By Jill Carlson
How do we create smarter, more secure members of society? What can we do to ensure good health and wellness for ourselves and our families? Could we really—completely—eliminate poverty in the United States?
These are, admittedly, very lofty ideas. Is it possible to address all three at once? This two-part post will explore early childhood education and its role in achieving these three goals.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Lauren Journot, Youth Services Director and the director at the Early Learning Center (ELC). The ELC is a childcare facility in the YWCA open to children from 12 months (and walking) to age 5. The ELC has been in existence since the opening of the YWCA in 1977, is a licensed child-care provider through the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and a participant of the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).
The Early Learning Center is dedicated to empowering parents and students to reach academic success, teaching diversity and acceptance through interactive education, and providing a safe, nurturing environment for children to grow and excel academically, socially, physically, emotionally, and creatively.
I also spoke with Shannon Dutro, full-time government employee, graduate student, and single mother to two children. Dutro’s younger child, four-year-old Quillan, is in the Pre-K class. He has been attending since June of last year. Previously, Quillan attended a home day care in Lawrence. But as Dutro says, the ELC provides more educational opportunities and social interactions. “It’s just a turnaround from being in the home day-care. He didn’t get any education there, just a lot of TV time.”
Childcare Facilities: What’s the Big Deal?
Children are encouraged in a childcare learning environment to develop social qualities and traits that they will use for the rest of their lives, like problem-solving skills.
“When children are with people other than family members, or other than their primary caregiver, they give us a different version of themselves. They develop certain skills that they don’t develop when they are with their primary caregiver.” Journot clarifies that it’s not that parents are inadequate at raising their children, but that children act differently with teachers at school than at home with their caregivers.
Dutro agrees. If Quillan were not attending the ELC, she explains her childcare solution would likely be to leave him at home with her parents. “Having him not go to my parents was probably the number one factor of putting him in any kind of day care.” She clarifies, “I’m lucky I have my family…[but] he wouldn’t get any education that way, [he would] probably be on the tablet all day. I don’t want that.”
And the converse is true, too: parents and primary caregivers have more trouble letting go and allowing their children to experience the world to gain new skills. “It’s really hard as a parent not to problem-solve for your child when you’re with them 24/7. It’s difficult to watch them suffer through that,” says Journot, a parent herself. “It’s easier for childcare providers who know why we’re doing it and the value behind that to allow children to figure it out on their own sometimes.”
“Sometimes I wonder, when I’m sitting at my desk, what he’s doing,” says Dutro. Some childcare facilities have cameras, but Dutro responded, “I don’t want to feel like I’m spying. I want to keep the trust between the ELC and myself.”
And now, Dutro sees the difference in how much her child has grown since the beginning of the year. “Now he knows all his colors, he knows his ABCs. He knows animal sounds. I’ve heard him count to nine. [With the nice weather] he’s been telling me he’s been playing outside a lot.”
Start ’em Young: Developing Limits and Choices
Teachers at the ELC use the Love and Logic method, based on the principles of positive guidance, redirection, and choices.
This starts with setting consistent, clear, understandable limits. Journot says, “The child comes into the center and knows the expectations and the limits and most of the time remains within those limits. We reinforce those limits and give children options so they can make their own choices and then experience what it’s like to make those choices for themselves.”
If a child is having trouble following directions or staying within their limits, the staff are trained to give the child choices for their behavior and assist them in thinking it through. “Love and Logic is what I believe to be the best way to provide boundaries and limits to a child, provide security in those boundaries and limits, and then reinforce that you’re going to be there and you’re going to love them even when their choice isn’t the best choice,” explains Journot. Meaning, creating safe spaces to experience consequences to the child’s actions or decisions—even if the decision they make is not the healthiest or most sound.
“It helps to develop self-help skills and problem-solving early on,” says Journot. Since boundaries are already established, if the child has an indiscretion, they will know the consequence of their act. Journot stresses that children are never allowed to be in dangerous or threatening situations. She uses the example of two children fighting over a toy at one play station. The teacher would approach each of the children and say “I see you are having trouble sharing in this environment. You can go to a different play station: either you can go to the “calm down center” [a designated station where children can physically and emotionally remove themselves from a situation], or to the “dramatic play center” [a designated station for physical play].”
