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Creating a culture of community in your preschool

Creating a culture of community in your preschool

July 19, 2016 | By Ron Spreeuwenberg
This is a transcript of the Preschool Podcast, episode #1 "Creating a culture of community in your preschool”.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi, I'm Ron Spreeuwenberg co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things early childhood education. Today I speak with Debbi Sluys the Director of Growing Together Family Resource Centre in Blenheim, Ontario. Deb has many years of experience in early childhood education and I thought she would be a great person to host on the podcast because in her years of experience she has the perspective from being a teacher on the ground to being the director of a child care program with multiple locations.

We talk about what has changed in early childhood education since she first started in the field. And what has made Growing Together such a successful organization, in particular the progressive culture that encourages discussion, learning, leadership and a sense of community. Welcome to the first episode of our podcast stick around because I think you'll enjoy it. Where I wanted to start off with this was just to get a little bit of background about you and who you are. And then from there maybe why you decided to work in the field of early childhood education.

Debbi SLUYS: So I've been with this organization Growing Together for 26 years. I started as the school teacher which I'm always very proud of. You know that it's sort of sometimes you know it gets a bad rap with school age and having it be you know a split second before and after. But I love that age group and did the summer camp and then within I think about three or four months the supervisor decided that she was going to go to another position and I applied for it. So I was one of the newest and I think the youngest the staff at that time and sort of just jumped in to the position of being a supervisor. And then we just grown the organization and it started out at a facility that was for people with mental and physical disabilities. In those days they built institutions and this was for the employees that work there for the workplace childcare which was sort of ahead of its time. And so I've always been really blessed with a very progressive Board of Directors and they had the foresight to grow our organization and now we have four locations. School-based locations and we have a staff of about 65 educators and cooks and administrative staff. And I love what I do.I still very much love what I do.

So personally I'm a mom. I have four children and I was blessed to have them come with me to the child care, grew up here as well. And as of late in the last number of years I've been able to be the director versus more of a program supervisor and I really enjoyed my role of being a visionary for our organization and working with our board of directors and developing our core values and then living them out and teaching those to our staff and doing professional development not only with in-house with our own staff but within our community and also starting to do it more in the local areas in our province as well and I really enjoy that role.

SPREEUWENBERG: That's awesome. Ok so I just want to pick up on a couple of the points there. You said you started working with school aged children including in camps and you really loved working with that age group. Do you think that influenced you in any way in terms of how you approached working more in the early childhood education age group?

SLUYS: I think so. I definitely where we were was really in a rural area and we had complete access to all of the grounds. And so I really enjoyed connecting the early years with nature and we still very much have a focus on that with our summer camp. And when we can with our P.A. days that we know we try to use the ratio of 60:40 that were outside 60 percent of the time and indoors 40 and you know and even more so if need be and even though the ministry sets the guideline of you know two hours outside when it's nice weather we do as much of our programming outdoors as possible having snack outside having picnics for lunch. So really incorporating that piece. So I think that's been an influence on me and then I've been able to bring that with me to our organization and our educators embrace it for sure.

SPREEUWENBERG: Cool I know that that is a big trend. Sort of the push towards more time outside more exposure to nature. Is there any other big trends or things that you've seen change in your 26 years at Growing Together I'm sure there has been a lot of changes. But what really stands out to you is what's changed a lot and what you've been doing in this space in the last 26 years.

SLUYS: I think one of the most noticeable changes is in our environment. So when I initially began our playground equipment certainly wouldn't be the standard today but there was that whole nature element where we had to climber or made out of wood. And we had a slide built into a hill and then we saw a trend in the early 90s that took all of that out and was replaced with plastic and also within the classroom.

You know there was a lot like plastic kitchens and everything was Representative done in plastic like an apple with a plastic Apple for example and now we've seen it sort of swing back to more natural materials also around creativity and imagination is encouraged that it doesn't have to look like an apple in order to be representative of an apple. For example in any kitchen center you might have bowls of paper that become food for the children in the imagining or they're creating their own things in the art center that would then be used for food. In imagination way so we've seen a real swing back to loose materials and much more creativity around what we offer to the children in toy materials but also this in their overall environment.

