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“Without it, I would have to find easier work”: a new report describes reflective supervision in the field

Researchers at the Reflective Practice Center have published a new report, “What Does Reflective Supervision/Consultation Look Like in Practice: Examining Variation in Implementation,” based on findings from a nationwide landscape survey. They conducted the survey in partnership with the Alliance for the Advancement of Infant Mental Health in 2018. They wanted to find out how reflective supervision is being implemented in different workplaces and what recipients of reflective supervision think of it. Read their earlier report on training for reflective supervisors.

Reflective supervision, also known as reflective supervision/consultation (RSC), is a type of relationship-based professional development. The practice originated in the field of infant and early childhood mental health and has been adopted by related fields because of its ability to help reduce burnout and increase effectiveness among people in helping professions, such as social workers, educators, and health care workers.

The researchers set out to learn how reflective supervision is being implemented in the field. For example, the researchers wanted to find out whether individual or group reflective supervision was more common. The most common format, reported by 49% of respondents, was a combination of the two. Forty percent (40%) said they had group meetings only, and 10% said they had individual meetings only. 

Two women sit at a table talking
Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

The researchers also wondered if people in the field were receiving the minimum recommended “dose” of reflective supervision: an hour every month. A minority of survey respondents (21% of participants in individual RSC and just 7% of group participants) reported receiving reflective supervision less than one hour per month.

Frequency of RSCIndividualGroup
Weekly25.6%10.0%
Biweekly21.1%31.7%
Monthly30.8%51.7%
Less than monthly20.5%6.7%
Length of RSC
Less than one hour10.3%3.3%
One hour53.8%15.0%
One and a half hours23.1%41.7%
Two hours12.8%40.0%

The survey also yielded evidence that recipients of reflective supervision found it to be valuable. One common theme that emerged from respondents’ written comments was a sense that reflective supervision helped them process emotions that arose in their work.

“I find myself really valuing reflective supervision to process all the trauma, triggers, and other challenging aspects of the job,” reported one respondent. Another wrote, “Without it, I would have to find easier work.”

Others mentioned that they gained a better sense of how their work mattered, including getting “affirmation of my value.” And many respondents mentioned that reflective supervision, whether in groups or one-on-one, was a helpful way to get new ideas to try out with their client families. Some stated that reflective supervision made them more effective in their work with families and even helped them in their relationships with coworkers.

Because the sample size was limited (n = 67), lead researcher Alyssa Meuwissen, PhD, cautions that this paper should not be read as a definitive statement about the implementation and reception of reflective practice nationwide. Rather, it is an important first step in outlining possible avenues of inquiry for future studies, such as: 

  • How variation in frequency affects the efficacy of reflective supervision
  • How group and individual reflective supervision differ
  • How common online reflective supervision is and whether it is equally effective

“This preliminary study helped us get a sense of who is getting reflective supervision and what they think of it,” says Meuwissen. “It also taught us a lot about the gaps that remain in our knowledge. We can use the information from this survey to start to fill in those gaps with future studies.”

Download the report.

A vicious circle: how the child care staffing crisis leads to real consequences for children

By Ann Bailey, PhD

Picture of Ann Bailey

One of the most rewarding parts of my job as a program evaluator is interviewing early childhood professionals about their perceptions of the programs in which they work. I love talking with people who are in the field every day, and their observations often make me think differently about the work that we do at CEED.

Recently an educator told me a story about her work that stayed with me. She told me about a young child who was displaying challenging behaviors in his center-based preschool program. This child–let’s call him Ryan–was expelled from the program. Expulsions from preschool and child care, unfortunately, are not news to anyone in the early childhood sector. Walter Gilliam and others have been publishing research on suspension and expulsion in early childhood settings since 2006. As an early childhood researcher, I know that expelling a child because of challenging behavior is often a result of adult intolerance, adults not having the necessary skills to support the child’s needs, and/or implicit and explicit bias.

The educator explained, however, that in this case the reason for Ryan’s expulsion was staff retention. The program director told her that it was more important to retain staff than to work with Ryan to develop more appropriate behavior. The director explained that it is just too difficult to find qualified personnel these days. If a staff member became so frustrated with Ryan’s behavior that they decided to quit, the director would have trouble finding a replacement. Once a replacement was found, they would need to spend countless hours–and dollars–getting that new teacher the training necessary to do the job well.

I’ll be honest: my initial reaction to the story was judgmental. Ryan needed help learning new skills and behaviors through caring relationships with adults. I was incensed that he had been expelled. After a moment, however, my reflective training kicked in, and I realized that the story I had just heard was much more complex than it had originally seemed.

