Advances in brain research show that children are born learning, and that their first three years of life in particular are important indicators for the success they can have later in school and in life. Early experiences that are language-rich and nurturing promote healthy brain development. So finding a high-quality early learning setting is essential for parents who work and seek child care.

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Once you’ve found a quality setting—from a center-based program to home child care to a relative’s house—here’s some advice from our expert Teresa Bennett a family support specialist at Educare Chicago, a program of Start Early, on how you can prepare your child for their first day of day care.

  • Visit the Child Care Center
    To help your child get to know the new environment, visit the child care center with your child before the first day. You and your child can meet the caregiver. Take photos of the route to the center, the center entrance and the room where your child will spend the day. You can assemble the photos as a book, which you can use to talk to your child at home about what their day will be like and where they will go.
  • Talk to Your Child
    To help prepare your infant or toddler to go to out-of-home care, explain using language and concepts they will understand about where they’ll be going and what they’ll be doing. Talk about how they will meet new children and participate in fun activities. Always mention that you’ll be back at the end of the day to take them home.
  • Build a Relationship With the Caregiver
    Your young child may not be able to talk, but they can observe your actions. They’ll form their opinion of the caregiver based on your reactions. Make time each day to talk to the caregiver and begin building a strong relationship. Caregivers at quality early learning programs see parents as partners and will want to develop a strong relationship with you, your child’s first and most important teacher.
  • Share Information About Your Child
    Talk to the caregiver about your child’s cues, likes, dislikes and temperament. How do they like to be fed, soothed and put to sleep? Your tips will help the caregiver know how to best care for your child without having to guess which methods to try. You can also explain what developmental skills you’d like your child to learn. Ask for daily updates about your child’s progress from the caregiver.
  • Create a Morning Routine
    Routines help children feel in control of their surroundings, which eases anxiety. Create a morning routine so your infant or toddler knows what to expect before going to the child care center. Find out if the center provides breakfast so you know whether or not your child needs to eat at home.
  • Develop a Goodbye Ritual
    Create a goodbye ritual so that your infant or toddler starts to feel comfortable with their caregiver when you leave. Your ritual could be a hug, a high five or interacting together with a toy before you leave. Whatever activity you choose, make sure you take time to talk to your child about what’s happening and don’t rush the process. Once your child becomes used to the goodbye ritual, they’ll be better able to regulate their emotions so that they can calm themself more easily when you go. Learn more about separation anxiety.
  • Bring a Transitional Object
    Your child may feel more at ease in a new environment with an object that reminds them of home. This could be a photo of your family that’s laminated or a stuffed animal that your child enjoys. The child can hold the object during the day as a reminder that this new environment is temporary and that you will come back to take them home.
  • Ask What You Can Do at Home
    To extend your child’s learning, ask the caregiver what school readiness skills the children will be working on during the day and what related activities you can do at home. The reverse is also true: share information about what activities you are doing at home that your child is interested in and ask if the teacher can do something similar in class.
  • Complete Any Medical Requirements
    Find out from the school or center what doctor or dentist appointments must be completed or scheduled before the first day.
  • Bring a Change of Clothes
    It’s a good idea to bring a change of clothes for your infant or toddler in case they encounters any water, finger paint, etc. Also ask the center if you need to bring diapers or formula for your child.
  • Share Your Contact Information
    Let the caregiver know if it’s best to reach you by phone or email and share that contact information.

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Can you believe it’s almost time for your child’s first day of kindergarten? This can be exciting and overwhelming for many parents and children. To help you prepare, we asked a Start Early expert for advice for parents. Lisa LaRue a teacher at Educare Chicago, a program of Start Early, shared her tips to help you and your child have a successful school year.

The start of kindergarten can be exciting, stressful, intimidating and scary at the same time. As a parent, you can help ease some of your child’s worries and fears by having conversations around their feelings. By learning as much as you can about the kindergarten experience, you’ll be able to better explain the transition to your child and they’ll understand how fun kindergarten will be!

