Relationships Relationships Relationships

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Ballard discusses the pyramid model for developing strong relationships and working culture in the classroom.

Episode 65

Read below for a full transcript, proofread and revised by Andrew Hall – Fri. Oct. 06, 2017


Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early-childhood education”. Marilyn, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.

Marilyn BALLARD:

Thank you so much for having me.


It’s our pleasure to have you as a guest. Marilyn, you’re the owner of ECE Solutions. Let’s start off just learning a little bit more about what ECE Solutions is.


Marilyn BALLARD: Wonderful. So “ECE”, most in the field of early-childhood would know that as “early-childhood education.” But I started the company about a year and a half ago. I had worked with an agency previously – a Child Care Resource Network, locally – and I started it after realizing that I wanted to have a little bit bigger reach. I wanted to go back into direct contact with directors, daycare centers, and spend a little bit more time in that arena. And I also needed a little more flexibility, actually. I had another Grandchild, and I needed to be able to do a little more traveling – she lives in New York City – and in a little bit more flexibility with my time. So returning back into my own business was a natural next progression for me.


Interesting. And what is your background, before you were part of the Child Care Resource Network?


Wonderful. So I had owned and operated early-childhood programs in western New York. So I started just small and with family day care, where I would watch eight children. At that time the regulations were a little different so I could watch eight all day. And that seemed, quite honestly, Ron, a little natural for me because I’m one of eight children. So having that amount of children it became really natural to me. But it really started as a first answer to when I came back. I came back to the Buffalo area with two of my young children, and it was a pretty typical story where you look around to the area and see what my options are. And I thought I would temporarily care for other children until I found my calling.

And as it evolves I loved the early-childhood field. That was not my background. So as I enjoyed the program so much I came a little backwards to it. I then earn my degrees and credentials all the time while I was building my business. So I’m a little backwards to many in the early-childhood field, and just within the last seven years I received my master’s. So it was a little different, backwards, where my story came from. But it’s been quite involved.


And so doing a little bit of reading about ECE Solutions, it’s an evidence-based early-childhood training and consulting company. What does that mean?


It means a lot of the information… I really view myself as a conduit to share information with the field. So that means my trainings are research-based. My [consulting] is consultancy with daycare center directors. I do a lot of trainings around the pyramid model. So what that means is, the pyramid model is a system from the center of social-emotional foundations for early learning. And New York State this last year adopted the pyramid model to really grow out across state. And that really addresses the social0emotional competencies for infants and children. And I was accepted into the program to be a master cadre, a master trainer.

And so a lot of my time is spent working with programs to delivering the modules of training to really inform the care and quality of that we are for all the programs. So I spent a lot of time delivering those, for either stand-alone, open to the public, or agencies hire me to come to train their whole staff, and different modules, different ways to present it.


Interesting. So let’s hear a little bit more about this pyramid model. Can you summarize what that’s all about?


So in a few words: the basis is that [in] a typical view of a pyramid, a triangle, is that on the base of the pyramid model is the effective workforce. And the genesis of this… this is not a new premise. This has been around for a very long time. And it’s been on the website, [and] Head Start was the impetus of it, initially. And so a lot of the social0emotional competencies are on there. But it’s based very philosophically in research-based and data-proven to be successful. So what does that mean? They rolled out three models for pre-K, and then another separate three models for infant-toddlers. Both modules follow the same format. The basis of any good relationship and environment is the basic premise of once you really establish basic relationships… and when I say relationship then why that is so strong for all programs is the relationship that every one of those staff have with that child makes or can really break – and I know it’s kind of a hard word, “break” – but really makes or breaks the effectiveness and the quality of care for that child.

So when we create these, or when I deliver, this information there are so many “A-ha!” moments, Ron, that happen around those because it’s… really, I use this as a day to reflect. Each of these modules are six to seven hours. Each section of the modules… there’s three modules in each: pre-K and infant-toddler. And the first module is about those relationships, as I mentioned, and then environments. The next is for a targeted social-emotional support. So to give you an example: I use the percentages, because we all understand data. So if you use data as a percentage, and if you had children with [what] people consider challenging behavior, and if you had 100 children, once you master relationships and environments – and I say “relationships” so critically because until we take time to think, “What are our really hot buttons? If I’m a teacher, what really drives me crazy about this one child?” They may not say it, but they feel it, and that’s where a lot of the important teaching and information comes from.

