What Early Education
Can Teach Child Welfare

Lessons about starting services early, parenting with parents, finding skilled workers, and measuring outcomes

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The early education and child welfare systems have much in common: an ongoing challenge of reconciling a national commitment but local implementation; an uphill battle to define and then implement best practices; an underpaid workforce that often finds their passion can't make up for their paychecks. And, at the core, these two systems serve many of the same children.

"Early education" has become a buzzword in the last several years, with backers of many stripes--academics, businessmen, celebrities--telling parents to play Mozart to pregnant bellies, and open books as soon as babies open their eyes. At the same time, in many ways child welfare has struggled to keep up with the demand for its services in every corner of the country, facing damning press reports of child neglect, abuse, and even death when there are gaps in those services. When both systems work, they create the same end result: happy, healthy children who grow into productive members of society. So what does America's early childhood education movement have to teach child welfare? Leaders in the field share the lessons they've learned around four key goals that both branches hope to achieve.

Starting Services Early

Jill Stamm is the director and cofounder of the New Directions Institute for Infant Brain Development. Based in Phoenix, Arizona, New Directions is part of the Arizona's Children Association, a CWLA member agency. To Stamm, the combination of early education and child welfare was natural, because the connection is obvious--child development is the preventive branch of child welfare. "We're trying to prevent some of the very things that... the child welfare system has been trying to remediate," Stamm explains. And the scientific evidence emphasizes the need to start these services early. "Although change is always possible, and although we never give up on a child... the earlier a system wires up, the harder it is to change."

The New Directions Institute has created Brain Boxes for parents to use with children from birth to age 5.

"For our work, it's important to know that the social-emotional center of the brain wires really early," she continues. For example, a teenager dealing with emotional and social connection issues likely started down the wrong path about the time that teenager was a baby learning to walk. "The ability to regulate your own mental state develops pretty early," Stamm says. "A lot of the social-emotional regulation takes place in the first 15 to 18 months." For these systems to develop properly, they "depend on strong, consistent, loving people" surrounding a baby. Stamm emphasizes what this means for the child welfare system: "We need to look at permanency way earlier than we used to; we need our [family court] judges to be educated about early development."

Parents are receptive to the message about brain development, Stamm says. "I think there's something pretty magical about this information. It can pique their interest to a point that they're paying a special kind of attention." She notes that parents love their children, particularly during early infancy, and want to do things to help those children grow and develop. Stamm says parents are usually pleasantly surprised to learn that "being nice to a little baby has these long-term payoffs."

The New Directions Institute has created some products and curricula that take advantage of this parental interest and at the same time start education very early. Some of these products, called Brain Boxes, are plastic containers "filled with the best examples of toys and books at ages and stages, all the way from birth to age five-and-a-half," Stamm explains. Boxes for infants, babies, toddlers, and preschoolers are ready-made tools for engaging parents and children in the learning process together. Cards in each box offer very explicit instructions--"open this book and hold your child on your lap," Stamm says--and offers facts about why this type of activity is important. For example, the number of different words a child hears between birth and age 3 has an effect on his or her IQ. "You can take the most uneducated parent on the planet, and you give them that information, and it has an impact," Stamm says. Parents will ask, "'The more I talk to my baby and to my toddler, that he'll be smarter?' We cut to the chase and we say yes," she continues. "Parents instantaneously change their behavior."

The Brain Boxes are available in many libraries throughout Arizona, and colleagues in Indiana have picked them up as well. In addition to parents finding and using them on their own, social workers doing home visitation in Arizona have brought the boxes to the families they are serving. There is also a plan to have the Brain Boxes at children's museums.

Brain Time classes for parents, foster parents, and other guardians go along with the boxes. In Arizona's libraries, the classes are run by librarians; "Librarians carry these messages so easily," Stamm says. The classes are also held at a few hospitals and will be expanding to more soon. This provides access to a much broader population of families who might be considered at-risk by the child welfare field but are not yet involved with the system. "We're finally in hospitals where the babies are being born, and that's where we're going to start to pick up a lot of people who are not mandated by anybody, but who... need help," Stamm says. "Each hospital's a little different, but the implicit message is that 'your doctor wants you to come to this workshop,' which is a way different message than 'your social worker wants you to come,' or 'here's this free workshop we offer.'"