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Check out Lisa’s checklist to help you and your little one navigate the transition to kindergarten:

  1. Meet the Teacher Before the First Day of School
    If you can, schedule a time for you and your child to meet their kindergarten teacher before the first day of school. This will give your child the chance to become comfortable with the teacher. You can also let the teacher know about your child’s preferences, temperament, strengths and weaknesses. For example, if your child had trouble with transitions in preschool, explain how you and the preschool teacher helped them overcome that challenge. The kindergarten teacher will appreciate your tips! You can also talk about your aspirations for your child and what you hope your child will learn in the upcoming year. Ask how you can be involved in the classroom. Be sure to share your contact information and let the teacher know the best way to reach you.
  2. Set a Consistent Routine Before School Starts
    A consistent morning and evening routine will help your child feel prepared for the first day of kindergarten. Young children benefit from routines because when they know what will happen next they are less prone to find changes stressful. Set a bedtime to help your child get a good night’s rest. In the morning, leave enough time for getting dressed, eating breakfast and packing backpacks. Start your routine a few weeks before kindergarten so you know how long it will take to get ready. Be sure to have a goodbye ritual like a high five, blowing a kiss or giving a hug to help your little one understand that it is time for you to leave, this will help them feel less anxious knowing that you are going to return later.
  3. Do a Dry Run
    A few days before the first day of school, do a dry run of your morning routine, including going to school. You can walk or drive to school, or walk to the bus stop with your child. Show your child the door they will walk in on the first day of school. Ask the school what the pick-up and drop-off policies are. Some schools allow parents to come into the classroom to drop their children off, and others have a different meeting point. Not only will you find out exactly how long your morning routine takes, you’ll also give your child a better sense of what the day will look like to prevent first-day-of-school anxiety. While you are in the classroom, you can discuss with your child what is the same and what is different about this classroom and their old preschool classroom. Do they have the same areas? Are there desks? What is not there? You can also ask the teacher if your child can bring in a family picture or something special to add to their cubby to feel more comfortable. You can also watch YouTube videos of kindergarten classrooms together and even role play different school scenarios at home if your child has more questions or wants to see more examples.
  4. Find Out What Skills the Teacher Expects Children to Have on Day One
    Kindergarten teachers may expect children to be able to handle their emotions, articulate their needs, listen to directions, raise their hand before talking, write their name, and recognize shapes and colors on the first day of school. Find out what the expectations are in advance and ask for tips on how to prepare your child for any skills they are still working on. If your child has mastered those skills, ask the teacher what will be done to challenge your child in the classroom.
  5. Read to Your Child
    Check out our list of recommended books below for kindergarten students. Start reading books before school starts during storytime so that your child has a better idea of what going to school will be like.

    1. Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn
    2. The King of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes
    3. Look out Kindergarten, Here I Come by Nancy Carlson
  6. Be an Advocate
    If your child needs any special services, talk to the administration and the classroom teachers in advance to find out who provides them. Ask if the services are provided inside or outside the kindergarten classroom. If your child has an individualized education plan from preschool, find out how that plan transfers over to kindergarten.
  7. Network With Other Parents
    Talking with other parents is a great way to build a support system to help you through all the challenges of parenthood. Ask the school what supports are available for parents and what opportunities are provided for parents to meet, such as parent groups, school councils, or other committees that you can join.
  8. Prepare for Breakfast and Lunch
    Find out if your school provides breakfast and/or lunch and plan accordingly. Your child may be used to eating at certain times at home or at an early childhood center, so explain how mealtimes may be changing. If your child will be buying lunch, get a menu from the school. Find out how food preferences are honored. For instance, some schools ask for a doctor’s note for food allergies.
  9. Decrease Naptime
    Some schools may offer a resting period, but many don’t. So it’s a good idea to wean children off naps before the first day of kindergarten.
  10. Make Afterschool Plans
    If your child will be in after school care, make those arrangements as soon as possible. Find out what afterschool care options your school offers and how much it costs. Make sure your child knows what the plans are and that you pick up your child on time or early so they don’t get anxious waiting for you. Create a backup plan with other parents, who you can rely on to pick up your child if you are running late.