The next step is – I’m sorry to digress back to percentages – if we master relationships in an environment, between 85- and 87% of our challenging behaviors have been addressed in a classroom. Now those percentages… I remember when I was going through the training myself for training a trainer, people get percentages when we go to the next level. So if we were to have 100 children in a classroom, and a whole program just happens to have challenging behavior, every one of those children… So 85-ish – and there’s always a range, because it depends on your population, etc. – is that 85 children now have wonderful relationships. And because you’ve looked at that, you’ve looked at your environment and you analyzed their relationship with their families, which is a critical piece of the pyramid model, because it takes all those three legs to make it really successful. Well, then we go up to the next level and it’s very targeted. So let’s say, if I may use an example of a little boy or girl, Johnny or Judy might need a little extra. They might need a little extra guidance. They might need a little extra… I don’t want to say “preemptive strike”, but they might use a little extra hand-holding. They might need a little “Oh, before you come to circle I’m going to go over to you directly, specifically because you might be a little bit more distracted, or maybe you need a little touch on your shoulder. I’m going to do those extra things or put in those extra little pieces that are going to be helpful for you to succeed.”

And how do I know that? How do I know what he or she might need? Well because I have a very good relationship with a child in my classroom, I know what their triggers are, if it’s a loud sound, how they get overwhelmed. Because my relationship is so good with them, now I know what I’m going to have to do to step it up.

So that level is – and again, it’s a range – is between 10- to 12% of the children that might need extra little support. Then the very top level is the intensive interventions. And that ranges from 1- to 3%. So if we go back to the 100 children in our classroom, we’re now down to one to three children who need very intensive, very… group management, right? Brainstorming with a therapist, with the parents, with the teacher, with the director, with management, [with] program support for this child, individual support for this child. And so then it becomes very thoughtful and very intentional.

One of my “A-ha!” moments was when I was listening to webinars and different information now, because I’m really delving into this so deeply, is that one of the speakers said when we were initially trained was that no child has ever been asked to leave the daycare program, early-childhood program, that has had an amazing relationship with the child, the parent and the family, and the teacher. So, so critical. If there’s [something] broken down in a part of them, that’s where the miscommunication can take over. So I think that addressing it very systematically and from bottom up really gives the programs in the early-childhood field an opportunity to really critically think, “What’s the next steps? What’s the next level that I go to, to help this child?”

And because it has been an epidemic of the children being asked to leave programs… and I understand that – our society’s getting a little bit more stressed out; our staff is getting a little bit more stressed out with the different children in their classrooms. Some of the teachers that I know that are either in my classes, because I also teach classes online at the graduate level that they share with me, when some of their students in their class only half-speak English, that’s another challenge. So where do the supports come from for things like that? So our teachers are doing amazing in classrooms with different challenges that they have to. So it’s important to understand where each one comes from.


Well, it’s super-interesting to hear that 85% of challenges are really directly related to those bottom three components of the pyramid, and I guess that’s kind of the whole point of the pyramid is that, let’s say if I’m an administrator of a childcare program, where am I first going to focus my efforts? It should be on an effective workforce before above and beyond anything else, because unless I have that it’s all going to kind of crumble.


Absolutely. And what becomes a particular challenge in our early-childhood field is having that effective workforce with the different changes that the directors are having to think about in our budgeting. And that becomes a challenge, when they’re looking at, when they drive by a Delta Sonic. I use Delta Sonic a lot. Actually one of my pet clients, he was a wonderful manager at Delta Sonic. But when you pass a Delta Sonic board or a fast food and it talks about, “What is the starting wages?” and that is unfortunately below some of what they can afford to pay, it gets very challenging. So those who are in the field are really for wonderful reasons, are really very passionate about children, and hope that down the road there will be the financial support that will follow that. So I think that’s always our challenge in the early-childhood field.


