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Research-based professional development

Research-based professional development

June 20, 2017 | Carmen Choi

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early childhood education.“

INTRO: On episode 49 of the show, we are very excited to be in conversation with Sarah LeMoine, Director of the Early Childhood Workforce Innovations Department at Zero to Three. For those who are not familiar, Zero to Three is a not for profit that provides research-backed resources on infant/toddler development for parents and educators. Sarah emphasizes the importance of connecting the dots between an educator’s practice during these formative years and the science behind early learning and development. This is to bring awareness and understanding to the impact of an educator’s work on the floor. In our conversation, we learn about Zero to Three’s Critical Competencies program and how it is designed to support educators in a way that is meaningful, relatable and practical for their professional journey.

If you are an infant/toddler educator that is keen on learning more about actionable professional development, then stay tuned to this episode of the preschool podcast.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Sarah, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.

Sarah LEMOINE: Thank you, Ron. It's a pleasure to be here.

SPREEUWENBERG: We're so excited to have you on the show. It's the first time we've had a guest from Zero to Three. It's such a great organization doing such amazing things. Let's start off by having you tell us a little bit more about Zero to Three.

LEMOINE: I’d be happy to. Zero to Three is a national organization in the United States of America, but we do also do international work. Our mission is to ensure that all babies and toddlers have a strong start in life. So we do work across disciplines at Zero to Three, and we've been doing that since 1977. The organization has really worked to advance the proven power of nurturing relationships by transforming the science of early-childhood into helpful resources and practical tools and responsive policies for millions of parents and professionals and policy makers.

Our cross-sector work that we do – our cross-disciplinary the work that we do – ranges from early-care and education to health, mental health and social justice and welfare issues, and much more. We really do look at trying to bring together the systems and those who support young children and their families.

SPREEUWENBERG: Wow, it's been around for 40 years – I didn't realize that. Do you think that the mission of Zero to Three, or the focus, has changed quite a bit over those years? Or has it remained quite consistent?

LEMOINE: I think it's remained quite consistent, in that we were founded because there was not a representation or an organization really focused on working on all of the pieces that help to build up young babies and toddlers and their families. We really were brought together by leaders in the field of medicine and mental health and social science and child development research. And we’ve built a really strong reputation for delivering these programs and products, both nationally in the United States and across the globe, by really focusing on relationships. What we say now for our tagline, if you will, is that “early connections last a lifetime.” I think we've gotten better about putting relationships as the basis of everything at the forefront of our work, but we've always had that as an underpinning.

SPREEUWENBERG: Interesting. And do you think that the focus and mission of Zero to Three has been influenced by it being started by research-based individuals that are within the medical or mental health space?

LEMOINE: I think absolutely it has been. I do think that the wish, from those that started us on our wish and the work that we do today, is to really ensure every service we're providing and the resources are taking the evidence base – the newest information that we have available, the explosion of information around brain research and at the genetics and other pieces – and putting them into understandable resources for different audiences so that it's not a task that seems insurmountable for those supporting babies and toddlers and families every day.

But we do definitely still have that focus on the evidence base behind everything we do. We do have evaluations on all of our work, and we look at trying to continually accrue on behalf, of but also with, all of those professionals that work with children and families.

In fact Zero to Three this year – something that has changed – has just kicked off our official membership. For years folks would write to us and felt like they were a member of Zero to Three, but we now just this year have a new formal membership where people can join Zero to Three as members.

SPREEUWENBERG: Cool. And this is a big mission that Zero to Three has. Now, how does it go about funding the organization, and having employees, and all that fun stuff?

LEMOINE: Primarily we’re funded through grants and contracts through foundations and government agencies. However we do also have a business operations division, and that's where I sit. Our work in the business operations division is strictly only Zero to Three work. It’s completely mission-driven – not that our contracts and grants aren't as well. But it is absolutely just Zero to Three saying, “Based on our members and our communities and their needs and trends we see, this is the work we feel we need to do and we're going to do it how we think we need to do it with this field.”

So primarily, yes, grants and contracts. We do run a lot of the National Technical Assistance centers and programs for the United States Administration for Children and Families. We do run court teams and social justice programs here in the country. But we do a lot of parenting resources, professional development work and other things – like our memberships now – out of our business operations division, where we really have some more flexibility and are able to be more nimble in how we interact with the field.

SPREEUWENBERG: Very cool. That’s very informative. And so as part of the business operations group you – specifically your role as Director of Early Childhood Workforce Innovations – can you tell us a little bit more about Early Childhood Workforce Innovations, and what that is?

