Toward “wonderful and robust” early childhood education: a Q & A with Ashley Bonsen

TARSS Curriculum Specialist Ashley Bonsen joined CEED in July 2023. In this Q & A, she shares about her professional background teaching people of all ages, and she explains what people need to know about professional development for early childhood educators (ECEs) in Minnesota.

Ashley Bonsen

Can you talk a little about your professional background and how your career led you to CEED?

My first job out of college was as director of a Spanish immersion child care center. After that, I joined St. David’s Center for Child and Family Development as a care coordinator supporting children with disabilities and their families. Following that, I pivoted to teaching Spanish in public middle and high schools. I was teaching when the pandemic hit. That was a difficult time.

After the acute phase of the pandemic, I decided to explore teaching adults. I taught child development courses at St. Paul College, and I taught through a program from the YWCA of Minneapolis to help Early Childhood Educators (ECEs) obtain their Child Development Associate credential. In fact, I still teach at the YWCA. While I was teaching at these two locations, I also worked at an in-home child care program that a friend started. I worked every day of the week!

In July 2023, I was brought onto a project at CEED part time. I was hired to assist with the process of revising the Early Childhood Indicators of Progress (ECIPs), which are Minnesota’s early learning guidelines. I wanted to be part of updating the ECIPs because it is such an important and useful document. I used the ECIPs regularly with my YWCA and St. Paul College students.

The ECIPs project is ongoing, and in fall 2023, I transitioned into a full-time role at CEED taking on an additional set of responsibilities. As TARSS curriculum specialist, I work closely with Child Development Services, part of the state Department of Human Services (DHS). My job is to help maintain the DHS professional development curriculum library.

What does maintaining the curriculum library entail?

You could say I’m the keeper of the courses. DHS has a library of more than 300 professional development courses for ECEs. I work closely with Kami Alvarez, professional development policy specialist at DHS, to update and maintain those courses. That means compiling documentation on curriculum, tracking changes to the courses, and providing technical writing maintenance. I provide DHS with a curriculum delivery analysis as well. That analysis shows any gaps in the courses that are available. It states what the demands of the field are so we can address those needs. Additionally, I help determine when and how courses are revised.

How do you figure out the timing of revisions and how much to revise?

I look at the “expiration dates” for all of the courses that will be expiring in the next fiscal year. I then work with DHS to prioritize what courses need to be rewritten, what courses need updates, and what courses need to be retired. I look at a variety of data about each course: I look at course participation rates, I review feedback and suggestions from DHS partners such as Child Care Aware, and I also review feedback from trainers and participants. Trainers know course content backward and forward, so their perspective is very important. Participants have an opportunity after taking a DHS course to fill out a survey about the course and how the trainer did. Taking all of this data into account, I decide whether a course needs to be updated, or even completely rewritten.

What is the process for revising courses?

I make small revisions myself based on direct feedback, such as repairing broken links and correcting typos. For more substantial rewrites, DHS hires course writers. Keep in mind that many courses are offered in Spanish, Hmong, and Somali as well as English, so there’s a lot of work behind the scenes that goes into revisions. The state has a translation service and we’ve hired a translation firm to check our work over as well. Of course we want to make sure everything is translated accurately, but we also want to make sure the content is culturally appropriate. As an example, a course might talk about using utensils, but in a given community, hand feeding might be more appropriate. The challenge with translations is that from an equity standpoint, we want all DHS courses to be available in all the major languages spoken in Minnesota. From a logistical standpoint, though, that means DHS’ 300-plus courses are actually 1,200-plus courses.

In terms of the impact that revising a course can have, both the Active Supervision and Health and Safety courses were revised earlier this year. Both of these courses are licensing requirements. That means ECEs must take these courses in order to get and maintain a license to provide child care. As you can imagine, this means there is a lot of demand for these courses. It also means rewriting them was a big deal! It affected trainers as well as ECEs. Trainers who delivered the old courses needed to be trained to deliver the new ones. We call these events “trainings of trainers” (TOTs). A TOT is a training on how to deliver a particular DHS course.

What is the biggest area of growth for you in your position?

Getting familiar with the library of courses that DHS has to offer. I want to have information top-of-mind so that I can work more spontaneously rather than opening up documents and searching for information. 

What would you like the public to know about professional development for ECEs?

One thing that can be confusing for people, myself included, is all the systems and organizations at play: state agencies, Develop, Achieve, TARSS, and so on. So sometimes, what we have to do is set aside the systems piece and just focus on the fact that in this state we value education. We want to be leaders in education, not just in K-12 but in early childhood. We believe in the importance of a wonderful and robust early childhood education. We want to make sure the professionals we are putting in those early childhood classrooms are equipped to handle whatever comes at them during their day. We want them to have the best possible training and information to do and sustain their jobs for as long as possible. Having high-quality, supportive professional development is a piece to help that. In Minnesota, we have a great catalog of courses that are provided, some at no cost, to ECEs. If an educator likes the idea of that, thinks that’s inspiring, and wants to be a part of it by becoming a trainer or a course writer, they can talk to me!

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