CEED to provide professional development for trainers and coaches through State of Minnesota grant

CEED will be the new home of the Trainers and RBPD Specialists Support (TARSS) program through the State of Minnesota.

Trainers and RBPD specialists can access TARSS support from CEED staff by emailing tarss@umn.edu or calling 612-624-5708. Hours of operation are 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; we will respond to calls and emails within one business day.

CEED is pleased to announce a new partnership with the Child Care Services Division of the Minnesota Department of Human Services. CEED was awarded a contract to provide support for trainers and relationship-based professional development (RBPD) specialists who work with child care providers throughout the state of Minnesota. Through the Trainer And RBPD Specialist Support (TARSS) program, CEED will support the needs of trainers and RBPD specialists throughout the state by continuing to implement what is already working well within the current training and mentoring system, bringing innovative and culturally-responsive ideas to enhance this system, and evaluating the process and impact of these activities to inform future programmatic decisions.

Learn about the 2021 RBPD Fall Retreat and register!

Two smiling adults converse while sitting on a sofa in a preschool classroom

“We’re excited to be able to build upon the existing system and enhance support for child care trainers and RBPD specialists through the TARSS program,” said Ann Bailey, PhD, director of CEED. “We know that early childhood is a critical time in human development. Educators of young children are doing extremely important work and need more support. This support must include access to high-quality, usable content; training; coaching; and mentoring that leads to improved outcomes for young children. We look forward to drawing upon CEED’s 45 years of research and practical experience to maintain a highly-qualified and diverse support system for all trainers and RBPD specialists.”

The TARSS program is grounded in best practice for early childhood trainers and RBPD specialists. Research shows that these two related yet distinct disciplines have a meaningful impact on early childhood educators. Professional development opportunities for trainers and RBPD specialists will span a variety of formats, such as in-person and online events, along with opportunities for ongoing coaching and mentoring. The TARSS team aims to use innovative technologies to build communities which support peer learning. These technologies will also make coaching and mentoring services more accessible and customized for each professional’s schedule.

Join our community

Reflecting on complexity: Q & A with module author Tracy Schreifels

Tracy Schreifels, MS, LMFT, IMH-E® (IV), shares insights from developing the self-study module The Plot Thickens: Reflective Supervision for Groups.

Tracy Schreifels

Tracy Schreifels, MS, LMFT, IMH-E® (IV), is a therapist, reflective consultant, and executive director of 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 The Plot Thickens.

Who do you see as the audience or audiences for this module? Who do you think would benefit from enrolling in it?

Tracy Schreifels: This module is designed for professionals who are preparing to lead group reflective supervision sessions either as consultants or supervisors. In order to provide reflective supervision, professionals should have a solid foundational understanding of the principles of infant and early childhood mental health (IECMH). They themselves should also be receiving ongoing reflective supervision. 

This module would also work well for those who are looking to expand their skills. I would recommend it to professionals who have been providing individual reflective supervision and wish to add group offerings. I’d also recommend it to those who are looking for some new tools or ideas to try out when providing reflective supervision in this format.

Could you share some of the reflections or realizations you had while building the content for this module?

I always enjoy getting back into the literature around the dynamic and growing field of IECMH. As I explored the content and topics for this module, I found myself reflecting on my methods for starting reflective supervision with the groups I provide it to. Creating this module helped me be more intentional and aware of why I operate the way I do. 

Putting together the module was also an opportunity to to reflect on how I learned to provide group reflective supervision and how much the field has changed since then. When I was being mentored on providing reflective supervision, there wasn’t much research on the topic that we could use to guide the process. It’s amazing how much the field has grown in the past 10 years! In addition, I found that the group formation process can be informed by evidence from the field of parent education. It’s astounding to me how all kinds of disciplines are needed to support this important work!

What drew you to the work of reflective practice and reflective supervision?

I was drawn into this field by amazing mentors. I have always had a passion for working with young children, and that guided me to get a degree in child and family studies. With that educational background, I worked as a preschool teacher as well as with caregivers and children. Along the way, the agency I was working 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 back to school to earn my master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, and I knew that I would specialize in IECMH.

What are the top three takeaways that you hope students come away with from your module?

First, I want students to be able to hold in mind the differences and similarities associated with group and individual reflective supervision. While the same foundation is used for both, the execution can be very different. Being able to process those similarities and differences can help us be more intentional in our approaches and better able to hold the perspectives of reflective supervision participants.

