Episode 220 – Early childhood education is also young parent education. In this episode, Sharon Hirsch, CEO of Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina, shares how we can work upstream to profoundly impact early educators and their work with helping parents build resilience, supporting families during times of crisis, and delivering early education that supports socioemotional development in young children.
That relationship with the childcare teacher makes such a difference in the life of a child. Even if a child’s got very difficult things happening at home, the existence of that one caring relationship at the childcare center can buffer the impact of the adversity they may be experiencing at home. So, it’s really, really critical.
Sharon, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Thank you so much for having me!
It’s our pleasure, Sharon. We’re here today speaking with Sharon Hirsch. She’s the president and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina. Really keen to talk to you today, Sharon, about a very heavy topic – but a very important topic – on how early-childhood education is a key strategy for preventing child maltreatment. Sharon, let’s start off learning a little bit about you and why you decided to take on this role at Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina.
Sure. Well, I’ve been at Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina for about five years. Early in my career, I worked in the social services system here in North Carolina and learned a lot about the needs in our child welfare system and the intersection of child welfare and economic supports for families, including childcare subsidy and the importance of childcare.
And when the opportunity came to work at Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina. I was really excited because Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina really focuses upstream on preventing child abuse from happening in the first place. It’s not aimed at interventions and treatment. We do the really hopeful work of talking to communities and professionals all across North Carolina about the strategies and policies that work to prevent abuse and build strong families where children can thrive.
Oh, cool. And so this is a very broad question, which I’m sure you could go on about for an extended period of time. But what are some of those key things that we can do upstream to prevent child abuse from happening in the first place?
Oh, there are a lot of things we can do. One is that we can invest in policies that support and strengthen families. We know that there are five protective factors that when they’re in place, families are strong and children are safe and healthy.
And so one of them is, children who have strong social-emotional confidence – so, doing things like making sure kids have access to great, quality childcare where they can grow their social and emotional skills.
Helping parents have knowledge of parenting skills and access to childcare programs that are based in quality and the principles of early-childhood development are really critical. Making sure parents are connected to resources and have a strong support system is a key thing we can do. Helping parents build their own resilience is also something we can do.
And then a really big piece is concrete supports for families in times of need, like right now, during COVID-19, where we’re seeing how important – particularly in our country – that economic supports are just absolutely critical to reducing family stress, keeping food on the table, helping to pay for diapers, all of the things that good economic supports do to provide that foundation and reduce parental stress are really, really critical.
So, there are a lot of things we can do. And a lot of them are things that all of us can help with, particularly reaching out and being a connection for other families, especially young families with young children who are often early in their careers and are dealing with the stress of balancing their career and new parenthood.
Yeah. And let’s dove into the first point a little bit more, which was access to childcare. So, this, of course, is the Preschool Podcast. And you mentioned an important piece of that was the social-emotional skills. Why is that? Why is that such a key driver?
Children who have those strong skills themselves are able to interact well with others. They recognize things like boundaries and how to have empathy with other children. Those are the kinds of things that are taught in early childhood settings.
And those are things that keep kids safe at the same time because those children understand boundaries; they have empathy for other people; and they are building a foundation to grow and develop those little brains really in a much stronger way because we know the first three years of life in particular are when children’s brains grow the most.
So, having the opportunity to build the skills and being in an environment that’s loving and nurturing helps kids to build that foundation for all their future growth and development.
Yeah, cool. And what about from the perspective of an early-childhood educator? What are the things that we can be doing as early-childhood educators to help provide this kind of environment and development experience for children?
Well, there are a lot of things. First and foremost, childcare centers provide a safe, nurturing environment to be in. They’re often a place where young children might receive one or two meals a day and their snacks. Children can be screened in their childcare centers for health and developmental concerns. They’re often the place where, if there might be issues and concerns in the home where they might be making their report if there’s a suspicion of abuse or neglect.
But they’re also a resource and a source of expertize on early-childhood development for parents. They’re often one of those places that that moms and dads go to, to ask for trusted, knowledgeable information about the stages of development and expectations for children’s behavior. We often aren’t teaching that as we grow up in our school system. So, early-childhood educators are really trusty resource for parents.
Yeah, and that’s kind of something that stood out to me when you mentioned some of these things that can be done on the prevention side around adults and parents and, of course, ECE’s [early-childhood educators] and have access to those parents and are the experts on these things. What role do you see the leadership and administrators of these childcare programs playing in this?