This operating model--which some aspects of child welfare, especially preventive services, may be able to modify and use--serves several purposes for Stamm. For starters, she doesn't accrue a lot of infrastructure costs. "We're training nurses, we're training librarians, and we leave information behind and move on to the next community," she explains. But also, it helps the importance of the message get distributed to parents. She recognizes that right now, this type of early education and development support is only just beginning to gain traction, like cutting-edge work in all fields, including child welfare. Stamm calls community centers, hospitals, and libraries "cornerstone institutions" that help spread the word. She's trying to prove that by developing partnerships with these institutions, the importance of early education will seep into the public consciousness. Perhaps the same can be done for child well-being.

Partnering with Parents

Across the country, there are eight Educare centers, with another four expected to be up and running by mid-2010. The centers each serve 140 to 200 at-risk children and families and enroll children from birth to age 5. But in addition to the classrooms--all of which have a bachelor's-level teacher, an associate's-level assistant teacher, and an aide from the community--at each center, one-third of the space and one-third of the funding is devoted to adults. Portia Kennel, one of the creators of the Educare model and executive director for the Bounce Learning Network, which supports the work, says she can help funders understand the reasons for such a commitment to parents.

Jill Stamm leads a training for the New Directions Institute.

"I'm finding that it's not that hard of a sell," she says. She asks funders to think about the parental influence they've experienced, from both sides. "Where would their child be without them, how important was it in their own lives?" Although Educare is a model for early childhood education, the phrases Kennel uses to explain the need to partner with parents could just as easily be heard from a child welfare worker: "We are child-centered but family-focused. Everything we do with that child has got to be in the context of the family.... We have to help [parents] know what to do and how to do it...[because] they're going to sustain the interventions."

Kennel asserts that part of Educare's job is "helping parents find their voice." This isn't always an easy task, because the families face adverse circumstances. "These parents are experiencing a lot of stresses, they need to have an opportunity to build their confidence," Kennel says. She notes that many Educare parents have not had the best educational experiences themselves, so they need guidance on how to advocate for a quality education for their children. It's also to the children's advantage that their parents know what to look for and what to ask for in the school system--that's the key to sustaining any progress children make at Educare. "The only way we have a prayer of sustaining the early learning intervention activities and experiences that children have in our schools is also to educate parents," Kennel says.

To this end, parents are asked to participate in the governance at each center. They sit on the board and on its human resources committee, and they have the opportunity to participate as new educators are being interviewed for jobs at the center. This serves the dual purpose of letting parents practice using their voice in advocacy for their children and helping them recognize qualified teachers, according to Kennel.

She explains that parents are encouraged to ask the key question: "How and what should I be doing as a parent to supplement and support the educational experience that my child is having while at Educare?" Conferences with staff and support groups with fellow parents at the center provide the answers. Special workshops prepare parents of 5-year-olds who will be leaving Educare for kindergarten to make a smooth transition.

Kennel admits that partnering with parents was not always the norm in either early education or child welfare. "Many of us in the field believed that all we had to do was bring the child out of the family" and into care, she says. "We'd do whatever we need to do and then send them back home.... Well, thank God that the research has shown us absolutely the opposite," she continues. "Our understanding about the critical importance of the children and the family has grown and emerged."

She is quick to point out that Educare's approach to parents is always individually tailored, discussing what a particular child is learning and how he or she is doing. She says that parents are naturally much more interested in their own child, and don't necessarily want to hear about average groups of 3-year-olds in a nationwide sample. Understanding the research and applying it in practice is Educare's job, not the parents'. Kennel feels that child welfare might be able to improve in this area by replacing often generic parenting classes that don't address individual situations with something more specific to the circumstances.

Finding Skilled Workers

Pilar Torres is glad for the trend toward greater parent involvement. After several years as a child welfare worker, she transitioned into early education and child care, and in 1998 cofounded Centro Familia, a training and support network for mostly immigrant Latina women who provide family child care in Montgomery County, Maryland. Torres remembers that child welfare was changing as she was leaving the field; there was more of an effort to work with families and consider the assets they brought to the discussion.

"It's the same thing we do with the women," Torres says, explaining Centro Familia's approach. "'You have an education, you have a paraprofessional degree from your country, that's an asset.' We help them see what they have to offer," she continues. "Immigrants who are here to work and to provide for their families are not interested in being told what they are doing is wrong. [Centro Familia tells them,] 'You have value, you are contributing, you are important to our society, you provide a service to the community--and we want to help you.'"

With its programs and trainings, Centro Familia creates a professional development ladder. Torres says this is a transformation for the women she works with, who do not realize they are businesswomen. "They have a visual image of the steps they need to take where they can have a stronger, better business. They perceive themselves as early childhood educators, they are no longer babysitters," she says.

