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Yoncalla Early Works: An Ecosystem of Care and Community

Yoncalla Early Works: An Ecosystem of Care and Community

Written by guest contributor Adriane Blackman.

On any given day in a preschool classroom at Yoncalla Elementary School, the atmosphere is abuzz with light and warmth. Kids and teachers are immersed in activity. Some children play in the kitchen “cooking” a meal for their friends, some build with blocks, while others nestle side by side poring over the pages of picture books. Play is a core activity, creating opportunities to grow and learn. And for preschoolers in Yoncalla, very possibly their most important work. 

Though preschool programming has existed in Yoncalla for several decades, the programming offered was limited, and wasn’t free. Over the past decade, preschool classrooms have expanded and evolved and now serve every 3 and 4-year-old in the district. It has become an essential opportunity for children in the community, stemming from the launch of Yoncalla Early Works in 2013.

More than ten years ago, Children’s Institute (CI) and The Ford Family Foundation (TFFF) recognized the importance of responding to the needs of remote rural communities in Oregon. They took time to understand the complexity and unique conditions present in Yoncalla, and then invested in an approach to engage with parents, families, educators, and local leaders to transform education and the role of the school in the community. That decision launched Yoncalla Early Works, a long-term initiative built on a partnership with the Yoncalla School District. 

Yoncalla is located close to Interstate 5 in Douglas County, halfway between Eugene and Roseburg with approximately 1,100 residents. With a history as a timber town, Yoncalla was steeped in the traditions of logging. For decades, life in the woods grounded the community in a strong work ethic and connection to the land. Pride of place and the resources found there, didn’t only fuel the economy, but a whole way of life. Massive shifts in the industry in the late 20th century led to significant changes in the community, including declining wages, job losses, and a dwindling population that led to reduced local tax revenue for schools. 

The shifting timber industry left the community with a cascade of challenges and for many, a feeling that their very way of life was being dishonored. Families were at the mercy of a broken system, leaving many to feel disempowered and disenfranchised by those in power.

When Early Works launched in Yoncalla, the story of a community steeped in poverty prevailed. But the true story of transformation in Yoncalla is built on community resilience. A group of engaged and committed parents, families, and educators with a commitment to excellence in education, and early learning as a driver for helping transform an entire district.


Building Trust and Safety

Megan Barber began teaching preschool at Yoncalla Elementary in 2015, returning to the community she grew up in after many years away and earning her masters degree. Today, she teaches alongside peers who are also from the community, working with two full preschool classrooms. Barber is keenly aware of the needs of her students, observing, responding, and guiding each of her students throughout any given day.

Megan Barber engages in story time with her preschool class at Yoncalla Elementary School

Megan Barber engages in story time with her preschool class at Yoncalla Elementary School

The forests surrounding Yoncalla are a constant reminder of their past and the traditions that have imbued this community with strength and grit, and a deep sense of Oregon. The trees continue to inspire and inform, even in something as simple as a preschool art project. Picture Barber seated at a small table next to one of her students, helping him with his work. She narrates his actions as he carefully glues green triangles onto his paper, eventually revealing a tree. He focuses intently as his small fingers select glitter squares to adorn the branches. Barber instructs, calmly and with care, giving him the opportunity to create his own work, in his own unique way. As he places his completed tree on the drying rack, she seamlessly transitions the class to whole group rug time, singing songs as she guides them to their appropriate rug squares.  

In this environment, students practice self control, sitting with their legs crossed and managing their personal space. They practice leadership and select peers to share their ideas with the group. They also discuss different versions of a story, tallying observations onto a large graph displayed by the class calendar, an exercise that helps develop pre-literacy and math skills. As the lesson concludes, Barber checks in with a student who seemed to have difficulty staying engaged. 

“I notice you seem tired today,” she says. “Would you like to sit with me for a few minutes?” Her invitation is met with a quiet relief, as he quickly hops into her lap. Together, they look through her song book, singing the melody, as his small body relaxes and grows calm.  