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You and your child may feel excited—or apprehensive—about the first day of preschool. This is a big transition for children, especially those going to school for the first time. Children will learn many social and emotional and academic skills in preschool that will help them throughout their school careers, so it’s important to help children feel comfortable in the classroom.

To help your child get the most out of the preschool experience, we asked a Start Early expert for some advice for parents handling this transition. Annaliese Newmeyer a teacher at Educare Chicago, a program of Start Early, shared her tips to help you and your child prepare for preschool.

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Check out Annaliese’s checklist to help you and your little one navigate this exciting time:

Before the First Day:

  • Drive or walk by your child’s new school. Seeing their school ahead of time will help familiarize them with their new space. You can show them where things are like the main door and the playlot. This will help your child feel more comfortable with the space and how things will look on their first day.
  • Meet with the teacher. Meeting your child’s teacher ahead of their first day is very helpful for both you and your little learner. At this meeting, you can help your child learn their new teacher’s name and give your child a chance to become comfortable with them. You can also take this time to ask the teacher what your child will be learning and what skills they expect children to have on day one. Then, you can set some realistic and developmentally appropriate goals for your child. For example, do you work on your child’s reading? Together you can set goals that can help your child develop early literacy skills, like being able to recognize their name and the letters in their name.
  • Celebrate this milestone. This can be the beginning of a tradition to say goodbye to Summer and hello to the school year! Maybe you and your child go get an ice cream sundae or go to a baseball game or stay up late and watch movies and eat snacks together.

On the First Day:

  • Be prepared: bring a bookbag with a change of clothes, a favorite blanket or stuffed animal for nap time, and even a picture of your family. Having something that reminds your child of home with help them feel more at ease in their new environment.
  • Make sure your child eats a good breakfast and gets some rest. Your child’s school might give them breakfast, but it might be later, and you don’t want them to be too hungry!
  • Expect the first day to be easy but it might get hard the second day or the second week when reality sets in that they must return to school every single weekday.
  • Explain to your child that this will be a hard transition for you too! You will miss them, and they will have to meet new people and have new experiences but each day will get easier.
  • Make sure you say goodbye, do not sneak away. Have the same goodbye every day; we call this a goodbye ritual. It can be a hug, a special handshake or a dance! This ritual will help your child learn what to expect when you come to class and will help ease their anxiety when you leave.

Ongoing:

  • Ask questions! Ask your child’s teacher how each day is going and what you can do to help make it better. And be sure to ask your child how their day was. At first, they might just say nothing, but as you ask them every day, their answers will become more and more descriptive.
  • Volunteer in the classroom if you can. Get to know the other kids and parents. This is your new community, your new village and you are there to support each other!

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Last week, we hosted our 20th Annual Luncheon—our first-ever hybrid event—where we welcomed hundreds of individuals in-person here in Chicago and hundreds of others virtually across the country. Presented by LaSalle Network, the powerful program demonstrated how quality early learning and care programs can promote resilience and hope for families with young children—now more than ever.

If you were unable to join us or want to tune in again, you can watch a recording of the full program below.

Through this powerful program of diverse voices and experiences, we hope you can see the role we each have as parents, family members, friends or colleagues to support our children, families and those who care for them. From spreading the word about early learning’s impact in our communities, to contacting your legislator in support of proposed policies or sharing the gift of financial support, your investment of time or resources will make a difference.

As Luncheon Co-Chair Curt Bailey shared, “adversity brings opportunity, and we have an incredible opportunity to create a new normal that ensures equitable access to quality early learning and programs that promote resilience for every child and family.”

I am overwhelmed with appreciation for the parents, educators and early learning champions, including out Luncheon Co-Chairs Curt Bailey and Mary Hasten, who highlighted the critical need for quality early learning and care programs and services in our communities.

We are grateful for the incredible support and generosity of our donors and event sponsors who helped us exceed our fundraising goal of $1.3 million. Every dollar will help change the course for our youngest learners. You can still show your support by making a gift today. When we come together and invest in early childhood education, we can transform the lives of our future generation.

