Head Start programs across the country are facing an enrollment crisis exacerbated by the pandemic and a persistent staffing shortage. According to a NIEER report, Head Start programs enrolled around 257,000 fewer children (a 33% decline) during the 2020-21 program year than they did in 2018-19. Numerous families made other arrangements for their children. Many centers had to reduce the number of classrooms they operated and struggled to find and retain qualified staff – leaving remaining staff with less capacity to support recruitment.

Although enrollment numbers have started to rebound in recent years, the disruptions and challenges exacerbated by the pandemic continue to plague Head Start programs. As of February of this year, NHSA reports that under-enrollment is a big problem for many programs, with current enrollment relative to funded enrollment at roughly 79% for Head Start and 81% for Early Head Start nationally. Many Head Start programs are scrambling to rebuild their capacity and recruit more families to enroll with a looming threat of funding cuts if they are unable to fill slots. The innovations and lessons learned from Head Start programs during this time may also provide ideas for leaders of other publicly funded early learning programs and systems – like home visiting – that may also be looking to ensure families are aware of and able to access and enroll in these critical services.

Also, it is worth noting that recruitment, eligibility, and enrollment barriers occur at numerous levels. The research discussed in this blog focuses on challenges at the local and program level. To learn more about national trends and Head Start in general, check out this post.

Recent Research Provides Insight Into Key factors Affecting Enrollment

In January 2022, Start Early embarked on a new interdisciplinary project, funded by the Vivo Foundation, to understand barriers to Head Start enrollment in Chicago Head Start programs. The multi-year project sought to address a key challenge: improve recruitment and enrollment to ensure more eligible children and their families receive high-quality Head Start supports.

In the first phase of the project, researchers used a human-centered design approach to understand the current state of recruitment efforts and experiences from a staff and family perspective. They surveyed Head Start staff most knowledgeable about recruitment and enrollment and conducted interviews with families.

Findings suggest strategies to increase enrollment:

Action Area 1: Reduce barriers to entry for families and create welcoming environments.
Systems leaders need to be aware of hidden barriers that families may face, including confusing or burdensome eligibility requirements, lengthy wait times, and a first impression that programs have a regimented, transactional, and unwelcoming approach to families. Such barriers might be mitigated by:

  • Addressing the stigma and hurdles that families feel by creating warm and welcoming environments. Program leaders and staff need support to understand and address the stigma that some families may feel around demonstrating and documenting their eligibility for EHS/HS services. Staff also need to be prepared to be upfront with parents about expectations and timelines; yet still warm and inviting.
  • Clarifying eligibility requirements so parents and staff know what is needed. Eligibility requirements and timelines from application to enrollment are not always clear to families and the paperwork required can be burdensome and invasive for some parents given the amount of personal information requested.

Action Area 2: Support Head Start Centers to communicate about program effectiveness and benefits. Parents are interested in high quality, child-centric programs. Programs and systems need to find more effective ways to communicate program benefits and quality. This might be achieved by:

  • Digital marketing. Programs need support to build an online presence that is accurate, appealing, and accessible (e.g., free of unfamiliar jargon, translated into families’ home languages) because most families start their search for information online. The lack of such digital information may inadvertently create barriers for families.
  • Clarifying availability of programs that meet families’ needs. Many working families want full-day programs and need easier access to information about program availability and qualification requirements. Messaging should also highlight other important areas for families, including proximity, safety, and cleanliness.
  • Highlighting the research supporting early childhood education and program quality. Parents need more assurance that Head Start programs meet their personal priorities and standards, especially in the providing high-quality early learning experiences by credentialed teachers. Highlighting the evidence of Head Start’s documented impact and value could help encourage parents to enroll in Head Start programs.