Second, reflecting on reflecting is essential. That is something I hope students take away from this module. I want students to consider the impact of group development. This field is founded on developmental principles, and those principles can inform group reflective supervision as well.

Third, I hope that students feel a sense of confidence after completing this module, so that they can step in to address concerns that arise in the group delivery model of reflective supervision. Holding in mind each participant, the group dynamics, and the work they are reflecting on is complex. This module was designed to help practitioners reflect on those complexities.

Are there any additional thoughts you would like to share?

We are never done learning. Professionals need the supportive relationships that develop in reflective supervision to support them and the children and families they work with as well. I hope that participants enjoy the content and allow themselves to reflect and process as they work through it.

Q & A with Program Quality Specialist Margarita Milenova, PhD

Margarita Milenova, PhD, trains educators in the use of different assessment tools. In this Q & A, she offers insights into the benefits of authentic assessment.

Margarita Milenova, PhD, joined CEED as a program quality specialist in 2013. She works on early childhood program quality projects and trains early childhood professionals on the Desired Results Developmental Profile© (DRDP [2015]) and the COR Advantage® assessment tools. Milenova has special expertise in authentic assessment. In this Q & A, she talks about the advantages of different assessment tools and offers tips for early childhood professionals to use them effectively.

Margarita Milenova

How did you become interested in early childhood education?

Margarita Milenova: My interest in learning about young children was sparked during my senior year in high school in Bulgaria when I enrolled in the prep program for assistant teachers. This was a year-round program that focused on early childhood education and psychology, combining academic classes with an extended practicum in child care centers. 

This experience motivated me to continue my journey at Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski, where I earned a master’s degree and a doctoral degree in early childhood education with a minor in special education. I was still curious to learn more and wanted to give back to the field, so I accepted a faculty position at the Department of Preschool and Elementary Education at Sofia University. After moving to the US, I had the opportunity to work as an early childhood teacher, as well as a director and teacher at the Bulgarian School in Minnesota supporting bilingual children and their families. These experiences across cultures were evidence of the fundamental importance of high-quality early childhood education.

Your work involves training early childhood educators to use the DRDP (2015)and COR Advantage® assessment tools. Can you describe how these tools work?

Authentic formative assessments help educators determine where each child is developmentally, so they can plan enriching learning opportunities for children, make changes in the physical environment, and provide the necessary support. Assessments like the DRDP (2015) and COR Advantage® provide a great way to communicate with families about children’s development and can also be used for accountability purposes. 

The assessment tools that I train educators to use are both reliable and valid authentic assessments. They look at all the important areas of child development. The assessments unfold as cycles of observation, documentation of behaviors and skills, reflection on the collected data, planning, and implementing. These steps are performed by caregivers who are familiar with the children. They’re performed in natural settings while children play and interact with peers or explore independently. These are the hallmarks of “authentic” assessments. It’s important to highlight that these are not test-like assessments where children are invited to do specific tasks or choose the correct answer.

What advice on using assessment tools such as the DRDP (2015) and the COR Advantage® do you have for early childhood professionals?

One important piece of information for Minnesota-based caregivers is that DRDP (2015) and COR Advantage® are on the list of approved assessments for Parent Aware, which is Minnesota’s voluntary quality rating and improvement system for early childhood programs. Both assessments may also be used by participants in the Kindergarten Entry Profile Initiative, which is a voluntary program offered by the Minnesota Department of Education. Another advantage of these assessments is that they are strengths-based and grounded in research. That means the focus is on what children can do, not on what they cannot do. I also like to emphasize that valid authentic assessments can yield very useful information. When programs use them as intended, teachers and caregivers can collect data that will help them make well-informed decisions about supporting children.

Sometimes it might look overwhelming to do all the different steps that authentic assessments call for (i.e., observe in various settings, write notes, snap photos, take videos, fill in forms and records, etc.). Working on it as a team with other caregivers can help make it more manageable. In fact, it’s actually preferable to have those observations in different settings—at the playground, at the sand table, in the dramatic play area, etc.—so you can be confident that a child is at a particular developmental level. 

Another tip is using technology to store and organize data collected through observation. There are some free apps available to make this easier for teachers. For instance, the DRDP Portfolio app and the Teaching Strategies® GOLD® app allow educators to save and quickly review the evidence they have collected. They can determine where a child is developmentally and share data with teachers and administrators, special education teachers, and families, all within these apps.