Well, I think their advocacy for more access to quality, affordable childcare is really, really key. It’s a key economic support for families. And it’s, again, that resource and a safe, stable, nurturing environment for families.
And I think the more that leaders in these programs connect with parents, help them understand what their children are doing while in their programs and offer opportunities to reinforce some of the things that their children are learning while they’re in their settings are incredibly important because parents are their children’s first teachers. And often being able to make that bridge between home and what’s happening in that early-childhood setting is really important.
Yeah. And one of the things we’ve talked about numerous times on the Preschool Podcast is differences in access to quality, affordable childcare in different areas of the country and the world, surely. Is that something that you see and discuss at Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina, as well?
Absolutely. We’re actually part of a statewide network called Think Babies North Carolina. And we are very focused on trying to increase access to childcare, particularly for our infants and toddlers. We have many areas of our state – particularly in more rural areas – where access to quality care for babies and toddlers just doesn’t exist. And we have very long waiting lists across the state. It’s a continued problem.
And we’re really working very hard with advocacy partners at organizations like the Childcare Services Association and our statewide Smart Start Network to advocate for not only an expansion of the availability of quality childcare, but particularly targeting those early years.
We know it’s more expensive to deliver care for infants and toddlers because of staffing ratios. We obviously don’t want as many children to be under the care of childcare teachers at that early stage in life but we think it’s really, really important to help our legislative leaders understand how important it is to invest, particularly in those early years as babies brains are developing and families need the support.
Yeah. So, it’s interesting, I guess it’s a little bit of a call out to all the early-childhood educators listening out there to be proactive on some of these things in terms of providing the supports to parents and the education to parents about what quality early-childhood development is. Because there’s the at-home aspect, too, where I assume educators can, I guess, inform families about how to extend the social-emotional development when they’re not in childcare programs, right?
That’s exactly right. And we want to make sure that children are having consistent experiences with the positive, caring adult relationships in their lives. And so when we can extend that information to the parents, we can make sure that that is consistent across, whether they’re at the early care and childcare center or at home.
All the research shows that a child’s relationship with a consistent, caring adult in their early years is associated with better academic grades, healthy behavior, positive relationships with their children and their ability to cope with stress. And it makes such a difference for that continuum to happen.
And for families that are under a lot of stress and where they’re having difficulty at home, that relationship with the childcare teacher makes such a difference in the life of a child. Even if a child’s got very difficult things happening at home, the existence of that one caring relationship at the childcare center can buffer the impact of the adversity they may be experiencing at home. So it’s really, really critical.
Absolutely. One of the things you mentioned was parent resilience. Can you tell us a little bit more what you mean by that?
Parental resilience is really important. Parents who can bounce back when they are in a crisis – they’re experiencing tough times, they don’t fall apart, but they can learn and grow and move on from it – are not only better able to take care of their children themselves, they’re also teaching that resilience to the children.
And the research shows that parents who are resilient in that way and don’t fall apart and don’t have difficulty are better able to manage the stress in their lives and their children are safer.
Yeah, that makes a ton of sense. And I was reading up a little bit about Connections Matter North Carolina. Can you tell us a little bit about what that is?
Absolutely. Connections Matter is a statewide initiative that is focused on raising awareness to the entire state. No matter whether you’re a business leader or you’re working in the health and human services system, you’re a medical provider, you’re a parent, that relationships are the biggest builders of babies brains and the greatest buffer against trauma, even in adulthood.
So, it’s an initiative that we’ve launched to raise awareness. We are sharing videos from employers about the importance of family-friendly workplace policies like paid family leave and onsite childcare or childcare subsidy offered through their employer. We are raising awareness around the importance of connections and particularly to be a connection right now during COVID-19, when we are being encouraged to be physically distant from one another but really need to maintain those social connections and those relationships.
And it’s also a curriculum that we have now trained more than 80 people across North Carolina to train others and share that message. And the training helps folks understand in a very nonclinical way the intersection of adverse childhood experiences and what those mean for children’s development and how to build protective factors to prevent that adversity and to buffer it.
In a very nonclinical way we talk about our toxic stress response when we’re feeling adversity over and over again and how we can move from our downstairs brains, where we’re kind of in a fight-or-flight response, to our upstairs brains, where we’re more rational and have our executive functioning happening.
