Episode 218 – Tune in to this episode where we talk about why continuous learning is so important for ECEs with Joni Levine, founder of Child Care Lounge. She shares her journey growing her community and knowledge on trending topics in the field.
We still see a great hunger for the concrete, real-life, “What do I do in the classroom?” curriculum ideas. Those are always the top things. When we do surveys and ask people, what do they want to see? That’s what we hear the most of.
Joni, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Hi, I’m excited to be a part of it!
Were delighted to have you, Joni. To our audience, we have with us today Joni Levine. She’s the founder of Child Care Lounge. She’s also a trainer in early-childhood education. Delighted to have you on the show, Joni. Let’s start off learning a little bit about you and what the inspiration was for Child Care Lounge, which you started back in 2002.
That’s correct. So, I was a preschool teacher and I was directly in the classroom also as a childcare provider. I spent some years working directly in the classroom. I have a bachelor’s degree in early-childhood education. I eventually went on and got a masters degree in instruction and learning and curriculum design and development.
And at that point I started to enter the realm of adult education. And so there was a period of time where I was still in the classroom, directly working with children. I helped start up a few childcare centers.
And I started to work with a program here in the Pittsburgh area for a technical school. And they were offering a certificate program that would be the equivalent of an associate or a CDA [Child Development Associate credential] program. And so I started working with them with adult education and found that I liked that just as well. I was there for about four years.
And like I said, it was really a nice opportunity to sort of straddle both direct care as well as working with adults. It also gave me a great opportunity to learn more about what was happening in the field, especially locally. We had a practicum program, so I would be able to go in and I would supervise and work with my students while they were in other programs.
One of the things that I noticed – and I’ll come back to this because it was really the heart of my inspiration – is when I went into all these programs, they were pretty similar. And I went into one program and there was something that really stood out that was different that day and it really had an impact on me.
I went into the program and somewhere around the corner in the hallway past where the office was and where the bathrooms were, there was another room. And someone was giving me a tour and they opened up the room and they said, “This is our lounge.” And it was a very small room. And there was a main table there and there were some bookshelves. And there was a coffee maker in the corner and nothing all that exciting.
But it struck me that in all these centers I’d been, I never had seen such a thing. Now, I had worked in public school programs and there’s always a teacher’s lounge. But childcare providers, I never saw a space for them. And that’s sort of stuck with me.
So, I continued on in adult education. I became adjunct faculty at my local community college. And while I was doing that, I was not only teaching in a classroom with adults, but I was starting to do some local trainings, in-person trainings for adults, sometimes for the very centers that I had had students in – [they] would invite me in to do presentations.
We had a very – and still actually do have – a very large and local NAEYC [National Association for the Education of Young Children] affiliate. We would have large annual conferences and I would do presentations there as well. And I realized again that this was something I really enjoyed.
Somewhere in the midst of doing all of these different things, the shift really started to happen where I was being more and more involved in adult education as opposed to early-childhood education. And I said to myself, “What am I going to with all these resources?” Over the years I’ve been in the classroom – which was more than fifteen to twenty – I had collected books and finger plays and play-dough recipes and all of these things. And just, “What am I going to do?”
And someone made the suggestion, almost as a joke: “Oh, why don’t you start one of those little websites? You can just put everything up there.” And I did just that. This was [around the year] 2000, 2001, where there was a lot of these little start-your-own-websites – like, Geocities I think with one of them. I can’t even remember the original one I started it on.
And it just became like a little hobby of mine, to think of a way to give back to childcare providers. And I started this little [website]. I taught myself how to do the HTML coding and everything. And I started this little website, put up the finger play recipes and a little blurb that said all about me: “Here’s my background, here’s what I’ve done.”
And over a period of time, people found me and started to say, “Oh, I see you do trainings. Can you come downtown next Saturday? Can you come out here to this suburban area where I’m at and do a training?” And that started to increase. And over a period of time, I started to get more and more of these invites. And the next thing you know, they were in the next city over. Then they were on the other side of the state.
And so then there was the magic day, the birth of Child Care Lounge. I got an email out of the blue where I was invited to keynote a NAEYC convention somewhere in the northern States. And it was a very lucrative offer, financially. It was also very exciting for me to think I could be a keynote speaker at a large conference.
However, the logistics just weren’t going to work out. I wasn’t going to be able to get off time teaching at the community college. So, I had too many things from arranging for a pet sitter to getting transportation to the airport and all that. As exciting as it was in the knee jerk reaction, I quickly was sobered by the thought that this just can’t be.
