How Can We Put the Whole Child at the Center of Education Reform Policy? | Policy [M]atters, Episode 3

by Teri Talan and Susan Ochshorn

In this episode, Susan shares heartening insights on New York City’s progress in taking a holistic approach to early care and education. Teri reflects on how the communication strategy urging the use of the term “early education” instead of “early care and education” may have had unintended consequences. Susan urges early childhood professionals to voice their expertise about the social-emotional and cognitive development of young children to policymakers and others outside the early childhood field. She then outlines next steps for broadening the education reform conversation to encompass the whole child.

To expand the conversation beyond the video chat, below are links to more resources authored by Susan. Please note that Susan’s views are not necessarily a reflection of the McCormick Center’s opinions or beliefs.

Dr. Teri Talan is Director of Policy Initiatives at the McCormick Center and Professor of Early Childhood Education at National Louis University. She promotes action by state and national policymakers on early childhood workforce and program administration issues.

Susan Ochshorn is the founder ECE PolicyWorks and author of Squandering America’s Future: Why ECE Policy Matters for Equality, Our Economy, and Our Children. She works in a broad range of settings to bridge research, policy, and practice, to integrate ECE into the larger education reform conversation, and to catalyze social change.






VOICEOVER: This video chat was recorded on January 21, 2016 by the McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership at National University.

This is episode 3 of Policy [M]atters, an early childhood education policy video chat series featuring Susan Ochshorn, of ECE PolicyWorks, and Teri Talan of the McCormick Center.

In this episode, Susan and Teri discuss how the early childhood education field can put the whole child at the center of education reform policy.

TERI: Hello everyone, we’re going to talk today about putting the whole child at the center of education reform policy. And I think that this is really one of the most critical conversations that we’re having today as a society, because we know that children’s ability to develop well, and learn, is really based on so many factors.

Their economic, their family’s economic status, race and ethnicity, where they live, what kinds of funding and investment is made in children, their health is really really important, and mostly, very very important is their social emotional development, which is really the key. I always call it joined at the hip with cognitive development.

We know that children whose social-emotional development is healthy, that they’re going to do well cognitively, and we’re going to get the kinds of outcomes that we’re all seeking.

So Susan, I think when you’re speaking to policymakers, for example, it’s not always easy to make that argument, or that image of the whole child come alive.

What has been your experience in really being effective at getting that message into policy, working with policymakers in New York?

SUSAN:  Yes, I think that’s a great question, and in New York that is really one of the key questions as de Blasio is rolling out his very bold, pre-kindergarten initiative, universal preschool for all. I’m going to kind of approach it from kind of the back end, which is to say that I think as a society, that this message is starting to percolate.

We are seeing across media platforms, across conversations, among policymakers, and other constituents, who are working on behalf of children and families, a real understanding that social-emotional is and that the other factors that affect kids development like poverty, and their health. They are all really rising to the surface and I for one an so heartened.

So Teri, I guess what I think, is that early childhood professionals who are really are the experts in leading this conversation. So I feel very very positive about it.

TERI: Great, I mean I was thinking about one of the unintended consequences of some of the communication strategies that were developed over maybe 10 years ago when it was difficult to get any traction around early childhood or early care and education.

And working with communications strategists, I was thinking George Lakoff, in particular. There was a lot of emphasis in communicating that what we do in early childhood, in early childhood settings, is education, is early learning. To use “teacher” and “education” as opposed to “care” and “nurturing” in our language.

And I think one of the unintended consequences has been that now, we’ve moved into thinking, when we think “teacher,” think “education,” people think “cognitive development,” and “learning” in a much more narrow way. And some of that I think is really that we caused ourselves to have that kind of truncated view of Early Learning and Development.

And I’m just curious as to whether or not you think, that you know what your reaction to that is.

SUSAN: That is so spot on Teri, and I was just talking yesterday with Rich Niemand who does social marketing and works with James Heckman. And you know, he was saying exactly the same thing. We as a field, we as early, or those of us who are working with, and on behalf of children and families, haven’t really effectively communicated this. We haven’t bridged the social-emotional and the cognitive but there is as I said before there is a real growing awareness of this.

For instance, something just came across on my twitter feed a couple of days ago, it was Frank Rooney’s op-ed, his column in The New York Times. And he was talking about college admissions.

