the importance of high-quality early care and education is imperative to shifting the thinking of others. It is important to know what high quality care looks like, how it is measured, and what impacts it has on a child’s growth and development. As a citizen who bears the right to vote you need to know WHY this is important and what your representatives are doing to make sure it is top priority.  

Repeat. This process will be long, but a brighter future is in sight! You may not make a policy level change with one conversation, but not having that conversation only ensures that the problems plaguing the system will persist. During our meeting with Senator and President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe, he shared his concerns for a mounting childcare problem in this state and the perspective that we are continually placing “band-aids” on a broken system, which is costly and ineffective for the long-term health of our children. Sharing our story repeatedly is the only way to spread awareness that is desperately needed to bring about lasting change.

Sign the Petition at Let’s Grow Kids – Help us create a brighter future!

 

The Many Branches of Early Education Advocacy Series: Investing in Young Children is Investing in the Future of America

Just a few generations ago, the American Dream was an attainable goal that many young people readily sought out and achieved. Young couples would marry, purchase homes, and start families. Living was inexpensive. Men would provide for the family and women would take care of the children. This version of American life was not without its flaws. We now have more accepted and diverse lifestyle opportunities with open perspectives and varying versions of what used to be considered the nuclear family.  The women’s movements empowered women and allowed them to finally have the chance to find their place in the world outside of their homes. As more and more women entered the workforce following the war, a new need arose. The need for childcare. This need was not isolated to America alone. Childcare needs arose across Europe and in other developed nations who saw a dramatic shift in workforce expectations. In 1971 the U.S. Congress passed the Comprehensive Childcare Act, a bill that would provide quality, affordable child care to families. Is this new information to you? It definitely was to us and just about everyone who we have spoken to after they watched the documentary titled The Raising of America . Anyone who has had a young child in the last several decades is well aware that childcare is not affordable and lacking high quality options. Despite a multitude of support, ultimately President Nixon vetoed the bill, leaving the child care crisis for future Americans.  

The global economy has changed the way families live. We are now seeing an increase in working parents because both parents need to work. This increase is necessary for the survival of their family.  According to The Raising of America twenty five percent of jobs pay their workers poverty level wages (The Raising of America). Coupled with average annual costs of about $10,000 for center based child care, it is no wonder that one in four children under the age of five are living in poverty (The Raising of America). The repercussions of our Nation’s lack of investment in young children are mounting. The Raising of America cites data showing that the U.S. has dropped to number twenty six out of twenty nine nations in the rankings for child well-being across multiple dimensions and has dropped 23 places in high school graduation rates since 1970. While these statistics provide shocking truths about how our children are growing up, they do not provide the micro data about child development and the incurred costs on our public education system. Schools have seen dramatic increases in students needing Special Education services. Teachers report significant increases in behavioral challenges in the classroom. Parents are increasingly accessing government services. It is safe to say we are failing our Nation’s youngest citizens. This is an opportune time to make a change for the better in our country and our state.

Vermont has not been immune to the child care crisis. Let’s Grow Kids (LGK) is a Vermont campaign to raise awareness of the need for access to high-quality early care and education as a foundation for the long term success of children.  LGK has compiled data showing that “almost half of Vermont infants and toddlers who are likely to need childcare don’t have access to regulated programs” (Let’s Grow Kids General Info Pamphlet).  This is alarming considering they also state that 70% of Vermont’s infants and toddlers have all of their parents in the workforce (Let’s Grow Kids Building the Brain Handout). For these children, access to  affordable, high-quality education by professional teachers is essential.

“We are born with most of our 86 billion brain cells (neurons), but those cells are only weakly connected. It’s our experiences during the very first years of life which literally wire together and shape the architecture of our developing brains, building a strong or weak foundation for future learning, earning, and mental and physical health, and affecting whether our stress management system responds appropriately or not to real or perceived threats. This is why safe, stable and nurturing relationships and environments are among the most powerful and protective forces in a young child’s life.”