As someone who speaks more than one language, what are your thoughts about assessment for children who are bilingual or speak a different language at home from the one that is spoken in their early childhood program?

I believe that early childhood educators are very important partners for parents when we think about language development and how to support young children. When educators take the time to find out what language is spoken in the child’s home, it can really make a difference in relationship-building and instructional strategies. A child speaking a language other than English at home sometimes might appear to be falling behind their monolingual peers. In reality, however, this child might be able to fully participate in pretend play, with elaborate exchanges with a friend speaking Bulgarian or Tagalog, for instance. It’s important to have an open mind and avoid the assumption that having trouble expressing oneself in English equates to a lack of knowledge or understanding of concepts. 

Authentic assessments can help educators take a holistic look at a child’s language development. As just one example, DRDP (2015) has a set of four English language development measures. These measures look at how a child is progressing in English. Crucially, however, each of these measures also takes into account the child’s development in their home language. The rest of the DRDP (2015) assessment can be completed based on a child’s use of their home language or based on alternative ways of communicating. 

No matter which assessment tool an educator is using, it can be really helpful to work with an interpreter, a cultural liaison, and a child’s parents when assessing multilingual children. They can help educators gain a better understanding of where the child is developmentally. It is not always easy to find interpreters and cultural liaisons, but connecting with cultural institutions representing different communities can be an option.

What do you like to do in your free time?

Living in Minnesota has given me plenty of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors at a level that is new for me! I enjoy paddle boarding in the summer and cross-country skiing during the snowy months.

“This work is hard, and it should be”: Q & A with Mindy Kronenberg

Experiencing strong emotions while working with families can mean that infant mental health practitioners are making effective connections. Mindy Kronenberg, PhD, IMH-E®, explains how reflective practice can help professionals manage stress while remaining effective.

Mindy Kronenberg

Mindy Kronenberg, PhD, IMH-E®, is a clinical psychologist who specializes in infant mental health and the assessment and treatment of trauma across the lifespan. Kronenberg has worked in settings such as state agencies, schools, Head Start programs, dependency courts, and child welfare agencies. In this Q & A, Kronenberg talks about how she developed the self-study module Holding the Baby in Mind—When We Are Dysregulated Ourselves.

Who do you see as the audience of your module?

Mindy Kronenberg: This module is aimed at people who work with infants and young children and their families. The concept of “holding the baby in mind,” or keeping the baby or child’s perspective in mind when working with a family, is central to infant mental health (IMH) work. However, our capacity to hold the baby in mind is affected by our own stress. This module addresses an issue that is at the heart of infant mental health, leaning into the often painful emotions of the families with whom we work. Holding the baby in mind while self-regulating remains challenging for IMH practitioners regardless of the stage of their career. That’s why this module is relevant for practitioners at any point in their career.

My guess is that not all of the videos and articles I’ve chosen for the module will be brand-new to all participants. However, I’ve organized the module in a way that I hope will stimulate new ways of thinking about the content. 

What are the top three takeaways that you hope students come away with from your module?

The first takeaway is that this work is hard, and it should be. The fact that we feel challenged and sometimes experience strong emotions can mean that we are fully connecting with a family. Making this connection is part of what leads to effective work.

Second, IMH work requires a strong foundation of knowledge as well as a learning mindset. In order to focus on relationships, hold the baby in mind, and be fully present with a family, we need to master core IMH competencies. I hope that this module helps practitioners consider how they can hold the baby in mind when they are dysregulated. I also hope that the ideas presented here stimulate their curiosity to seek more information.

The final takeaway is that we cannot do this work alone. We all need good reflective supervision or consultation. This type of reflective practice is not only beneficial to us, but it is beneficial to the families we serve.

Are there additional thoughts you would like to share?

While this is a self-study course, the module will be most beneficial if practitioners complete it together. We often think of the importance of regulation, learning, and exploration within relationships for infants, but the importance of relationships does not end with infancy. My hope is that, just like all IMH work, participants are able to complete this module in the context of relationships.

I’ve enjoyed putting this module together, and I hope you enjoy it as well!

Our award-winning e-book

Our free, downloadable e-book won a Maroon award for design from the University of Minnesota Communicators Forum!

