Achieving equity and quality in early learning podcast header

Achieving equity and quality in early learning [Podcast]

The week on The Preschool Podcast, we are honored to welcome Judy Jablon, the Executive Director of Leading for Children. Judy is passionate about shaping experiences that ignite children’s personalities. Through Leading for Children, she gets a chance to interact with all of the adults in children’s ecosystems and finds so much wisdom in this community. We discuss how these adults play a key role in achieving equity and quality in early learning environments.

Every child deserves a great life full of possibilities where they have what they need to thrive. Equity for children starts with equity for the adults in their lives. If we strengthen the adults in children’s lives it will allow children to be more successful in the future.

Judy Jablon

Leading for Children shapes adults, making spaces where they can find and own their own self-empowerment so that they can be the leaders children need. They hope that children can grow up and see adults who model leadership. They are focused on three main impact areas:

1) Self-empowerment – diverse adults in children’s lives are challenging traditional norms. They are sharing power and are open to learning with and for each other.

2) Equitable partnerships

3) Thriving communities – spaces for adults and children to have better relationships and actions, along with calm and respectful learning environments.

What makes an optimistic leader?

Being an optimistic leader requires hopefulness and confidence about the future, along with a willingness to persist towards future outcomes, moving beyond disappointing moments. There is a difference between positivity and optimism. Positivity is telling ourselves and others that it is going to be alright, even if it isn’t. Optimism accepts the truth of reality and looks forward. Think of optimism as the light at the end of the tunnel.

Leadership is about having an impact. You may not be able to control everything, but if you enter an interaction with curiosity rather than judgment, chances are that interaction is going to go well and you have an impact on that interaction when you show up as a leader.

Judy’s resource recommendations

Podcast episode transcript


If you enter an interaction with curiosity rather than judgment, the chances are the interaction is going to go better. So, you have an impact on that interaction. You can show up as a leader.


Judy, welcome back to the Preschool Podcast!


Thank you so much, Ron! It’s a pleasure to see you, to be with you. And I really enjoy speaking with the colleagues that you interact with.


Always great to reconnect, Judy. For those of you who don’t know Judy Jablon, she is the executive director of Leading For Children and an amazing and passionate advocate for early-childhood education and quality and equity in early learning. And looking forward to just chatting with you a bit today, Judy. For those of our listeners who haven’t had a chance to connect with you, maybe you can just tell folks a little bit about yourself before we dive in.


Sure. Well, I have been in the field of early-childhood for a big number now, more than 40 years. I started out as a very passionate teacher of young children. I think I learned to love learning and to be a curious person working with kids. From there, I got super interested in shaping experiences that really ignite kids’ curiosity.

I went on to begin to work with adults and have published many books, traveled around the country, in Canada and overseas, in Europe. Just having the chance to interact with all the adults and children’s ecosystems and have learned the lesson that there is so much wisdom in the community of adults who care for and educate children. And in 2016, I started Leading For Children, kind of as a legacy project, and I look forward to sharing the Why of that.


Cool. So, let’s start there, actually. What is your Why? You spent a lot of time in early learning and early-childhood education. What is it that’s really driving you and driving your Why and the impact you want to have?


I would have said from the beginning until today that I want the best outcomes for children because I believe every child deserves a great life full of possibilities to meet their dreams. And I would say my Why, now more than ever, is equity and anti-racism for our society, where everyone – and especially children – have what they need to thrive.

Marian Wright Edelman says, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” And so we say our Why at Leading For Children is that equity for children begins with equity for the adults in their lives. And so we create opportunities for adults in the child’s ecosystem to harness their strengths, their wisdom and to strengthen this ecosystem of adults who surround children so that they can all – both the adults and children – have this sense of agency and be successful now and in the future.


Yeah, amazing. And tell us about Leading For Children. And what’s the impact that you’re trying to have on children’s lives through Leading For Children?


So, at Leading For Children, we shape these learning networks of adults with the purpose of making spaces where people can find in own their own self-empowerment so that they can be the leaders children need as models of confidence and intentional decision making. We hope at Leading For Children that children can grow up in a country, or in countries, where they see adults who model leadership because that provides the foundation for every child to achieve their dreams and beyond.

We bring together these adults in what we call “learning networks”. And we create a culture of respect, including families, educators, program staff, leadership, community stakeholders, to have facilitated conversations. We cultivate asset-based… we call it “asset-based leadership development” and equitable practices.

And our impact areas are kind of threefold, Ron. The first is self-empowerment. And as I said, our learning network members describe how, through this work, they come to own a sense of agency, an increased focus on the impact of their decisions, they feel like they become more intentional in making decisions and therefore more confident. And when children are surrounded by adults who own and model these skills, children develop more social-emotional skills of competence, confidence, initiative and choice.

The second impact area of Leading For Children is what we call “equitable partnerships”. And we say that the diverse adults in children’s lives, through our learning networks, are really starting to challenge traditional power dynamics. They’re working in more productive adult equitable partnerships: families with teachers, teachers to coaches, teachers to assistant teachers, teachers to directors.