Perspective-taking

As CEED staff members, we do our best to put the tenets of reflective supervision into practice. In the words of the Alliance for the Advancement of Infant Mental Health, reflective supervision can “help professionals develop the capacity to shift perspective, address personal biases, set boundaries, and slow down, observe, and listen.” I thought about the other people who were involved in Ryan’s story. What might they be thinking and feeling? How might their needs and wants have influenced the director’s decision?

The educator

First, I thought about Ryan’s teacher. Early childhood professionals expect a certain level of challenging behavior from all children in their care, as it’s often the way young children communicate their needs. We know that some toddlers bite. Maybe it’s for attention; maybe it’s because they’re teething; maybe it’s because they’re frustrated; maybe it’s because they’re dealing with trauma. We can expect some preschoolers to hit, yell, cry, and “act out” for similar reasons.

Early childhood professionals must try to determine the root cause of behaviors like these; it’s their job. They must also help children learn appropriate, alternative communication methods. But as anyone knows who has worked with or parented young children, behavior changes don’t happen overnight. Success requires a lot of time, energy, and practice. And it usually requires all the adults in a child’s life to be coordinated and consistent in their responses to the child.

I pictured myself as the lead teacher in Ryan’s classroom. I’m in charge of 20 preschoolers in a room with one other adult. Let’s say that at least three children regularly display various challenging behaviors. I’m responsible for maintaining all licensing requirements, including the health and safety of all the other children. My job also includes helping all the children meet appropriate learning outcomes. That means I must implement an evidence-based curriculum and collect assessment data to demonstrate developmental changes.

I thought about everything that needs to be accomplished in a classroom like that. If I were Ryan’s teacher, how would I balance maintaining a safe environment where children could learn with addressing a few children’s behaviors? How would I prioritize these different, important tasks? Who would I prioritize?

The parents of Ryan’s classmates

Next, I thought about the parents of other children in Ryan’s classroom. How would I respond if my young child was the target of another child’s challenging behavior? How many times would I be expected to forgive and forget about my child being harmed by a peer before I started looking for a different provider? Even in the absence of physical harm, I would wonder how regularly occurring interruptions impacted my child’s learning and classroom relationships. Perhaps Ryan’s behaviors had been disruptive enough that classmates’ parents had become concerned.

Further complicating matters, many child care programs were forced to close during the pandemic because parents lost jobs or kept children home. This worsened an already critical shortage of providers. Now, as people return to work and demand increases, it may be next to impossible to find another provider if a parent is unhappy with their child’s experience. If I was the parent of one of Ryan’s classmates, I’d be daunted by the process of finding alternative care. Yet I might feel my family was being driven away by Ryan’s behavior.

The program director

Child care directors answer to many different people. On the most basic level, they must ensure that children are safe and that their program meets licensing requirements. If the program is part of a larger organization, they have obligations towards the parent company. They are, of course, responsible for the care and education of the children in their program and are answerable to their families. And they are also responsible for their employees.

I put myself in the director’s shoes. If I was in charge of a child care center, I would be highly attuned to the risk of my staff experiencing burnout. The World Health Organization states that burnout results from “chronic workplace stress” and has three main symptoms: “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.”

Clearly, child care professionals have difficult jobs. They work long hours and are poorly paid; our society also does not give their work the respect it deserves. It should come as no surprise when people who feel unsupported in their work of managing children, including children with challenging behaviors, leave their job for something with less stress and better pay.

Research shows teacher retention is associated with better outcomes for children. As director, I would do my best to keep my staff for the benefit of the children in their care. Furthermore, it isn’t easy to find a replacement when a child care worker quits. Pre-pandemic, turnover rates in child care programs were already between 26-40%. In November 2020, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) reported that of 6,000 survey respondents, 69% stated that recruitment and retention had become even more difficult.

My first instinct had been to blame the director for failing to support Ryan and try multiple solutions to a complex problem. But as I reflected on the sometimes competing pressures on directors, I realized that Ryan’s case presented a genuine dilemma. Ryan desperately needed support and consistency, but the other children in his class also needed their teacher and deserved a calm environment in which to learn and grow. Neither they nor Ryan would be well served if their teacher left. Did Ryan’s needs outweigh those of the other children? Should the director have prioritized supporting Ryan over supporting a staff member?