Luncheon Co-Chair Mary Hasten said it perfectly. “There is certainly more work to be done, but we know that our collective work IS making a difference today, and TOGETHER, we know that we can impact every tomorrow for young children and their families.”

Thank you for being part of our 2022 Annual Luncheon, and we hope to see you again soon.

“Tomorrow’s Hope,” recently featured at SXSW EDU, is the story of passionate educators and tenacious students – from the first-ever class at Educare Chicago – determined to succeed.

The Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation is deeply committed to creating standards of fairness and a level playing field for those living in poverty and adversity by supporting equal treatment through high quality early childhood learning and improving K-12 and college graduation rates. Founded in 1997, the Foundation is focused on opportunities that support educational advancement.

For the past six years, the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation has partnered with Start Early to increase access to equitable, high-quality early education and care for all children and families. Foundation investments in the Early Childhood Connector, First Five Years Fund and the Governor’s Early Childhood Advisors Network, have enhanced our ability to bring coherence to a fragmented field and drive public awareness and systems change. We’ve also worked closely to amplify the films Tomorrow’s Hope and Starting at Zero, both provide compelling rationale for why transformational change is required to ensure future generations of children and families can reach their full potential. Each film has been hailed for its inspiring stories and powerful calls to action.

Tomorrow’s Hope brings us into the lives of passionate educators and tenacious kids and their families on the South Side of Chicago, determined to carve out the future – despite a sea of incredible challenges. The film reunites three graduates from the first class of Start Early’s birth-to-5 school, Educare Chicago, and explores the continued impacts of their early childhood education as they prepare for high school graduation. Starting at Zero explores the power of investing in high-quality early childhood education. The film centers the voices of policymakers, educators, academics, business leaders, pediatricians, parents, and children to demonstrate how essential the earliest years of learning are to maximize human potential.

Earlier this year, Tomorrow’s Hope was accepted into the acclaimed SXSW EDU Film Festival, an unparalleled experience at the forefront of discovery, creativity, and innovation. In March, the film was screened to a live audience, followed by a Q&A panel with co-producers, Tamra Raven and Aaron Steinberg, as well as Portia Kennel, Senior Advisor, Buffett Early Childhood Fund, who was featured in the film.

Producers Tamra Raven and Aaron Steinberg listening to Portia Kennel giving some wisdom. (Photo by Wildman)

Educare was a place of hope, peace, joy, learning, trust and respect – a stark contrast to what was happening in the south side Chicago neighborhood where we were located.

Portia Kennel, senior advisor, Buffett Early Childhood Fund
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Learn more about how you can join the group of donors, policymakers, educators, and community leaders who have hosted virtual screenings of these films to ignite conversations about the importance of early education. During the month of April, both documentaries are available for individuals to view at no charge. Please click below for sign-up information.

Start Early remains grateful to the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation for their ongoing support as we champion together early learning and care for all children and families.


Founded in 1997 and in carrying out its mission, the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation makes charitable contributions that are primarily focused on opportunities for educational advancement.

The Foundation supports programs that assist the homeless, advance early childhood education, improve K-12 graduation rates, provide college scholarships, medical care, shelter and nutrition to the needy, as well as supporting programs to provide assistance for entry into employment opportunities.

The Foundation is deeply committed to creating standards of fairness and a level playing field for those living in poverty and adversity by supporting equal treatment through high quality early childhood learning and improving K-12 and college graduation rates. In this regard, the Foundation supports innovations in scientific teaching methods and best practices.

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In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re commemorating women’s vital impact and accomplishments on society.

Our Start Early staff members: Keneischia Jones, health coordinator, Early Head Start Network; Rio Romero-Jurado, policy manager, National Policy and Kayla Goldfarb, policy specialist, Illinois Policy shared how their womanhood has influenced their career journey, the crucial importance of pay equity in early childhood and the need for inclusion and continued progress for all women.

How has being a woman influenced your identity?