LEMOINE: Sure. In our business operations division we have three departments, and Early Childhood Workforce Innovations Department is one of those. So I have the pleasure of leading this department. And we're focused on really supporting efforts to build and implement and enhance cross-sector professional development systems and workforce support. And hopefully our name’s pretty transparent – Workforce Innovations is a named that because we work towards developing pioneering products and services that haven't had the chance to be made before, and that we're seeing based on trends and evaluations and needs expressed and questions asked at Zero to Three that could really help support direct practice in the early-childhood skills.

Right now my department is specifically focused on Zero to Three’s new Critical Competencies for infant-toddler educators. And this is the first time that we have developed a very specific competency model specialized for infant-toddler educators in home-based or center-based settings. And it really focuses on the interactions that the evidence bases show can make the biggest impact on babies’ and toddlers’ future success, not only in school but in life. And right now – we don't want to forget about them right now and what they need and only look at where they'll be.

It's a very specific model that we're really excited about, and we're piloting it in multiple places right now. We are developing professional development training and trainers, trainer certification, self-reflection tools – it’s something I'm excited about, I hope you ask me more about it.

SPREEUWENBERG:Very cool. What would you say is the primary customer and consumer of this information? Would you work directly with educators? Or would you work with organizations, or state departments, or municipalities…?

LEMOINE: Well I love that question, because my answer is Yes – “Yes, and...” The wonderful thing about the flexibility we have within my department – and as we’re doing this exciting project on the Critical Competencies – is that we intentionally work at all levels. So we work at a systems level, first and foremost, to align criteria and regulations and requirements. But the reason for that is because we are working to remove barriers for the early-care and education workforce. So we work at that systems level with policymakers on the policy side of it, but we also start to help these systems build their capacity. We train trainers and try and get them up and running to be able to be valid and providing this evidence-based training.

And then we also train direct-service educators, those that work every day in early-care and education centers, family childcare homes with babies and toddlers. And we do support communities of practice, whether that be by training facilitators in our local community to continue that role once we step out of it, or sometimes we leave those communities of practice ourselves, often bringing together people from different sides of the United States, or even internationally. It's a pleasure to be able to work at all those levels and see how they intersect together.

Our biggest wish underneath all of it is to give early educators not only the tools and the understanding of the what you can do in an interaction, but the understanding of why it matters, that translation as a research, so that they can be intentional in their interactions every day. And to help them see how important their interactions are, if they don't already, because our tools, our labels with the motto “Critical Competencies” – and they are critical… but the critical factor in there is the educators themselves. They’re critical.

SPREEUWENBERG:Yeah, that's a very important point. And a theme that's come up on our podcast a number of times where it's very important for the educators to understand why they're doing certain things. And that's where I think the history and context of Zero to Three and how it's grown from this research evidence-based content is super-duper hopeful.

Now you described a little bit of who the audience would be for this type of content. What about channels? Is this something that you typically would deliver face-to-face? Or can this be done online? How does that work?

LEMOINE: So again, Yes. We’re going with a multimedia, multi-delivery road here in our tools. So at this point in our pilots we are still developing our online lessons. Those will be done in December of 2017. But we do a hybrid in our delivery in-person. We start our professional development with Zero to Three’s self-reflection tool. For us, not only is there the evidence base behind this tool in helping people be prepared and ready for change, but we are seeing on the ground the impact and difference it makes. So that’s an online tool where educators have a chance to look at the competency model and do a self-assessment and turn no stakes in this other than preparing yourself for learning and understanding. But they’re able to look at it and say, “Here's an area, I think I'm doing this every day in my interactions,” or, “Oh, I hadn’t thought about this that much. This is something maybe I need to pay more attention to.”

So we have them start with this process of self-reflection, and reflection is a big piece of what we do here at Zero to Three in all of our professional developments. We may frame that into any professional development experience that we have – which is in-person right now – as we develop the online lessons.

We also really do… the in-person pieces for the Critical Competencies are pretty intense. They are two-day sessions, repeatedly, for direct-service educators – those in the classroom every day, our teachers. It’s four two-day sessions that happened over the span of several months, with reflection exercises that happen in-between. For our trainers we have an additional session because they’re not only learning this content, but they’re having time as a learning community themselves to play with and co-construct the best ways in their context to deliver this content.