And it’s a very simple, straightforward and clear way to communicate to the general public about why connections, relationships and policies and programs that foster those connections – particularly between children and their caregivers – are critical for children’s development in their health and well-being for the rest of their lives.
We know that adverse childhood experiences, for example, are correlated to five of the top ten leading causes of death in the United States. So, it’s helping us spread the message that our relationships and connections to one another are a key prevention strategy, not just for child maltreatment prevention but for fostering health and well-being over the lifespan. It’s been a really exciting project.
And I have no doubt there’s a lot of children who have had that experience. One that is always top-of-mind for me that had such an impact, having her on the Podcast and hearing her story, is Liz Huntley, who is in Alabama. And she just had preschool teacher who had such an influence on her change the trajectory of her life. And there’s a TEDx Talk she does about it. And if any of our listeners want to check it out, I do encourage you to do so if you just Google her name. It’ll really put a human story behind what Sharon’s telling us right here.
One of the things you mentioned, Sharon, was COVID-19 and the impact that’s had. Even for me personally – and we’re hearing that from some other folks on the Podcast, too – in some ways, a positive impact. I think I have a much closer relationship with my one-year-old at home because I’m spending so much time here, which has been great. And so I think there’s some positives and some negatives. What are you experiencing from your side?
We feel the same way. We think families are able to spend a whole lot more time together and it can be a really positive thing. As we say, connections matter. And particularly for you, having an infant at home, that’s going to have such a positive impact on your baby’s life, that dad is able to be home and have those connections that sometimes we don’t realize how important they are. But that time that we spend with our kids is critical.
We also know that we’re not seeing reports of abuse or neglect at the same rate that we had been. And we’re not sure if that’s a positive or negative yet. It could be a positive that families are able to spend more time together and are having more positive interactions.
Our biggest worry is that there’s so much more economic stress here in the United States because a lot of folks have lost their jobs or have reduced hours or are not able to go to work and are trying to balance – particularly now at the start of the school year – trying to work from home and have their children doing school remotely at the same time and trying to make all of that work.
We have a lot of staff at our office at Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina who have young, school-age children. And it’s incredibly difficult to manage your regular day-to-day work deliverables and have your children in the same space and struggling, particularly in the younger years of elementary school, to be able to help them log onto their computers every day and stay engaged and alert to all of that and be looking at a screen all day.
So, I think that there are going to be some positives and some negatives that come out of COVID-19. I think one of the big positives that we have seen in systems is that more and more organizations are able to provide access to professional development remotely. And teachers and other folks – particularly home visitors and parent educators – are able to provide access to those services and supports remotely.
And we’re often able to meet people’s needs that would not be able to travel for the professional development opportunities. And I think we’re going to have to think differently about how we deliver a lot of professional development and other programmatic supports for families. It’s going to look really different as a result of what we’ve experienced.
I’m not sure what it’s like in Canada, but in the United States – particularly in rural communities – we’re also having big struggles with broadband access. And so we’re all talking about things just a little bit differently because so much is being delivered in a way that we’ve never done it before. And then, of course, we’re also concerned about the impacts that all that screen time have on our kids, too.
Yeah, some really good points. And I actually had never thought about that because, in a way, it’s great that we’re providing more accessibility by putting more things online. But at the same time, we can’t forget that not everybody has the same access to getting online.
That’s exactly right.
Sharon, some great points that you’ve brought. I’ve learned a lot here today. If our listeners want to learn more about the work that you’re doing, where can they go to get more information?
They can go to our website: it is www.PreventChildAbuseNC.org. And you can go to www.ConnectionsMatterNC.org. And, of course, you can always look for Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina on all the social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn and Instagram to learn more about our work and help us share the message of the positive things that we can all do to be a connection and make the safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments that all kids need be possible.
Totally. Sharon, we appreciate everything that you’re doing and focusing on these prevention strategies and recognizing the important role that early-childhood education plays in this. It’s really great to see the work that you’re doing. And to our audience, hopefully you share my view in that it’s great to hear the impact that you can all have in this important work. So, Sharon, thank you for joining us here today on the Preschool Podcast!
Thank you. And thank you to all the early-childhood educators out. You play such an incredibly important role in the life of a child and I’m really grateful for all of you!