As early care and education (ECE) providers you know firsthand that the benefits of children attending high quality early learning programs are significant. Not just for children, but also for their families.

ECE programs are guided by licensing regulations, accreditations, quality rating and improvement system (QRIS) standards, and funding guidelines. For Head Start and Early Head Start programs, the Head Start Program Performance Standards (HSPPS) provide the minimum requirements for high quality comprehensive services funded by the Office of Head Start and grantee required non-federal share. All of these standards, regulations, and guidelines are designed to drive quality but they also create complexity. A key question is whether improved quality in ECE settings can also improve outcomes for children.

Recently, the Harvard Center on the Developing Child released a research report, 3 Principles to Improve Outcomes for Children and Families. This report gives ones of the clearest pictures about why it is essential to understand early childhood development and family dynamics when considering policy and practice to improve outcomes for children and families. The report focuses across sectors and systems. Many of the principles from the report may be applied to ECE.

“… frequent or extreme experiences that cause excessive stress can be toxic to the architecture of children’s developing brains and can overload adults’ capacity to engage productively in work, families, and communities.” – 3 Principles to Improve Outcomes for Children and Families

How are these challenges to be addressed in a coordinated way? There are three principles described in the report to guide policies and services: 1) Support responsive relationships for children and adults; 2) Strengthen core life skills; and 3) Reduce sources of stress in the lives of children and families.

Let’s take a closer look from the ECE perspective –

When parents visit an ECE program they often consider the environment, curriculum, activities and the array of information shared with them. What they observe is staff; how staff interacts with them, with each other, and how they interact with children. Increasingly, ECE programs are assessed on the basis of staff interactions with children. This is not surprising given the significance of responsive caregiving in the healthy development of young children. The Harvard report talks about the importance of “serve-and-return interactions,” when a caregiver responds to a child’s communication or needs.

There are many interactions taking place between staff, staff and children, staff and parents and other individuals providing support in ECE programs every day. We’ll begin with how ECE programs can support responsive relationships between ECE classroom staff and children.

Many ECE programs are challenged by staff turnover, which can disrupt strong relationships between children and classroom staff. Wages in ECE programs are typically lower in ECE programs than in local public schools, and it’s not uncommon for staff to seek employment opportunities where the benefits are better. Continuity of care is a steppingstone toward responsive relationships, and to address the turnover challenge ECE programs should focus on retention strategies such as increasing compensation or support for educational attainment. Retaining staff allows children have a continuous relationship with the classroom staff.

Another important piece to support responsive caregiving in ECE programs is ensuring staff have the tools they need to be responsive caregivers. Professional development opportunities can be leveraged to expand staff’s knowledge. Identify resources for staff to learn more, and share them regularly at staff meetings, in newsletters or in materials posted in the program. If it’s not already part of a coaching and mentoring model, weave responsive caregiving into the conversation. Identify staff who are particularly knowledgeable or experienced modeling responsive caregiving and allow them to coach others who are refining “serve-and-return” techniques. Engraining responsive caregiving principles into the program will help classroom staff to enhance their interactions with children and support children’s healthy development.

Similar to equipping staff with the tools they need, ECE programs are also in a position to help parents develop core life skills that will benefit themself and their family. Sharing information with parents may be done through a number of avenues – trainings, support groups, or newsletters to name a few. There are also parenting curricula available and tools to help ECE programs select a curriculum that is appropriate for their families. Leveraging a parenting curriculum may help ECE with a structured parent engagement strategy. ECE programs, and particularly Head Start/Early Head Start programs, might also have provide home visiting services or services to assist parents with personal goal setting and steps to achieve those goals. These approaches may lend to a more tailored approach in which parents can focus on specific strategies to reach the goals most important to them (e.g., education, employment). 

What about reducing families’ stress to help parents provide stable, responsive relationships for children at home?

“When parents can meet their families’ essential needs, teachers and caseworkers have effective training and manageable class sizes/caseloads, and policies and programs are structured and delivered in ways that reduce stress rather than amplify it, families are better able to take advantage of community services that support healthy child development.” – 3 Principles to Improve Outcomes for Children and Families

In order to reduce sources of stress, you must first find out what those stressors are. Some of them will be more obvious than others. For instance, you may know from community data that the area your program serves has a high rate of poverty or distressed housing. How do you find out at a greater level detail what stressors families are experiencing in their day to day? Many ECE programs, and particularly Head Start/Early Head Start programs, which are required to complete a community needs assessment, survey parents. Consider asking, what were your family’s biggest stressors during the last year? You might also ask staff a similar question to find out what they’re observing related to families’ stressors. An important follow up question for staff is to find out what they believe they need to be most effective in their role supporting families.

Once you know specifically what families’ stressors are then you can ensure your program is designed to help reduced sources of stress through new or enhanced services in partnership with community providers. You can make sure your staff are supported to provide those services through tailored training and professional development. And, you can evaluate your community partnerships to help connect families to resources in their community that can meet their unique needs.

As you know, the stressors families experience may be vast – health, financial, transportation, housing, or food insecurity, to name a few. Establishing a baseline of what the stressors are, and considering your plan to provide support to families will help them access community services or resources that will reduce their stressors. These are the practices you put in place to meet families’ needs.

The important role ECE programs play in children’s development and the lives of families is undeniable. The report 3 Principles to Improve Outcomes for Children and Families connects science to what many ECE programs live and breathe every day. While the standards, regulations, and guidelines driving ECE quality are important, they can only support improved child outcomes if they support responsive relationships between parents and children and children and staff, help parents improve core life skills, and help to reduce stress for children and their families.

If you’re interested learn more about some of the topics discussed in the report, see the resources that follow.

Thank you.

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