Meet CEED’s Associate Director of Program Quality: Q & A with Kristina Erstad-Sankey

A conversation with Kristina Erstad-Sankey, Director of Program Quality at CEED.

Kristina Erstad-Sankey is Director of Program Quality at CEED. She and her team work directly with early childhood education providers, such as Head Start locations, child care providers, and school districts.

Q: Can you describe some general principles of what a high-quality early childhood program looks like? 

KES: There are basic standards in areas such as health and safety—think ratios, supervision, personal care and hygiene practices, etc. There are also standards around the materials and curriculum used, program structure, furnishings, assessments, and developmentally appropriate practices. Things like funding, data use practices, and ongoing evaluation can come into play as well. 

Another important aspect of program quality has to do with the relationships among staff and families. This can mean the quality of staff interactions with children as well as the level of family involvement and inclusion. What might be less well known outside the field is that program quality can also include things like staff turnover and compensation. Another thing we look for is staff access to relationship-based professional development and training. 

You might be wondering who comes up with the standards that we use to evaluate program quality. We get guidance from quality rating and improvement systems; in Minnesota, we have Parent Aware. There are also state-based child care licensing requirements, school district standards, and Head Start standards. We also draw on information from organizations that advocate for high-quality early childhood education, such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children. 

We also refer to standards that have been set by the Minnesota Department of Education called Early Childhood Indicators of Progress. The ECIPs describe the skills and knowledge that the Department of Education expects children to acquire in early childhood. The state also describes the skills and knowledge that they expect child care professionals to exhibit in their Knowledge and Competency Framework for Educators

I know this might sound a little complicated, and it’s true that my team takes multiple dimensions of program quality into consideration when they do an assessment. However, the important thing to remember is that all of these standards and systems are working together to ensure that every child in Minnesota has access to early education that is meaningful to them.

Q: What is relationship-based professional development?  

KES: Relationship-based professional development (RBPD) uses an ongoing professional relationship as the mechanism for growth and positive change in an early childhood educator’s practice. This is different from the traditional model of professional development that uses one-time trainings or in-service days as the mechanism. RBPD uses experience, reflection, and practice to help professionals set and achieve goals and have a long-term, sustainable impact.

Q: What would you like for early childhood educators to know about your team’s work? 

KES: I love to highlight all of the different aspects of what we do, because often early childhood professionals are familiar with us from one specific area of our work. Maybe they have attended a training to learn how to use a formative assessment tool like Desired Results for Children and Families (DRDP) or COR Advantage. Or they have seen our staff present at a conference. We get the chance to interact with a lot of practitioners when we work with school districts on implementations and evaluations and when we conduct observations for example using the CLASS® or ERS™ assessment tools. We also provide group relationship-based professional development support. We are always looking for ways to partner! 

One difference in COVID-19 pandemic times is that the in-person trainings that we normally offer are not possible. We are working diligently on an online format for these trainings, and when that is approved, it will appear in Develop and on CEED’s website. I’d encourage people who are interested to keep an eye out for that!

Q: What would you like for parents to know about your team’s work? 

KES: One thing that seems to surprise many parents is how complex and well researched early childhood education is. Ask the early childhood professionals in your life about their work. Ask them about the assessments they use, a training or conference they went to, or what they’re up to on those staff training days. These practitioners really work hard to provide a quality program for the kids in their care, and I’ll bet they’d love to share with you the new things they are learning and thinking about. 

In general, many people are surprised by the level of thought and preparation that goes into things like how a classroom is organized, how a concept is taught, or how a backyard is set up. All of these are guided by standards, research, and recommended practices. For example, a classroom might look really tidy to a visitor. We might look at how that cleanliness impacts the children in that classroom. Is the tidiness making it easier for children to find and use materials, to stay focused? Is the teacher’s time spent tidying up the room at the expense of learning moments? Taking time to learn and reflect about early childhood education is time well spent. Whether you are a grandparent taking care of a grandchild, an assistant teacher in a Head Start classroom, an educator in a toddler room, or a family child care professional, knowing how to support quality early childhood education is important!