Yeah, of course, that’s the gap we’re always trying to close. And I guess the other interesting thing to me about the pyramid is, on the other end of the pyramid, on the top, is that there is that 1- to 3% of children who are probably going to require some type of more intensive intervention. So I think also a bit of a takeaway for me on that is you’re never going to have a program where 100% of the children are without any challenging behavior. Almost always there is going to be some children who are having some challenging behavior where you are going to require that more intensive intervention. And I think the onus is on you as administrators and educators to take that on and embrace that challenge, because those children are out there and that is going to be a requirement of your center or your job as an ECE [early-childhood educator].


Absolutely. And I think the… well, I know, it’s not even a matter of thinking. I know what challenges that the teachers have in the classroom is that when you have so many different, wonderful little beings in your world and taking the time to really observe and reflect on each child, that can be very challenging for programs. Logistically, it can be. So one of my conversations often is with directors and programming, and when I teach about social-emotional in relationships, is when you have an opportunity to reflect about your child obviously the observation comes first, and then when you have a chance to reflect on that child.

And really talk to your coworker about a particular child to really brainstorm together. That’s where staff and programs really sometimes are challenged to really carve out time because the day is so packed full of important things that [have] to be done. But building that relationship, I think one of my… any time I train that individual know, “Here she goes again.” Relationships are curriculum. They cannot… They have to be 24/7 in classrooms. You just don’t build relationships at circle time, or at 2:35 in the afternoon. You have to be aware of the families and what sort of connections that we have with our families when they come in, and really understanding their perspective. That is probably the most “A-ha!” moments that I have with programs or when I train. Taking time to understand the other’s perspective about a situation. That piece of communication and understanding interpersonal skills are critical to a program’s success.


And to your previous point that’s one of the areas where early-childhood education as a field could certainly use the support from the powers-that-be at the state and federal and even municipal levels to have more resources in early-childhood education so, for example, childcare programs can take on additional staff for assistive staff to allow more time for their educators in the classroom to maybe step away from the classroom to give them that time for reflection and for professional development and training as it relates to communication skills and relationships with families and children and these types of things.


Absolutely. And I think I also believe… I did a training just two weeks ago, and because of the typical schedule and the budgeting and the demands that a director has, and she or he is wearing so many hats. I jokingly said to the staff – there was about 30 in the group – and I jokingly said to them, “Well, you know how you have an hour a day just to sit and talk about children?” Of course they all started laughing. So I’m all about baby steps. So if you can’t afford, or be able, to plan for time for teachers to reflect on their practice, is that let’s start a baby step. Let’s start [with] ten minutes. How can you possibly carve out?

And this program in particular, right when I was there, really did some great brainstorming of how to carve out – [or] at least identify – ten minutes a day that these two teachers will be able to talk about particular children. And although ten minutes sounds like a very small amount – and what can happen in 10 minutes? – well, many programs have zero time at all. So if you start carving out, usually it’s on the fly, right? A teacher is going out the door and saying, “Oh, JoAnn, by the way, Johnny was really struggling at rest time. Make sure you tell Mom about it.” And then she flies out the door. That is no one’s fault. But what it what it says to us is, we as a field have to carve out just a little more time. Because by carving it out you’re really honoring the staff, and that’s what directors really want to show their appreciation in valuing their staff, is really trying to figure out how to do that.

So the wonderful brainstorming this particular program had was just within the classrooms, because many of the concerns were the teachers – they are the experts of these children in the classrooms – when they come to a director for a problem or a concern I always suggest to a director: the first question you should ask them is, “You are the experts in the room. I value your opinion. What do you think? How might we approach this particular problem?” Whether it’s ordering supplies or whether it’s a particular child, that you’re really empowering the staff and really honoring them that within themselves they have wonderful suggestions, if they just dig a little deeper.

And I think that very often directors just out of survival when someone comes to them for a question or, of course, they want to solve it right away. But if we take a step back – and I say that when I’m teaching whole programs, if I’m doing an onsite training for a whole program, is – before you go to a supervisor really think to yourself, do some of your own critical thinking. We’re asking our children to do critical thinking all the time, even as they’re small, of what words we’re going to say to each other, things like that.