Ryan’s parents

When a child is expelled from an early childhood program, it is disruptive not just for the child but for their parents. We’ve already seen how difficult it is to find a spot given the severe shortage of providers. I wondered: when Ryan was expelled, how did his parents cope? Were they able to find another high-quality provider, or did they have to settle for a program they didn’t like as much? How long did they have to wait until a spot opened up? Unless they had support from family members, their work schedule might have been disrupted. They might have lost income or even left the workforce altogether.

Then I wondered if the pattern would repeat itself. A child who is expelled from one educational setting often continues their challenging behaviors in the next, risking another expulsion. Would this happen to Ryan? If I were his parent, how would that make me feel? I might be angry or even embarrassed. I might feel powerless to help my child. Or I might come to believe that Ryan was being treated unfairly by the adults who were supposed to help him grow and learn. If that was the case, where would I turn for help?

Ryan

I spent a lot of time thinking about Ryan. We know that for children, healthy learning and growing occurs in the context of quality relationships with important adults in their lives. Ryan, for example, will likely only succeed in changing his challenging behaviors when he receives specific, consistent, age-appropriate support from those important adults.

What if Ryan ends up going from provider to provider without the opportunity to develop a meaningful relationship with an educator? Will other adults in his life, such as family members, have the knowledge, skills, and capacity to provide the kind of support he needs? How will disruptions in his early years affect his academic trajectory going forward? Will he learn to dislike school because of his experiences in child care? Will he develop quality friendships with peers? There are just so many unanswered questions.

No easy answers

Although perspective-taking helped me move beyond my knee-jerk reaction to Ryan’s story, I didn’t come up with a solution for this difficult situation. On the contrary, I ended up with more questions and concerns than when I started.

I’m concerned about the crisis in recruiting and retaining early childhood workers. Staff are experiencing intense burnout because the expectations of them are just too high. They can earn more and experience less stress working at the local big box store. Leaving the child care sector is a rational decision under such circumstances.

I worry that there will be generations of children who experience expulsion more regularly than consistent care. I worry that the children who need high-quality care the most will be expelled rather than have access to relationships and settings where they can grow and learn. Will their progress towards developmental milestones be affected? What behaviors should providers expect to see from these children? Will their attachment to adults beyond their parents or guardians suffer in the long term?

I’m concerned about parents, too. They need high-quality care for their children while they work. When problems arise, I worry that parents will be unable to work with providers to solve them. Will they have other child care options? Will they have the knowledge and skills–and the bandwidth–to advocate for their children? Will setbacks like expulsions impact parents’ relationships with their children?

I’m concerned that Americans don’t understand that quality child care is essential to creating a qualified workforce, a thriving economy, and a functioning society. What does it say about our priorities as a nation when retaining staff and keeping a program’s doors open must take precedence over a child’s need to learn social-emotional skills?

I wish I had easy answers to these questions. My heart aches for children like Ryan who need support. But I can take the perspective of the teacher who is charged with caring for a whole classroom of young children. I can also consider the viewpoint of the director whose livelihood, as well as that of her employees’, depends on the program remaining open. And when I think about the work that we do at CEED–asking the questions and doing the research to untangle these complex problems–I feel hope that they are solvable.

Building Family Resiliency: a new podcast for early childhood professionals

Deborah Ottman
Deborah Ottman

A new podcast aims to support professionals who work with young children and their families by providing accessible information about child development and family relationships. The podcast, entitled Building Family Resiliency: Community Voices, Community Perspectives, is the result of a collaborative effort by Deborah Ottman, professional development coordinator at CEED, and Jennifer Hall-Lande, PhD, research associate at the Institute on Community Integration and CDC Act Early Ambassador to Minnesota. The podcast grew out of a desire to address the additional stressors that Minnesota families have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. These stressors, say Ottman and Hall-Lande, may impact the ability of families to build resiliency.

Jennifer Hall-Lande
Jennifer Hall-Lande, PhD

Building Family Resiliency was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as part of their Learn the Signs Act Early initiative, which encourages families, communities, and organizations to screen children for potential developmental delays early on. Learn the Signs Act Early also offers a wealth of free developmental tools for parents and professionals.

For each episode of the podcast, Ottman interviewed one or more experts or helping professionals from different communities and early childhood fields. Listeners will hear from these guests about different facets of resiliency, from the science of brain development to self-care for child care providers. They will learn about what resiliency can look like across the richly diverse cultures and communities that make up our state. And they will gain information on how adults can best support the healthy development of the children in their lives.