Q: What are some of your interests and hobbies outside of work (aside from being a busy parent)?

KES: Running! I am working towards a marathon, but for now I’m just happy I can run miles in the double digits.

New series of Resource Guides for early childhood professionals

Find relevant resource guides covering topics of interest to child care providers and early educators that are applicable during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We’re pleased to share a series of downloadable Resource Guides intended for people who work with infants and young children. These 10 guides (and two bonus resources) cover topics of interest to child care providers and early educators that are particularly relevant in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The guides fall into three subject categories:

  • Preparing for Children’s Return
  • Understanding Young Children’s Challenging Behavior
  • Supporting and Managing Young Children’s Behavior

Each guide includes a featured resource such as a video or article, followed by a brief summary of the main points and an interactive component such as a quiz or reflection question. Many of the guides are accompanied by handouts with practical ideas and activities related to the topic. The Resource Guides were compiled by CEED for the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE). They are posted with MDE’s permission.

Topic I: Preparing for Children’s Return

Explore the Topic

Resource Guide 1: Reopening Child Care and Early Education Programs during the COVID-19 Pandemic 

Resource Guide 2: Tips for Supporting Infants’ and Young Children’s Transition as We Re-open

Go Deeper

Resource Guide 3: Thriving Childcare: Social-Emotional Health and COVID-19 Guidelines

Topic II: Understanding Young Children’s Challenging Behavior

Explore the Topic

Resource Guide 4: Reflecting on Our Reactions and Responses to Children’s Behavior

Resource Guide 5: Behavior Has Meaning

Go Deeper

Resource Guide 6: Understanding the Science of Early Development and the Core Story

Topic III: Supporting and Managing Young Children’s Behavior

Explore the Topic

Resource Guide 7: It Takes Two: The Role of Co-regulation in Building Self-Regulation Skills

Resource Guide 8: Toxic Stress—Introduction: A Story for Early Educators

Go Deeper

Resource Guide 9: Better Kid Care—Infant–Toddler Care: Guiding Behavior

Resource Guide 10: Stress Detectives and Safe Harbors: Helping Children Feel Secure

Bonus Resources

Bonus Resource 1: The Importance of Stories and Narratives

Bonus Resource 2: The Virtual Early Education Center (VEEC)

Resource Guide 10: Stress Detectives and Safe Harbors: Helping Children Feel Secure

The Resource Guides in our series are intended for people who work with infants and young children. Most of the Resource Guides are accompanied by handouts with practical ideas and activities related to the topic. The Resource Guides were compiled by CEED for the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE). They are posted with MDE’s permission.

Topic: Supporting and Managing Young Children’s Behavior

Resource Guide 10: Stress Detectives and Safe Harbors: Helping Children Feel Secure

Handout 10.1: Hand Model of the Brain

Handout 10.2: Creating a Safe Harbor

Resource Guide 9: Better Kid Care—Infant–Toddler Care: Guiding Behavior

The Resource Guides in our series are intended for people who work with infants and young children. Most of the Resource Guides are accompanied by handouts with practical ideas and activities related to the topic. The Resource Guides were compiled by CEED for the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE). They are posted with MDE’s permission.

Topic: Supporting and Managing Young Children’s Behavior

Resource Guide 9: Better Kid Care—Infant–Toddler Care: Guiding Behavior

Handout 9.1: Use Positive Words

Handout 9.2: Additional Infant–Toddler Resources on Guiding Behavior

Handout 9.3: TAKE-Back Form

Resource Guide 8: Toxic Stress – Introduction: A Story for Early Childhood Educators

The Resource Guides in our series are intended for people who work with infants and young children. Most of the Resource Guides are accompanied by handouts with practical ideas and activities related to the topic. The Resource Guides were compiled by CEED for the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE). They are posted with MDE’s permission.