BALLARD: Well, we need to practice that ourselves as [teachers]. What critical thinking can you do to solve this problem? Or come up with some suggestions – that’s when you go to your supervisor. So it seems to be really kind of taking on a life of its own and really seems to be spreading quite nicely.


And from the administrators perspective that’s a common theme we hear as well, just in terms of if you want to have this time for reflection and empowering your staff and getting their feedback and making sure they have the support they need, you have to be proactive about it and plan for it, because you are wearing so many hats. It’s not just going to sort of happen on its own. You have to sort of think through how you’re going to do that, how you’re going to create even that ten minutes of time, as at least a starting point. So that’s very good feedback.

Now, you spent over 30 years in early-childhood development and education. What advice do you have for our younger listeners out there who are starting out their careers in early-childhood education?


That’s a great question. As I’m getting much older there’s some wonderful – well, many, many – new directors coming in the next generation, as I shared with you before. Really seek out and really tap into those who have been around the industry for quite a while. Find a mentor. I have a couple younger directors that I am mentoring. And really tap into their knowledge. Really tap into their own experiences in what happened in the past.

But I really want to caution them: be very open as you become a member in different organizations. Obviously there’s local organizations to become a member of. But really involve yourself at the really director-level. And seek out in your community… because as a director it can be so, so very isolated from. And when you’re at the top it’s like, “Who do I talk to?” That really was the genesis of my first conference last year: giving them an opportunity to be in the same room with like minded people and really celebrate the amazing jobs they are doing, because [approximately] 96% are women in our industry.

And because women in our industry are very uncomfortable sometimes with those difficult conversations emotionally – they might not want to upset someone, or they might not want to hurt someone’s feelings. And that is quite honestly… some of the most important work I do is having a woman feeling comfortable in their role and understanding others’ perspectives and then moving forward of how to connect with others. Because isolation in our industry can be very, very difficult.


Yeah, that’s a very good point – and I think it’s something I never really thought about but I was thinking as you were talking there – that there’s so many challenges and difficult situations that you face every single day as the director of a childcare program as an early-childhood educator. And so in those day-to-day struggles it’s easy to forget all the amazing things that you are accomplishing in terms of children’s development and learning when you’re just trying to face all these challenges every single day. So I think it’s a really great point, to get together with other people and also sort of celebrate and sort of step back and look at the higher level of, “Holy smokes,” let’s say, “I’ve been running this childcare organization for the last 10 years. I’ve helped over a thousand children improve in their literacy skills and this and that.” Sometimes can be sort of missed, I think.


And I think to that point is that – with this whole reflection piece – we don’t take enough time to really celebrate what [we’ve] done because, as you said, we’re drowning in all the problems of staff or the children or the therapist or everything I’m trying to juggle. In really taking a step back, I know that – if I can share a little story – I know that when I was going for a particular credential there was a group of us that met every Tuesday for two years. They ended up… because being a director so isolating… and again, I was the director of two group family daycares – a little different license, but still very isolated – and I knew only people who were at the top get you. So I literally would have them on speed-dial. So for a particular time, whether that was a new policy I made – maybe a family was upset, or a knew interaction with a new staff member that I really wanted – so that connection to like-people in the same position in the field is critical. It’s a really, really critical. And then connecting and creating opportunities where they stay connected, that’s really very, very important.


Yeah, awesome. So I think one of the themes we’re hearing here is relationships [are] super-important, both within your organization but also looking to build those relationships with mentors in the community in early-childhood education outside of your organization.

Marilyn, it’s been a really awesome speaking to you today. If I’m listening to the podcast and I want to learn more about your work or get in touch with you, where’s the best place for me to go?


Thank you so much. So I’m on Facebook [as] ECE Solutions, and also on my new website that came out a couple of weeks ago:


Awesome. Marilyn, thank you again for coming on the show. It’s been great having you. As always I’ve learned a lot myself with the pyramid model, and you’re doing some great work. Keep it up. Thanks again for coming on the show. Marilyn BALLARD: Thank you. Thank you so much, Ron, it’s been a pleasure.

Related Links

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Ron Spreeuwenberg

Ron is the Co-Founder & CEO of HiMama, where he leads all aspects of a social purpose business that helps early childhood educators improve learning outcomes for children.