-The Raising of America

As early educators we have invested a significant amount of time into refining our personal philosophy on education to ensure that it reflects the highest quality of care. Research has shown us that high quality early education and care provides a foundation for children to foster and flourish into creative, independent, and competent individuals in our society. A baby’s brain makes 1 million new connections every second. These connections, or neuro-pathways, enrich brain function. Nurturing relationships with caregivers, stimulating learning opportunities, and nutrition are the most significant contributing factors to strengthening brain development. Providing these in the early years is essential, as the brain is 90% developed by age 5 (Let’s Grow Kids). In our educational philosophy we honor social and emotional development as the most important skill in the early education classroom or setting. Relationships are the very foundation of this. From the earliest of ages children rely on the comfort of a strong care giver relationship as a safe foundation to set off and explore the world from. These crucial relationships then expand and blossom. From the child’s relationship to their caregivers, to their peers, to their school, to their community, and to the world. With this foundation in place children are provided with the ability to discover and explore the relationships that interconnect every aspect of how the world works. Relationships, are not only our connection to each other, but to everything else in this beautiful world. A low stress environment with the opportunity to form healthy attachments to their caregivers is best to support positive social and emotional development. But our current data reveals we are not investing in early eduction to give families or early educators a chance to provide this type of environment for children. 

 

Back to the post-war era. The Reggio Emilia Approach has continually come up within our posts as it is dear to our hearts and it is essential that we discuss the relevance of the history of this teaching philosophy to the advocacy work in this series as well. In 1945 near Reggio Emilia, Italy, just after World War II, the people were left to rebuild the wreckage of their lives after the dramas of war. As they set about reconstructing their society, they knew it was essential to establish an early education system with schools that were “ free from oppression, injustice and inequality” (https://thereggioapproach.weebly.com/history-and-philosophy.html) They were determined to create a society that could provide services to all children and families that would rectify inequalities. Early childhood centers were established in the poorest areas of Reggio Emilia, Italy. The schools relied on support from the families and local communities to continue running. As the demand grew for women to enter the workforce in the 1960’s and 1970’s, a group of workers, farmers and the Union of Italian Women (https://www.reggioalliance.org/narea/) created additional preschools including infant and toddler centers as well. With the guiding principles from Loris Malaguzzi and community support, the people of Reggio Emilia designed specific environments for children that were developmentally appropriate. Many American teachers, including ourselves, emulate and use the Reggio Emilia approach in our high quality classrooms today. The Reggio Emilia schools would not have been possible had they lacked the support of their local community.

It is now our role to muster this same energy from our local communities here in Vermont to solve the early education crisis for our state and possibly for America. By collaborating with the many organizations mentioned throughout this series Vermont has the unique opportunity to aim to be the first state to provide high quality and affordable childcare and hopes to become a model for the rest of our nation. This large task does not come without its challenges. There is currently a Think Tank of people from diverse organizations working to try to present options to solve the issue of childcare in Vermont. The largest hurdle that early care and education faces is money. Education is expensive and early education is significantly underfunded. The Let’s Grow Kids pamphlet cites a recent study, saying, “…that every dollar invested to expand early care and learning programs in Vermont would yield $3.08 in return—for a total of $1.3 billion in net benefits to Vermont’s economy over the next 60 years.” It is time to make an investment in the future of our children, our state, and our nation. Go to www.letsgrowkids,org to sign the petition and ask our legislators to out their votes where they count!

The Pioneers in Early Education Pedagogical Philosophy for Social and Emotional Learning

Our philosophy is that a child’s social and emotional growth is of the utmost importance. We have created a classroom environment that presents the opportunity to find a love for oneself, for others, and for life. Our intention is to support their development into happy, peaceful, courageous, and kind individuals that can be positive contributors to a community. We believe that the children can be leaders in their own social and emotional development. We are advocates for the children by helping them understand and cope with their emotions.

 

Organizations:

Let’s Grow Kids

References:

The Raising of America: The Signature Hour Discussion Guide

Let’s Grow Kids Building the Brain Handout 2016

 

 

When Little People Have Big Emotions: Helping Young Children Develop Strategies for Self Regulation

“Learning and teaching should not stand on opposite banks and just watch the river flow by; instead, they should embark together on a journey down the water. Through an active, reciprocal exchange, teaching can strengthen learning how to learn.”