SPREEUWENBERG: Interesting and what type of impact do you think that has on children's learning and development taking that more natural view of things more natural spaces environments where there might be more creativity more imagination applied is that the key part of it.

SLUYS: It's a piece of it. I mean we've about 10 years ago transformed from a theme based very much more of a regimented kind of schedule to an emergent approach which allows the children to get so much more freedom and liberty. And we've seen we saw such a decrease in what typically called behaviors, inappropriate behaviors. And you know we use behavior management and all of that has changed as well. They're working through a lot of new words that have come into our vocabulary which is wonderful that words matter and you know talking about heat or guidance. So I think what we've seen is children more relaxed more at peace just even in our lighting that you know that we're offering to the children that is softer we're conscious of the noise level in the classroom.

You know do we need to have extra music playing or can the staff you know or the children themselves be singing and that the music that we're going to offer or we have musical instruments available so just being very conscious of the overall environment and creating a peaceful one that children feel that they matter. It also should be representative of them. So we want to create a home-like environment. So just like in your home you would have pictures of your family you would have pictures of yourself doing various things and they be authentic they wouldn't be like a cartoon picture of a child or a cartoon picture of a dog. It would actually be their dog. So we want the environment to be representative of the people that live there. And so that gives the children a sense of belonging a sense of community and a sense of peace and also that they can feel free to express themselves.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah. And when you when you speak about it, it seems like it makes so much sense. Yeah there was a time when it sounds like we might have deviated from that a little bit. But it sounds like it's great that we're sort of moving back in that direction and I know I'm just picking up on some of the words that you're saying now and I know you said some of the vocabulary has changed and there's some new vocabulary in the field and I know one of the things that is kind of a hot topic right now in Ontario where you are is how does learning happen. And I just wanted to get your sense of how that might have helped shape or influence any of your vision that growing together or how you've seen that being implemented in other centers or other regions as well.

SLUYS: Well I think what's really exciting is we talk about vocabulary and that when you use a certain term like what is the image of a child you're all speaking the same language meaning you as in people that are in the early years field and that could be somebody that is you know a speech pathologist or it could be you know early childhood educator. It could be the JK STK teacher but you're using similar language and vocabulary. So that's really exciting where it's it unites us and it gives us a common goal as well for what we what we want and what do children deserve. We can talk in all kinds of terms. So for us it's really exciting to know that the government is promoting this provincial government you know to say that the image of a child is that they're curious competent capable and full of potential and that's exciting to me to know that that's being promoted through legislation. Yeah and that we're united in that.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah absolutely. And speaking from someone who's had exposure to other jurisdictions beyond Ontario it's great to see that. How does learning happen come out. It's a pretty I would say bold document in terms of where the Ministry of Education wants to take pedagogy in the province but it's great to see them being bold and taking those steps to really be, I would say a place where other countries and states may look to for ideas about early childhood education. So I think it's great as well. I just wanted to step into a bit of a different direction now and talk a little bit more about growing together specifically so I know just recently the Chatham Daily News voted you Readers Choice as Best Childcare in Chatham-Kent.

SLUYS: I can tell you what I'm proud of that we offer here and I think one of the main focus is the family and we value family very highly. Our board of directors does it meaning that when they make decisions it's through the lens of how is going to benefit our families. So we definitely hold the child in the centre of all that we do but we also surround that with understanding what the family and included in that is our staff. So as I said we have 65 employees and they also are all part of families. So we are very conscious of the fact that balancing work and their family life and have policies human resources policies that work to support our educators as mothers or fathers. And we've recently hired a couple of males that's exciting and we also see ourselves as a family meaning that are our employees as a team we really react to one another as a family and a great supportive way.