When I think about the work we did and powerful interactions, one of the biggest challenges that we noticed – and I think we’re noticing nationally and internationally – is that as we work on adult-child interactions, the place that is really weak are those adult-adult interactions. And so our partners are beginning to describe how they’re gaining deeper respect for diverse perspectives. They’re interacting with adults with greater reciprocity. People are more willing to share power. They’re more open to learning with and from each other. Well, what does that model for children? And how does that translate to the social-emotional skills we want for children?

And finally, through our approach and the frameworks we have of optimistic leadership and the “11 simple rules”, we are noticing that spaces for adults and children have better relationships and interactions, emotional and physical environments are safer, calmer, well-organized and respectful, and people are coming to really understand how powerful it is when learning experiences for both the adults and children for meaningful, actionable, exploratory. So, what we’re seeing is, these impacts on adults really translate to child outcomes. And what we’re eager to do is obviously demonstrate that with the next level of our research.


So, I have to ask the question: what’s the next step for the research?


Well, got anybody with a big check? So, actually we have done independent evaluation on all of the projects we’ve had so far. And that’s how we garnered these sort of three impact areas of self-empowerment, equitable partnerships and thriving communities. And we’ve identified indicators within each of these three dimensions. And we are using a series of different methods – obviously interviews, studying artifacts and doing pre- and post-surveys to ascertain the adults experience of change.

And we’re interviewing adults to describe what they’re noticing in children. Because equity is such a pivotal driver for us, and as a person who spent 20 years working on child outcomes, so many of the measures of child outcomes are complex and especially complex in some of the settings in which we’re working.

So, we are in conversation with a couple of different organizations who really look at logic models and kind of figure out how to do random sampling of various child outcome measures so that we can ascertain the correlation between the changes we’re seeing in adults and the changes we’re seeing in children. I think that’s a really big focus for our 2022, 2023 fiscal year and the projects that we’re embarking on. So, please stay tuned and we’ll give you more updates next year. It’s unequivocally in the arena of social-emotional development.


Yeah, I love it. I’m already just thinking about the impacts that this can have and it’s very exciting. One of the terms you mentioned was “optimistic leaders”. Can you tell us a little bit more what that means?


Unequivocally. So, I’m going to start by saying I did not grow up in an optimistic family. And I had to learn and practice optimism. Moreover, I kind of choked on all the quote-unquote “positivity” that hangs out everywhere in the early learning field. And so I’ll start with my research on optimism and how we are Leading For Children define optimism.

We say it means hopefulness. It requires confidence about the future and a willingness to persist toward successful outcomes. And optimists see a path forward; they move beyond disappointments. An example I would offer everybody is, when a child feels disappointed because they can’t find a solution, we often help them manage their feelings. We could use language with them and we could say, “Come on, let’s persist. Let’s use trial and error. We can come up with an answer.” To me, that’s helping children understand that there is a path forward.

I love Simon Sinek, I often refer to his work. And he says there’s a difference between being positive and optimistic. Positivity, he says, is telling ourselves and others that it’s going to be all right, even if it isn’t – hello, let’s think about the pandemic. But optimism accepts the truth of reality and looks forward. So, I tend to say to people, think of optimism as the light at the end of the tunnel rather than as a smiley face.

And then we come to leadership. Well, in my experience, leadership has always been about your title or your role. We define leadership as, “Hello, you have an impact.” You may not be able to control everything but if you enter an interaction with curiosity rather than judgment, the chances are the interaction is going to go better. So, you have an impact on that interaction. You can show up as a leader.

Jasmine, a provider in Mississippi, said, “People always told me I had to leave my unpleasant feelings at the door”. She said, no, “I don’t have to leave my unpleasant feelings at the door. I have to decide that as I enter my classroom, I have to show up the way I want kids to see me. I have to manage my upset, my disappointment, and recognize that how I show up for them is going to affect their day.” So, if we think about optimistic leaders, optimistic leaders hold onto this path forward, this persistence, owning that they have control over the decisions they make. They have control over the intentionality of how they show up each day. How did I do?


Yeah, it’s wonderful. And I think it’s great for children to be around adults who have this hopefulness and confidence in the future and are moving past disappointments how you’ve described it. And also, something else I also really try to reiterate to folks as well, which you mentioned, is just leadership has nothing to do with title or role. And I think that’s just so important for all the early-childhood educators out there to hear, is you can be a leader regardless of who you are and what role you’re in. I’ve seen some of the most junior folks and organizations be amazing, amazing leaders. And I have a lot of respect for them and the leadership traits that they show day in and day out. And early-childhood educators, as well.


So, a teacher in in the D.C. area that has been part of our Optimistic Leaders Learning Network, in describing kind of how she’s come to understand her own leadership and self-empowerment, she said, “I now understand how my actions changed the trajectory of the world around us, and especially the future of a child.”


Yeah, very powerful. And so you even released a reflective journal called “The Five Commitments of Optimistic Leaders”. How can that resource be used by our listeners?