This approach takes the stress of the child’s problem off the caregiver and gives children some control over their lives and their decisions. Either choice is acceptable for the teacher, and the children are redirected from the immediate frustration of fighting over the toy. Journot continues, “they each have a choice to make, so they at least have some control in the situation.”
Being able to make their own decisions and face their own consequences is an often-overlooked life skill. “When you give children some control over the situation, they are less likely to fight you on the things that you don’t give them a choice on,” Journot explains. It is almost a decision-fatigue tactic: if children have had ten decisions to make during the day that they had direct control over, then when it is time to clean up, they will be more compliant and willing to adhere to the rules. “There’s no reason to not give children choices when it’s safe for them, and safe for you, and the risk is very small.”
Journot continues, “we do that at this age so that when children are adults, and they have to make choices and the risk is a lot bigger, maybe they’ll make the right choice because they’ve experienced a consequence.”
Building Better Adults through Confidence, Openness, and Empathy
The ELC also provides an environment where children can experience social interactions in a safe and secure environment. Children learn to welcome newcomers and to take initiative to include them in play activities. Dutro has noticed the difference in the months that Quillan has attended the ELC. “I feel like Quillan has best friends here. Any time he meets any friends outside of school, they’re automatically his friends because ELC teaches their students that they are friends. I really enjoy that he’s sweet to other kids.” Positive social bonds and strong bonding skills help create secure attachments for children.
The opportunity to meet and interact with children of various ages allows children to understand the nuances and depth of empathy. Older children sometimes have trouble understanding that even if they personally are able do something, not everyone might be at the same ability level. Some children might have already developed fine motor skills while others are still learning. This can cause frustration and incomprehension. Children who have developed empathy for others can place themselves in the shoes of another and adjust their behavior accordingly. Dutro noticed her child’s empathetic behavior when interacting with others, “especially toddlers [children younger than him]. When he sees toddlers in public, he’s caring toward them. They’ve been teaching the kids here how to treat one another. I like that.”
The ELC is re-framing the conversation so it is based on bolstering their self-esteem, allowing them to reflect on their behavior and finding validation in themselves about their choices. Dutro sees it in her parenting style, too. “Instead of saying “I’m proud of you,” I say, “Are you proud of yourself?” It teaches my children to be independent and to make decisions about themselves.”
Parents Are (Still) Key Players
The ELC encourages parents to become active participants in their child’s early education.
Journot has seen this very often when interacting with parents. “When we are on the same page with a parent, as far as limits and schedule and consistency and understanding of what discipline style works best for that child, things tend to run really smoothly.”
The daily stability that the ELC provides not only helps children to set a routine, but also helps parents to be more present in the moment when they are with their children. Dutro explains, “I have an older son who is 11. I relied heavily on my parents, and he stayed home with my parents. He’s extremely spoiled. We weren’t on a strict schedule—I was working, going to school—I feel like I wasn’t as excited to find out what he did during the day.” Now with Quillan, keeping a routine is easier on the whole family and makes setting—and upholding—expectations more realistic.
About changes or improvements to the ELC, Dutro responded, “I feel like there has been a lot since we’ve started [in June 2018]. I feel like the ELC is just continually getting better.”
The ELC is dedicated to helping children grow into capable and secure adults by giving them the tools to find validation within themselves, to reflect on their own behavior and actions and to use that self-reflection to inform future decisions. ELC children have the confidence to approach others and be open to new possibilities and develop empathy, adjusting their behavior based on the situation presented.
The positive outcomes that the ELC provides is not just limited to helping children develop. Stay tuned for a second installment about how the ELC’s services boost the local workforce and regional economic development, support societal health and wellness, and move towards eliminating poverty for all.
Jill Carlson is an AmeriCorps VISTA with Washburn VISTA Fellows, a program dedicated to ending poverty, empowering communities, creating sustainable solutions, and building capacity.