Topic: Supporting and Managing Young Children’s Behavior

Resource Guide 8: Toxic Stress—Introduction: A Story for Early Childhood Educators

Handout 8.1: Helping Children with Traumatic Separation or Traumatic Grief Related to COVID-19

 

Resource Guide 7: It Takes Two: The Role of Co-Regulation in Building Self-Regulation Skills

The Resource Guides in our series are intended for people who work with infants and young children. Most of the Resource Guides are accompanied by handouts with practical ideas and activities related to the topic. The Resource Guides were compiled by CEED for the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE). They are posted with MDE’s permission.

Topic: Supporting and Managing Young Children’s Behavior

Resource Guide 7: It Takes Two: The Role of Co-Regulation in Building Self-Regulation Skills

 

Resource Guide 6: Understanding the Science of Early Development and the Core Story

The Resource Guides in our series are intended for people who work with infants and young children. Most of the Resource Guides are accompanied by handouts with practical ideas and activities related to the topic. The Resource Guides were compiled by CEED for the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE). They are posted with MDE’s permission.

Topic: Understanding Children’s Challenging Behavior

Resource Guide 6: Understanding the Science of Early Development and the Core Story

Handout 6.1: One-on-One Time

How COVID-19 has changed early childhood education

In the wake of COVID-19, Program Quality Specialist Hannah Riddle explores the ways in which the pandemic has affected child care providers.

By Hannah Riddle de Rojas

Program quality specialist Hannah Riddle de Rojas explores two important ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has affected child care providers: financially and operationally.

COVID-19 has turned life upside for people in Minnesota and around the world—including young children and the professionals who care for them. Before the pandemic hit, the child care sector already faced systemic challenges including funding, staffing, and ensuring quality. All of these have been exacerbated by current events. Let’s take a broader look at how the pandemic has affected funding for the sector before zooming in to consider how individual providers have been impacted. Please note that I’ll be using the terms “child care” and “early childhood education” interchangeably in this blog post.

How is early childhood education paid for? How has the pandemic changed the equation?

The US Department of Health and Human Services provides Head Start and Early Head Start grants to child care providers that serve low-income families. In Minnesota, the Department of Human Services supports low-income families through the Child Care Assistance Program. The Department of Education provides Pathway scholarships to low-income families as well as free voluntary pre-kindergarten (VPK) programs in some school districts. However, child care providers are not required to accept these subsidies, which cover only a fraction of the actual cost of care. Instead, they may opt out of accepting families who use child care assistance funds. When providers do accept these funds, they may need to offset their losses by increasing the tuition paid by families who do not qualify for assistance. That’s why most funding for child care and early education comes directly from the tuition paid by families.

How much are families paying for care? In Minnesota, early education and care tuition averages $16,172 per year for full-time infant care and $12,480 for a full-time preschooler in a center program. These costs rival many families’ rent or mortgages. With many families facing job loss or uncertainty due to the pandemic, it becomes even more difficult to pay for care.

Additionally, other families have made the difficult choice to keep children home from child care during the pandemic. Some providers also closed temporarily. These decisions have had a significant financial impact on providers. According to a March 2020 survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), 54% of Minnesota-based respondents had lost income due to the pandemic. Forty-two percent stated that they had families enrolled who could not continue to pay tuition. Thirty-three percent said that they would not survive a closure of more than two weeks without significant aid.

Is there help available for child care providers? 

Congress provided $3.5 billion to states through the Child Care and Development Block Grant as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, an economic stimulus bill that passed on March 27, 2020. States were able to use these funds to support child care providers amid closures and decreased enrollment and to provide tuition assistance to essential workers. 

At the state level, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz allocated approximately $40 million in Peacetime Emergency Child Care Grants to help child care providers continue to operate. The goal of the funding, which was administered in three rounds by Child Care Aware of Minnesota, was to ensure care for the children of essential workers. Ann McCully, director of Child Care Aware of Minnesota, reported that while 23% of applicants were funded in April and 30% in May, an increase in available funds meant that 67% were successful in the final round of funding in June. 