And I had this moment of, I guess, wishful thinking or fantasy thinking. And I can remember sitting on my couch in my living room thinking, “Oh, if only I could do like the old fashioned Sabrina or I Dream Of Jeannie – I know that ages me – where I could blink or wiggle my nose or something and just be there. [But I thought,] “That’s silly, Joni.”
And then I thought, “Well, maybe I could rent somewhere and they could bring everyone… oh, they’re not going to do that. Oh, if only there was this magical way, this seamlessly magical way where we could exchange ideas and content in a live-based format and in real time.”
And my mind was thinking that, that literal light bulb moment of, “*gasp*, the internet!” And so I had already been an approved trainer here in the state of Pennsylvania to do these live trainings.
And I literally just picked up the phone, called someone in Harrisburg [Pennsylvania] and told them, “Here’s what I’ve been doing. I’m approved. What would it be like for me to offer these trainings, even as a correspondence class, to be able to do this distance learning for people that couldn’t come to me or vice versa?”
And I was met with a response. The woman said to me, “Oh, no one’s ever thought of that before. Oh, I don’t see why not.” And so I took one of the modules that I had used for going in and doing the training on-site, adapted it, created as a distance learning package and put it on the website. And shockingly, someone actually ordered it; and somebody else actually ordered it.
And so the very early start was, they weren’t even really technically online classes. They were more correspondence where I would mail them a packet, they would do worksheets, they would mail them back. But in a short period of time, somebody e-mailed me and said, “I’ve loved your class, but you only have one?” And so I added another class on there.
And then the second big moment in Child Care Lounge came when I got an e-mail from someone that said, “I saw your website, great resources. I saw this class, I want to take it but I’m in Texas. Would I be able to get credit?” And I thought, “I don’t know.” So, I picked up the phone and I called somebody in Texas and found out. And they said to me, “Oh, we’ve never had an approved trainer out-of-state but send us your credentials.” And they asked for a copy one of the classes, reviewed it, and lo-and-behold, I was approved.
And so sometimes people that are close to me have called me the “Accidental Entrepreneur”. Child Care Lounge really was something that just grew with me being responsive. I put something out there. And the need apparently was so great, people realized that they didn’t have to worry about driving – especially in a rural area – going three or four hours on a Saturday, finding childcare, paying for parking.
And instead it became, “Oh, I just have to put on my slippers and go into the other room. And it’s there and I can work on it when I want and when it’s not. And so we became just very responsive. And people would say to us, “We would like to see a class on discipline.” Okay. And it became so our growth was very organic.
And so back to that first inspiration and the name: as you can see, Child Care Lounge, we felt like there needs to be a special place for childcare providers where they can be recognized as professionals and they have a place, too, as a teacher’s lounge, to gather, to network, to get some professional development, to share, to find resources.
And so we’ve always tried to envision Child Care Lounge as kind of like a one-stop-shop for childcare providers where they can be away from the children and the families and have that support, have those resources and have that professional development.
We’ve been in existence since 2002. And our grassroots growth has grown year after year after year. We are now approved in all but about three states; we’re approved in a few Canadian provinces. And we also have a national level of accreditation where we can offer CEU’s [Continuing Education Units]. And we actually have some articulation agreements where folks will be able to use our classes towards college credit.
Very cool. Now, I want to talk a little bit about 2020. But before we do, let’s sort of take a bigger step back And over, call it the last 20 years, that you’ve been involved in adult learning and with Child Care Lounge, what have been some of the big macro trends in learning and topics that have been developing over the last 20 years, if you look over that time span?
First I’m going to tell you the tried-and-true, which I’m sure your audience will not be surprised to hear and they still hold true today. And that is, challenging behaviors, working with children and a positive discipline. And we still see a great hunger for the concrete, real-life, “What do I do in the classroom?” curriculum ideas. Those are always the top things. When we do surveys and we ask people, what do they want to see, that’s what we hear the most of.
We just actually on Tuesday had our first virtual conference where we posted 17 different presenters with a variety of topics. And the most popular topics were those. So, topic-wise, those are the tried-and-true.
We have seen some new topics come up and certainly trend. There’s been more and more of an interest in special needs. One of the hottest topics that we’ve seen is trauma – working with children with trauma backgrounds is something that has come to a public awareness and how extreme of an impact negative early-childhood experiences can be on children’s development.
