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

 

 

The Many Branches of Early Education Advocacy Series: Advocating for Early Educators through Professionalization of the Workforce

Who are early childhood educators? What do they exactly do? How did they get into the field? What are their qualifications? All of these questions are essential to truly understanding the workforce that supports our Nation’s youngest learners. Sadly, these questions often go unasked. People outside of the field have little or no understanding of the importance of early childhood education and tremendous work that early educators engage in. This is why we hear people referring to early childhood educators as “babysitters,” “teachers,” “daycare workers,” or “educators.” There is no unified title to support those working in the field. Early childhood educators are not even sure what to call themselves. There are a multitude of names for educators in addition to various types of early education settings. For the purpose of our series we will refer to ourselves as educators, as that is what we are.  We should also clarify that using the term “daycare” or “babysitter” does not indicate the form of respect that early educators desperately deserve. Early educators are just that – educators supporting the development of children from birth through the age of five.

This of course brings up another set of questions from the public: why should we care about the educational opportunities provided to children from birth through age five? Don’t they just play? Or the most dreaded of comments: they will learn when they go to “real” school. However we now know that the period of development from birth to age five is essential to providing positive outcomes for children. Ninety percent of the brain is developed within the first five years of life. Research has shown that what a child learns in the first five years of life will affect the trajectory of their lives. Early educators teach children by providing learning opportunities through play and nurturing environments that build essential connections in their brains. Play IS learning for children in the early years and should never be diminished.

Early learning environments vary greatly and there are an abundance of different types and categories of settings. Within each category there are many different philosophies and variations of these settings. Diversity of environments for early learning allows each family and child to choose what is best for them. No options are better or worse as long as they are providing high-quality care. We will start to define high-quality early education later in this series. 

One of the most important goals for the field of early childhood education is the professionalization of the workforce. We must begin to define the standards and qualifications for early educators in order to bring the respect that this field needs and deserves. Just as there is no unified title for early childhood educators, there are no nationally unified criteria for those working in the field. The state of Vermont recently rolled out a set of new childcare regulations that increase the educational requirements for those working in early childhood education. Coupled with the Act 166 funding, which requires childcare centers or home-based providers to have a licensed teacher for preschool education, Vermont is seeing in influx demand for highly qualified early educators. However, the education requirements are not reflected in the compensation, benefits, and reputation that plague the field. Early education businesses struggle to pay their employees a livable wage and many do not offer any benefits. Public education teachers have recently had their moment in the spotlight as they advocate for their own livable wages both locally and nationally. According to app.com, Vermont teachers make an average salary of $58,578 (https://www.app.com/story/news/investigations/data/analysis/2018/04/12/teacher-salary-2017/508703002/).  The Vermont Commission on Women and Let’s Grow Kids white paper report titled Women, Work, and Child Care lists the annual average salary for a childcare worker in Vermont as $25,080, below the livable wage. This salary disparity is one of the root causes for the frequent turn over and lack of high quality educators in the field, proving that simply increasing the educational requirements will not alone professionalize the field. Instead, it creates a “top down” approach, where regulations are forcing workers into costly professional development situations that are not publicly recognized nor compensated. This isn’t to say that there are no programs that support professional development in the early education field and help to carry the cost burden. However, this cannot be a one directional approach. Early educators, in collaboration with other supporters of the field, need to find their voice and speak for their own needs. The community needs to truly understand and value the contributions that early educators provide our society.  Professionalization of  the early education workforce will assure more children can receive a higher quality of care and learning during their most formative years of life. Working together to create an appropriate path for professionalizing the field will foster respect for the educators and, in turn, increases in income, hours, and benefits will follow. 