Keneischia Jones: Being a woman of color is my daily makeup. I get to wake up and change my hair and wear my afro today because that’s what I’m feeling. I’ve become the young Black woman that I wanted to be when I was younger and I wasn’t able to present like this. Now as a woman I have my bearings and I can show the world who I am at all times.

Rio Romero-Jurado: My identity in being a woman and a woman of color in particular has really shaped my values, social conscience and the kind of person I want to be and what I want to contribute to the world. I came to social work, policy and advocacy because I was naturally drawn to eliminating inequities in our society and empowering other women through social change and action.

That’s part of why I love what I do. Even in elementary school I really loved social studies. I recognized pretty early on that there was an underrepresentation, we all know, of women and people of color at our highest levels of government. I think that’s really further motivated me to embrace my identity as a woman and to be part of an organization to help ensure that women and the issues that matter to them and their families are prioritized in our society and in policy.

Kayla Goldfarb: There are so many things that have been shared that really resonated with me and are really energizing. Being a woman has influenced my identity in that I don’t feel limited in any way. But I also recognize how much of a privilege that is when you look at women globally and locally because that is not always the case. I’ve begun to understand the breadth of how people experience being a woman from a race, class, location and lived experience perspective. It’s been mind opening.

Are there any misconceptions about women that you want to address?

Keneischia Jones: We are not too emotional to make important decisions. We are not led with emotions we have the capacity to be emotionally aware and emotionally intelligent and logical at the same time. I also want to stress as a Black woman that we are not angry. We can clearly speak our problems but we are not a threat and we’re not angry all the time. We’re just passionate and loving people.

Rio Romero-Jurado: There is a balance between recognizing that there have been strides made in gender equality and at the same time acknowledging the continued work that is needed to achieve true equitable progress. We now have a woman of color as our Vice President which is fantastic. But we’re still so behind in many ways and that is a misconception of thinking that we’ve reached a certain milestone, which we have, but we’ve got to keep making more progress. There’s so much more to be done.

Kayla Goldfarb: I really agree with Rio I think there’s certainly a danger in complacency and being like yeah we won. There’s so many domains in which women don’t have equal footing and I think it’s important to take time during Women’s History Month to look at spaces where women’s accomplishments have been relegated to the back and not acknowledged or fully covered up and taken as someone else’s.

I can think of science domains where women’s discoveries were rebranded as men’s. Hedy Lamarr for example was a movie star in the 1930s and 40s but was also the inventor of frequency hopping and her inventions were taken and the credit was given to men. I think in very present ways that still happens a lot and translates to things like pay and career advancement and the fact that women don’t get the automatic recognition that maybe men do.

In terms of misconceptions, I think one is that caring about women’s rights is in any way exclusionary to people who weren’t born women but identify as women. Trans exclusionary embodiments of feminism are not good for women. The misconception that there is in any way a threat to women’s progress by upholding and defending the rights of those who identify as women but who might not have been born identifying that way. So there’s clearly a long way to go.

But it’s nice to take time during Women’s History Month to think about how these things show up historically and in our day-to-day lives.

Be sure to follow our blog to stay up-to-date on the latest announcements and learn about our ongoing diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) work.

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The Partnership for Pre-K Improvement (PPI) was launched in 2016 with a vision to develop and sustain high-quality, equitable state pre-K systems. Throughout the 5-year project, we partnered with 3 states – Oregon, Tennessee, and Washington – to learn alongside state education leaders, advocates and researchers about how to systematically improve pre-K quality. Along the way, we focused in on infrastructure and the policies, data, and implementation supports pre-K programs need to succeed.

As a culmination of this project, we created a report to capture lessons learned and recommendations for state early learning agency leaders, researchers and advocates, along with a free toolkit to support pre-K systems improvement.