“Every day is getting him to trust that I’m going to keep him safe,” she said. “He is always testing the limits of safe boundaries.“

This is responsive teaching, meeting kids where they’re at, knowing when the lesson plan needs to adjust. But Barber uses these tools not just because they feel good, but because they are grounded in research and best practice. 


Responsive Teaching

The concept of responsive teaching is based on the philosophy of Conscious Discipline and trauma sensitive practices. Conscious Discipline teaches children to self-regulate, identify their emotions, and solve problems. This whole-child approach encourages teachers to hold space for and honor the myriad of experiences that children bring with them to school, including trauma that has impacted their families and community. Teachers have completed hours of professional development on trauma, how it impacts behavior in children, and what it means for learning and engagement. 

Responsive teaching includes applying an asset-based lens to working with students, identifying strengths they bring, strengths within their families, connecting, creating trust, and building relationships. Educators in Yoncalla recognize that it is imperative for them to build meaningful relationships with their students and their families. 

Jill Wells with her preschool students

Jill Wells with her preschool students

In the extensive training that the Yoncalla teachers and staff have received in Conscious Discipline, they have learned that the most important part of this journey starts first with their own healing. Barber, and her teaching colleague, Jill Wells, speak openly about bringing awareness to their own school experiences, their personal assets and challenges, and the ways they have learned to self-regulate, all of which enables them to show up consistently and calmly for their students everyday. 

When Barber and Wells first meet families during their summer home visits, they explain that they are going on a journey together, and that their intention is to build trust between school and home. They reinforce the idea that parents play the most important role in their child’s life. They are welcomed in school and encouraged to participate in their child’s education. These relationships have been transformational and speak to the willingness of parents to be vulnerable and continue to forgive a school system that in many instances, failed them. 

Barber and Wells have created spaces that embody healing, safety, and acceptance. “We often don’t remember the details of preschool, but we remember how we felt,” Barber said. The classroom is structured to include academic learning, nutrition, movement, rest time, conflict resolution, and a multitude of invested adults. Children are guided to express themselves in safe ways to find resolution. Barber works tirelessly to create a classroom environment to help them do that. “Instead of expecting the kids to fit a certain mold, we see how we can alter the environment to fit them.”

Megan Barber's preschool classroom

Megan Barber’s preschool classroom

In the past, students experiencing behavioral challenges might have been ignored, considered “bad,” or handled with punitive discipline. Today, when students display challenging behavior, Barber and Wells see beyond the behavior and instead hear their small voices asking for help: “I am struggling. I don’t feel safe. Am I worth your time?” 

“This is how we’re going to love them,” Wells said. “We’re going to show up, wait, give them skills and help them re-focus.” 

Wells and Barber use picture books to teach early literacy skills, empathy, and acceptance. Books like Why Johnny Doesn’t Flap by Clay and Gail Morton help teach that there are many ways to be human in the world and that there is room for everyone’s experience. The conversations these stories elicit are a critical part of creating a classroom climate of safety and resilience.

Reminders of this holistic and accepting philosophy are built into the learning experience for every preschool student. On the walls, in the hallways, embedded within the activity centers in each classroom are visual cues to re-center, repair when mistakes are made, and start again. A kindness tree hangs on the wall of Barber’s room, with branches full of leaves written with a multitude of acts of kindness witnessed throughout the year. Barber tells her students that the kindness tree grows when we do nice things for each other: “You grow what you value, and we value kindness.” 

In the hallway dividing the two preschool classrooms, a conflict resolution ladder hangs in the wall at the ready. When two students find themselves in conflict, they are guided to pull down the ladder, lay it on the ground, and walk step by step from opposite ends of the ladder. As they get closer to each other, they express their feelings until they meet at the center and arrive at a common understanding. Teachers consistently respond in ways that help address needs as they arise, regrounding students so they can come back to a place where they can learn and thrive.