Programs Cannot Address These Challenges Alone

As a next step in this project, Start Early staff have partnered with several Head Start programs to test new strategies for reaching, recruiting, and supporting families – including though more effective communication strategies and employing a relationship-based approach. However, program-level efforts alone are likely insufficient to address this systemic, national challenge; systems leaders have a key role to play, including not only supporting scaling of the efforts described above, but in solving other contributing issues to this challenge, like workforce recruitment and retention. In addition, the lessons learned from Head Start programs in meeting enrollment goals may also be useful to leaders across other parts of the early childhood system as they seek to increase accessibility to other critical early childhood services and supports, from home visiting to child care subsidy.

Numerous teams across Start Early are focused on the challenges of Head Start enrollment this year. Be on the lookout for more details, including a report on strategies to increase enrollment and a digital marketing guide, in the coming months.

This blog post was co-authored by Amanda Stein, Managing Director, Research & Evaluation at Start Early. 

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Start Early is proud to introduce Dr. Barbara J. Cooper as the Senior Vice President of Professional Learning. Dr. Cooper brings a wealth of experience and expertise in the field of education, particularly in early childhood education, and we are honored to have her on board.

In her role, Dr. Cooper will lead Start Early’s strategy to support and advance the early childhood workforce and oversee scaling the organization’s professional learning enterprise for professionals working in prenatal through PreK.

Dr. Cooper has made a remarkable impact at every stop throughout her career. In July 2020, she was appointed by Alabama Governor Kay Ivey as the Secretary of Early Childhood Education and also served as the Governor’s Birth through Grade 12 policy advisor. Starting in 2018, she played a crucial role in the administration of Alabama’s esteemed First Class Pre-K program as a part of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education. Her contributions have significantly impacted the quality of early education in Alabama, garnering national recognition and serving as a model for others.

Dr. Cooper’s perspective will also be instrumental in advancing racial equity throughout all areas of our work as we continue our journey of being an anti-racist organization. That work will begin using the Educare Network’s recently published research agenda on advancing racial equity as a foundation. The agenda will serve as a guide and platform to bring about systemic change in early care and education — for children, families, and the workforce — so that equitable access and experiences become a reality for all. We are excited for Dr. Cooper’s leadership in spearheading Start Early’s efforts with early childhood professionals, culminating at the intersection of practice, policy, and research.

Additionally, Dr. Cooper was already familiar with Start Early’s work before joining, engaging with the Essential 0-5 Survey measurement system during her tenure in Alabama. This system functions as an assessment tool to better understand early education organizations and aid in improving their processes.

Originally from Chicago, she now resides in Montgomery, Alabama, with her husband, Walter. Together, they have three adult children and two precious grandchildren.

We are so pleased to have Barbara join the Start Early family!

Many states and communities are working hard to create cross-sector early childhood systems that children and families experience as equitable, supportive, accessible, and high-quality. Start Early and Child Trends have partnered to identify what building blocks are needed to create such systems.

Using a human-centered design approach, between 2021 – 2023, we spoke to state systems’ representatives, researchers, family advocates, and technical assistance providers from across the country to understand how their systems were working to promote equity and center families’ experiences, and what resources they may need to engage in such work. To help augment these discussions, we listened to recorded interviews and reviewed more than 25 early childhood systems frameworks, toolkits, and action plans from multiple organizations, states, and communities across the country.

The briefs in this series, called Conversation Starters, offer a guiding framework that outlines an approach to co-defining the success of an early childhood system in terms of how it is experienced by families. The systems builders consulted in this publication each expressed a clear vision for the kind of system they were trying to co-create with families and what they wanted families to experience when interacting with their system. But none of them—not even those from systems that are deservedly held up as shining examples—felt that they had it all figured out. They continue to strive for new ways to make their system more family-centric, more equitable, and more transparent.

Read the Conversation Starters

Dive deeper into this work by reading Conversation Starter #1 – Defining a Family-Centric Early Childhood System and Conversation Starter #2 – Authentic Family Engagement in Family-Centric Early Childhood Systems Building.