“It was a privilege to sit down with researchers and professionals from different fields, all of whom have children’s wellbeing at heart, and talk about the concept of resiliency,” says Ottman. “My hope is that listeners will find the podcast format to be an easy, enjoyable way to access the information that our experts shared.”

All nine episodes of Building Family Resiliency are available to stream on the Institute on Community Integration’s MN Act Early website and on CEED’s YouTube channel.

Episode 1: “Welcome to the podcast!” with Deb Ottman and Jennifer Hall-Lande, PhD

Episode 2: “What contributes to building resiliency in early childhood?” with Anne Gearity, PhD

Episode 3: “Resiliency and early childhood development” with Alyssa Meuwissen, PhD

Episode 4: “Learn the Signs, Act Early and Help Me Grow: joined links in the resiliency chain” with Jennifer Hall-Lande, PhD, and Anna Paulson

Episode 5: “Filling the resiliency well: childcare providers caring for children, families and themselves” with Priscilla Weigel and Palm Walz

Episode 6: “Community voices, community perspectives: building resiliency in the Latino community” with Andrea Castillo

Episode 7: “Community voices, community perspectives: building resiliency in the Hmong community” with Julie Li Yang and Bao Vang

Episode 8: “Community voices, community perspectives: building resiliency in the African-American community” with Andre Dukes and Sierra Leone Williams

Episode 9: “Community voices, community perspectives: building resiliency in the Native American community” with Karla Sorby Decker

“We’re really excited to share this new resource with early childhood practitioners as well as parents,” says Hall-Lande. “I was delighted to be interviewed for Episode 4, which relates to my work on Learn the Signs Act Early. In that episode, we talk about the importance of screening for developmental delays such as signs of autism spectrum disorder. The science shows that the earlier we catch those signs and intervene with kids, the better the outcomes for kids and their families.”

“Both CEED and the Institute on Community Integration have a shared purpose of supporting the helpers who work with children and families,” adds Ann Bailey, PhD, director of CEED. “This podcast is a new way of providing support, and it’s also a way of saying to that community of helpers: we see you, and we value the work you are doing.”

Listen to the podcast.

Driven by curiosity: a Q & A with Mary McEathron

Mary McEathron

We’re excited to welcome Mary McEathron, PhD, as research associate and lead evaluator of the Trainer and RBPD Specialist Support (TARSS) program. McEathron received her doctorate in evaluation studies at the University of Minnesota and has more than 20 years of experience conducting evaluations and research projects. Before joining CEED, her experience included leading Rainbow Research, a nonprofit community-based research and evaluation organization, as executive director; she was also director of the Evaluation Group at the Institute on Community Integration.

What was the educational or career path that led you to focus on evaluation?

MM: My path to evaluation was very indirect, which is something that I’ve heard from a lot of people in this field. In my case, I studied biology and creative writing for my undergraduate and master’s degrees, after which I worked in nonprofits and program management locally and internationally for a number of years. During that time, program evaluation started to become a more common practice, so I had some familiarity with the basics.

The real pivot point in my career, though, came when my husband and I moved back to the Twin Cities in 2001. When we first arrived here, I worked in a temp job at the University of Minnesota. The unit I was working for needed to do focus groups. I happened to see a flyer for a 3-day workshop offered by the Minnesota Evaluation Studies Institute (MESI) that included a course on focus groups. I said to my manager, “How about I go to this workshop and learn about focus groups?” I got the go-ahead, and at the workshop I met a lot of local leaders in the field and learned that UMN had a degree program in evaluation studies. At the end of the first day of the workshop, my husband asked me, “How did it go?” I told him it looked like I would be going back to grad school!

How would you define evaluation for a layperson?

That’s a great question. When I tell people that I’m an evaluator, they sometimes ask, “What do you evaluate?” When I say I evaluate programs, many people ask, “Why?” People who have worked in grant-funded programs tend to know about evaluation simply because they are required to do it, but unless you have that experience, it may not be at all clear what it means or why it’s important.

What I usually say to people who aren’t familiar with this type of work is that evaluation is applied social science research. An evaluator works with a client or project staff and figures out how to answer questions about their program or project. These can be questions like, “What is working? What is not working? How do we know?” Evaluation pulls from the same set of quantitative and qualitative tools as research. It’s a little hard to generalize about the specific activities involved in evaluation, because there are literally hundreds of approaches.