What We Learned

  • Systems change is complex and occurs over a long period of time. Although we saw important improvements during the life of the project, substantial systems change is ongoing and occurs in cycles as states navigate governmental, political, leadership, and funding changes and challenges.
  • Practice frameworks can both advance and impede systems change work. While focusing on core elements of teaching and learning seemed that it would yield the greatest impact on quality, states were most successful when focusing on just one or two elements at a time.
  • Implementation science is useful at the systems level but does not sufficiently advance equity. While an implementation science framework was very helpful in driving improvements, equity does not automatically follow quality changes. Equity must instead be intentionally centered.
  • At the systems level, coordination, alignment, and resource-sharing across programs are necessary when striving to improve pre-K statewide. Quality and equity can only improve when pre-K is seen as a legitimate part of the broader education system.
  • Strong, trusting, and stable partnerships between advocates and researchers are key to success of improvement efforts. Specifically, relationships that are pre-existing, intentional in terms of allocating staff and resources, and provide opportunities to learn from each other, are all critical factors in building stable and successful partnerships.

Recommendations

For state systems leaders, advocates and research partners:

  • Build meaningful partnerships among systems leaders, advocates, and researchers.
  • Think beyond pre-K.
  • Recognize that implementation and infrastructure are critical missing pieces of systems change.
  • Use intentional strategies for increasing equity and elevating parent and teacher voices.
  • Prioritize data infrastructure and your state’s ability to use data for improvement.

For national and local consultants and technical assistance providers:

  • Center equity from the beginning of any project.
  • Ensure that state and local voices drive systems improvement consultation and technical assistance.
  • Throughout this work, keep in mind both long-term vision, and more pressing, daily challenges.
  • Provide flexible resources and funding.

 

Partnership for Pre-K Improvement Resources

For more on how our experiences in the Partnership for Pre-K Improvement provide critical lessons and actionable recommendations for those engaged in the complex work of improving state pre-K systems, download our new report & access the free Partnership for Pre-K Toolkit.

Looking for Additional Resources and Support for Your Quality Improvement Efforts?

Drawing from our experience on PPI and our work in states and communities across the country, the Start Early Consulting team supports partners to ensure that prenatal to five systems have the right policies, programs, and funding in place to prepare young children and their families for lifelong success. Email us for additional information.

Thank you to our partners: Cultivate Learning, Alliance for Early Success, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Today’s early childhood organizations are vocal about their commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB). As leaders, we vary in the degree to which we responsively identify and change processes that make those commitments visible. Regardless of how long we have been or where we stand in the field of home visiting, we need not look far to find ways to move from intention to impact.

Consider this quick questionnaire:

  • Think about the values and cultural backgrounds of families in your program. Is there cultural alignment between the practitioners and the enrolled families?
  • Who is responsible for decisions of policy, job qualifications, and practice protocols for home visitors and supervisors in your program? How many of those who are making system and protocol decisions are actively engaged with families on a day-to-day basis?

COVID has prolonged widespread staff vacancies in early childhood settings. Today’s leaders are faced with the simultaneous challenges of hiring new staff and retaining their current workforce. During this season of workforce upheaval, we need to look for ways to cultivate and elevate the voice, experience, and expertise of those currently engaged in direct work with families to increase DEIB in our programs.

Home visitors, by the very nature of their jobs, are uniquely positioned to support caregivers’ goals for themselves and their child. Parents and home visitors co-develop action plans in the context of the family’s composition of members, culture, community, and economic resources. Home visitors partner with parents and caregivers directly to navigate culturally dismissive, disconnected community systems that are not responsive to the family’s identified needs. Practitioners hold expertise in their local resources, provide in-person and virtual support, are on top of trends and interests of families, and have the experience and perspectives of cultural brokers in the community. They honor a caregiver’s unspoken words, “…nothing about me without me…”.

As we prepare for the upcoming virtual National Home Visiting Summit in late March, let’s keep talking with each other and listening to the perspectives and expertise of home visitors. Let’s challenge ourselves to identify strategies that seek to invite, reach, engage, and cultivate the invaluable input of practitioners. When we return to the routines of our work, let’s commit to create and improve platforms for home visitors’ involvement in decisions related to policy, research and practice that directly impact them.