Torres believes there are many benefits not only to the care providers but also for parents, children, and the community from family child care. A special relationship develops between the parent and the provider so that it starts to resemble an extended family arrangement. Due to the nature of family child care, these services can be more than just culturally competent--in Centro Familia's case, the providers share the same culture with many of the families, so it's natural to infuse that culture in all of the day's activities. Torres also thinks the children benefit and learn from each other in the small, mixed-age groups; she says the older children see themselves as more mature, and try to teach the younger ones. "It's hilarious to see a 4-year-old who thinks they're the 2-year-old's grandmother," she admits.

Within the early education community, there is also a school of thought that endorses college degree requirements for preschool teachers. Marci Young, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts' project Pre-K Now, represents this view. At a conference last fall, Young discussed several states that had moved forward with requirements, highlighting New Jersey in particular. A state Supreme Court decision mandated high-quality pre-K be made available in the lowest income school districts in the state. Among other stipulations, the decision ordered that pre-K teachers have bachelor's degrees and additional certificates. Fortunately, the court set this upas a delayed requirement, asking for compliance several years after the decision, and the state legislature allocated funds to achieve compliance. New Jersey has had subsequent investment that proves its commitment to high-quality pre-K.

In an e-mail, Young noted other benefits from degree requirements for early educators: "In addition to improving the quality of teaching, stronger teacher education requirements may help to professionalize the early childhood workforce, resulting in higher pay that attracts a higher quality workforce, lowers turnover, and provides greater incentives toward the ongoing improvement of practice." High turnover rates, a continual problem in child welfare, also complicate matters in early education. At the conference, Young said that the turnover rate for early educators is nearly four times the rate of K-12 teachers. "What adults experience as turnover, children experience as loss," she said.

Torres is not averse to traditional college education for preschool teachers, but is afraid universal degree requirements would be unrealistic, and maybe even counterproductive. "I tend to believe strongly in the paraprofessional," she says. "Do I want all my educators to have bachelor's degrees and master's degrees someday? Yes, but it's not going to happen." She relates this directly back to child welfare workers as well. "Same thing with social workers and caseworkers: Is everybody in the field an LCSW? No. Should they be? Maybe. Are we going to get there soon? No." She sees the benefits to pairing graduates, who have been trained according to the latest information, with experienced workers who have a proven record of successfully preparing children for school. "What we need to focus on are outcomes," Torres says. "Just because you have a master's level, does that mean you can produce outcomes?"

Measuring Outcomes

And how does the field know who can produce outcomes? It's hard enough to find fair and accurate ways to test what children have learned once they're in school. It's even more complicated for early educators to test school readiness because the children are younger and their education experiences are more varied. Not to mention the fact that definitions of "school readiness" can vary from state to state, or even county to county. Of course, measuring outcomes in child welfare may be harder still, since improvement is inherently a case-by-case determination. But Head Start and its related programs from the Administration for Children and Families may provide a model for measuring outcomes in child welfare. Like most of child welfare, Head Start is a program that has a nationally applicable goal (school readiness and well-being) and national standards (the Child Outcomes Framework, and CWLA's Standards of Excellence, for example) but implementation is done on a local level.

Joan Lombardi, deputy assistant secretary and interdepartmental liaison for early child development at ACF, stresses the need to assure positive outcomes across individual programs. "There is flexibility in how they're implemented, there is flexibility around the model of service deliverability," she points out, citing in-home and classroom-based Head Start models. "I think it's critically important to have a common set of expectations for what children should know and do, and have a system that drives us towards these."

She says research, whether it's accomplished via qualitative or quantitative studies, has to guide current practice towards better practice. "You've got to be able to have, in these studies, the information that can help improve the program," Lombardi asserts. "I think it's looking at data, it's looking at your research, putting it into action," she continues. "It's continuously observing and assessing how children are doing and then making the necessary changes in your program to improve your outcomes." And once the program has changed, the process starts again--"It's a feedback loop."

Lombardi knows the process well; ACF is in the midst of it now, working to revise Head Start's performance standards, crafting them to reflect the best research. But part of working well, she believes, is working together--early education and child welfare are, after all, serving many of the same children. "All programs for children and families have to be doing a good job to prevent the achievement gap and sustain progress over time," she says.

Lessons Learned

Child welfare can look to early education for some lessons--especially around these shared goals of starting services early, partnering with parents, finding skilled workers, and measuring outcomes. Early education aims to prepare children for school, but child welfare has a bigger task: preparing children for life--one as healthy, happy, and successful as it can possibly be. In that effort, every suggestion helps.

Meghan Williams is a Contributing Editor to Children's Voice.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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