Note: Maia C. Connors was Start Early’s lead author/researcher and partner with the Child Trends team. This Conversation Starter was produced with support from the Pritzker Children’s Initiative. We are grateful to our respondents: both the systems builders and the researchers and technical assistance providers who support them. We also thank Sarah Daily, Colleen Murphy, Judy Reidt-Parker, Sheetal Singh, and Kathy Stohr for their feedback on earlier drafts. A particular thank you to Katherine Paschall, the lead author from Child Trends for her partnership in this work. Maia Connors was with Start Early at the time this piece was written. At the time of publication, she was with Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research.

Why is it so important to ensure that children have quality care and educational experiences in the earliest years of life? A nurturing and supportive environment during a child’s first years lays the foundation for future success in school and life. To truly appreciate why this time of life is so crucial, it helps to understand a little bit about brain science and early brain development.

The First Years of Life: What does science tell us?

During the first several years of a child’s life, the brain forms over one million neural connections every second.

Babies’ brains are quite literally wired to learn. This rapid absorption of information creates new neural connections and builds the architecture of a baby’s brain. For comparison, adult brains have thicker, but fewer, synaptic connections.

This makes adults more efficient at doing what they’ve done before (e.g., speaking, writing and reading) but less effective at learning new things, such as a foreign language.

Picture of number of synapses in a baby's brain in first months and years of life compared to as an adult

Original source: Adapted from Corel, JL. The postnatal development of the human cerebral cortex. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1975. Link source: Urban Child Institute

The above figure illustrates the rapid rate at which synapses are formed in the first few years of life. One can see that adults have thicker, but fewer synaptic connections.

Everything in a child’s environment — experiences, relationships with parents and caregivers and environmental factors — influences brain development and growth.

It is no surprise, then, that early experiences have a profound impact on a child’s future ability to succeed in school, work and life.

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The Importance of Early Interventions

Secure and nurturing early childhood experiences form strong neural connections, which enable children to acquire language and communication skills, learn how to interact with people and their surroundings, and develop the ability to regulate their emotions.

Sadly, too many children — especially those living in under-resourced communities — face chronic stress and adversity which hinder their ability to learn and increase their chances of falling behind developmentally and academically for years to come. Fortunately, there’s a wide body of research that demonstrates that interventions, particularly in the first years of life, make a difference.

Studies on high-quality, comprehensive early childhood programs, such as the Carolina Abecedarian Project, the Perry Preschool Project, the Chicago Child-Parent Centers, as well as Educare schools, demonstrate that early childhood interventions promote positive results in emotional development, school readiness, academic achievement and family life.

As part of our effort to become the country’s most trusted resource for early childhood knowledge Start Early conducts research with the overarching goal of generating new knowledge and contributing to the field’s understanding of how to improve the quality of programs and systems, promote positive outcomes, and transform practices and policies at scale.

Amanda Stein, director of research & evaluation
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How does the science on brain development influence our research on early interventions?

The research conducted at Start Early is anchored by science. Building upon decades of studies on brain development and early childhood education, we conduct high-quality research and help translate this research into practice — with the goal of improving outcomes for children and families early in life.

One example of how our research comes to life is demonstrated by the work of Educare schools. Start Early opened the first Educare school in 2000 on Chicago’s South Side using a research-based curriculum and serving low-income infants, toddlers, preschoolers and their families. Now part of a nationwide network of 25 schools, known as the Educare Learning Network, these schools are prime examples of the positive outcomes stemming from high-quality early education programs.

After just one year at an Educare school, children show improved language skills, fewer problem behaviors, and more positive interactions with parents. Children who enrolled in Educare schools earlier, and stayed until they entered kindergarten, also displayed stronger vocabulary skills — just one of many positive indicators of effective early intervention. Years of rigorous evaluations of Educare programs indicate these outcomes.

Yet, Educare is just one example of how existing science and our own rigorous research join to create and promote high-quality early learning experiences. Ultimately, our research aims to reinforce the existing evidence supporting the importance of early education, while also informing and advancing improvements in the field as a whole.

