Quality Early Learning Starts Before PreK


Toddler seated in woman's lap

Quality Early Learning Starts Before PreK

Thanks to research, advocacy, the skills of early childhood educators, and private and public funding over just the past few decades, early learning programs for children are much more widely understood to be important ingredients in their social-emotional and cognitive growth and development. Some privately funded nurseries in the late 1800s did incorporate early education, but they were known to exclude the children of women of color and unmarried women. In the 20th century, federally funded childcare became available, but it was designed primarily to allow mothers to go to work during the Great Depression and again during World War II. In contrast, today, the federal government and most states have adopted standards of high-quality early learning and provide funding for families to access these programs, with early education a key goal in addition to childcare.

While we are making progress toward early learning becoming the central goal of childcare settings, much of the focus on high-quality early learning and professional development for early educators is centered on pre-K and 3- and 4-year-old classrooms. This begs the question, how might early learning programs offer a more comprehensive early learning experience, beginning with infants and toddlers, who are often just right down the hall?  

As a former administrator in early learning programs, I would often reinforce the importance of the Infant-Toddler staff by reminding them that they are meeting children only a few months after their parents and caregivers have met them. Infant-Toddler teaching staff should be valued for the trusted relationships that they build with families who depend on them at a vulnerable time in their role as caregivers. What’s more, Infant-Toddler care is not just diaper changing. Social-emotional learning begins here. The time between birth and age three is a crucial stage of development. Research has shown that brain development in this stage presents an optimal time for neural connections that create the pathways for learning. There is no better time to begin to expose children to environments and interactions that help them to achieve developmental milestones. High-quality Infant-Toddler care includes fine motor activities, child interaction with peers and staff, helping children use books and language, opportunities for parent engagement, health and safety practices, and so much more.  

While today’s early childhood education sector overall has made progress in recognition of the significance of early educators, there is much more investment needed to secure livable wages, employee benefits and specialized training to meet the needs of our youngest learners. This is especially true for the individuals within early learning programs whose role is to care for the infants and toddlers who attend those programs.

Our country’s historic lack of support for high-quality early learning continues to manifest today in the underinvestment in Infant-Toddler care. I want to acknowledge our local Infant-Toddler educators whose efforts often go unseen, but who devote countless hours to the care and learning experiences of Philadelphia’s future leaders: Thank You!    

One promising model of providing training and coaching to Infant-Toddler educators is a program known as Click, Coach, Connect, designed by Better Kid Care, a program of Penn State Cooperative Extension. It is implemented in partnership with First Up, with funding from the William Penn Foundation. The project intends to increase the knowledge base and use of evidence-based practices for 100 Infant-Toddler educators in Philadelphia. The project also trains Infant-Toddler teachers to be peer mentors and creates an on-ramp to credit-bearing course work. The project was recently featured in ZERO TO THREE Journal, which highlighted the importance of specialized training for the Infant-Toddler workforce and the successful collaboration between Penn State and First Up that is moving this work forward. Click, Coach, Connect is unique in that instead of requiring early learning programs to hire outside coaches, program directors and lead teachers receive training to serve as coaches to other Infant-Toddler staff. In addition, Click, Coach, Connect provides professional development in the form of online courses with an encompassing guidebook to ensure educators can pursue professional development opportunities in a time that is convenient to them.

In May, I had the opportunity to connect with some of the Infant-Toddler educators in Philadelphia who participated in Click, Coach, Connect. During our discussion, participants expressed how isolating it can be as an Infant-Toddler educator without peer connections. They appreciated the opportunity to learn from colleagues who are familiar with their experience through the Better Kid Care coaching program. The Infant-Toddler educators and Peer Coaches expressed a desire for more interaction and are interested in participating in learning circles for ongoing networking and support.

Infants and toddlers need trained and nurturing staff to build a strong foundation for a lifetime of learning. Our dedicated Infant-Toddler workforce deserves worthy wages and benefits to support their wellbeing, so that they can continue to provide, what has been for many, a labor of love. Families want to know that not only can they rely on safe, consistent childcare to enable them to work, but that their babies are in a nurturing environment surrounded by professionals who are equipped to reinforce the building blocks of learning.

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