We have like a little private group off of our Facebook page where it's called inspired ECEs and it's just you know a small group just for our employees where they can project to one another and it's wonderful. You know somebody will have done something exciting and they post it and an educator from another centre you know across town will you know “Wow way to go that you know that's a fantastic idea. I hadn't thought about that.” Oh you know what. I've got some materials that could extend that if you're interested. So really to see that. But you know on a personal level too if somebody lost a grandmother or something you know they're all banding together as a family so that definitely is one of the characteristics I would say that I'm very proud of is that our focus is on the family.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah that's that's one thing that really stands out for me about growing together is the culture there. And you know the way you've described it about creating a family a community within it and extending it right out to the families and the staff as well. Sounds like a really great approach where everybody is part of that community and it's you talked about some ideas about how you've gotten that sort of community aspect growing together. Is there any other tips that you might have for other child care programs out there about how you can create that type of a culture because culture is a really hard thing to I guess create because it kind of is very an organic thing. But is there anything that you know you've been able to do to kind of help get to that family feeling there.

SLUYS: I would say that it starts with our core values so that in hiring the right educator who believes in what we believe. And then you know also offering additional training for example there's a professional development called bridges out of poverty which has just shifted my thinking in such a dramatic way and really more than even empathy but really helped me understand families in different situations. So having that understanding makes you also realize that families are all unique and different. So one line a way of communication isn't going to benefit everyone you need to layer in the way that you're offering dialogue. And I've also just recently been thinking more about how we're offering opportunities for social media. And I receive some feedback that for example my Facebook page felt more like a marketing page to me.

I was stunned and I thought oh well you know I think I have to think about that. I want to make sure that families feel that they can dialogue back that they can respond. So I need to ask meaningful questions then that will generate those kinds of discussions versus just you know being one way that it looks like a billboard on my Facebook page versus opening for discussions. So yeah. So those are some tips this is to you know offer a variety of ways that parents can connect with you. And obviously we just did our parents survey and right up there with face to face communication is HiMama. So parents totally love that we offer HiMama and they see it as valuable as having that face to face conversation with your educator.

SPREEUWENBERG: The whole survey thing I think is a really fabulous idea for any child care programs that are doing surveys now I know I personally would highly recommend that as sort of like the easiest way to just get some honest feedback from parents even if you make it anonymous so just to make sure you're getting that really candid feedback about how you can make improvements to your programs because like you said family should be really at the center of all the decisions that you're making there. So that's really awesome that you've even taken the time to do that survey and then talk about candidly how you might be able to improve what you're doing on social media to get parents engaged and I know that's a problem for a lot of organizations like even us as HiMama too. There's always that challenge of you know how do you get your or your audience to engage in discussions back with you as opposed to just sort of posting information out there for them to read.

SLUYS: Right

SPREEUWENBERG: I just wanted to make a connection between a couple of other things that we've talked about. So a couple of things you said that have changed quite a bit over the years. So the environments that are in early learning spaces and this move from theme based to immersion curriculum and sort of a more homelike environment as well. How have parents and families reacted to that, if at all? Have you gotten any feedback from them where they've noticed the changes. I do recall one thing I was reading about you is that you actually had some parents in your program and now their children are in your program which is really amazing. So have you heard anything from them about you know how things have changed over the years.

SLUYS: The one thing that families do talk about is the care that children receive and the attention and the but that hasn't changed. So I you're right I get really emotional almost when I see grandparents that used to be my parents come and knowing that children that were here value what they received in their childhood from us and honoring us you know by bringing their own children here. So it's a really neat cycle. And that's one thing that I've also noticed in recent years is how many more grandparents are involved in the direct care of their children their grandchildren. So we have a lot of contacts with us something else actually I need to think about in terms of communication. For example one thing that we did was we moved all of our learning stories which is formalized documentation that our staff do once a month either on a single child or a group and we move them into a hallway. So it's all together because we notice grandparents would stop and read what was there where parents are tend to be more in a rush and you know rushing here and there to work or school were grandparents you know that maybe that extra time to do so.