In my work, I interchangeably use the terms “Hispanic” and “Latinx/e” to refer to individuals whose cultural background originated in Latin American and/or Spanish-speaking countries or are descendants of persons from those countries. I want to acknowledge that Hispanic or Latinx/e individuals in the United States represent diverse countries of origin with unique histories and cultures. Hereafter, I will use “Hispanic” to describe this population.

Over recent decades, the racial-ethnic demographic composition of children in the United States has rapidly shifted, with Hispanic children largely contributing to these changes. Only 9% of U.S. children were Hispanic in 1980; today, over a quarter of children are Hispanic, and by 2050, it is predicted that nearly one in every three children will be Hispanic. This represents a dramatic increase in the number of those who are eligible for early care and education (ECE). In response to this rapidly growing population, new lines of research have emerged to inform and advance practices and policies that support Hispanic children and families’ well-being.

Recent studies consistently demonstrate that participation in high-quality ECE programs is beneficial for Hispanic children’s academic, developmental, and family outcomes; and in some instances, such programs serve as a protective factor in mitigating adversity or negative experiences among Hispanic children and families. As this evidence continues to mount, some researchers have shifted their priorities to focus on linkages between Hispanic children and families’ enrollment in ECE and their well-being in the challenging landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic. The tumultuous nature of the pandemic has corresponded with new studies unpacking hardships experienced by Hispanic children and families; these studies are often grounded in a deficit viewpoint. While researchers are building a much-needed knowledge base, the use of a strengths-based view is essential for uncovering protective factors, like engaging in ECE programs, that may serve as a buffer for Hispanic children and families from the challenges of the pandemic.

Start Early Professional Development

Check out our professional learning opportunity to learn more about how Educare approaches high-quality early care and education for children and families.

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Thus, through a strengths-based approach, researchers at Start Early sought to examine changes in the well-being of Hispanic children and families enrolled in a sample of 23 Early/Head Start programs within the Educare Learning Network before and during the pandemic leveraging longitudinal data from the Educare National Evaluation. A range of indicators to assess well-being were gathered and analyzed in a sample of 1736 Hispanic children and families enrolled during the 2018-2019 academic year and another 1297 Hispanic children and families enrolled during the 2020-21 academic year. Measures of well-being included teacher reports of children’s social-emotional protective factors, such as attachment, initiative, self-regulation, and any behavioral concerns and family self-reports of perceived stress, resilience, level of family support, and their relationship with their child.

Key Findings

  • Overall, findings showed that Hispanic children enrolled in Educare schools during the pandemic, received higher teacher ratings of their social-emotional skills than Hispanic children enrolled prior to the pandemic. During the pandemic, the proportion of Hispanic children rated by their teachers as having ‘typical’ or ‘strong’ social emotional protective factors by the spring of the 2020-21 academic year (91%) was higher than the proportion of Hispanic children receiving the same rating before the pandemic (86%). Similarly, fewer Hispanic children were rated as having behavioral concerns during the pandemic (i.e., by the spring of 2021, less than 8% of Hispanic children were identified as having any behavioral concerns compared to nearly 17% in spring of 2019 prior to the pandemic).
  • Findings also revealed that the well-being of Hispanic families looked consistent before and during the pandemic. Nearly all family well-being indicators that were examined among Hispanic families enrolled in Educare schools before the pandemic were comparable for those enrolled in Educare schools during the pandemic – with a slightly lower average level of parent-reported conflict for Hispanic families enrolled in Educare during the pandemic. Also, family-reported perceived stress, resiliency to stress, social supports, and relationship with their child looked similar among families enrolled in Educare before the pandemic and those enrolled during the pandemic, such that Hispanic families consistently reported low levels of perceived stress and conflict with their child and high levels of resiliency, helpful social supports, and closeness to their child.