The bottom line is that programs and organizations want to learn about what they are doing. They want to know what is working and what is not working and why. Sometimes, because evaluation is required by funders, the focus is on accountability. Accountability is important, but my favorite thing is to work with people who are curious. They want to make discoveries about their programs using evaluation tools. I love to help people get in touch with that curiosity—even when they start out thinking that evaluation just means checking a required box on a grant report.

Talk about your role at CEED.

The major focus of my role is evaluating the TARSS program. I’ll also help with other evaluation projects at CEED and provide technical assistance to the whole team for their qualitative research and evaluation programs. Part of why it’s so wonderful to join CEED is that curiosity piece that I mentioned earlier. This team has a great feel for the best uses of evaluation. They approach their work with a desire for knowledge and understanding. So I’m thrilled to join forces with my colleagues and add even more momentum to their work.

What will evaluating the TARSS program look like?

Right now, we are reviewing and implementing our evaluation process. What I can say at this point is that the work of TARSS is to support the full community of early childhood trainers and coaches in Minnesota. That means making sure that the feedback loop through which we gain knowledge about the program is working. What I mean by that is we need to create a cycle of knowledge sharing that includes all our stakeholders: TARSS staff, DHS staff, the practitioners in the field, and the educators whom they serve. We obtain data using different methods—focus groups, one-on-one interviews, surveys, training evaluations, etc.—and then we analyze that data and share it with the early childhood professional development field to help create change and improve programs.

Whatever data-gathering methods we use, it’s important to honor the time and effort it takes for stakeholders to provide us with feedback. We’ll ask people in the field what they need with an emphasis on inclusion so that all voices have the opportunity to be heard. The best decisions are made through that cycle of knowledge sharing.

What are some of your interests outside of work?

I love long walks and hikes in the woods, writing, and cooking dinner with my husband. I’m also really looking forward to farmers markets opening up soon.

“Kids don’t need us to fix everything; they need us to witness it”: Kristin Irrer on social-emotional development

Kristin Irrer

Kristin Irrer, MS, IMH-E®, has more than 20 years’ experience supporting children, their families, and those who care for them. A provider of reflective supervision, she is deeply invested in expanding access to reflective supervision and embedding this practice within infant and early childhood systems, including access for professionals in administrative roles. Irrer teaches CEED’s online courses Understanding Early Social-Emotional Development Using an Infant Mental Health Lens (UESED), Part 1 and Part 2, as well as RIOS™ 1: Using the RIOS™ Framework for Reflective Supervision. She is also the author of our self-study module Why You Matter: Professional Use of Self. We sat down with Irrer to learn more about the process of reformatting UESED into a two-part series. She also talked about what she hopes participants will gain from the course.

Who do you see as the main audience for the UESED courses?

KI: Typically participants work in the infant and early childhood field, but one exciting thing about this course is that the information has really broad application. People who work in any role that supports young children will find this course relevant to their work, whether they are educators, social workers, early interventionists, or administrators, for example. Some participants have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree; others have a master’s degree. Many participants are looking to refresh and reconnect with what they know about their field; others want to learn more about the most up-to-date science. If participants want to take their learning further, these courses can also be applied toward the Supporting Early Social and Emotional Development credential. The credits gained through this coursework can also be applied to obtain or renew Infant or Early Childhood Mental Health Endorsement through the Alliance for the Advancement of Infant Mental Health.

UESED has been reformatted into two 5-week sessions, as opposed to a single, 13-week session. Why break the course into two parts?

We felt the 13-week commitment was a barrier to some students, so we retooled the course to be more accessible. We put a lot of thought into restructuring the coursework to better fit the needs of our busy students. The five-week courses are intended to help students digest the content in a more manageable timeframe. Additionally, we reframed the content to include more self-reflection. You will find more reflective prompts in the course, such as, “This week, casually observe someone in your environment who is interacting with a child aged 3 or under.” We encourage participants to start a journal and write down their thoughts, but they aren’t required to share them. Slowing down and deepening our understanding is an important theme of this class. We hope the two-part series will feel supportive to the very busy participants who are balancing many roles and expectations.

What does it mean to look at social-emotional development through an infant mental health lens?

Infant mental health by definition refers to how well a child develops socially and emotionally in the early years. So when we talk about social-emotional development from an infant mental health perspective, it’s wrapped up in the context of a relationship with an attachment figure and embedded in the culture and community in which the child develops. We are not exclusively looking at the child, we are noticing the whole dyadic system. Relationships are the cornerstone for all young children’s learning. When we are using an infant mental health lens with our work, this concept becomes the centering point for understanding social-emotional development.

You mentioned that a relationship with an attachment figure is key to infant mental health. What is attachment?

Attachment is our emotional bond that connects us to our important people. Infants bring something to this developing system just as adults do: it’s a two-way street. It’s the interactions between an infant and an important adult, over time, that allow the child-and-caregiver dyad to form emotional bonds and a felt sense of connectedness.

The foundation for attachment starts when a baby is born: when the baby displays hunger cues, does someone respond? How do they respond? When the baby fusses, does someone come and figure out what they need? Through these everyday interactions, over time, the baby is learning: “If I cry, does someone comfort me?” In the infant and early childhood field, we sometimes call this interactive behavior of the caregiver and child “serve-and-return.” Through these back and forth interactions, babies learn whether their needs will be met and whether an adult will show up–even if they don’t get the baby’s needs right every time. This attachment relationship becomes our roadmap of how to be in the world with others. Our primary attachments are alive in all of us, even as adults.

What does it mean to say a child is “securely” or “insecurely attached”?

Securely attached infants learn to trust that adults will respond to them and take care of their needs.They experience adults who are sensitive and are attuned to their bids for interaction. Adults can behave in ways that allow the child to feel more secure or a little more anxious or insecure in the relationship. If a person develops an insecure style of attachment, it can take one of three forms: avoidant, ambivalent, or disorganized. Children who we would consider to be in the “insecure” categories of attachment relationships experience adults who are less consistent, nurturing, or responsive to their needs. Children then adapt their own behaviors to get their needs met. Most of us in the field can’t “diagnose” attachment styles, but we most certainly can notice parent or caregiver and child behaviors that give us good information about the attachment relationship.

What would be some symptoms of disorganized attachment?

Disorganized attachment refers to a situation where rather than being a source of comfort, the adult in the attachment relationship is a source of alarm. The adult’s behavior is too unpredictable or scary for the child to grow to trust them. This way of being leaves the child in a constant state of fear. Typically trauma is embedded in disorganized attachment styles.

Attachment relationships influence how children treat others and how they expect others to treat them. Outside the context of their family, children who experience a disorganized primary relationship might display extreme behaviors that look like escalation, disorganization, fear, or anger. These children may be unable to go to an adult for help, because their expectation is that adults cannot be trusted and may harm instead of help.

A major theme in the UESED courses is the idea that we adults bring our whole selves–including our trauma and our relationship history–to our interactions and relationships with children. This is true of parents and caregivers and it’s also true of those of us who work with children. This is an important piece that we tend to overlook when we are solely focused on a child’s development, and it allows us to think more deeply about social-emotional foundations and developmental milestones. We can remind ourselves, “Adults are part of this developing emotional system, too.”

Can an attachment figure be someone other than the child’s parent or primary caregiver?

Yes! We call these secondary attachment figures. I think it’s especially important to talk about them in the context of the stress, upheaval, and trauma that COVID-19 has caused in many families’ lives. Who else is important in our children’s lives, besides their parents or primary caregiver? Along with primary attachments, these other significant relationships hold important potential to buffer stress for children. This also speaks to the fact that we need to do a better job at supporting child care providers and others who work with young children, because their emotional selves show up in those important secondary attachment relationships.

You mentioned that the information in this course is applicable even for people who don’t work directly with children.

Absolutely. It is important that supervisors, policymakers, and administrators continually consider children’s perspectives and emotional experiences. Again, adopting that lens means taking into account the fact that social-emotional development is something that happens in the context of a relationship. This is tricky, because a relationship is difficult to see, target, talk about, or put a number on. But take a moment to wonder: what if supervisors and administrators, even though they’re sitting at desks instead of standing in a classroom, bring this lens into their work? They have the capacity to make decisions with the knowledge that anything they do affects relational outcomes for kids, from filling in forms to determining funding. What a powerful lens to hold for babies and families!

This is the crux of what I hope people get out of the class: the notion that social-emotional development is dependent upon relationships. Armed with this understanding, you can more deliberately be a foundation for social-emotional growth and development, no matter your role in the field. Prioritizing early attachments that play a crucial, lifelong role in our overall development is essential for healthy outcomes for babies.

Is social-emotional development different during pandemic times?

A lot of us have questions about how all of this is affecting kids emotionally. Learning about brain development is a big piece of this class. And I like to reassure people that brains are still developing during the pandemic!

We know that at baseline children will continually work to make sense of their experiences in the world, usually through play. This is especially true in times of uncertainty, change, and stress. I’ll give you an example. My four-year-old was playing tag with neighbors’ children. They were playing “COVID tag.” I asked him, “How does that go?” He said, “Well, if you get tagged, you have COVID, and you sit down. The only thing that can rescue you is the vaccine. You have to get tagged by the vaccine to get up and play again.” This was such a great illustration of my son and his friends using social games as a framework for making sense of the confusing times we are experiencing. Kids have wonderful abilities to sort through their significant emotional experiences and make sense of them.

I think one message of this course is that you don’t have to necessarily “fix” social-emotional development, even under stressful circumstances like a pandemic. By just showing up and being with children, noticing them, you are supporting children’s development. This is true of adults, too, by the way. This is really the magic of what relationships give us. One of the biggest predictors of our capacity to be resilient is our primary attachment styles. In other words, the responsiveness that adults show to our emotional needs influences our level of resilience. Kids don’t need us to fix everything; they need us to witness and be with them in it. This simple act boosts their social-emotional development.

Helping child care providers reach their goals: a Q & A with Kami Alvarez, professional development specialist in Minnesota’s Department of Human Services

Professional Development Specialist Kami Alvarez oversees the Trainer and RBPD Specialist Support (TARSS) grant as part of her role in the Minnesota Department of Human Services. In this Q & A, she shares her perspective on the professional development landscape for child care providers in Minnesota. She explains how the state’s professional development system for child care providers works. She also provides insight into how trainings are developed and delivered.

Kami Alvarez

Thank you for taking time to share your perspective with our readers! You work in the Child Care Services Division within the Department of Human Services. Can you give us an overview of that unit’s work?

KA: We have two units within the Child Care Services Division. One unit oversees the Child Care Assistance Program. This program provides subsidies for child care to low-income families. The second unit is called Child Development Services (CDS). I work in CDS. We are primarily focused on quality measures. We oversee Parent Aware, which is Minnesota’s voluntary quality rating and improvement system for child care providers. We also serve child care providers in Minnesota by helping them access professional development and improve the quality of their programs.

My own work is focused on professional development for child care providers. Minnesota’s professional development system for child care providers was mandated in a state statute in 2007. So the state government has certain responsibilities to providers. The system was set up to help child care providers of many different types to reach their professional development goals. That can mean training, mentoring, consultation, and more. My team makes sure child care providers have access to those things.

What are the main reasons why child care providers seek out professional development?

There are three main reasons for providers to participate in professional development. The first reason is in order to obtain or maintain a license to provide child care. There are different license types that are issued by the Department of Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General. We often say that they’re the regulatory folks and we’re about quality. Achieving that license is a minimum standard.

When a provider is licensed, they need certain training. Licensing gives us the standards the training must meet: hours, topics, and so on. We design the training and for the most part we work with grantees who deliver the training.

The second reason is to participate in Parent Aware. Providers want to do their jobs well so that the kids they serve have more skills and more opportunities to learn. Parent Aware looks at raising the quality of child care so that children are ready for kindergarten. We have trainings for in-home providers and center staff that help raise program quality and help providers achieve higher Parent Aware ratings.

The third reason is that providers are seeking ways that they can advance their careers with short- and long-term professional development goals. Often, people join this field with no postsecondary education. We help them advance their careers, for example, by funding professional development advisors in all areas of the state. These career advisors sit down with providers and help them plan: “What training and education do I have? What are my goals? Where do I want to be? How do I get there? How do I fund it?”

CEED recently became the home of the Trainer and Relationship-Based Professional Development (RBPD) Specialist Support (TARSS) program. How does TARSS fit into your work?

The professional development team here at CDS makes grants to organizations that serve child care providers. We’re responsible for policies and fiscal management, and we help grantees develop procedures to serve child care providers. The grantees then directly provide services like training and coaching.

TARSS is one of these grantees. The program supports trainers and RBPD specialists—people like coaches, mentors, and classroom observers. They work directly with child care professionals, providing health and safety coaching, mental health coaching, professional feedback, and other important services.

Your background is in social work. What was the career journey that brought you to professional development?

I worked for many years as a social worker in nonprofits and then in child protection and welfare in county government. I have experience in adoption, home studies, and child care licensing. My bridge to DHS was that in 2008 I started working for the Minnesota child welfare training system for foster parents, social workers, and supervisors. I led foster parent training and curriculum development, all of which we did in house.

In 2016, I moved from that division to the Child Care Services Division to work on our state-owned curriculum. We’re responsible for more than 300 professional development courses that are delivered statewide. We fund and administer Develop, an online tool where providers can take courses and track their professional development. Our state-owned courses are available in Develop along with other training opportunities. I also work with the Child Care Aware training and delivery system. So I collaborate with trainers, course writers, and all of our grantees that work on regulating, approving, and delivering trainings.

Are there new courses coming soon in Develop that readers should keep an eye out for?

Yes, we will soon be offering a set of courses on trauma-responsive care that are designed for child care providers. Up until now, we have not had anything in our system that was specific to what child care providers can do around trauma-responsive care. I’m really looking forward to introducing these courses.

Do you develop the curriculum for courses like those?

In this case, I participated in a collaboration with the federal Office of Child Care. In addition to the federal workers, our committee convened people from 14 or so different states. We met over the course of about half a year to work on the curriculum. The Office of Child Care came up with a draft, and the rest of us helped shape and refine it. We also had input as to how it should be delivered in our states. So I am not the writer of this curriculum, but I helped create, shape, and Minnesota-ize it, you might say!

What are things you think about when designing a training or curriculum?

In instructional design for this audience, I have to be very mindful that the curriculum must be delivered statewide to all Minnesotans. What that means, in terms of the construction and content of a course, is that the activities, examples, and graphics have to be representative of the diversity of our communities in Minnesota. We design content with an equity lens to make sure that it’s going to be applicable in the metro, in rural Minnesota, on a reservation, in an urban community. We’re intentional and thoughtful about the different pieces that we put in—we’ve got to make sure that the information is useful and that it will actually be applicable. Providers don’t have a lot of time to participate in professional development each year, so we work hard to make sure they get what they need during that limited time.

I also think about empowering trainers, because in this field they may work with very diverse providers from different backgrounds. The providers also may have very different jobs. Center staff, family child care providers, center directors, substitute child care workers—these are really different roles. So when I think about a topic and how we talk about it, I make sure it is not specific to one type of role or one geographic location or one level of formal education. Often that means that trainers need to have multiple options to give them the flexibility to say, “Tonight I have a group of mostly family child care providers versus another role, so I’m going to present the information this way.”

The trainer has to gauge the room with a lot of emotional intelligence. A lot of times when we start out a training with icebreaker questions, it’s so that the trainer can figure out who is in the room. Then they can flex the content and activities while still maintaining the important points. This is very challenging work compared with something like training people to use a software program. Minnesota has a wide variety of communities, and a trainer can’t assume, for example, that their audience is college educated or that their first language is English. Meanwhile, these trainings are about topics that are serious in nature—health and safety, things like abusive head trauma or SIDS. So trainers have to ensure that the information is getting across.

Since your work is mandated by the legislature, do laws that get passed affect your work and impact what you do?

Yes, both federally and at the state level. On a day to day basis, there’s a regular cycle of the legislature. We’re a part of that, particularly when it has to do with changes to license types and training requirements. Often, the legislature asks for technical assistance from my unit to understand the professional development system, courses, and trainers. A lot of decisions are made based on what is in statute. So when a statute changes, I have to change our courses.

There are also different federal funding streams that come to our unit. The law tells us what we need to do with that money. Some funding for federal initiatives passes through state governments to grantees. Some work we accomplish in house. Whatever the case, we need to do the work and document it, and then it is audited both at the state and federal level.

Sometimes, federal funding has a broader description because it is distributed nationwide, and things look different in Alabama versus Alaska, for example. So the federal government says, “Here is what the money is for; you figure out how to do the work in Minnesota.” In those cases, we put on our thinking caps, come up with our best plan, and execute the plan, often through a grant contract. We monitor the work and report back to the federal government regularly: What did we do? What did it cost? What change did we accomplish?

Does the legislature consult you about legislation or changes to legislation that they are considering?

Yes, they often ask for fiscal notes, data, and technical perspectives. They might ask, “How much would it cost to implement this? How could we make this happen in a certain framework?” Sometimes they request data around the people we serve and how we serve them. They want to get a sense of the potential impact if they change something. Who will be affected? Who will not be affected? Sometimes they are considering putting forward a new policy, so they ask for statistics that give them a fuller picture of a proposal’s effects and how it will be carried out.

What do you do in your free time (assuming that you have any free time!)?

I’m a Girl Scout leader. My daughter, who is twelve, has been in Girl Scouts since first grade. I enjoy being outdoors and doing activities like archery and kayaking. I also like to travel—when we don’t have a pandemic! When we’re at home, we enjoy our two rescue cats.