Interested in learning more about Start Early’s resources and learning opportunities for home visitors and supervisors? Check out our Essentials of Home Visiting online professional development experiences or reach out to us directly at [email protected].

Each year, we celebrate Black History Month to recognize the contributions and influence of African Americans to the history, culture and achievements of the United States.

Our Start Early staff members: Erice Evans, senior financial analyst; Stuart Lassiter, early childhood practice consultant; Kristie Norwood, education manager for the Early Head Start and Head Start Network of Illinois shared how their heritage has shaped their identity and impacted their work, how they maintain their culture and why it’s important to recognize Black History Month.

How do you feel that your African American heritage has influenced your identity and what do you appreciate most about being Black?

Kristie Norwood: What I appreciate most about being Black is being Black. It is a heritage and legacy of strength and strong traditions of faith and family. I love that feeling of coming into a room and even if there’s only one other Black person there is an immediate connection of knowing each other.

Erice Evans: We come from a very rich background and history that I appreciate as I’m older now that I didn’t really know to appreciate growing up. I love the melanin and the different colors, characteristics, traits and everything that makes us a beautiful people from the outside to the inside. My [African American] heritage has made me who I am today.

Stuart Lassiter: Being Black is my identity and it’s how I’m recognized by others and also how I recognize myself. My family has always stressed what it means to be a Black male. The idea that I heard from my great grandfather, grandfather and uncles of being the best you can be because you have to work from a place of excellence to be seen as being good.

One thing I truly appreciate is our strength, perseverance and striving to always overcome. It’s amazing that we’ve come so far and still have so far to go.

Erice Evans: I love that you mention strength because it is part of our heritage. We were taught the skills to overcome anything. If you get knocked down get back up and keep fighting. We don’t stay down.

Are there any misconceptions about Black culture that you want to dispel?

Erice Evans: For many years it seems that we as Black people have always been portrayed in a negative view. It’s never about the accomplishments that we have made or all the good that we have done, our creativity, the things we do in and for our community.

When you see us on the news it’s always something negative and we became a people to be feared and wrongly so. We’re not all the same although we’re viewed that way. In every person there is good, bad and also great and we deserve to be recognized for that.

Stuart Lassiter: One of the misconceptions is that I’m a Black male so I must be dangerous. The narrative in the media is that Black people are dangerous. If you look at the 10 p.m. news there is always a story about a shooting or a drug raid. I’m not diminishing it those things do happen.

But there is an overwhelming percentage of people in Black communities who are law abiding, go to work and want to provide for their children. But that is not the narrative being shared.

Kristie Norwood: I think people have misconceptions about Black people and Black culture for various reasons. I don’t feel like I’m here to discount anybody’s misconceptions. I think there is enough evidence out there to give people a complete picture of the Black experience in this world, not just in this country.

If there is one thing I want to stress is that Black people are not a monolith we are not all the same. We have joys, triumphs and sorrows like any other people and we each have different opinions. I’m sad that as Black people we don’t always get the luxury in being taken as individuals.

Why is music so foundational to Black culture?

Kristie Norwood: Music is so important because it is a communication vehicle that goes past your ears and right into your soul. It provides strength, encouragement, celebration and joy. During the Civil Rights movement they sang songs to keep each other encouraged, remind themselves of what the goal was and keep fear down. When I think about some of the times in my life music has been the vehicle that really helped me stay in it long enough to get from point A to Point B.

Erice Evans: Music is a part of who we are. Music is how we coped and it’s the soundtrack of our lives. Church is a big thing in our culture and you would hear your grandparents or parents sing old gospel hymns around the house to lift them up during times of challenge or sorrow.

We are a very passionate people and music is how we express ourselves. Music is how we brought who we are to life and to the world.

Stuart Lassiter: Music is hope and joy. Go back historically and it was communication and freedom. Slaves sang songs in code to communicate where you should go, when you should leave and when you should stop if danger was around. Music was survival and freedom.

The contributions to all forms of music. The richness and experience of life that’s being shared when Black people share their music. Music spans the gambit of life from birth and being children to teenage and adult years. Blues, jazz, country, pop, hip hop and gospel. Black people have given such a worthy contribution to the world of music.

