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Studying Importance of a Child's Early Years

Professor Sydney Hans and Ounce of Prevention Fund President Diana Rauner discuss new study

(This article appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of SSA Magazine.)

Early childhood education is a critical resource for families from disadvantaged communities. Educare, a program started in 2000 in Chicago by the Ounce of Prevention Fund, provides an important model for serving these families. The program gives children high quality learning experiences from shortly after birth to age five, and partners with their parents. With the support of public and private partners, there are now 21 Educare schools across the country. The approach was shown to be effective in a paper “Child and Parenting Outcomes After 1 Year of Educare,” recently published in the journal Child Development. The paper was co-authored by Sydney Hans, the Samuel Deutsch Professor at SSA. In this conversation, Hans and Ounce president Diana Rauner, who received a PhD in Developmental Psychology in 2002 from the University, discuss this national program and its evaluation.

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(This portion of the Conversation appears in the print issue of the Summer 2017 issue of SSA Magazine.)

diana raunerRauner: This study has been a very long time in coming. Research and evaluation have always been a part of the Educare model. One of the most important things about this new study is that it’s focused on children who entered Educare in their very first year of life, with an attention to what it takes to support both children’s and parents’ development in those critical first years. We saw exciting findings on parent behaviors and parent attitudes.

sydney hansHans: The findings that just came out in the journal of Child Development were really promising. But they were only after a year of the children being in this experience, so they were still very young children. In the next waves, we’ll be able to look at things that are much more directly connected to school readiness, which is where we hope, ultimately, to be finding our results. The parenting findings are really deeply important, because parents spend a lot more time with their children than children spend in school settings. So if some of the values of the program and some of the things that the children have been exposed to in school carry over to home, that’s just really going to make the intervention a lot more powerful over time. Language development really was the primary area where we’re finding impacts of the program. And even though these are very young children, most of them are between their first and second birthdays, we could already see differences in their use of words and their use of gestures to communicate, and in their understanding of what adults were saying to them.

Rauner: Absolutely. And those communication skills, as we know, are so foundational to later language skills and then later literacy skills. There’s such an established body of research on that. We suspect that because we run home visiting programs, as well as Educare and Head Start programs, our approach to working with families really bleeds from one to the other. In our home visiting programs, we work on building parents’ confidence, their understanding, their attachment to their child, and their sense that they can do this work. I think that affects the world of Educare as well. And I suspect that the parenting behaviors, the impacts that we’re seeing, have something to do with our approach to family engagement and family development work that really does come from the home visiting world.

Hans: What I think is really important about the model in today’s policy context is that it combines childcare for parents who need it in order to be able to work, with a high quality setting for their children. And I think it’s taken us a long time, after the welfare reform era, to catch up with having models that actually support parents who need to be working.

Rauner: Educare is also an innovation hub and a site for continuous quality improvement and innovation. We often call it an experiential learning center for adults. That’s because it’s an opportunity for people to see what high quality early learning looks like, especially for infants and toddlers. Because people don’t often have in their mind’s eye, what would it mean to do high quality education for babies and two-year-olds. We bring people to see the tremendous work that the teachers do there, the feel of the place, and give them an opportunity to understand in real life why it is so important to nurture and support young brains. We’ve found it to be a very effective opportunity to give policy-makers, journalists, and civic leaders a better understanding of why early education is so important. So it does a lot of things, even as it educates children and demonstrates some new ways to work with families.

Hans: So, Diana, one of the problems in some of these early education models is where do children go after having a high quality beginning? I know you were working on transitions to different settings.

Rauner: We are. When we first followed our children out of Educare Chicago, we found that their parents weren’t necessarily putting them in the best schools that they possibly could get into. And so we recognized that we had work to do to help the parents appreciate the opportunities that they could have for their children. We worked very intensively on that over the last 15 years or so, and we are proud to say that 60 percent of our kids are going to charter, contract, or magnet schools. But even the ones who are going to neighborhood schools, their parents are making affirmative choices about which schools to send them to. It’s a wonderful thing that Chicago has school choice, but it also means that parents really have to take more responsibility, have more information so that they can do the right thing by their children. Our model has always focused on parents internalizing both their responsibility to their children and also their own sense of efficacy and a capability to support their children’s development.