In contrast with other ECE research and the mostly bleak narratives circulating in the media about the negative effects of the pandemic on child and family well-being, results from these descriptive analyses of Educare Learning Network data found that Hispanic children and families demonstrated a variety of social-emotional related strengths. Findings and data from this sample may not generalize to other Hispanic children and families given that these children and families are enrolled in Educare—a model Early/Head Start program demonstrating higher than average program quality. However, changing the narrative and highlighting positive findings related to child and family well-being during the pandemic can potentially inform Early/Head Start and other ECE programs’ efforts to effectively support Hispanic children and families. These descriptive findings cannot yet speak to why this sample of young Hispanic children and their families did not demonstrate declines in these indicators of well-being or how child and family well-being will look in the long run; but they can help emphasize the importance of high-quality ECE and contribute further evidence that positive experiences in the early years may provide a buffer to the challenges faced by children and families, including those resulting from the pandemic.

Find information about research and evaluation within the Educare Learning Network at EducareSchools.org.

We gratefully acknowledge funding support from the Buffett Early Childhood Fund (BECF) and other Network funders supporting research, evaluation, and dissemination. The authors would like to thank our Educare schools including the incredible children, families, leaders, and staff that engage in the Network’s research and evaluation as well as the exceptional Network of researchers and evaluators.

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Start Early is excited to announce Dionne Dobbins as Vice President of Research and Evaluation. In her role, Dionne will lead the Research & Evaluation division and oversee research efforts under Start Early’s expanded Head Start grant.

“Dionne has dedicated her career to thinking about how child, family, and community outcomes can drive and influence policy efforts. She has a strong interest in using research in applied settings and reaching non-researchers by developing tools and resources relevant to their work,” says Rebecca Berlin, chief learning officer at Start Early.

Most recently, Dionne served as the Sr. Director of Research at Child Care Aware of America, where she set the research agenda for the organization and led a team of researchers in executing it. Notably, she led the production of the popular Child Care Aware of America annual report on the Price of Child Care used among many researchers, policymakers, and advocates. Dionne has led research projects for Head Start, child care, family literacy, military child mental health, and early childhood financing. She is also a former Head Start Fellow who supported the leadership team at the Office of Head Start. She holds a doctorate in applied developmental psychology from the University of Miami and did her postdoctoral work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Dionne’s extensive systems-level, research-to-practice expertise, with a strong understanding of how to create a unified data picture from diverse sources of information will be invaluable to Start Early. We are thrilled to have Dionne join Start Early and support our efforts to produce research and evaluation data that is relatable, easy to understand, and centers equity,” Berlin concludes.

Follow Dionne on LinkedIn.

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.


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.

By Joan Lombardi

Over the holidays, I heard the term metaverse across multiple media platforms. From TV talk shows and the news to newspaper articles, the concept was everywhere, and I wanted to understand what it means. Meta seems to have several meanings depending on how it is used – as a prefix it sometimes means transformation or transcending.  In the “tech world” the metaverse seems to be referring to some overarching system that would transcend the different parts that make up that world today.

While not totally grasping this emerging concept, these ideas are not completely new to a student of child development. We can relate to the idea of an overarching system evolving beyond its current collection of parts to create an all-encompassing approach to achieving a common goal.

We know health, learning and behavior are connected, and holistic child development requires an integration of these elements that transcends their parts; health affects learning, learning affects health, and social-emotional development affects them both. We also know development begins early, with each stage building on another. Moreover, Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory has grounded our thinking: we can’t separate the child from the well-being of the family. They both depend on supportive communities and policies.

As we enter 2022, let’s recommit our energies to creating a system that could be thought of as meta-care. This approach would go beyond a collection of isolated programs and services to an interconnected system supporting the whole developing child. In this community, the parent, childcare provider, physicians, home visitors, teachers, local librarians and housing agencies all matter for a successful start in life.