So we want to make it convenient for them to participate in that. So to answer your question around and have parents noticed a shift I think initially when we introduce the immersion approach there was the fear of my child getting ready for school. I think that was probably one of the most common questions we had. But that gradually has there's been an understanding of what we're doing through the documentation through like HiMama when we you know are sending activities with the skills and domains from the continuum. The elect document you know families have are growing with their understanding about and all about and their language and vocabulary is also extending through that use too.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah that's a good point. I know that's one thing that we're quite passionate about is part of your role is also educating the parents on what you're doing in the classrooms. And I think that's a key part of helping them to understand you know why play based learning is beneficial to children's development for example. And I hope the HiMama tool has been able to help you to do that. One of the things that I wanted to touch on just a little bit further was you mentioned that you used to be more involved sort of on the ground in the classroom. So let's say in a supervisory capacity or working with the children directly and you've now had the opportunity to kind of step back a little bit and take a bit of a different view and think a little bit and reflect a little bit more perhaps on some of the things you might change or the directions you might want to go with Growing Together. Do you think that's been valuable for growing together for you to be able to have that additional time to reflect on you know where are we going and what are the things that we can improve or change.

SLUYS: Absolutely. And it's something that our Board of Directors has also embraced on the other end of the spectrum, we've also really changed the way that we're doing professional development with our own staff and our own team where you know we're really trying not to do the drive through type of training where it's very one dimensional and you have the lecturer at the front you know giving the information to people who only retain a small portion of that. And what we want is we want our educators to work with the material to be thinking about it to own it to expand their own thinking to build on what they already know.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah I know. You know speaking from my position that's something that I feel like I've noticed has really changed even just in the last couple of years is really this push on educators to challenge the status quo challenge the thinking and do more critical thinking on there and in terms of you know what they're doing in the classroom day to day. And also sometimes looking a little bit further out like you said which you know maybe correct me if I'm wrong I don't think was really something that you would be doing as an early childhood educator ten years ago let's say.

SLUYS: No because we didn't feel that we were the experts. We felt that we needed to be sort of caught up you know about these things and by thinking about these things and applying new knowledge new research that's coming out so fast and furious and then looking at our own practice and thinking how does that fit into how I'm educating and how I'm working with children. Then you can then contribute and share that back as well.

SPREEUWENBERG: I completely agree with you on that point. And just taking it one step further I think leadership and in early childhood education is so important right now. How do you think we can develop more leaders the leaders of tomorrow in early childhood education?

SLUYS: Well I sort of conflicted on this because we have such a variety of personalities here and there are some that definitely like to be more behind the scenes. I've learned that discovered that when I asked the staff how do they like to be acknowledged for a job well done and very few liked. Sort of you know at the front of the staff meeting and to be you know it's a big hurrah. Most of them like that you know please just come in and notice the details the small things and just thank me. You know on a one to one kind of level so I worry sometimes people view what is leadership. Is it standing in front of people or leading that way. And so that's something that I'm thinking more about who is what. What is the leader and how do they lead here.

Growing Together we tend to lead as a servant leader and I tend to lead from behind, where I'm coaching encouraging inspiring but I don't need to be out front and I'll always try to do it with a spirit of kindness. So an empathy that I try to put myself in their shoes. So how to do that is to provide individuals with opportunities for leadership and to talk to them about where they want to go so in performance evaluation I'm talking about what they currently are doing or researching or where do they want to go. And then how can they share that. Would you like to write on the blog. Would you like to discuss this at a staff meeting? Would you like to discuss this you know within your own classroom with your colleagues how do you see yourself as a leader. So it's about encouraging it but also recognize in everyone you meet.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah that's actually very insightful. There's absolutely different types of leadership. And what I hear you saying is we need to recognize what those different forms of leadership might take and different people might lead in different ways which I think is absolutely true and then giving them those opportunities to lead. I do think it is also very important because oftentimes I think in this in this field of early childhood education there might not be that many opportunities. So even not alone I think is in itself a great opportunity to just give them the chance to you know show what they're passionate about. And for different people that might be different things.

SLUYS: And we've had we've seen some of our educators really blossom and like they took on a lead role. But we have a social committee which is primarily made up of our educators and then I just I'm just the money person to help out with the budget piece. But the ideas all come from them. And so if they plan social events for their colleagues and typically few of the ladies that would have been behind the scenes felt more confident and bored by getting in front or reading these kinds of social activities. So it was it's been really exciting to see those leadership qualities grow in unexpected ways.