Hans: I’ve been at Educare when parents come to pick up their children. It’s always such a delight to go into the school on the South Side. It is such a warm, vibrant place, and really it’s just what a nursery school should be, including a classroom full of babies. And there’s so much modeling that goes on, even during those very few minutes, when parents see how the staff interact with their children. It gives the parents something that they can think about and do themselves when they go home.

Rauner: I think one of the things that we are also seeing in our Educare model is the level of attachment that parents feel towards the program and towards the teachers. And I think that, again, is development for the parents.

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(The following web-only content is the continuation of Professor Hans and Diana Rauner's conversation.)

Rauner: In addition to the randomized control evaluation of five Educare schools, we’ve been following our children out of Educare Chicago since 2005 in a separate study. We have over 300 families in that follow-up study. And they have organized themselves into an alumni network. I believe that speaks to the level of engagement and attachment that they feel to the program, its relevance in helping them be better parents, and navigating the challenges that they have.

Hans: I had a student in one of my classrooms at SSA who’d been an Educare parent, and I don’t think had finished college even at the time her child was in Educare. But she’d gone on, and now has a master’s of social work, and is actually working on a law degree right now. She talks about how inspired she was by the opportunity.

Rauner: Wow, that’s a wonderful success story. That’s great to hear. We have come across Educare parents in all sorts of interesting places. Their faces light up when they talk about their children at Educare, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Hans: They must be so glad to be able to provide that opportunity for their children, and know that they’re doing something good to have their children there.

Rauner: For my doctoral research when I was at the University of Chicago I went into family childcare homes, and I looked at language development, language stimulation and interactions. What I can say from having been in a lot of childcare of varying quality is no parent wants to put their child in poor childcare. And while some people think that parents don’t know the difference, parents know the difference. And they do the best they can with what they have, but there’s no question, having been a parent myself, that I would say having your child in a place where they’re loved and secure and safe is such a release of anxiety that allows you to focus on developing yourself, and doing other things. I think that some parents understandably worry all the time about how their child is doing, when they’re not in good places. And that’s probably true throughout life. That’s particularly true with pre-verbal children, and children who are so helpless. We want all parents to be active consumers of their child’s education. So they really have high expectations of the schools, and places that they’re sending their children.

Hans: Even during infancy.

Rauner: Even during infancy. Any setting their child is in from birth should be an educational setting. Which doesn’t mean worksheets or necessarily letters and numbers up on the walls. It means that there’s a lot of conversation, a lot of responsiveness, a nurturing and warm environment. So that I think is really important for parents to know, and to feel both empowered and responsible for. The Ounce is working to bring Educare practices to other programs in Illinois and other states as well. At eight Educare schools, we’re offering professional development for early childhood educators to support quality in their communities. So a big focus of our work is to share the practices and the values and what seems to be working at Educare with other programs across the community.

Hans: How is that being done?

Rauner: It’s being done right now by developing a “train the trainer” model. And we developed a fair amount of training materials to do that. We’re hopeful that that’s a space where Educare can continue to have greater and greater impact. The other place to have impact is on the public funding streams. Educare is funded by Head Start and Early Head Start, by childcare, and by state pre-K. By demonstrating that those funding streams can be used to have high quality outcomes for children, we also are able to begin to influence the funding streams to structure themselves in a way where they can promote high quality practices. The end goal for Educare is to change the public funding streams.

Hans: What if there aren’t any public funding streams?

Rauner: We’re working on that too. So we, as an organization at the Ounce, have a very large policy and advocacy effort here in Illinois, but also in Washington, DC. We are always focused on finding and supporting the public funding streams that support young children.

Hans: There has been, over time – I mean we’re moving into a new era in Washington, obviously – but over time, there’s been fairly robust bipartisan support for initiatives focused on young children.

Rauner: Absolutely. So we believe that is a place that will continue to see bipartisan support, and certainly in these challenging times, we’re going to continue to advocate for that. For parents, what these studies really reinforce is the importance of responsive, warm interactions, beginning at birth with language-rich environments, environments in which children’s attention is followed and supported and reciprocated by language and appropriate stimulation. And all parents can and should do that. It’s not so much about talking all the time, it’s about talking in a way that is responsive to what the child is doing and looking at and thinking about. And of course, being responsive and supportive of children’s emotional needs and challenges.