As early educators, we’re well aware of the chaos COVID-19 caused in our profession. Many of us are still grappling with pandemic-related financial shortfalls, staffing shortages, and an increase in challenging behavior among the children in our classrooms or programs—along with the stress such difficulties bring.
In her work as the Training Specialist for the Central Massachusetts StrongStart Professional Development Center (PDC), and as owner and president of the Institute for Education and Professional Development, Jody Figuerido, Ph.D., has observed these struggles in real-time and was concerned about their effect on young children’s learning and development as well as the impact on the educators.
Wanting to reach more educators than she could help as an individual trainer, Dr. Figuerido and fellow Central MA StrongStart Lead Coach, Kara Lehane, developed the StrongStart Professional Learning Community (PLC) Building Blocks for Preschool. The first two PLCs in the series focus on children 3-5 and include Schedules, Routines and Transitions and Creating Connection with Children.
The Building Block series focuses on the foundational elements of quality early education and care practices starting with relationships and the provision of a supportive environment for each child and family. Building Blocks has expanded to include a track for infants and toddlers (written by Central Mass PDC Coordinator Mary Watson Avery) and an out-of-school time track (written by Central Mass PDC Coach and Trainer Shakesha Thompson).
Most notably, according to Figuerido, the ECE staffing crisis resulted in an influx of newer and less experienced early education staff into classrooms. With little time to train new staff, we saw the need to help by developing the Building Block series. Building Blocks was created to help educators learn the “why” of best practices, “what” it looks like, and “how” to do it!
“We wanted to help these new educators really understand the important role they play with children. What they do can make a huge difference in a child’s life, even if the child has experienced trauma or if their home life is unstable,” Figuerido said. “Early educators can be that person who makes that difference in a child’s life. We really wanted to bring that home and have educators understand that connecting with and supporting each child is vital. We want each child to thrive in our programs.”
It is important for educators to be aware of the effects that their tone of voice, body language, and what they say have on children. Also, we all have biases and “hot buttons” that impact our interactions with children, said Figuerido. The first step is forming a positive relationship with each child in their classroom or program- and each child is different – is to get to know them including what they are interested in and their approaches to play and learning. We have designed our PLCs to help with this. We realize it is not always easy but it’s vital.
Figuerido said she believes the presence of a consistent, supportive environment and educators that are responsive and able to connect with children are key to preventing challenging behaviors in the classroom. She designed the Building Blocks curriculum with that in mind.
The first module of Building Blocks for Preschoolers, for instance, focuses on helping educators to recognize ways the learning environment affects children. Schedules, routines, and transitions not only promote engagement but can prevent challenging behaviors from occurring in the first place. The second module (these do not need to be taken in any order) of the Building Blocks is Creating Connections with Children.”
“With consistent schedules, routines, and transitions, along with caring relationships between the educator and child, you can eliminate many of the challenging behaviors,” said Figuerido.
In building a course to teach these skills, Figuerido and Lehane used a framework that provides systemic support for educators through well-defined, evidenced-based policies and procedures and prioritizes partnerships with families as its foundation.
Figuerido attributes Building Blocks’ popularity to the fact that it fills needs among ECE educators that they have observed in the field or heard about through the PDC. Schedules, Routines and Transitions, the first in the Building Blocks series, has been translated into five languages, which was also based on needs they saw in the field. “We see needs in the early education and care field and we consider how we can support this need through reflection on current practices and sharing practical strategies to support the identified goals of the PLC,” Figuerido said.
She added that the Building Blocks PLC, which also acknowledges the stress that early educators are working under, fosters connections among participants—including the facilitators—which adds to its popularity. “We do talk about our own stress and pausing for a moment before we react in a situation, as we teach the children to do. I think these topics have connected with people both in their professional and their personal lives; we’re connecting to what really matters to people,” said Figuerido.
“Our trainees have to know why the topic being covered is important, identifying how attending this training can help educators to reflect on current practices, and consider changes that might help.” “One way to encourage participants in a PLC to consider new information is to reflect on why they entered the field, tap into their passion and their goals for their classroom/program. Once we consider our significant impact on each child, we are more open to considering what we can do to make each child’s experience the best it can be. What better goal is there in life than to make a positive difference in the life of a child?”