Loris Malaguzzi

The practice of teaching is not an exact science nor does it have a clearly defined path. With no final outcome, the beauty of the teaching journey lies in finding balance between science and art. Finding this balance requires us to be comfortable and confident with not having the answers, especially when working with children. We are incredibly lucky to live in a world filled with curiosity. This curiosity about children’s development and how we can influence it has led to many various developmental theories and philosophies on teaching. As educators, we are inspired by a combination of these theories and ideas. However, our investment in Reggio inspired learning was deeply inspirational to our own pedagogy. A key element to this approach is the perspective of the teacher as a partner in learning. We used this concept to guide many of our discussions, always remembering that we are there to learn from each other and to learn together. In this way, our teaching methods unfolded with respect for each unique individual in the classroom. As an educator, you are like a conductor for a piece of music. It is your role to allow each instrument or each child to be heard, to guide, but not to direct, and therefore to create a beautiful harmony.

On our co-teaching journey, we constantly engaged in reflection and discussion, questioning what we were doing and why. All of our discussions and reflections had one consistent element: improving the sense of community and belonging in the classroom. We agreed that this would support a child’s social and emotional development and be our most important task. But we found that following traditional methods were not sufficient. Over time, our deviant ways of teaching positive social and emotional skills evolved.  We felt it would be useful to other educators and parents to share some of our ideas and generate further discussion. We want to be clear about one thing –we don’t have all the answers. We are each in different roles now, yet we find that using these ideas and continuing to build on our methods have been useful in our positions as parents and educators.

One aspect of our deviance within our social and emotional learning framework is to allow the child to feel big emotions, to be in the discomfort of it, as long as everyone was safe. When students demonstrated feelings of big emotions, we validated their feelings. Traditionally, it is much easier to use methods of redirection for young children and to try to calm them right away. After much reflection and trial and error, we found that the children were more successful by being allowed to release their strong emotion. We introduced different tools to help with self-regulation of big emotions and  taught the children not to be afraid of feeling what can be considered negative emotions (like anger or sadness). Our reasoning behind this was simple. Research shows that if children are not taught coping skills for all types of emotions and are only taught to shy away from them, then they will not be able to handle when these unavoidable intense emotions come up throughout the rest of their lives.

“Regulating emotion refers to the strategies used to manage the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to an emotional experience (Eisenberg, Fabes, Guthrie, & Reiser, 2000). Emotions can be prevented (test anxiety can be avoided), reduced (frustration toward someone can be lessened), initiated (inspiration can be generated to motivate a group), maintained (tranquility can be preserved to stay relaxed), or enhanced (joy can be increased to excitement when sharing important news) (Brackett et al., 2011). Students who know and use a wide range of emotion regulation strategies are able to meet different goals, such as concentrating on a difficult test and dealing with disappointing news, and managing challenging relationships.”

Transforming Students’ Lives with Social and Emotional Learning, Marc A. Brackett & Susan E. Rivers Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence Yale University

Our range of emotions are what makes us human. We cannot feel joy without pain. Our goal was to help the children understand that we all feel these big emotions at some point and that all of our emotions are impermanent phases. The emotion does not define the child or the person. It is separate from who they are and they can identify the emotion that is happening to them for a reason. The emotion is a temporary and passing state that is usually in response to a specific trigger. By validating this emotion, the students could then begin to understand the cause and effect as well. We worked with children to problem solve. Allowing a child to release their emotion might feel a bit uncomfortable for the caregiver initially. This idea inspired us to reflect on our own experiences with emotions and conclude that maybe as adults we are still not comfortable with big emotions. This is alarming considering that humans have the capacity to experience a vast range of big and small emotions at any given moment. These emotions trigger physical responses within our body. Children can often not connect what is happening to their physical body to the triggering big emotion.

“When someone experiences a stressful event, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. This area of the brain functions like a command center, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy to fight or flee.”