So both online and in-person, and we're excited about our professional development modules that are going to be online. We're taking a scenario-based approach in the online lessons that we're doing. And by that I mean, it's kind of like following your own story. Educators, especially – all human beings are great storytellers. That's how we learn so much through all of our history, as humans. But educators in particular, I think storytelling is a big part of what we do, both with the children, with sharing with families, with sharing vignettes with each other and processing and reflecting on our own work. So we're excited that the online lessons are taking that format, too, of really storytelling to be able to see what this practice looks like and to be able to understand in the context of typical daily work in early-care and education programs.

SPREEUWENBERG: Need. Now I really like the idea of this self-reflection tool. So I just want to get into the content part of this a little bit more. So the self-reflection tool, can you give us a little bit more detail about what that is? Is it like a survey…?

LEMOINE: It's really similar to a survey, yes. The only difference being there is that this survey is for yourself. So it does have a Likert scale that gives a rating from seven different ratings that you get to play on yourself for each of the competency skills. The Critical Competencies are focused on three areas. It’s all focused on interaction and teaching practices – really, pedagogy. But they're focused on the areas of supporting social-emotional, supporting cognitive and supporting language and literacy development.

This tool drills down into the specific skills that we have with them model and asks the educator to spend some time reflecting on how they do or do not incorporate these skills in their daily practice. And what we find is that it really does, after taking this, raise your awareness level, and brings people to a level of being ready to have more discussion other than just being introduced to a bunch of skills, or a model that they haven't had a chance to really think about their own practice around.

SPREEUWENBERG: That's why I really like the idea, because it kind of goes back to that question of Why, right? So then if they’ve done and the self-reflection tool and then they go through the subsequent content, they understand why they need to learn about X Y Z, and where they can focus their attention.

LEMOINE: Yeah, exactly. The purpose for it is like a big purpose, and it can fit inside all of these different pieces that we're offering. But as far as the actual taking of the self-reflection tool and doing, it should take an educator – and we're finding it's taking them – about 20 minutes for each part. There's three parts of it. And we do them intentionally in the area that we're going to be covering next with them in the professional development, so it’s a bit fresher. And they bring it in with them and the results are part of the conversation that we have in the professional development experience.

SPREEUWENBERG: Cool, cool. And then going into the professional development modules themselves, and the Critical Competencies… what's the structure of that learning content? How do I take that in as an educator who's using this tool?

LEMOINE:Sure. So the structure, as I mentioned, it is a comprehensive series; it's a program. But the structure of the modules themselves really breaks out into three areas. All of that starts with the reflections time that does bring in the results from that tool, but also has facilitated dialogue and conversation. We spend a lot of time up-front because we believe these are learning communities, and we believe the evidence supports… us as adult learners need to have that kind of community to push us even further, and need to have that faith-base, just like we know our babies and toddlers do. We want to be good dance partners with the young children in our care. We want educators to be like that, and we want to be good dance partners also with the educators in their professional journey.

So a lot of it starts around the framing of thinking about your own professional journey and where you want to go. Each module then has a focus on children where we go into, “What is the latest research? Why do they do this? What does it look like when you're a 6-month-old? Or what does that look like when you're 12 months old, or when you're 18 months old, or when you're a 2 year old?” Which, as anyone who works with babies and toddlers knows, two-year-olds are almost their own world also. And so we spend time looking at the development of the children first, as an underpinning, and we focus on typical development in this profession.

Then we move into a focus on educators, and we look specifically at our competency model and the ways that you can, in everyday interactions, support the area of development. And you had asked… I will say the third piece and then go back to the content. The third piece that we do then is on additional consideration. Underpinning our competency model is the understanding that there is no just-typical child, right? All of us are unique individuals. We do have specific consideration for educators in their practice, and for thinking about babies and toddlers and families and how that might make your practice want to be a little bit different for children who are multi-language learners. And we absolutely take that from a strength-based approach. There's still a lot of myth-busting we feel needs to happen around multiple-language learners and how to support them, in that it really is a strength. And all the way through cognitive flexibility that we've seen in young multi-language learners that others can learn from, even mono-lingual learners.

We also have consideration around working with young children who are particularly vulnerable, who have multiple risk factors, or even one major risk factor such as poverty or abuse, neglect and others. And again we want to come at it from a strength-base of how to best support them, and how the educator can suffer some of the toxic stress that might be in their life. We do also have considerations around working with babies and toddlers who may be having developmental delays, or other issues.