Last year, I had the opportunity to talk to several parents, providers and local leaders across the country. Each was working to build these connections to make their community “the best place to raise a child.” I recognized four common elements in these initiatives:

  • Firm beliefs in centering all actions on family and caregiver voices to improve their living and working conditions
  • Commitment to equity
  • Processes for data tracking and mapping services
  • Continuous improvement mechanisms that include ongoing partnerships across services and sectors

The country’s future depends on how we care for young children and families. In the upcoming year, our hope remains that landmark federal legislation is passed to provide the critical investments we need. When this happens, implementation will move to the states and communities and new opportunities to work together will emerge. We must renew our efforts of support to assure a robust continuum of care: from healthy births to children thriving at age three, at five and beyond.

It doesn’t matter if we use a new term like meta-care; what matters is that we intensify our pursuit of better outcomes for all children. Let’s allow the needs of families and caregivers to guide our actions, transcend old boundaries and make a system of caring a reality for the next generation.

Dr. Joan Lombardi is a national and international thought leader in early childhood. She has been a key collaborator and consultant to Start Early in a variety of ways over the years. 

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By Debra Pacchiano, Vice President of Translational Research and Isabel Farrar, Research Associate at Start Early

Start Early recently organized a session at the 2021 Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) conference that highlighted three soon-to-be published research studies from across the field that push our understanding of whether and how The Essential 0-5 Survey framework relates to other aspects of quality and outcomes we care about in early childhood programs. Together, these studies examine how specific organizational conditions identified in the survey framework impact teacher well-being and retention and how to measure the strength of these essential conditions within programs serving infants and toddlers.

What we continue to find is that nurturing begets nurturing: when teachers, staff and families are nurtured and supported by robust organizational conditions, especially facilitative and instructional leadership and routine collaboration with peers, teachers and staff are more committed, persistent, and competent in meeting the dynamic and changing needs of children and families.

In one upcoming study, researchers Anna J. Markowitz, Daphna Bassok, and Amanda Rosensky of the University of Virginia used data from early childhood programs across Louisiana to explore associations between teachers’ perceptions of their leaders as effective instructional leaders and measures of teacher turnover intentions, observed turnover, teacher well-being and the quality of teacher-child interactions. Their initial findings strengthen the evidence that site leadership is critically important to the quality of teachers’ interactions with children, as well as to teachers’ commitment to the program and decisions to remain in their position. These authors suggest that their findings indicate that coherent leadership development is a “potentially powerful area of intervention” impacting teacher/staff retention and quality improvements in early education settings.

Another study, conducted by Allison Friedman-Krauss, Milagros Nores, Charles Whitman, and W. Steven Barnett at the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) examines how differences in teachers’ perceptions of organizational conditions vary by teacher/school/district characterizations and impact classroom quality and teachers’ well-being. This research finds a strong association between teacher perceptions of their school organizational conditions and teacher depressive symptoms, suggesting that supporting teacher well-being is particularly important in today’s pandemic context.

Early Childhood Education & Workplace Conditions

Learn more about our three upcoming research studies.

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And finally, we presented recent research conducted with Marc Brodersen and Joshua Stewart at Marzano Research that explores whether an adapted version of The Essential 0-5 Survey is relevant to and effectively measures the strength of organizational conditions in infant and toddler settings, something the field currently lacks. The team used cognitive interviews and survey data from a sample of Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership grantees and programs in three states to evaluate the technical adequacy of the surveys. Initial findings suggest the adapted surveys do capture teacher, staff, and parent perceptions of these essential conditions meaningfully and reliably within programs serving infants, toddlers and their families.

These new research findings add to the growing body of evidence that surrounding teachers and practitioners with robust workplace supports improves their well-being, increases collective purpose and responsibility, and builds their individual and collective capacity to successfully meet the changing and diverse needs of young children and their families starting at birth. Efforts to support leaders in early childhood settings as they support their staff are more important now more than ever given the reality that programs are acutely struggling to support and retain staff due to COVID-19.

