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

 

 

Creating Better Outcomes: Conversation Starters for Early Education Advocacy

The United States comes in at number 26 out of 29 nations in the ranking of child well being (The Raising of America: Do These Numbers Add Up? http://www.raisingofamerica.org/sites/default/files/Handout-DoTheseNumbersAddUp.pdf).

Twenty Six. You do not have to be an expert in the field to know that child well being has longitudinal implications that our nation will feel for years, decades, and generations to come. The good news is that we have the power to enact change. Advocacy for high quality early childhood education and care is having a moment in Vermont and our nation. The issues related to childhood care and wellbeing are not isolated to the families alone – they impact an entire community and it will take that community to create social and policy changes that propel our next generations toward better outcomes.

The United States has gathered extensive research to support that affordable and available high-quality early childhood education can mitigate future education costs including special education, juvenile corrections, and behavioral intervention. Other countries are using our data to make changes to their policies regarding early childhood education. The U.S attempted to do so over forty years ago but never succeeded. This is our chance to finally make a positive change for the future of America.

This week we will be participating in advocacy events across the state. One that we are particularly excited about is the film screening for The Raising of America, hosted by The Junior League of Champlain Valley (more info here ). By delineating the facts on the current needs of young children and families in America to the larger community will help to initiate a cultural shift in which we place more emphasis and importance on the impact of focusing our efforts to improve early childhood education in our country.

The Raising of America Trailer (11 min) from California Newsreel on Vimeo.

http://raisingofamerica.org/watchhttp://raisingofamerica.org/watch

We hope this inspires you to join us at the documentary screening or watch on your own. How do you want to join in on the advocacy movement? Join the conversation!

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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