Some may be familiar with the famous study that came out about two years ago called the ACEs study, the Adverse Childhood Experiences scale. And it really shows how strong of an impact negative early experiences have on future development. But it also shows the good news of what we can do in early-childhood to negate some of those negative influences. So, that’s been a really key topic.
Another topic that over the years kind it gains in popularity and interest and then it wanes and I’ve sort of seen it come and go and right now has been a very strong topic of interest, again, due to current events has been the topic of anti-bias, diversity curriculum, being able to make sure that our programs are programs where everyone is welcome, everyone feels welcome. I think just by looking at some of the past blogs, we’ve had someone talk about programs where there are some second- or third-language learners in the classroom and all of that. So ,those topics also have become more and more popular.
And then obviously, 2020 has being a very a unique year for everybody. [Are] there really acute challenges and issues that people are dealing with right now that you’ve had to adapt some of your content and training material to, as well?
Yes, definitely. The biggest challenge is just that sense of staying connected. We initially did a webinar on back in April just on that topic. And because we’re working with and trying to respond to providers and professionals around the nation and even internationally, it’s hard sometimes for us to target because some states were closing programs, some states were encouraging programs not [just] to open but to take in more children.
So, there were a lot of different challenges. And everyone sort of has a unique set of challenges. But the overriding theme was that in a climate where we’re hearing, “Stay away from each other, keep your distance,” whether it was closing a program or trying to enact policies within a program, almost everyone was facing that challenge.
What we know in the research of early-childhood education, Ron, is that one of the most critical things for quality care is relationships, that young children learn in the context of safe and secure relationships, whether they’re home-based relationships or relationships within a childcare setting. And asking children to be socially distant is really kind of contrary to everything we know about healthy child development.
So, how do we respond to that? And how can we stay connected to children, especially in some of these programs where they’re being asked to do virtual education? And they’re now trying to interact with young children through a TV screen. And we know all the research about how we want to limit screen time.
So, how do we kind of reconcile that? And there’s some really great lines that providers and professionals have been trying to deal with on that. And also staying connected to families and being able to support families, as well, for this time.
Let me go back to sort of that debate around balancing safety with COVID-19, along with providing that engaging learning environment for children where we know that relationships are so important, which oftentimes involves close physical contact. How are childcare programs addressing that? And what advice have you been providing?
So, what we’re trying to do right now is really hear how other people are addressing this themselves. And again, because everyone’s got a different set of standards and challenges that they’re being asked to meet or they’re facing regarding their programing, we’re hearing some programs were just very quick to mandate.
I think there’s some pre-K programs in the States that I was talking to where they were just mandating that there still had to be a certain amount of instructional time. And I saw childcare programs – at least initially – trying to struggle with, “Well, what’s instructional time if we have a play-based curriculum?” And I think some of them felt pressured to start going and doing worksheets and doing homework. “Well, I can give them, I can mail a packet and they can do a homework assignment.”
And there’s a lot of things that have now come out and there’s a lot of resources that I’ve seen on, how can you make your program developmentally appropriate if you’re doing it through a screen or you’re doing it remotely? How do we keep children engaged and still kind of meet, like I said, in some programs where someone higher up has just put a very broad standard on that to say, “You have to have four hours of instructional time. You have to make sure that you set certain benchmarks,” and trying to do it in a totally different way. And still taking into account what’s appropriate for the children has definitely been a struggle.
And do you have any specific classes you would recommend on Child Care Lounge? And maybe they are very specific to this context we’re in right now with COVID-19? Or maybe they’re one of these tried-and-true topics that you talked about earlier?
Well, what we did is, we adapted that webinar. And so we do have a class called “Staying Connected”. And it aims to provide some real concrete ways [regarding] how do you engage children virtually? If you’re doing something using a [web-based video conference] or whatever, how do you hold the attention span? What can you do to partner with parents and to support parents in this time? So, we try to give some real concrete ideas and suggestions that way. How can we do this without just throwing worksheets at four-year-olds?
Excellent. And unfortunately, we’re quickly running out of time if folks want to learn more [and] find your classes online, where can they go?
Okay, so our website is www.ChildCareLounge.com. We’re hoping it’s a place for providers to come, like if it were a real refuge or a real lounge for them.
Yeah, a place to hang out and find some great information and take it in. It’s important to spend time doing that. Joni, thank you so much for joining us on the Podcast today. It’s been lovely having you. And I appreciate you sharing your years of wisdom with our audience here!
Oh, it’s been my pleasure, too!