Learn more about the three upcoming research studies in our research brief.

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By Debra Pacchiano, Vice President of Translational Research and Isabel Farrar, Research Associate at Start Early and Marc Brodersen, Managing Senior Researcher and Joshua Stewart, Senior Researcher at Marzano Research

Whether a tool such as a rubric, assessment, or survey is used to measure teaching practices or academic standards, validation is an important step to ensure users can trust the results. Start Early recently worked with the national education research and consulting firm Marzano Research to examine the validity of a survey developed to support the professional growth and development of early care and education (ECE) staff and administrators.

A growing body of research in ECE and quality improvement shows that strong site-level organizational conditions are key to realizing strong implementation of quality standards and continuous quality improvement in ECE settings. Yet most instruments designed to support the professional growth and development of ECE staff and administrators focus primarily on classroom-level processes, creating a gap that could stifle improvements at the organizational-level related to mindsets and practices surrounding caregiving, teaching and family engagement.

Researchers at Start Early developed The Essential 0-5 Survey to bridge this gap and provide data and actionable information to administrators, teachers, and staff in ECE settings (both school and center-based) serving the families of preschoolers — and now also infants and toddlers. The Essential 0-5 Survey collects teacher, staff and parent experiences and perceptions of the organizationwide mindsets and practices aligned to Start Early’s evidence-based framework of essential conditions: Effective Instructional Leaders, Collaborative Teachers, Involved Families, Supportive Environment, Ambitious Instruction and Parent Voice. Research conducted in both K-12 and ECE settings demonstrates the direct impacts these conditions have on quality practices and children’s immediate and longer-term success. The Essential 0-5 Survey builds on prior research and development efforts between Start Early and the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, where 5 Essentials survey and evidence-based framework of essential conditions was originally developed and tested in K-12 settings.

To test the relevance of The Essential 0-5 Survey for infant-toddler settings, Start Early conducted 88 cognitive interviews in English and Spanish with teachers, staff and parents from Early Head Start Child Care Partnership programs in two states, which then informed additional revisions. To prepare for pilot study, the refined survey was translated into Spanish, Arabic and Aramaic, and administered to more than 500 teachers and staff and 1,100 parents in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Texas, and Washington D.C.

Validation and Results

Using data from the survey pilot study, Marzano Research conducted a psychometric validation study to understand the following questions:

  1. Does the survey consistently measure the aspects of organizational quality it was designed to measure?
  2. Does the survey distinguish sites with different levels of organizational quality?
  3. Do users with different background characteristics, such as their primary spoken language or the age of the child served by the ECE program, respond to the survey items in similar or systematically different ways?

Pilot study results confirmed the survey items intended to measure particular aspects of ECE organizational quality do group together as intended, and with few exceptions, each grouping measures a singular aspect of ECE organizational quality. Additionally, a majority of the survey items were found to contribute to the overall functionality of the survey; with only a handful of items found to be redundant to each other, or to potentially address different aspects of ECE organizational quality.

These findings speak to the rigor of the survey development team’s process in adapting, writing and vetting the survey items, and importantly endorse the overall psychometric reliability and validity of the surveys for use in infant-toddler center-based settings. However, preliminary analyses also showed that teachers and parents who completed the survey in Spanish or English respond differently to items on several sections of the survey. In some instances, Spanish speakers would generally provide more positive responses to a selection of items while in other instances English speakers would provide more positive responses to a selection of items. Some differences to a selection of items were also found between teachers working with children from birth to age 2 versus those working with children ages 3 to 5.

Next Steps

Start Early is currently using the results of the pilot study to revise items and conduct additional interviews with teachers, staff, and family members of infants and toddlers. Start Early will conduct a formal validation study in 2022 which will include linking survey responses to additional quality outcomes of concern, for example children’s attendance and developmental progress and the quality of teacher-child interactions and family engagement. Learn more about the research behind The Essential 0-5 Survey.

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