SPREEUWENBERG: That's so awesome. I love that idea of having your staff lead the social planning. We do that at HiMama as well we have team members who lead the planning of team events and it's great if I think facts you know on you know what child care programs are really successful with. HiMama. And I'm just taking my mom as an example. We find that one of the constant themes is that the directors of these childcare programs really empower their staff to have more control over what they're doing day to day and this is just an example that you've given. But we find that across the board, trusting your staff and giving them the opportunity to learn and grow but then apply their experience and their knowledge and their education on their own really gives them a sense of empowerment that allows them to be successful with things like HiMama and other stuff too. What what's your reaction to that, have you felt that Growing Together.

SLUYS: Absolutely and I'm glad that you pointed that out because it pleases me and that you can see that and that is visible because that's really my personal philosophy is what I would expect that I treat them the way that I want them to treat the children. So we want them to do all the things you just said about giving independence to the children giving them opportunities to learn in their own way to empower them to respect them to be kind like all the things that we want how we want them to interact with children and families. I want to treat my staff in exactly the same way.

SPREEUWENBERG: I really love that. Treat them the way that we would want to treat the children in the classroom that's perfectly said. I think actually what has enabled you do you think to give your staff a little bit more space in terms of maybe how they plan their programs and what they do on a day to day basis what's enabled you to allow them to do that where you can kind of step back and not be you know worried that something's going to go wrong. You can sort of trust them to really use their own experience to deliver programs that are of the quality that you’re going to be proud of.

SLUYS: I wasn't always like this actually 10 years ago we were doubled in size. We were part of a pilot and we received funding and just had a very short period of time where we had to expand. So like any business it's difficult to just pop up and grow that quickly. And I really felt that I needed to maintain control making sure you know I had quality control. So I learned from that because I got pushback from our educators rightfully so and I needed to then figure out and so I realized that time time is a gift. It's a resource I need to give myself time to think to plan and also to develop policies. Policies are also a safety net for administration. It sets up expectations right from the start. So you know to have clear expectations during a staff orientation and we have really lengthened that process as well making it almost a three day process and we start off on staff making sure they really understand what we're about. We just don't throw them in and hope that they swim and then giving time also if we switch up classrooms for example when we have new partnerships. It's like you spend more time with that person and you potentially with your partner you know your spouse.

So we really we want to make sure that you know there's an understanding around how do you like to be communicated, how you know if I'm not doing something well, how would you know your partner can tell you those things without hurting feelings for example or are you more of a person who likes the room organized on a regular basis or are you more free for all or the label just having all kinds of open discussions. Right from the get go. I think are really important. And as administration I can support my staff by giving them time to do so. But I think you've touched on it when you said trust. I need to trust my educators just as I expect them to trust the child. So I also we have checks in terms of what the ministry wants us to do so we do have supervisory regular checks of the class so that we do know that there's any deficiencies or some challenges for staff. We have meetings with them we coach them. We figure it out together and find out what the barriers are or what we can do to support them.

SPREEUWENBERG: Awesome. I know you're just in the small town of Blenheim Ontario but you know to be that leading edge in Chatham-Kent with early childhood education is I think a really massive achievement. So congratulations on that.

SLUYS: Thank you. For me it's what I want for my children. Childhood to me is so precious and so I couldn't be anything less.

SPREEUWENBERG: I have no doubt that one of the best forms of reward that you get is seeing those children that were in your programs years ago coming in with their children today.

SLUYS: I just got goosebumps when you say it. Yeah I love it love it love it.

SPREEUWENBERG: Was amazing. OK wonderful. Last but not least where can people find you online.

SLUYS: The Web site is probably the easiest place that's got all of our other social media outlets on it. On the on the home page.

SPREEUWENBERG: Perfect. And what's the address of the Web site?

SLUYS: www.gtfrc.org

SPREEUWENBERG: Awesome. Thank you Debbi.

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