Understanding the Stress Response Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School

When the human brain is triggered by a stressful emotion such as fear or anger, the brain goes into ‘fight or flee’ mode. This function of the brain was essential for our survival but makes it challenging for children to learn self-regulation skills. It is essential to allow the individual to release these hormones and provide strategies to calm them down. During a stressful or intense situation, different parts of the brain are working and hormones are flooding the brain. As a result you can not reason with a child until they have calmed down. The part of our brain that controls judgement is not in use while the brain is under stress, even for adults. Our body also feels a physical reaction to the stress as well, such as tense muscles, increased heart-rate, red face, quickened heavy breathing, etc. A child has difficulty navigating their physiological reaction. Self-regulation during these times of stress are a learned behavior that must be taught by the caregiver by providing tools to calm down after a stressful incident.

This physical and emotional moment of anguish is not easy for anyone involved. Each child might need an individual method for how to help them cope. Sometimes, when a child is angry, all they need is a very deep hug.  It might seem odd to hug a child that is angry or that may have acted upon their emotion that will eventually need to be addressed, but it can help them to regulate their emotions. When children are regulated and calm, they are able to access the prefrontal cortex region of their brain. This translates into reasoning, logic, and a much more successful moment for teaching because the child is able to fully engage and participate. As always, other children might need space, or to be offered different strategies.  

In our classroom we found that the most successful strategy that works for all children and adults is to take a deep breath. It may sound simple but this idea, rooted in the concepts of mindfulness, is highly effective. We incorporated a practice of mindfulness and used many of these techniques to aid with our social and emotional learning in our classroom. The act of slowing down, breathing in and out, changes your body’s physical response. It is helpful for both the child and adult to take this deep breath together. I think sometimes we underestimate young children’s ability to use complex tools for their emotional development. The simple act of deep breathing is the perfect starting point for fostering social and emotional intelligence in young children.

The best part about using a mindfulness approach was experiencing it alongside the children. We were not simply instructing them to engage in mindfulness. We were actively participating alongside them, as partners in learning. We would engage in reflective sessions with the children asking how a particular technique worked for them and sharing what worked and didn’t work for us. Our daily mindfulness practice helped us to remain regulated during high-stress times in the classroom (hello, strategies for effective co-teaching!) and informed many of our ideas about social and emotional development in young children. The practice of reflection and partnership that is fostered through Reggio, inspired us to work harder on figuring out how to teach social and emotional skills in a way that reflected our philosophy on the subject.  From this we developed our own Social and Emotional Learning Framework and mindfulness practice in our preschool classroom. Look for upcoming posts regarding further detail on the steps and techniques for early childhood mindfulness practices, Teaching social and emotional intelligence, and how this all can inspire a better co-teaching relationship!

We want to hear from you! Have you used any specific strategies to teach social and emotional intelligence? Have you used mindfulness in the classroom? Do you need more strategies to build your co-teaching relationship? Join the conversation!

Find us on Facebook! Look for Pioneers in Early Education and Like our page for inspiration, conversation, and to follow our journey!

#MarchForOurLives IS Positive Deviance

This weekend students, parents, educators, and community members all over the country stood up for their rights to feel safe in school as part of the #MarchForOurLives movement. In all of the hashtags, videos, speeches, posters, the things that stands out the most is how incredibly inspiring this generation is.

As parents and educators we are all trying to prepare children to become happy, healthy, and engaged contributors to our democratic country. So what does #MarchForOurLives have to do with early education and care?  Parents – here is where you might be surprised. We practice lockdown drills in preschool and child care. That’s right. Your child’s teacher practices hiding in the classroom and keeping your toddler quiet and happy in case the unthinkable happens. Our most innocent citizens are practicing safety drills for events that most adults cannot wrap their minds around.

There are so many things that we can point to as contributing factors to these tragic events and the problems facing schools these days. Mental health, trauma exposure, our nation’s opioid epidemic, social media, and unlimited access to information. But blame solves nothing. Instead we must act. Many of the recent news stories point to gun control and immediate fixes such as increasing school security. These efforts only provide comfort in the short term that we are doing something to keep our children safe. This is much needed. But what about the long term? That’s when mental health or social and emotional development come into play. The ideal time to teach these skills? Early!