Cover of e-book

We’re honored that our e-book, Reflective Supervision and Consultation: Preventing Burnout, Boosting Effectiveness, and Renewing Purpose for Frontline Workers, was recognized with a 2020 Maroon award for design by the University of Minnesota Communicators Forum! Each year, the Communicators Forum—a network of communications professionals at UMN—presents Maroon and Gold Awards highlighting work that “exemplifies the University’s core values: excellence, innovation, effectiveness, integrity, diversity, collaboration, sharing of knowledge, accountability, stewardship, and service.”

Written by Reflective Practice Center staff, our e-book was designed by Kirsten Mortensen, graphic design and production manager at the College of Education and Human Development. Download your free copy!

The RIOS in practice: Part two of our Q & A with Michelle Dineen

The Reflective Interaction Observation Scale (RIOS) was developed at CEED as a research tool, but reflective practitioners quickly found creative ways to use it in reflective sessions. Learn more in our Q & A with Michelle Dineen, MSW, LICSW, IMH-E®.

Michelle Dineen

Michelle Dineen, MSW, LICSW, IMH-E®, is a therapist and reflective consultant. In part one of our Q & A, she talked about what happens in a reflective supervision session and why it benefits participants. In this second installment, Dineen talks about how reflective supervisors and consultants use the Reflective Interaction Observation Scale (RIOS™), which was developed at CEED. Dineen teaches our online course, RIOS™ 1: Using the RIOS™ Framework for Reflective Supervision, and she authored the self-study module Wondering with Purpose: Reflection in Any Setting.

The RIOS was initially developed as a research tool, but reflective practitioners quickly started using it as a tool for training and practice. Can you talk about how the RIOS is used in reflective supervision sessions?

Michelle Dineen: I’ll give you my personal answer. Have you ever seen that image of pinning down a cloud? Describing reflective supervision can feel like that. What researchers at CEED did when they developed the RIOS was to answer the question: “What are we actually doing in reflective supervision?” What they found is that we’re actively listening and being curious. The RIOS framework helps the reflective supervisor or consultant to remain grounded while listening to a story. I think of the RIOS as a touchstone, something to think about when you’re getting lost, when you might have veered off. It’s a reminder to ask yourself: What am I curious about next? What am I not curious about?

So the RIOS was developed as a way to describe the content of a reflective supervision session. But practitioners can actively use it during reflective supervision to help guide the conversation.

Here is one way to think of reflective supervision. Picture six people sitting around a table with a 3D object in the middle of it. None of us can see the object from every angle. Each of us is seeing a different part of the thing. But if we all look at it at the same time and from our different perspectives, we are seeing the whole object.

One of the Essential Elements of reflective supervision identified by the RIOS is Holding the Baby or Child in Mind. What the RIOS does is to help us hold all of the pieces: the person who’s receiving services, the baby or child, and the provider who’s telling the story. It helps us build a whole picture of a family or a situation. It helps us know if we are seeing all the different parts of the 3D object. This is especially important since a reflective supervision session consists of two or more people talking about a third party.

This sounds like one of the differences between reflective supervision and therapy. When someone meets with a therapist, their own stories are the focus of the conversation. In contrast to that, in reflective supervision, the provider and the reflective supervisor are talking about someone who is not in the room with them.

Yes, when a client shares a personal story with their therapist, the therapist is curious about the person and their story. But the client has the answers. In a reflective session, the people in the room don’t have all the answers. We are still curious about the provider sitting with us who is sharing the story. As we know, they are part of the story. They’re helping that third party, and part of their work is to be curious about that third party.

It’s interesting that you use the word “curiosity” more than words like “empathy” or “compassion.”

When you’re curious, open, or challenging assumptions, it helps you to connect empathetically. The curious mindset leaves more space for understanding the other person–or just sitting with that person and not understanding. Research has found that a curious, wondering mind is a coping mechanism for stressful events. If a stressful thing happens, instead of holding onto the stress, the curious mind can actually say, “Okay, this is an adventure. I’m interested. What do I need to know?” We move towards action, curiosity, and wonder. That curiosity goes away sometimes when things are stressful or when someone hurts my feelings. Yet my job is still to be in a relationship with the other person, to get them what they need.