This year’s Black History Month theme is health and wellness. Why is it important for African Americans to prioritize health and wellness?

Erice Evans: The pandemic highlighted what we already knew. We were most affected when the pandemic hit because we don’t all have access to quality health care and that’s been across generations. We suffered a lot throughout COVID-19, we’ve been suffering, but the pandemic brought it to light so the world knows it too. It couldn’t be hidden anymore.

It’s time to address those deficiencies so that we can get the quality healthcare, education and opportunities – the jobs, pay and benefits – we deserve to help our communities.

We have to care about our physical, mental and emotional health and teach our children that from birth to age five to teenagers to adulthood. We didn’t have access to mental health care and within our community it was taboo to say I need a therapist. We’re used to being strong, but that strength doesn’t mean we have to carry the whole burden.

Stuart Lassiter: The mortality rates of Black people are among the highest in so many health categories: cancer, diabetes and infant mortality.

There are barriers to access to healthy food, healthcare and quality education so you can attain greater opportunities through your job to care and mental health. It’s all packaged together. If there’s something that’s deficient in your health and wellbeing it impacts other aspects of your health.

Erice Evans: We should be able to have it all. There are other communities that have it all and we shouldn’t have to pay astronomically to get it. Some communities if you want your child to have a good education you have to pay for it. That shouldn’t be the case.

Start Early is committed to quality education for children ages zero to five. Quality education should be available for all children. Like Stuart said if you’re deficient in one thing you’re deficient in it all and I think that’s one thing we have to address in our culture.

Kristie Norwood: We have to make our health and wellness a priority because if we don’t historically it’s been proven that nobody else will.

We can’t build a sick legacy. Our men and women are dying because of heart disease, cancers related to diet and stress and mental health issues leaving families behind. We need to be well so we can experience joy, exuberance, abundance and brilliance so we can keep giving that to our children.

So my hope is that health and wellness and particularly mental health becomes a legacy for us in the same way that our other traditions of church, food and celebrations.

Be sure to follow our blog to stay up-to-date on the latest announcements and learn about our ongoing diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) work.

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Start Early has been named the winner of a Gold Stevie® Award for Achievement in Benefits Design and Administration for its paid parental leave program. The Stevie Awards for Great Employers recognize the world’s best employers and the human resources professionals, teams, achievements and HR-related products and suppliers who help to create and drive great places to work.

The overwhelming benefits of paid leave compel Start Early to advocate for these policies nationally and inspired our organization’s leading paid leave policy. During a child’s first few weeks and months, a nurturing and supportive environment lays the foundation for their future success in school and life. Our paid parental leave program allows families to be together at this most critical time.

In 2019, the People & Culture team set a strategic goal to transform our leave program through improved employee benefits, explicitly enhancing our paid parental leave for the year 2020. Infancy is the most crucial period of brain development and it is vital that babies and their parents are supported during this time to promote bonding and healthy attachment. We knew it was time to up our game and we needed to create a parental leave package that matched our mission and supported families in the moments that matter most: the earliest years.

After a series of focus groups with former and expecting parents to discuss what was working and where we needed to improve, we rolled out our new policy in 2020, including:

  • Increasing our parental leave by more than 50% (from 12 weeks to 6 months) for both moms and dads Introducing 100% paid leave, eliminating the need for employees to use their own vacation, sick or personal hours to receive full pay
  • Expanding our paid leave eligibility to include adoption, surrogacy, or foster parenting
  • Launching an integrated family benefits platform, Cleo, to help connect families with the support they need to be their best at home and at work
  • Activating Bright Horizons, a benefit that assists employees returning from leave with finding childcare or back-up care, if needed.

Together, these award-winning benefits help our families start off on a strong path.

Start Early and other honorees were recognized during a virtual awards ceremony on November 17. Details about the Stevie Awards for Great Employers and the list of 2021 Stevie winners are available at www.StevieAwards.com/HR.

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