Okay, so we think about this in the framework of, you know, getting kids ready, cradle to the career, which I have problems with, but that’s another story. And what he was talking about was this project at Harvard, this new paper, and guess what it is in the name of the project. And I’m sorry I don’t remember exactly, the name of it is caring.

They were talking about the social-emotional effects, psychological effects, of children, older children, being so stressed, and so you know, suicide, all kinds of things. And you know that the admissions process for college was exacerbating this. So all of which is to say that I think we have reached a turning point and I’m ecstatic about it. I think that that is going to make our job as early childhood professionals, who are leading, who should be leading this conversation, much much easier. And I for one feel that we need to really jump on this opportunity.

TERI: So what do you see is the next step, Susan? What would you see what we need to do to broaden the conversation to the whole child?

SUSAN: Okay so I actually led a great conversation here in York City, in Brooklyn my home borough. At the Brooklyn New School, which was founded and by a wonderful woman named Anna Allanbrook. And she really has been a stalwart advocate for very young children, she’s actually working on establishing an infant toddler center. So she really gets the whole child. And what I was saying is that we need to really put young children, and families, and those who work with them in the center circle of education policy.

I liken it to Urie Bronfenbrenner, who’s one of my heroes He has his ecosystem, his human ecosystem. And he says that you know he was a Russian, who emigrated during the revolution and came to the United States at the age of six. He was one of the architects of Head Start.

And he’s amazing, and he kind of saw these circles as like Russian dolls, which are kind of inside one another. And in the inner circle are the children and families, but they are connected and they have interactions with the institutions in their community, schools, childcare centers, all kinds of organizations. And then the larger society, the policies, and the values.

And so we need, and early childhood educators are in are totally poised to do this, to keep kids in the center. And you know obviously, you know, translating that into practice is… that’s always the 64 million dollar question. You know, the big enchilada. How do we do that?

But I think we can, and this is the way I think we need to do it. To build on really translating what we know and what happens in good practice to others, particularly policymakers, we need to surface models of best practice. Like this Brooklyn New School, which I was at where they are in an environment which is very difficult in terms of policies, testing, and assessment. That it’s not authentic and you know all of these things that are really putting tremendous pressure on the early childhood workforce.

They are managing to keep the child at the center. They have forrest schools and they do all kinds of hands-on exploration. They really value children’s intrinsic motivation to learn. And we need to sort of go beyond pointing out what we’re doing wrong. Which I do think we need to continue to do, and I will certainly do that, but to really showcase what it looks like. The kinds of practice, the kinds of programs, that are having an impact on children, and are going to guarantee that we get the outcomes that we’re seeking.

TERI: You know Susan, I am very struck by the fact that when I go into affluent communities and look at early childhood programs or even the early grades, kindergarten through second grade, they are much more holistic in their approach, and they’re more child-centered in their approach. And yet when you go into communities that are more impoverished, that’s where you see all this standards-driven, very rigid, often scripted, kinds of approach to early education.

So I think it’s really important for us to ask this question about the whole child. Do we have only
care about the whole child if children are middle class or affluent? Why is it that we have a different approach when it comes to what other people’s children need?

SUSAN: That’s a wonderful question and that is the heart of it, at least as I see it. It is really a matter of social justice and equality. I think that this is really a matter of creating alliances among all groups. Across the socio-economic spectrum, across the racial and cultural spectrum. We are really doing that, starting to do that here in New York City, and it’s so exciting and I’m so heartened by it.

But yes, the other issue, which is of course so of interest to McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership, and to National Louis University, is that less experienced teachers are going into these communities, where we most need seasoned, or at least if they’re not seasoned, well-prepared, well-trained early childhood educators. Because that’s what’s happening, and they are afraid to speak out because in the current climate they’re very intimidated.

So this is a Herculean task, though I mean de Blasio is facing it here in New York City, they’re doing an amazing job but it is very difficult because as you say, there is this tremendous gap and we need to close it.

I include those who work with children from birth to age 8, obviously, they’re really the linchpin of all of this, it’s a huge responsibility, but it’s also a professional responsibility. You know and NAEYC’s professional standards advocacy, and really articulating what young children need, the cornerstones of professional practice.

And so I am so excited to see that there’s this groundswell of early childhood professionals who are starting to speak out, they are starting to blog, they are starting to join organizations. You know whether it be unions or many of the growing organizations that are working for equality and whole child education reform. And I think that that is the challenge, that is the mandate of professional development in the 21st century for the early childhood educator.