Let’s say I’m a home visitor working with a parent. The parent is yelling at me. If I’m able to maintain my curiosity about the person, I may ask, “What is the feeling that produced this behavior?” I may learn that they were verbally abused as a child. That starts to kick my empathy into gear. Now I understand that they’re playing out their attachment relationship with me, and if I act differently from their parent, then there’s potential for repairing that prior relationship. Later, when the parent interacts with their child, they may be able to use our relationship as a model sometimes, instead of only the relationship they had with their parents.

That’s an example of Parallel Process, one of the Essential Elements identified in the RIOS.

It’s one of the reasons why reflective supervision was born in the infant mental health field. Workers were trying to create these corrective relationships with clients who were becoming parents. But what if corrective relationships like that were available to everyone? If there are people who are curious and interested in me and in whatever I’m having trouble with, I can hold my feelings instead of acting them out.

This is why I believe this course, RIOS™ 1: Using the RIOS™ Framework for Reflective Supervision, can work for people in a range of professions. I think the same is true of the module Wondering with Purpose: Reflection in Any Setting. Take “Holding the Baby in Mind” and change “baby” to “person on the phone who needs housing” and “provider” to “person answering the phone.” The reflective provider will be more able to hold the boundary when someone is acting inappropriately. The provider will then be more able to give them another chance when they’re acting appropriately, rather than saying, “You can’t come back to my agency again.”

So that’s what opens up this course to anybody who’s interested in this reflective way of interacting with people. A big piece is practicing identifying a feeling in someone else and in yourself. Have you heard what Brené Brown has to say about empathy versus sympathy? Empathy acknowledges that maybe there are no solutions. Empathy means that when someone feels like they’re down in a hole, you just get down in the hole with them. It helps us get used to saying to a supervisor, “I am tapped out, frustrated, and angry.” And it helps the supervisor get used to saying: “Wow, I hear you.” Or: “I trust you to do what you need to do so you can get back to work.” That’s instead of saying: “Just get back to the phones.” Or: “Let me fix it.” There doesn’t need to be a genius fix, there just needs to be a space.

How does reflective supervision work? Therapist and reflective consultant Michelle Dineen explains in this Q & A

Learn about what happens in a reflective supervision session and how it can benefit practitioners in fields such as early childhood education, social work, and health care.

Michelle Dineen, MSW, LICSW, IMH-E®, is a therapist and reflective consultant. As a therapist, she has a special interest in working with parents who have young children. As a reflective consultant, she leads group reflective supervision sessions for people in a variety of professions. This includes teams working in such fields as public health and emergency services, as well as teams working for social service agencies and crisis nurseries. 

Dineen is also an instructor for our online course RIOS 1: Using the RIOS Framework for Reflective Supervision. She also authored our self-study module Wondering with Purpose: Reflection in Any Setting. In the first part of our Q & A with Dineen, she discusses the benefits of reflective supervision. She also talks about the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has posed to people in helping professions.

What happens in a reflective supervision session? How does reflective supervision help participants?

Michelle Dineen: Reflective supervision sessions can be led by a reflective supervisor who works within an organization, or they can be led by an external consultant, like me. Reflective supervision is particularly helpful for people whose work is emotionally charged. These providers often work with people who are in high-stress situations. 

In reflective sessions, providers can take a step back and think about themselves as players in the interactions with people they assist. Reflective sessions are a place where providers can work on understanding their part of the equation. My job is to help providers name and manage the emotions that they experience while helping others.

In reflective sessions, we do mindfulness to become more aware of our bodies’ responses to emotions. When we get emotionally charged or someone we meet is emotionally charged, that is somewhat contagious. If we don’t understand our own reactions, we can end up taking on someone else’s emotions. 

The providers I work with are empathetic. They are in relationships with the people whom they are helping. But they’re practicing how to manage the boundaries between their own emotions and those of others. They’re asking questions like: “What can I understand about the emotions that we experienced? What isn’t mine to hold onto anymore? What can I let go of and still be good at my work?” They’re practicing not being a sponge that soaks in all of the emotions in the room. Being a sponge leads to burnout.

So reflective supervision can help prevent burnout. It can also help participants increase their effectiveness at work. Can you talk a little bit about why that is the case?  

MD: Reflective supervision sessions are not based on fixing anything. Instead, they are based on giving space to the experiences people are having with an initial goal of wondering what might be going on with the other person. From there, we get into challenging assumptions. All of us are judgmental. That’s how we keep safe. The key is to recognize our assumptions and to be curious about the person we are interacting with. 