Early educators truly understand the importance of teaching social and emotional skills to young children. The future lies in the hands of our current infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Research shows that 90% of the brain is fully developed by age five. (Building the Brain, letsgrowkids.org). Early educators practice a multitude of different teaching philosophies that can all contribute positive influences on children. But one aspect that almost every early educator can agree on is that supporting children to develop their Emotional Intelligence is of one of the most important.

Emotional Intelligence is a phrase used to describe the skill set that includes the ability to identify one’s emotions as well as the emotions of others, manage those emotions appropriately (or self regulate), and use those skills to solve social problems and develop relationships. Research shows that children with high emotional intelligence are more successful in school, have better relationships, and lead happier lives.

– Social and Emotional Framework, Hill-Armell & Lambert

Our society, especially at this point in time, is in dire need to revamp our education system with a spotlight on early childhood education. Early educators know what children need to thrive, yet are not always in situations with the appropriate resources to do so.

#MarchForOurLives is a positive movement that came out of tragic circumstances. The students who came together to #MarchForOurLives are just the beginning of a much needed revolution and a reminder that revolutionary vision starts with our children.   Supporting our future generations to be innovative and courageous individuals, like the students in #MarchForOurLives, starts with high-quality early education. High-quality early education provides children with the appropriate tools to form healthy attachments and relationships and to develop positive social and emotional skills, supporting mental health that can alleviate the issues that lead to violence in schools.

The student-led #MarchForOurLives movement proved that children can engage members of their community to join together for a cause. A recent North American Reggio Emilia Alliance (NAREA) workshop highlighted Italian early educators’ focus on helping children to become protagonists. Protagonists were defined as the following: 

The sharing of meanings through gestures and language create a community of mind. The sharing of mind is not merely intellectual but involves an emotional dimension; the children experience a joining of feeling, in the sense of transformation felt by the group of members as a sense of wholeness with others, beauty and harmony, and mutual affinity. The individual does not disappear or recede, however…but rather seeks to count and to be heard, to make a difference, and to achieve influence and recognition in the group through dialogue and negotiation and a (at least partial) sharing of interests and goals–what Italians calling becoming a ‘protagonist’.”   

-Excerpt from Carolyn Edward’s Democratic Participation in a Community of Learners: Loris Malaguzzi’s Philosophy of Education as Relationship, (October, 1995)

The students that started #MarchForOurLives are prime examples of how to be  protagonists. We need to continue to encourage this type of thinking and behavior. Educators and parents can collaborate to create nurturing environments for children that supports their development of Emotional Intelligence.

My revolutionary vision begins with partnering parents and teachers to educate our society on the crucial benefit of providing high-quality early childhood education.  It takes a great deal of time, energy, and reflection to be an educator that allows children to become protagonists. It involves trusting each other, taking risks, and discovering new parts of ourselves.  We are at a time in our nation where it will be essential to provide our future generations with the freedom to come up with new ideas that can propel our society forward. Let’s think about preconceptions of ourselves and who we are as teachers and parents. What is our role? Model how to ask questions with confidence, and then be patient, exhibit trust, and enjoy the process of searching for answers together. We need to allow children to dive into complexity, even if it is a bit scary for us as educators and parents.  We are at a time where we might feel the most divided, therefore look for diverse perspectives to broaden your view. #MarchForOurLives illustrates that while we live in tumultuous times, when children feel empowered to use their voices they can take the lead to make the world a better place. Let’s start talking about how educators and families can come together to teach children social and emotional skills that could help to mitigate future violent acts. 

Comment below to join the conversation.
Ways to get involved and learn more….

Check out Let’s Grow Kids and their advocacy movement

Come to a viewing of The Raising of America hosted by The Junior League of Champlain Valley

Learn more about the importance of early education from Zero to Three

The National Association for the Education of Young Children is working on advocacy and professionalizing the field of early educators

Vermont Early Childhood Advocacy Alliance has information at our local state level

Informative podcasts for those that want to be an Early Childhood Leader

For more information on Social and Emotional Learning visit the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL)