By Hannah Riddle de Rojas, Program Quality Specialist
In a previous post, Program Quality Specialist Hannah Riddle de Rojas explored two important ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has affected child care providers: financially and operationally. In this follow-up, she addresses the coronavirus’ ongoing toll while looking toward a stronger future for the sector.
As SARS-CoV-2 began spreading in the United States in early 2020, the virus’ impact on child care—a sector that was already in crisis—was immediate. Fortunately, funding to support child care providers was included in coronavirus relief bills at the federal level as early as March 2020.
- On March 27, 2020, Congress provided $3.5 billion to states to shore up the child care sector as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
- On December 21, 2020, Congress extended some of the relief measures included in the CARES Act, passing a new stimulus bill which allocated another $10 billion to the early education field.
- On March 11, 2021, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan, which includes a $39 billion investment in early childhood education.
Despite Congress’ actions in 2020, financial problems for this chronically underfunded sector remained. Congress’ latest allocation of funding is cause for optimism, and it comes at a critical time. After more than a year operating amid the COVID-19 pandemic, child care providers continue to experience constant change and much adversity. Data from a nationwide survey conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) portray a stark financial reality. As of December 2020, when NAEYC released the survey results:
- 56% of child care centers “were losing money each day they remained open,” and
- 44% were “confronting so much uncertainty” that they couldn’t say how much longer they would remain open.
Poignantly, 42% of survey respondents said they had taken on personal debt to buy supplies for their programs, and 39% said they had used money from their personal savings accounts to do so. All of this is against a backdrop in which day-to-day operations are more expensive because of a need to purchase additional cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment as well as, according to 60% of respondents, additional personnel costs when providers or their family members test positive for the virus.
Providers have also made dramatic changes to day-to-day operations in response to new regulations. Daily cleaning and disinfecting routines have been dramatically extended. Stuffed animals have been removed from classrooms. Providers are encouraged to enforce mask mandates for all children ages two and above. A source of stress for providers and families both is the knowledge that a provider may have to close abruptly for weeks if a staff member or a child tests positive for COVID-19. Another stressor, of course, is the looming question of closing permanently. In Minnesota, 63% of respondents to the NAEYC survey reported that they knew of more than one child care provider in their community that had closed for good.
One such provider is Hopkins Early Learning Center (HELC) in Hopkins, MN, which closed its doors on December 18, 2020. Due to the pandemic, the program experienced an unsustainable combination of lower enrollment and increased operational costs. I spoke with Jamie Bonczyk, then the executive director of the program, in September 2020 for an earlier blog post on this topic. I got back in touch with Bonczyk in the wake of her program’s closure to ask if there was a message she’d like to share about the impact of COVID-19 on the child care sector.
“My one thing I would like people to know is that we were a fragile industry before the pandemic,” said Bonczyk. “And we have the opportunity to build back stronger by addressing the ‘big three’: access, affordability and quality.”
When HELC closed its doors, 22 educators and staff lost their jobs and the community lost access to 117 spaces for high-quality child care. At a time when Minnesota is experiencing a child care shortage—the most recent estimate I have seen suggested that another 40,000 spaces are needed to meet demand in greater Minnesota—such loss hits especially hard, especially for parents and their employers.
After publishing that earlier blog post, I heard from Courtney Greiner, director of Mini Mos Child Care and Preschool in Esko, Minnesota. She wrote about her experience and that of her employees.
“The teachers that work here are amazing, kind, showed up when others didn’t,” she wrote.
Greiner’s viewpoint is compelling during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when many of us have used phrases like “essential worker” for the first time. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve come to realize the truly interconnected nature of our society. While our culture tends to prioritize individualism, the many ways in which I depend on others in my community have become clearer.
Of course, Greiner’s words will still apply when we get “back to normal.” Our need for high-quality child care will still exist, as it always has. I hope that we fulfill Greiner’s vision by remembering the dedication of child care professionals who continued to do their jobs so that, as she wrote, the country could continue to run. I hope that we hold onto our acute awareness of the value of their work. And I hope that policymakers seize the opportunity that Bonczyk identified—the opportunity to build the child care system into something better than it was before the pandemic.
Tracy Schreifels, MS, LMFT, IMH-E® (IV), is a therapist, reflective consultant, and Executive Director for Ellison Center, a non-profit early childhood mental health agency in the St. Cloud area. Schreifels teaches in the marriage and family therapy program at St. Cloud State University and is the co-chair of the Advisory Board for the Minnesota Association for Children’s Mental Health – Infant and Early Childhood Division. In addition to teaching CEED online courses, Schreifels authored two of CEED’s self-study modules: A Guide for the Guide: The “How” of Reflective Supervision and The Plot Thickens: Reflective Supervision for Groups. In this Q & A, she discusses A Guide for the Guide.
Who would benefit from enrolling in this module?
Tracy Schreifels: This module is designed for professionals who are preparing to provide reflective supervision, either as supervisors or as consultants. In order to work as providers of reflective supervision, professionals should have a solid foundational understanding of the principles of infant and early childhood mental health. They should also be receiving ongoing reflective supervision. This module will help them marshal that knowledge and experience to transition to providing reflective supervision.
This module would also be useful for those who are moving their reflective supervision practice to a virtual format. I’d add that even when one has been providing reflective supervision for a while, revisiting the topics in this course could be helpful in refining that practice.
What reflections did you have while building the content for this module?
I always enjoy getting back into the literature around the dynamic and growing field of infant and early childhood mental health. As I explored the content and topics for this module, I found myself reflecting on the ways in which I initiate reflective supervision with those to whom I provide it. Reviewing content also made me more intentional and more aware of why I do what I do when I am getting started with a new supervisee. So although this module is called “The ‘How’ of Reflective Supervision,” I thought a lot about the “why” as well!
Preparing this module also prompted me to look back at how I learned to provide reflective supervision and how much the field has changed since that time. When I was being mentored on providing reflective practice, there wasn’t much research that we could draw upon to guide that process. It is amazing how much the field has grown in the past 10 years!
What drew you to the work that you do?
I was drawn into this field through amazing mentors. I have always had a passion for working with young children, so I earned a degree in child and family studies and worked as a preschool teacher. At one point, the agency I worked for as a teacher brought in a reflective consultant to support us in our work. I looked forward to our monthly sessions, but when the grant funding ended, so did our reflective practice. I decided to go to graduate school to earn my master’s degree in marriage and family therapy. I knew that I wanted to specialize in the field of infant and early childhood mental health.
What are the top three takeaways that you hope students come away with from your module?
First, I want participants to leave this module with more competence and confidence in establishing reflective supervision as a supervisor or as a consultant.
Second, I hope that those providing reflective supervision can find comfort in the rupture and repair process that happens in these relationships.
Third, I hope that offering virtual reflective supervision will feel less daunting with the supports and resources offered in the module.
Would you like to share any additional thoughts?
We are never done learning. Professionals need the supportive relationships that are developed in reflective supervision. Those relationships support the professionals themselves as well as the children and families they work with. I hope that module participants enjoy the content and allow themselves to reflect and process as they work through it!
Ashley Midthun, MS, is a program quality manager at CEED, where she has worked for more than eight years. In her work, Midthun uses the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS®) tool to observe and assess learning environments; she also trains others to use the CLASS®. In addition, she serves as the CLASS® Anchor and conducts monthly webinars for CLASS® Coaches through the Online Learning Community. In this Q & A, she explains how classroom observation works, what sets high-quality learning environments apart, and what parents and professionals should know about classroom quality.
What drew you to the early childhood field?
Ashley Midthun: I have had the joy of working at CEED for the past eight and a half years. During my undergraduate career at Iowa State University, I worked with children in various settings—hospital, child care, shelter, and school. Those experiences solidified my passion for serving children. After working as an Early Head Start teacher, I decided to pursue a dual early childhood teaching licensure and early childhood master of science degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. During that phase of my education, I learned how much I love the link between assessment, research, and the quality of care children receive. That’s why, upon completing my degree, I looked for a position that encompassed all three components and was fortunate to land at CEED.
Your work involves using the CLASS® tool as an observer and a trainer. Talk a little about how being a classroom observer works. What are you looking for?
The CLASS® is a valid and reliable tool that is used around the world to help determine and enhance classroom quality. “Valid” means that the tool measures what we are intending to measure. “Reliable” means that the tool (and observers who use it) will yield consistent results over time. The CLASS® was created by Robert Pianta, PhD, at the University of Virginia, who incidentally completed his doctorate in psychology at the University of Minnesota. All of our PreK CLASS® observers here at CEED go through extensive training. We learn to use the CLASS® tool in a way that maintains a high level of reliability. We actually exceed the reliability standards set by Teachstone, the company that oversees the CLASS tool.
As a CLASS® observer, I visit classrooms with an objective lens focused on interactions. Specifically, I look for ten dimensions of classroom quality that are set out in the PreK CLASS® tool. I write detailed and specific notes about what I observe in the classroom within a 20-minute cycle. I then spend ten minutes scoring the cycle and repeat the process up to three more times. The CLASS® emphasizes interactions between all the adults in the classroom and the children in their care. Notable interactions include teachers and children communicating in a positive way, teachers asking children to explain their thinking, and children’s ideas being embedded into classroom activities.
In my role as a CLASS® trainer, I tailor the information I deliver based on the trainee’s role within early childhood education. So, for example, trainings can be tailored to teachers, coaches, administrators, or directors. They can also be generalized to an entire program. They can be customized to meet the specific needs of an individual classroom or program. Training other early childhood professionals to use the CLASS® tool is one of the highlights of my work. The opportunity to share a tool that can improve the classroom environment and have lasting, positive implications for children is such a joy.
What can we learn from teachers who oversee high-quality classrooms?
Interactions matter. Specifically, positive, supportive, encouraging interactions make a difference in children’s long-term social-emotional development. Ultimately, these interactions support high-order thinking skills, such as analyzing situations or showing resilience.
Let’s look at the first of those skills—analyzing situations. A lot of emphasis is placed on the curriculum and materials used in a classroom, but it’s how those things are used that makes a vital difference in children’s development. Let’s say that blocks are available for children to play with in a particular classroom. If children are never asked what they plan on building with the blocks or how they will build their structure, then the opportunity for high-order thinking is limited. In contrast, think about a teacher who not only has blocks intentionally available but also asks children to brainstorm about how they will use the blocks. By asking children to describe what they need to build their creations, the teacher helps them develop cognitive connections.
Now let’s look at the second skill I mentioned—resilience. The relationship between a child and a teacher or provider is the foundation for the child’s perseverance in difficult moments. This is an important, but often overlooked, aspect of relationships. When children can rely on teachers’ support and guidance, they are more likely to answer challenging questions. That is because they know that even if they get the question wrong, they will not be ridiculed or ignored. Instead, they’ll be encouraged to think critically about trying again.
Finally, relationships set the stage for interactions. Children who are welcomed daily with smiles, calm voices, and excitement are better set up to reflect those same experiences back to their peers.
What should parents know about classroom quality?
While having an aesthetically pleasing classroom environment has value, I encourage parents to dive deeper and ask questions about how teachers engage children in learning, how teachers guide children through challenging situations, and what resources are available to ensure children’s varied learning styles are recognized and supported. Teachers play a vital role in children’s lives. Experiences in early childhood have lasting impacts on children’s overall development. Using a valid and reliable assessment tool, such as the CLASS®, is important to ensure that each child receives high-quality care.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I’m currently immersed in early childhood both in my work and in my home life as a parent to a four-year-old, a three-year-old, and a seven-month-old. Our current favorite family activity is pulling out every cushion and pillow in our house. We use them as “stepping stones” to avoid the “lava,” a.k.a. the floor! I also love to read, listen to The Office Ladies podcast, and watch past seasons of Survivor with my husband.
Angela Klinefelter, MS, LMFT, IMH-E (III), is an infant mental health specialist and licensed teacher of parents and children. She provides parent education and home visiting for the St. Cloud School District Early Childhood Family Education Program. She also provides reflective consultation and training across Minnesota, specializing in the areas of social-emotional development of young children, the enhancement of parent-child relationships, and working with parents. In addition to teaching our online course on Working with Parents: Using Infant Mental Health Principles to Support Special Populations, Klinefelter authored the self-study module The Domino Effect: Parallel Process in Reflective Supervision.
Who would benefit from enrolling in this module?
Angela Klinefelter: Anybody who works with children and families can benefit from this module. The module was created with the early learning field in mind, but the content is also relevant for people who work with older children. In fact, I’d argue that it’s relevant for everyone at some level. Most concepts in infant and early childhood mental health provide opportunities for us to think more broadly about perspectives from all points of view, including our own. This is done while holding relationships in mind. This reflective lens is applicable to all relationships.
What does it mean to have a reflective lens?
Having a reflective lens is about being thoughtful, mindful, and intentional. It’s a way to transform the ways in which professionals view, wonder about, consider, understand, and respond to the families in which they serve. It’s the idea that we attend to all of the relationships within the family.
We need to feel safe to regulate our body and emotions. When parents are feeling safe and regulated, they have increased capacity to build relationships with providers. These relationships then give parents the opportunity to be reflective about parenting and their child.
Infant mental health consultant Michelle Fallon created the “perspective pyramid.” The pyramid is a visual metaphor that helps us understand the true complexity of a system of relationships. Each corner of the pyramid represents a person within a system of relationships.
As an example, let’s say a home visitor is working with a family where a five-year-old child is having tantrums. Using their reflective lens, the home visitor considers: “What does this situation look like through Mom’s lens? What does it look like through Dad’s lens? What does it look like to the five-year-old?” If we can have a conversation with all of the people in the perspective pyramid that takes into account their different viewpoints, we can bring everyone back to a space where we can consider what is best for the family. The facilitator—in this example, the home visitor—pulls all the different perspectives together using their infant mental health knowledge and their relationship with the parent or caregiver.
This brings us back to the concept of parallel process that we delve into in this module. If the home visitor makes the parent feel heard, then the parent in turn has greater capacity to listen to the child. And what gives the home visitor the capacity to listen and consider all perspectives? The relationship with a reflective supervisor. The supervisor creates safety and regulation in order to help the home visitor understand their own feelings so that they have the capacity to work with the family.
What drew you to reflective work in the infant and early childhood mental health field?
After graduating from college with my degree in education, I was licensed to teach Kindergarten through 6th grade. Although I’ve always been drawn to working with very young children, I was fortunate to begin my career in a combined 5th–6th grade classroom. That was also the year when my husband’s brother, who was a police officer, was killed in the line of duty. Our family tragedy occurred in January, five short months after beginning my new career. Through the chaos of that experience and the challenges of my first year of teaching, there was a student who stood out.
With only a few days to prepare for my new job, several team members warned me about a student that would be in my class. Because of team members’ previous experiences, this student was expected to present multiple challenges. He proved to be just the opposite. He was the student who taught me that everyone deserves a chance to change their story.
Our relationship began as I threw this student’s very large behavior report file from the previous year in the garbage, right in front of him. I wish I could say that I was being relationally intentional. The truth was that I had not had time to sort through the previous teacher’s files. The student responded with the following: “Thank you for saving my dignity.” Then he returned to his seat. That was the moment I realized I had much more to learn about understanding people than I had ever imagined. He made me think so much more deeply about relationships. I will forever be grateful he was in my class.
Relationships are my passion. Reflective practice promotes relationships. This work honors the parents and practitioners who are doing their best with what they have to improve outcomes for their families and communities. People need a sense of felt safety, more understanding, and a place for their struggles to be held by another without judgment. It just helps. Don’t we all want stronger families? They make the world a better place.
What’s the top takeaway that you hope students come away with from your module?
Understanding the parallel process is a way to increase your capacity so that you are able to continue the emotionally charged job of working with families. Because we are human, our hot buttons get pushed. Our buttons might have to do with the cleanliness of a home, a yelling parent, or an inability to nurture a young child. We may remain stuck and unable to see the parent through a different lens. Our reaction may project judgment for reasons that make sense. The parallel process reminds us that in order to strengthen the parent-child relationship, we also must consider our relationship with the parent. By doing that, we reach the child. Embracing reflective practice provides an opportunity for professionals to regulate around experiences with families—and perhaps, to reignite your sense of passion and purpose.
By Alyssa Meuwissen, PhD, Research Associate
Parents and caregivers have a lot to think and worry about during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve written about parental concerns around lack of socialization and novel experiences, as well as questions about mask-wearing and increased screen time. I’ve provided some research-based information that I hope will ease parents’ and caregivers’ minds and help them make the most of children’s interactions with them and with others in these challenging times. However, my biggest child development concern actually relates to how the pandemic is affecting us, the adults.
Experience-expectant processes: what really matters right now
Relationships with adults are, by far, the most foundational component of healthy child development. Children rely on responsive interactions with their caregivers to build brain development. Relationships with stable, nurturing adults create a buffer for children from the negative impact of stressful or traumatic events.
Will children be impacted by the stress their parents and caregivers are feeling?
My short answer: The good news is that “good enough” parenting really is good enough. You do not have to respond to your child at every moment, and you can continue to nurture and grow your relationship even through instances of conflict. That is true even when the adult is the one who loses their cool.
What is concerning is that for some families, the pandemic creates substantial barriers to high-quality parent-child relationships. The stress of losing a job, housing, or food security; the loss of social support; increased depression and anxiety—all of these factors have the potential to negatively impact the interactions that children have in their homes.
Similarly, for children in child care or early education settings, stress on providers is known to negatively impact positive relationships with children and even increase the likelihood of expelling children from programs. When professional caregivers are overwhelmed due to ever-changing policies and concerns about finances and job stability, it impacts the care they can provide to children. Also, as children re-enter schools and child care after interruptions caused by the pandemic, providers will be challenged to support children with less experience in social situations and more early life stress than they had previously.
This is most concerning for:
- Families already experiencing poverty or other major stressors
- Families with existing mental health concerns
- Families dealing with racial injustice and discrimination
What can we do to mitigate concerns?
In order to stop the pandemic from hurting the development of young children, we must support the adults who are caring for them.
- As parents, we can intentionally repair relationships with our children when needed. While they don’t need to know details, it’s OK for them to know that you are stressed and that sometimes you get impatient or mad, but that it’s not their fault and you still love them.
- For parents, staying connected with a social support group and doing what you can to support your own mental health is important, but in many situations can only go so far. Policies and programs that can directly address the major stressors in family’s lives (e.g., financial insecurity, mental health concerns) are needed to ensure that children are given a chance to thrive.
- Similarly, people who work in early childhood care and education need to be given the practical and emotional support necessary for them to continue to serve children and families under high stress. Policies and programs need to be put in place to ensure providers have access to the knowledge and skills necessary to support children. They must also have adequate time and support to meet the demands of their job.
- For those who work in early childhood education, reflective supervision is a growing professional development practice that can provide emotional support and an outlet for the stress that frontline professionals are subject to. You can download a free e-book from the Reflective Practice Center at CEED to learn more about the benefits of reflective supervision.
Selma Fraiberg, a pioneer in infant mental health, once said that working to promote healthy development in young children is “a little like having God on your side.” Children have an amazing ability to grow and thrive in a huge variety of circumstances. Yes, the pandemic is affecting children’s lives here and now, limiting their opportunity for peer interaction and a variety of experiences, but this year will only be one block in building their development.
At the same time, the pandemic can affect child development by disrupting the nurturing relationships between children and their caregivers. This is both COVID-19’s most significant potential threat to child development and the most difficult to address, because it requires a commitment from policymakers to support both families and the child care and education systems that they depend on. As we continue through what we hope are the final months of the pandemic and look forward to the recovery phase, let’s make sure to focus on giving parents and caregivers the support they need to be there for their children.
By Alyssa Meuwissen, PhD, Research Associate
Parents and caregivers are understandably concerned about how our changed lifestyle amid the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting children. In my previous post on the subject, I explained how I categorized some of parents’ most common questions based on a theory of brain development that breaks learning down into experience-expectant and experience-dependent processes. Experience-dependent processes can occur anytime in life. (In other words, if your two-year-old is missing out on peer interactions right now, don’t worry: she can catch up next year.)
In this installment, I’ll address aspects of the pandemic that I think fall into a kind of middle ground. These aspects alter the environment that the developing brain is set up to learn from. That means they can cross the line into affecting experience-expectant processes and so are areas of potential concern. The good news is that adults can act to mitigate these experiences so that they don’t affect children in the long term.
Will babies be affected by seeing adults wearing masks?
Beginning at birth, babies prefer to look at faces—even drawings of faces or face-like shapes—above all else. It’s clear that they’re biologically programmed to seek out faces and that caregivers’ emotional expressions provide crucial information about the world around them. Adults in public places are now wearing masks, making their faces distinctly less face-like, and hiding our mouths, which are the most obvious indicators of smiles.
My short answer: Babies are incredibly resilient. They can probably learn a lot in whatever time they have with unmasked adults. It’s unlikely that sometimes seeing adults, including primary caregivers, in masks will have a great impact on children’s development—although babies may notice and even show some distress. However, children who spend long hours in settings with masked caregivers may not be getting critical input that the developing brain expects and relies on. I don’t know of any research at this time that can point to how much unmasked time is enough.
This is most concerning for:
- Children who spend long hours in child care settings with masked providers
- Young babies who don’t have the vision and cognition to process the variety of environmental cues that toddlers and preschoolers do
- Children with developmental delays or difficulties with emotion regulation or perspective-taking
What can we do to mitigate concerns?
- Make sure that adults who live in babies’ households (so they don’t need to be masked) know the importance of face-to-face time. Every minute counts in terms of eye contact, facial expressions, and talking to your baby.
- For those who must be masked when interacting with babies, there are clear masks available that allow others to see your mouth when interacting with you. The ClearMask is one version that has been approved by the FDA and is being recommended by the Florida Association for Infant Mental Health.
Will the increase in screen time harm our children?
Like most parents working from home, I have used screens more than I otherwise would to occupy my toddler. A lot of parents I know worry about this, and with good reason, as children’s brains do not expect to sit and passively consume blinking lights as a main source of stimulation. There is evidence that too much screen time can affect children’s ability to pay attention and regulate their own behavior. However, we also know that the content chosen matters greatly, and that children can learn academic and social skills from high-quality TV and games.
My short answer: This depends on dose and content. Screen time has the potential to be harmful for children if it takes away their opportunities to play, be active, and engage in other types of thinking, or if they are watching shows that are violent or not age-appropriate.
What can we do to mitigate concerns?
- Choose programming intentionally that will promote cognitive and social skills. With limited opportunities to play with other children or experience new ideas and places, the content kids view on screens is likely shaping their world view now more than ever, and we can use that to our advantage! PBS has great shows for young children–Daniel Tiger, Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street, and Elinor Wonders Why are a few that are designed to teach children academic and social skills. Khan Academy has a free app with age-specific games. Search the internet for videos about any of your child’s interests, from how a garbage truck works to live streams of baby polar bears.
- Be involved in screen time. I know that often, the whole point of screens is to have a chance to do something else. But if you watch a show with your child every once in a while or even just catch the first or last few minutes, you’ll glean enough to help children apply lessons from the show to their own life.
- Set limits and be consistent. Make the limits reasonable given your current situation so that you can stick to them; it’s OK if this looks different than it would in non-pandemic life. Children will be less likely to have meltdowns if they can expect that screens are used during a specific time of day for a certain length of time.
My next post in this series will explore my greatest concern about children’s development during COVID-19: the pandemic’s impact on adults.