For example, let’s say you are a home visitor who works with parents and kids. You might have assumptions like, “I could do better than this mom.” Everyone has weird thoughts like these. We may feel that we can’t say them out loud. If I leave feelings and thoughts like these unconscious and buried, they may come out sideways. I may accidentally act on them. But if I have a safe space to notice those thoughts, such as a reflective supervision session, I don’t have to hang on to them. I can move through them and use them to lead me in my intervention and support of that parent. 

You mentioned you work with public health professionals. How has their work changed since the start of the pandemic?

MD: I’ve noticed that some of the separation of “provider” and “client,” or of “us” and “them,” if you will, is gone. It’s because we’re now all experiencing a universal stressor. This isn’t necessarily just applicable to public health; it’s applicable to everyone who works with people. The pandemic has changed the way work feels and the way it feels to help someone else. Providers are finding that the stress experienced by their clients feels familiar.

I mentioned that one piece of reflective supervision is the separation of “my feelings” and “your feelings.” Thinking about what’s happened over the past year, so many professionals are now in the position of saying to their clients, “I’m confused about what’s happening also. I don’t know when I can see you again. I don’t understand the technology to connect with you virtually. I don’t know what barriers there will be to connect with you.” It’s really a struggle for people who have been doing this for a long time, because their skill sets may not translate well when they are not in the room with someone. These providers are now being subjected to stress at a similar level to the people with whom they work.

It sounds like any professional who normally works with people face-to-face could be experiencing these high stress levels.

MD: Yes, many workers use themselves, their presence, as a tool to connect with someone. They can’t do that virtually, or at least, they can’t do it in the same way. For example, sometimes a home visitor’s work is to sit in silence as a person cries about the tragedy they’re having, or to sit in silence while holding a baby. 

The educator and reflective consultant Carol Siegel has said that stress and creativity are opposites. When stress goes up, creativity goes down. People in helping professions practice creativity all the time. Think of a kindergarten teacher when a child is really dysregulated. The teacher thinks, “I’ll try this to help them. Now I’ll try that. That didn’t work. What else can I do?” What do professionals like these do when their creativity is constrained by the virtual format? They feel tired, incompetent. They can’t do what they want to do and serve the people they want to serve. And they know people are suffering for it.

Stay tuned for the second part of our conversation with Michelle Dineen. To learn more about reflective supervision, explore Dineen’s online course RIOS™ 1: Using the RIOS™ Framework for Reflective Supervision. For a self-paced introduction to reflective skills, Dineen’s self-study module Wondering With Purpose: Reflection in Any Setting is another option. Register for any of CEED’s self-study modules for $10 off throughout May in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month.

Mind the gap: watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as experiential learning

Can watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood be a way into mindfulness practice? Guest blogger Mary Harrison, PhD, LICSW, IMH-E, explores the contrast between our busy contemporary lifestyles and the slow pace of the beloved television program.

By Mary Harrison, PhD, LICSW, IMH-E®

Mary Harrison

In the early days of 2020—a time that seems both recent and incredibly distant—I wrote a blog post about why Mr. Rogers still matters to people. The post seemed to resonate with readers at the time and has continued to do so during the upheaval of the past year. I’ve tried to think through why that might be, and I keep coming back to the idea of slowness.

You might have heard of the slow movement and related ideas like “slow food” and “slow work.” We’re often told we need to slow down, practice self care, check in with our loved ones, and find balance. This all sounds appealing, but at a time when we are inundated with news and images and updates and advice, it is difficult to actually slow down, to practice some of those coping strategies that are constantly pressed on us.

For some of us, the COVID-19 pandemic did enable—or enforce—a slower lifestyle. Some of us have found it possible for human connections to flourish over Zoom, even having regular conversations with friends and families in a way that we were never able to before. I can also recall some lovely moments of in-person connection, chatting with neighbors from afar or with fellow mask-wearers at the grocery store across a polite six feet of space.

But are we actually experiencing the physical sensation of slowness? Are our minds ever quiet? My body and mind seem to have forgotten what it means to slow down and just be, or to give something my full attention and let my mind wander in deep thought. Quiet nothingness is a time during which we can feel emotions, form new thoughts, slow our heart rates, make connections. But such slowness can seem very elusive.