Currently, there are many organizations that are working to pave the way for professionalism of early education. Nationally, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, or NAEYC, is engaging in this task through their Power to the Profession initiative. Locally, Vermont Birth to Five is investing in the continued development of the profession. The state recognizes the need to offer continued professional support to advance the quality and quantity of early educators in the field. Other initiatives, such as The Empowerment Project (a professional development series hosted by Positive Spin, LLC and sponsored by Let’s Grow Kids) work to engage the workforce community in advocacy, collaboration, and brainstorming on a local level. Early educators who see the professionalization of the field on the horizon should be strongly encouraged to join movements at both the local and national levels. As graduates of The Empowerment Project, we highly recommend this series to kick start ideas and momentum toward effective advocacy. Aside from the skills and mindful approaches addressed in the series, participants gain knowledge of the colleagues and agencies that are working to support them. The series also provides a forum to share innovations and desired outcomes with those who can provide a direct impact. Recognizing the importance of each persons voice in this advocacy movement is essential to ensuring an achievable plan for the professionalization of the field. 

Join the conversation!

If you are an early educator or support the early education field in any way here are some resources to help you become involved:

Building Bright Futures

Vermont Birth to Five

National Association for the Education of Young Children or NAEYC (Power to the Profession)

Vermont Association for the Education of Young Children or VT AEYC

T.E.A.C.H. (Teacher Education and Compensation Helps) Early Childhood®

The Permanent Fund 

Vermont Early Childhood Advocacy Alliance

Vermont Child Care Providers Association

If you are a parent, grandparent, or community member who is interested in learning more about the early childhood profession and advocacy:

Let’s Grow Kids – Sign the Petition

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The Many Branches of Early Education Advocacy

The Complexity of Early Education Includes Everyone

It Takes A Village

We have recently found ourselves in the midst of several opportunities to hear from Early Education Advocates or to present our own advocacy ideas. These experiences have encouraged us to have conversations about our role and expectations in this field. Most recently, we had the opportunity to sit on a panel with other professionals in the field and hear from Early Educators who were doing the hard work of brainstorming ways to transform the field that they hold dear to their hearts. This opportunity took place as part of The Empowerment Project, a workshop series hosted by Lisa Guerrero and Ellen Drollette of Positive Spin, LLC. and sponsored by Let’s Grow Kids. This particular series required us to travel, leaving us with time to reflect on the way home. We had a very rich conversation about the problems that are plaguing early childhood education: politics, financial problems, system problems, personnel problems. The list can truly go on. This is when we decided to list ALL of the problems that we could think of in the field. One idea snowballed into another and we began to connect all of the dots. If a parent cannot find care for their young child, they cannot go to work. The employer loses an employee and now must expend additional resources to replace them. The government loses tax payer dollars. In some instances, families may require additional financial assistance. This increases the need for community resources. An increased need in one area of the community might lead to decreased funding in another area affecting others who are accessing that program. Now we have a family who is directly affected, as well as an employer, community agency, government, and community. This is only one scenario. We could easily share others that include missed opportunities to connect families to essential services which could lead to increased need once the child enters the public school system, familial stressors due to financial problems which could lead to increased mental health problems, and more. This is how early childhood care and education becomes EVERYONE’S problem.

While we know that advocating for high quality, affordable early childhood education is important for everyone to participate in, we also recognize that we all have different roles in this task. And it truly is a TASK. So monumental in fact that we often find ourselves wondering where to begin. And we know we are not alone. At our recent events we heard from other early educators who feel frustrated with the systems or overwhelmed by the amount of work to do. We totally understand! It is overwhelming and frustrating. It is HARD work. But even the smallest amount of effort can make a change. Sharing one idea with someone can have a snowball effect, one that will help to counteract the problems incurred by lack of high-quality care.  We have decided to compile some of the issues that early childhood education is facing and will be posting a multi-part series to follow. Our series is not an exhaustive list by any means. We have done some research in an effort to bring awareness to agencies working on these issues.While we know that we will continue to advocate in all aspects of the field, we encourage others to learn more about the issues and start small in advocating for the one that speaks to them. Perhaps you are an educator who is concerned about wages or a parent struggling to find care. There is a saying that goes “Many hands make light work.” This could never be truer than in the work of advocacy. We are in this together and together we will make a change!