Kelly Cavallini has been working in family child care for 29 years and she wouldn’t have it any other way. She briefly worked as a center director for a large chain but found that she missed the more intimate work with children and families that running a family childcare allowed her to do.
But when Cavallini enrolled in Leading for Change, the 14-week professional development program offered through the Massachusetts StrongStart Professional Development Centers, she realized there was an important aspect missing from her work in family child care: co-workers.
Because family child care owners often work on their own they “don’t have anyone validating” what they’re doing, said Cavallini, who works out of her home in Springfield. “You’re skipping around the house and your little ducklings are following you, and we are doing amazing work but on one sees it!”
Leading for Change, which trains program administrators, educators, and family child care providers on how to lead for change and quality improvement in their practice, program, or in the field, is taught in the style of a professional learning community, making it a highly interactive learning environment where participants work with peers to develop their leadership skills.
Consequently, as Cavallini said, “The course was almost like having coworkers. We got to share our stories. We got to talk about what makes us us and give examples and learn that what we’re doing is good—and how we can make it better.”
Leading for Change was developed by the Institute for Early Education Leadership and Innovation at UMass Boston, which also offers the training to early educators in Maryland and California. Adapted from the entrepreneurial leadership curriculum that anchors all of the Leadership Institute’s programs, Leading for Change is taught in the style of a professional learning community (PLC) making it a highly interactive learning environment where participants work with peers to develop their leadership skills. It is taught in two parts with seven sessions each. Participants in Part 1 learn how to lead for change to improve program quality and promote equity in early care and education. Part 2 provides an opportunity for participants to dig deep into a specific area they’d like to change and build a concrete plan to make that change a reality. In addition to the PLC sessions, participants complete an out-of-class-time leadership development activity, and several PLC session discussions are based on short readings or videos to be read or viewed before sessions.
The training was so comprehensive and immersive that Cavallini describes it as having “changed my life.”
She credits Leading for Change with helping her recognize—and more effectively utilize—her own leadership skills. “I knew what they were, I just didn’t realize I could use them in a professional way,” she said. “Like my creativity. I’m a crafty person. But to use that in business, I didn’t see how that could work, until I took this training.”
Cavallini noted that one of the exercises in Leading for Change required participants to gather feedback from people in their personal and professional lives who know them well. Specifically, Cavallini asked close friends, family, and peers to describe times when Cavallini was at her best. Each answer revolved around one theme—Cavallini’s creativity.
“People described me as someone that would always go out of my way to help people in a creative way. And this obviously translates to my work because in family child care— and any classroom setting—you have to be creative to handle all of the challenges that can arise,” Cavallini said, adding that these skills were particularly important during the pandemic, which has required early educators to be more creative and adaptable than usual.
Not surprisingly, Cavallini’s leadership project for Leading for Change incorporated creativity and crafts. She designed a community curriculum room for family child care providers in the Springfield area. Family child care providers can visit the curriculum room to make cubby tags, enlarge posters, laminate materials, and do so inexpensively. The curriculum room also has the tools for provides to create manipulatives (blocks, objects for sorting, and other learning tools) that support curriculum goals.
“I’m a crafty person and I love this stuff so I can do it on my own, but not everybody can and they need help,” said Cavallini, noting that the costs of enlarging and laminating materials adds up quickly—even when the materials themselves are free.
Ultimately, Cavallini will partner with a local library to house the community curriculum room. For now, on-going issues related to the pandemic have complicated plans to finalize a community partnership. Meanwhile—no surprise— Cavallini has creatively adapted her idea into a two-session workshop designed for both virtual and in-person participation. The first session is an online discussion on the importance of curriculum and how to adapt it throughout your classroom and to children’s varied learning styles. The second session is hybrid with an in-person, hands-on option and a virtual option, during which participants can complete a curriculum project for their classroom.
“I have another provider who has an empty second floor of her house and she’s letting us do a two-hour Saturday morning session with a zoom option in case somebody’s not comfortable coming in person,” said Cavallini. “We’re going to have all the materials to make something together. I’ll have hot glue guns, I’ll bring my mini laminator if they want to laminate cubby tags. If people want, they can throw in a couple bucks so I can restock afterwards. If they don’t, that’s fine too.”
The workshops are just the start of what Cavallini hopes will become a dynamic community resource where family child care providers and other early educators can share and swap materials or items that they already have in abundance or no longer use.
“I have tons of extra material I can bring and people can help themselves. And folks with extra materials like puppets, toys, or craft supplies can do the same. This way, people with older supplies that aren’t being used, but are still in great condition, can pass them along to other providers who can put them to good use,” said Cavallini. “I think it could be amazing.”