Making Connections. Defining Moments in Our Profession: Looking Back, and Looking Forward
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In 2000, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development was released by the National Research Council. For the field of early childhood education, this report was a game changer. It gave us the scientific foundation to confidently assert that the most crucial period of brain development takes place during the first five years of a child’s life. The report also set the stage for advocacy efforts leading to increased public investments in early childhood education. Nearly every state now invests in preschool, for example, and Congress recently made the single largest increase in funding to child care in history.
But it has been a steep hill to climb—and far too many children, families, and educators have been left at the bottom.
It has been a steep hill to climb—and far too many children, families, and educators have been left at the bottom.
Once again, however, the National Research Council is spurring progress—and this time, the focus is on early childhood educators and the profound impact they have on children’s lives. In the NRC’s groundbreaking report, Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation, we have a comprehensive summary of how critical the first eight years of life are, with a significant new focus on the decisive role early childhood educators play in helping children to realize their fullest potential.
The report painstakingly describes the foundational development and learning that occurs in those years, and the need for early childhood educators to have the knowledge, skills, and competencies to maximize this period. Far from simply “minding the kids,” early childhood educators must understand how children develop skills and habits in the areas of
- Self-regulation and inhibitory control
- Self-awareness and self-management
- Responsible decision making
- Social awareness and relationship skills
- Social and emotional development and mental health
- Short-term working memory
- Attention-shifting and the ability to direct attention
- Cognitive flexibility
- Statistical learning and understanding of causal influence
- Interrelationships between language and mathematics
- Physical development, health, and nutrition
In addition to this list of complex building blocks, which form the foundation for children’s learning and development well into adulthood, early childhood educators must honor families and actively engage in partnering with them, understand the effects of adults’ language on children’s cognition, and appropriately respond to the stressors of economic adversity.
At NAEYC, we know that all of this learning and growth must occur in developmentally appropriate environments that reflect and value the cultural, racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of families in each community.
It is incumbent upon all of us to advocate for compensation that promotes a lifetime career in the profession.
Ultimately, Transforming the Workforce makes a compelling case that being an early childhood educator is complex and challenging. In order to realize the full benefits and economic potential of early education for young children, their families, and society, we have to put the right structures, policies, and supports in place to ensure that well-prepared and well-compensated early childhood educators are in each and every program, in all settings and all states across the country.
Inspired by the research in this report, 15 national early childhood organizations came together in 2017 through an initiative we called Power to the Profession (a name chosen to emphasize our commitment to centering the perspectives and expertise of educators). Our goal was to create a unified framework that defines a professional field of practice for early childhood educators. After three years of effort and more than 10,000 early childhood educators contributing their expertise, a shared framework will come out this year that includes agreement on
- The name of the profession
- The roles and responsibilities of the profession
- One set of defined competencies for what all early childhood educators must know and be able to do
- A professional structure with three levels of preparation to serve three scopes of practice
- A compelling compensation structure tied to the three levels
- The infrastructure, supports, and accountability required of and needed by institutions of higher education, early childhood educators, professional organizations, employers, the federal government, and state and local governments
Without public investment, children who benefit most from early experiences get left behind.
At the core of this initiative and the resulting shared framework is the idea that the early childhood education profession must own and define its accountability. Educators’ responsibility is to the children and families they serve, and to the taxpayers who fund their work.
We’ve all heard the phrase “With great power comes great responsibility.” Likewise, with great accountability must come commensurate compensation. It is not only acceptable to but incumbent upon all of us to expect and advocate for compensation and benefits that promote and enable a lifetime career in the profession. Accountable, professional early childhood educators should be able to support their families without having to rely on public assistance, as so many do today.
Now, unified, we roll up our sleeves and work with communities and states across the country, and with the federal government, to embed this shared framework in our early childhood systems and structures. Let’s be frank: to make all of this work, substantially more public investment is required. Without this recognition of the societal benefits of high-quality early childhood education, the marketplace cannot offer families the high-quality early care and education they need at a price they can afford. Without public investment, the families and children who need and benefit most from these early experiences are the ones who get left behind.
We are far from the mountaintop. But when I consider what we have accomplished for young children in the 19 years since From Neurons to Neighborhoods was published, it takes my breath away. Standing now on the verge of another climb—another round of social change—I am holding my breath for the years ahead, ready to work in the hope that 19 years from now we will be celebrating the transformation of the early education profession.
Because if we are, it means that we will also have transformed the lives of tens of millions of children.
Rhian Evans Allvin is the chief executive officer of NAEYC. She is responsible for guiding the strategic direction of the organization as well as overseeing daily operations. Before joining NAEYC, Evans Allvin was a guiding force in Arizona’s early childhood movement for more than 15 years, including serving as CEO of Arizona's First Things First.