It is being used. And I just have to take a moment, I feel it would be error without respect if I didn’t take a moment to say, every adult who’s cared for and educate children during the pandemic, that you are all heroes, that everyone has been pushed beyond their limits and have found resilience that not only dazzles me, but I think has awakened the country to how much more attention we need to pay to the people who care for, educate, love children [ages] birth to five. And I honor each and every one of you who are listening.

So, about the journal: Yeah, we pulled it off during the pandemic. I started conceptualizing this book right after we finished writing Powerful Interactions [How to Connect with Children to Extend Their Learning, by Amy Laura Dombro, Judy Jablon, Charlotte Stetson]. I knew we needed more; I knew we needed to kind of pull together these ideas around optimism and leadership.

My friends and coauthors Nichole Parks and Laura Ensler and myself had been working in Mississippi prior to the pandemic. And it was with this group of amazing family members and educators who are part of the network, who really brought these commitments to life and helped us learn how to use them as part of our practice.

And the way we put the journal together is pretty accessible, according to our users. The idea is that we think about each of the five commitments – think impact, cultivate self-awareness, nurture relationships, refine communication, and activate curiosity – in terms of three levels. You and your identity – so, that really helps us to begin to get at diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging – you with another, and then you in a group.

And as a field we haven’t really asked ourselves a lot of these questions. And so as we’ve been living through the pandemic and engaging people in book study groups, monthly convening, small group conversations, various different ways of facilitated conversation – not training – people are really asking themselves new questions and finding strengths inside of themselves that they didn’t realize they had. And so we are continuing to be excited about the possibilities of spreading the idea of optimistic leadership across our field.


I love it. And I really love how this concept of the facilitated conversations… I’ve been through some learning experiences in my personal life and have always felt they took out a lot more from those experiences as well, versus sort of the more traditional training and presentations.


People often describe the work of the small groups and it’s all been virtual. We were able to translate everything to virtual, which has been amazing. And keeping things, having conversations with program teams, program groups of people across programs, within communities and even nationally where the wisdom comes from the group. We use a technique called the carousel to make sure all voices are heard. We really encourage people to listen to each other in new ways. And I think it’s really changing the nature, the landscape or the narrative of how we’re working as a field.


Absolutely. You mentioned Simon Sinek – I’m also a big fan, as well as Adam Grant. Any specific professional development resources or other authors or speakers that you would like to share with our audience for their ongoing development?


I gave that one a lot of thought. Well, because we’re all talking about work-life balance and we’re all feeling so stretched, stretched, stretched, and we’re on Zoom unendingly. And for me, this past two years has really been a period that I have pushed myself as a white woman, as a white woman with privilege to ask myself and to really dig deep to learn more about the culture of oppression and anti-racism.

And I have read extensively but one book in particular by Isabel Wilkerson. It’s called Caste [The Origins Of Our Discontent]. It’s a big, tough read. I don’t feel like I could say to you I’ve read it chapter-by-chapter. But I come back to it a little bit, a little bit, a little bit. And it’s just deepening my thinking. And then to hold on to optimism, I revisit a very favorite book called The Art of Possibility [Transforming Professional And Personal Life] by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander. Are you familiar with that book, Ron?


Yeah, it rings a bell. I don’t know if I’ve read it, though.


Oh, it’s a great little-bits-at-a-time and coming back to it [read]. And it’s filled with amazing laughter and it’s just delightful. And then I feel like laughing and thinking and storytelling is the most important thing in the world that keeps me going. And I, during the pandemic, have become an unbelievable lunatic about listening to the Moth [The Art and Craft of Storytelling] on NPR [National Public Radio]. It’s real people telling real stories. And they curate a little section of a collection of stories for a 50-minute podcast every week. And it just is such a wonderful way to learn about the rest of the world.


Okay, cool. And it’s called The Moth?


The Moth, yes. I will text you the link, but it’s The Moth. And if you just [search for] it will pop up on your phone or your computer.


Yeah, I just [searched for] “The Moth podcast” and it came up, as well. Interesting, okay, some great tips there from Judy, thank you. And now what about if folks want to get in touch with you? Where can they find you? How can they learn more about Leading For Children?


Thank you for that. Well, the best way to reach me is at Our website is You can click on the Subscribe [button]. And if you put in your note that you heard us talking on this podcast, I absolutely promise to respond personally. But my email address is And I would love to hear from people.


Wonderful, thank you so much for sharing that with everybody. And thank you so much for joining us again on the Preschool Podcast. Always wonderful to catch up with you, Judy.


It is always a pleasure, thank you. And I look forward to a webinar that I’m doing with your team on June 23rd.


Oh, wonderful, we’ll be looking forward to that, as well. Thanks so much for sharing that, as well. We’re really getting into our webinars, as well, in addition to our podcast. So, glad to have you joining us on that, as well.


Great. Well, your team is amazing, Ron. Thank you so much!


Thank you, Judy!

Christie White

Christie is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at HiMama. She is passionate about children's development, parenting, and supporting the child care industry. She has been working to support child care centers with their events and marketing for almost a decade. In her personal life, Christie lives in Stouffville, ON with her husband Kyle and dog Tucker. She enjoys going for walks, baking, cooking, and watching reality tv!

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