In July, Minnesota’s Department of Human Services launched a grant program called COVID-19 Public Health Support Funds for Child Care. This program allocated a further $56.6 million in funding for family and center-based child care providers throughout the state. The program was intended to support all licensed providers that were open during the grant period and that were maintaining health and safety standards. The application process for this funding closed on July 26, 2020. 

Providers are adapting

COVID-19 has impacted more than just child care providers’ financial situation. It has also meant substantial operational changes. I talked with several center-based child care providers in the Twin Cities metro area and a family child care provider in Morris to learn more about how they have adapted. 

Jamie Bonczyk is the executive director at the nonprofit Hopkins Early Learning Center. She reports that they are currently serving 60% of the children enrolled at their program. As families begin to return to work, however, she notes that the situation is becoming more complicated. 

“We have more children waiting to be served than we have the space to do so,” Bonczyk shared. 

At St. David’s Center for Child & Family Development, a nonprofit that operates a child care program in Minnetonka, six of 12 classrooms are currently open. Early childhood education supervisor Mike Huber shares that they are serving 90 children out of the center’s 250-child capacity. This has meant a dramatic decrease in staffing; only 20 out of 60 staff members are currently working. These staffing shifts have also forced the center to reduce its usual programming for children with special needs. 

At Edina Daycare, a Spanish Immersion program, early childhood educator Jasmine Barco explained that new health and safety standards have meant that educators needed to implement new schedules, budgets, policies and procedures. She explained that the changing standards also impacted curriculum. 

“Our teachers have had to put a halt to certain activities in our curriculum, and that alone has affected our students, because of the routine that we’ve already created that then had to change,” Barco explained. “However, this has given teachers an opportunity to be flexible with their curriculum to ensure we can maximize the student’s freedom in the classroom with the new standards.”

Barco also told me that keeping a platform for keeping families up to date with changing CDC policies and procedures and answering their questions and concerns has been a priority. 

Sherry Tiegs, a family child care provider in Morris, explained that enrollment in her program is at about half of capacity. Additionally, she has found that some of her business expenses have gone up significantly. For example, Tiegs remembered a visit to her local grocery store when she found that the cost of ground beef had doubled since her last shopping trip. She shared that some families in her program have lost income as parents have lost jobs, and other families haven’t been able to afford to hold their child’s spot when they aren’t attending.

The new guidelines for maintaining a safe environment and disinfecting surfaces and materials have also added to Tiegs’ work day. 

“I do more detailed cleaning and disinfecting than before,” she told me. “My work hours have been extended at least by two hours (or more) every day after the last child leaves to do (indoor and outdoor) environment and toy cleaning and disinfecting.”

Along with shifting enrollment and increased safety standards, providers are dealing with the financial impact of the pandemic. Huber said he feels lucky that St. David’s Center is part of a larger agency, because the cost of administering the program is greater than the revenue it generates. Operating as part of a larger nonprofit helps smooth out the financial bumps in the road that this particular program has encountered due to COVID-19.

Hopkins Early Learning Center is facing more difficult challenges, however. “In child care, tuition is directly tied to operating capital,” Bonczyk told me. “Our revenue has been greatly reduced while fixed costs have remained the same.”

Like many providers surveyed by NAEYC, Bonczyk is worried that without additional funding, her program may not remain financially viable. 

At Edina Daycare, Barco shared, fall enrollment is a major concern among staff members. “Fall is our best season for enrollment, and due to the pandemic, the majority of our events are canceled,” she explained. 

“Grants are vital right now to fill the gaps, especially the ones that don’t require extra training and extra paperwork,” said Tiegs. For businesses like hers, grants from the State of Minnesota can mean the difference between surviving and closing their doors. 

If you are a child care provider, we want to hear from you! What has been the most challenging aspect of providing child care during the COVID-19 pandemic?