The beloved children’s TV personality Mr. Rogers moved at such a slow pace that it seems to me almost painfully so at times. In our world of clickbait, tweets, and text chains, connections happen quickly. And then we move on—quickly—to the next thing, and the next.

Fred Rogers on the set of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood with puppets Henrietta Pussycat and X the Owl

Mr. Rogers’ whole way of being was different. His well-known shoe-and-sweater-swapping routines were predictable and deliberate. The way he spoke allowed for words and ideas and questions to hang in the air for consideration. Frankly, watching old episodes initially drives me nuts. It’s the same as sitting for silent meditation after an absence of practice. It creates an instant need for mental list-making and physical fidgeting.

Sitting with an old Mr. Rogers episode is an invitation to visit a past version of ourselves. This past self didn’t always scramble to see who just texted or scroll to see who just posted. Perhaps this past self was five years old, home sick from school, and eating chicken noodle soup and saltines. This past self was comforted by a favorite Mr. Rogers Neighborhood episode in which he visited the crayon-making factory. Or perhaps this past self was the parent of a preschooler searching for something that their child could watch that didn’t involve a screeching cartoon character.

Watching Mr. Rogers is experiential learning for a more mindful, slower way of living. Start an episode as an adult and you will be reminded of familiar sights and songs. The nostalgia might feel sweet as you settle in for a whole episode.

But I wonder if at some point you will start to feel waves of a different kind of emotion. Urgency? Boredom? Irritation? Perhaps one of these labels will fit this itchy feeling, or maybe you’ll just experience it as a nagging “I need to be doing something” train of thought. When I tried this exercise recently, this was exactly what happened to me. Adding to my unease was a sense that I wasn’t proud of having these thoughts and feelings.

But like silent meditation or any mindfulness practice, there is a gap period before your body can actually slow down, before your mind can actually grow quieter. It’s uncomfortable. Other tasks beckon. Other things need tending. You tell yourself this is “good for you” because it’s a “healthy form of self-care.” You will yourself to sit and be quiet.

Here’s where I’ll advocate for watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as a form of meditation. It works because he keeps you company; he talks and walks you through this uncomfortable gap period. Fred Rogers’ familiar routines and soothing cadence can dim our inner fluorescent lights and set the stage for the slowdown. Tolerating the transition from constant stimulation to slowness and silence is easier with Mr. Rogers, because he is already there. He is just ahead of you, waiting for you in that more intentional place. All you have to do is let go of the conscious or unconscious habit of responding to the call of half-finished tasks and buzzing notifications.

You can take the train to the land of make-believe, but in your case, it is from a place dominated by the crush of worries, tasks, and FOMO (fear of missing out) to a place of slowly untying shoes and zipping up sweaters. You can shed the layers of responsibility in favor of a safe learning experience. And all the while, your body can slow down, your mind can quiet, your heart beat can reset, and you can actually find yourself experiencing moments of just being.

Mr. Rogers can help us mind the gap between our fervent efforts at keeping our heads above water and living at a more natural pace. What are the benefits of slower living? For one, new ideas have space to come to light. We can experience a deeper level of exhale. Our human bodies can be open to the energy and light of others. Our children need this for learning; we need it for surviving and thriving.

I invite you to revisit Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood when you can. Observe yourself as you watch an episode: your mind, your heart, maybe your restlessness, maybe your longing for the next thing. I invite you to join Mr. Rogers for the full episode and see how you feel as it unfolds. See how you feel by the end. Transitioning to his slower pace just might remind you how it feels and leave you longing to experience such slowness again soon.

Early childhood education in the age of COVID-19: Part two in a series

Program Quality Specialist Hannah Riddle presents new information on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the early childhood education sector.

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.

A colorful stack of cloth masks on a table

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.

“They risked their health, their family’s health, and did it for the right reasons. […] They knew what they were doing was making a difference, and I hope that that doesn’t get lost when this is over. I hope that it isn’t forgotten that they showed up so that the essential workers could also show up. [The teachers] were caring for [essential workers’] most precious family members so they could take care of everyone else’s sick family members, so that food could be stocked at the grocery store, so that gas stations could be open, so the mail could go out, so the country could continue to run. Without these caregivers, where would the kids go while the essential employees were working?”

Courtney Greiner, Director, Mini Mos Child Care and Preschool, Esko, MN

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.