Now, those considerations are a lot. We know how much educators do every single day, and we don't want any of it to feel heavy on them, like, “Here's another thing I have to know how to learn to be everything for everyone.” There really is concrete about interaction in that social-emotional cognitive and language and literacy support, and understanding, “Hey, if I see something like this, it's time for me to look at who my partners are and who can help me in this area.” We don't expect educators to do everything for everyone, even though I know it feels like it on a daily basis. I started as an infant-toddler teacher; I really, truly understand that.

SPREEUWENBERG:Well, that model sounds like it makes a ton of sense. I really like the staging of, again, the reflection, the focus on the children and why, the focus on the educators and how, and then also ensuring that you include support for vulnerable populations and multi-language learners. It means a ton of sense, how you've structured that.

Now, we're quickly running out of time, as always. I know, it goes fast. If I'm listening to this podcast and I'm keen to learn more about Zero to Three, and specifically the Early Childhood Workforce Innovations Critical Competencies for infant-toddler educators, where would I go to get more information about this?

LEMOINE:Sure. So you can go to ZeroToThree.org. You can go from there to see the multiple things Zero to Three does. If you [go to] ZeroToThree.org/CriticalCompetencies you can get specifically to this model and the work that we're doing.

I think, Ron, I really failed to really talk about some of the details that are underneath those areas. So if we do time I could just share with you some of those sub-areas…?

SPREEUWENBERG: Yes, please do.

LEMOINE: So for the foundation we know supporting social-emotional development is so integral – all of these are so connected to each other, and we do try and do that. But under supporting social-emotional development we have sub-areas and break them out into things like building warm positive and nurturing relationships, providing consistent and responsive caregiving, supporting emotional expression and regulation, promoting socialization, guiding behavior, [and] promoting children’s sense of identity and belonging. So that gives you a sense of some of the categories. And we do break down under supporting development, and supporting language and literacy as well.

One of the things about the models that really excites me is when we get down to the specific behaviors, and we look at things and interactions and say, “Am I using their name on this activity on a daily basis? Am I sitting in close proximity? Am I sitting near the babies? Am I positioning them?” They have very specific skills in there that I wish I had had when I was an educator to think about and how it connects, and how powerful that is when you look into that baby’s eyes as you're feeding them, or as you're changing their diaper and you babble and coo back to them.

A lot of times people have training their focus from older children, and they realize it's important to support language and literacy, for example. But they come back and they look at a six-month-old that they work with and say, “Oh my goodness, I'm not sure how to do serve-and-return here when they are pre-verbal, and when they're babbling at me. How do I structure this? How do I do it?” That's what we're after in here – we want to increase that toolkit, and then tension-release all that.

SPREEUWENBERG: Very informative. I think the other thing that I really like about what you're doing Zero to Three is really bringing to light the professionalization of the field of early-childhood education, which I also think is very, very, very important. And bringing to light, not just to educators themselves but society at large, just the level of skills and capabilities required to be an early-childhood professional. When you start going into that level of the Critical Competencies sub-areas you start to understand, “Wow, this is complicated stuff.”

LEMOINE: It sure is. And I think we do a lot of systems work around the professionalization and compensation issues that we know are really dire. In particular the infant-toddler workforce is the most under-resourced and the most undervalued, and we know now with the new research, it’s, like, one million neural connections a second for infants and toddlers are happening. And the fact that an educator can buffer toxic situations and set someone on that pathway, that's forming the foundation for their whole life. This is why when I started talking with you, Ron, I said these are Critical Competencies, but the critical factor is that educator. What they're doing each and every second makes such a tremendous difference for the trajectory of that baby or that toddler. It's an incredible job. No, it's not rocket science. Yes, it is brain science.

SPREEUWENBERG: That clear misalignment between how important it is for children to develop between 0 and 3, and that dire situation of how little educators are compensated to have such a critical role in society. So we'll keep working away at it, won't we?

LEMOINE:Absolutely, we will. We want to thank every day and raise up how important the job that's being done by the infant-toddler educators to support our whole globe, right? To support our global citizenry.

SPREEUWENBERG: Totally, totally. Well, Sarah, thank you so much for coming on the show today. It's a very informative session about Zero to Three and what you're doing with workforce innovations. Very important – very, very important – work for professional development in early-childhood education. And I love the fact how it's very grounded in research, and of course focused ultimately on promoting positive childhood outcomes. So thank you so much for coming on the show, again, Sarah.

LEMOINE:Ron, Thank you. And thanks for all you're doing for our early-childhood care and education workforce.


LEMOINE:Take care, Ron.

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