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

 

 

Are we Lobbyists? Positive Deviance has a Place in Politics

Meetings with local politicians to talk Early Education

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By now you may have noticed that The Reggio Approach has been a grand inspiration for our pedagogy and philosophy on early education. Part of this is because The Reggio Approach is not exact or permanent. It is fluid, evolving, emerging, and reflective. These principals provide a flexible groundwork to build an ideal setting and community that allow children to thrive. A favorite poem written by Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of The Reggio Approach, titled The 100 Languages is always present in our interactions. The poem, published in its entirety below, encourages us to look at the world through the eyes and experiences of our youngest citizens.    

The Hundred Languages Poem

Early education is more than just teaching kindergarten readiness skills. Early education is about being present and responsive to support the growth of the whole child.  Children truly do have a hundred ways of thinking and a hundred ways of communicating their ideas. This is evident if you have spent any time in a classroom where young children are thriving. And we have to add that ALL children deserve the opportunity to thrive. Unfortunately, in the United States, mounting research shows that we are not investing enough to ensure that this is possible (Check out our blog post here to see the trailer from The Raising of America, a documentary about the early education crisis that our country faces). Staying true to our Positively Deviant ways, we have been stepping out of our comfort zone and challenging ourselves to engage in new experiences that promote awareness of the needs that our most vulnerable citizens face.

On Wednesday we took our first big step outside of our comfort zone. As we walked up in the pouring rain, we laughed and asked “Are these the doors we go in?” Neither one of us ever expected that our passion for early childhood education would take us to the Vermont State House in Montpelier. But now is the time to use our voices to gain political support for investing in high quality and affordable early education for all children in Vermont. Our goal is to push for policies that will create a better system in which all children can flourish with high quality care from professional early educators. Vermont has potential to become the first state to establish a system that can be modeled for the rest of America.

As we entered the heavy doors and were immersed in the hustle and bustle of our local politicians running through the halls of a beautifully architectured building we both felt our nerves and excitement peak. Thankfully we did not have to go it alone – we had some wonderful help from the advocates at Let’s Grow Kids who gave us an unofficial tour and abbreviated lesson to help us prepare for our meetings. We had two meetings set up, one with Senator Claire Ayer (Addison County, VT) and another with Senator Tim Ashe (Chittenden County, VT – President Pro Tempore) We arrived with our fact sheets and talking points, prepared to deliver as much information as would could in a short amount of time. What surprised us the most about our meetings was how receptive and open both Senators were to discussing the issues of early education. Both senators were in agreement of the importance of investing in early childhood education.

Senator Ayer shared her own personal story of helping her children find high quality childcare for her grandchild. She understands the struggle that young families face both in finding care and then affording care. She was excited about the continued support and expansion of funding for CCFAP, Vermont’s Child Care Financial Assistance Program. However, Senator Ayer realizes that this is not enough. We have to look to other solutions to attract and retain professional teaching candidates. We need to look for alternative ways to fund child care, recognizing that it is not just the immediate family who is impacted, but also the businesses in local communities who employ parents. In order to create sustainable written policies that ask for specific funding, we need to ask the right questions and understand the demand for the various types of childcare. Senator Ayer has been recommending that we ask the question “Where are all of Vermont’s children while their parents are at work and are their parents happy with these arrangements?” The Education Committee is currently in the process of securing funds for a Demand Survey to answer just that. The demand survey will inform future policy built around knowing exactly what Vermont’s families need. By the end of our meeting we were feeling much more at ease. The conversation was candid and fluid. We never even pulled out our fact sheets.  

In our small world of advocacy, we had heard that Senator Ashe would be a little more difficult to talk to about the issues facing early education. We went into the meeting feeling over our heads after hearing that he can be intimidating to speak to. All of this quickly faded as we engaged in conversation. Senator Ashe realizes that many current educational expenses for social services in public schools could be mitigated if we could appropriately invest in early care. The Senator also realizes that while Vermont does have potential to create a system for early education, we will need a large overhaul to make it happen. In Vermont we are lucky to have an array of services already available. Although these are dismal in terms of the REAL need, we are ahead of other states in thinking about our youngest citizens and their outcomes. However, the systems that we have in place are old and barely surviving. As Senator Ashe described it, we are putting bandaids on all of these systems. This keeps them alive, but costs us more in the long run. Our solution – we need to begin the difficult conversations of advocating for increased funding for early education so that we can create lasting change.

So, what was Loris Malaguzzi saying when he said “they steal ninety-nine”? It’s not just the ideas that our children are directly taught. By not investing in affordable and high quality early childhood education we are indirectly communicating to our children that we do not value their future and thus stealing their potential to thrive as contributing members of our communities. Educating young children affects everyone in the community, regardless of whether you are a parent. These children are our future citizens of Vermont and of the United States of America.

“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say “It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.” Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”

Fred Rogers

The Facts from Let’s Grow Kids:

2018 Stalled County Provider Sheet – Franklin

2018 Stalled County Provider Sheet – Addison

2018 Stalled County Provider Sheet – Chittenden

Ways to get involved:

If you are in Vermont, Let’s Grow Kids is a statewide campaign raising awareness of the early childhood care and education needs that families face    Find the Let’s Grow Kids website here!

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

 

We wanted to thank Senator Ayer and Senator Ashe for taking the time to meet with us and for all the work that they do for the State of Vermont. 
Continue reading “Are we Lobbyists? Positive Deviance has a Place in Politics”

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!

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