Every moment of the day in preschool is a learning opportunity. The social emotional lessons are intertwined with academic skills in pre-literacy and math. Lunchtime typically includes lessons in healthy nutrition, life skills, self-control, and language development. What’s notable about responsive teaching in Yoncalla is that what the 3 and 4-year-olds learn stays with them through elementary school. K-5 teachers see improved attendance, student behavior, parent engagement, test scores, overall school climate, and fewer discipline referrals.



Leadership and Collaboration 

When Early Works launched in Yoncalla in 2013, CI, TFFF, and the team at the Yoncalla School District recognized the need to have someone embedded in the community to lead the work. CI and Ford Family staff worked with the community to complete a community needs and resources assessment, eventually hiring a site liaison in 2014 to begin the work on the ground. This initial phase was instrumental in building foundational relationships and in 2015, Erin Helgren was hired to take over this work. This position was largely built from lessons learned and shared by having a family engagement coordinator at the Earl Boyles Early Works site in Portland. As site liaison, Erin’s work focused on engaging with the community, exploring its needs and desires, connecting with partners, and beginning the work of building a preschool program. 

Theory of Change Model: The Early Works theory of change shows how we envision reaching out foals for sustainable change for children and families

Theory of Change Model: The Early Works theory of change shows how we envision reaching out foals for sustainable change for children and families

I was charged with walking alongside the community and ensuring diverse stakeholders had the opportunity to be heard and responded to, and to look for opportunities for forward movement,” Helgren said. “The work required someone in the community, as it was difficult to move the work forward without someone understanding the nuances and complexities unique to a rural community.”

With a background in social work, early childhood, and community building, Helgren brought a fresh perspective to Yoncalla, one that helped reimagine what early learning could look like for the district.  

“My position allowed the district to mindfully create a program that was grounded simultaneously in both best practices and family voice,” Helgren said. 

Early on in the initiative, it wasn’t uncommon for Helgren to encounter resistance. Some parents and educators didn’t see a need or have the desire to change. Many in the community did not support preschool implementation, preferring to focus on things like family fun nights, access to sports, and community baby showers. It wasn’t uncommon to hear, “This is how we’ve always done it.” 

Brian Berry, the Yoncalla superintendent since 2017, has been working in public education since 1986. When Helgren arrived, Berry was serving as the principal of Yoncalla High School. They didn’t always see eye to eye. Their strong relationship today took time to evolve as they initially challenged each other to think from different perspectives. Their different roles allowed them to stretch each other to find the best solutions to complex problems. Berry initially viewed her as an outsider, as someone who did not understand the community and was not steeped in public education. But over time, they grew to collaborate as leaders, 

 “Working with Erin has been a privilege,” Berry said. “Because I’ve been in public education for so long, I tend to have an inside the box mentality. Erin comes to education from a totally different outside of the box perspective. I believe because of this, we work well together and keep each other on our toes when blending public education into the Early Works model.” 

Both kept children at the center of decision making. Both upheld a vision for creating a school community grounded in the belief that every child can succeed, every family deserves respect, teachers are regarded for their professional expertise, and that every person in the community matters and is needed in order for everyone to achieve the greatest success. 

Today, that community includes a network of parents, families, teachers, and local leaders who are deeply invested in Yoncalla’s children, early learning, public health, families, and community resilience.  

Between 2013 and 2015, the expansion of preschool involved many conversations with parents and families. “It was driven by guidelines outlining the required service hours needed for stronger social-emotional and academic skills related to later school success,” Helgren said.  

But the work was not without its challenges. Helgren had hard conversations and sometimes had to make decisions that didn’t make her popular. But she also found allies in the community and in the school who were committed to the mission, and those were the people who helped bring this vision of early childhood to life.

From Berry’s perspective, one of the greatest challenges was stepping away from the traditional approach to education. “We built a model that actually serves and listens to the community,” he said. “Education programs do not teach you how to actually listen to the community that you work for.”

The preschool also had to be fully integrated into the operations of the elementary school. “We had to make sure we had communication between the preschool and the elementary school teachers. Preschool and elementary teachers are now on the same pay scale. Preschool teachers are part of our building and district meetings and the preschool director is part of our monthly administration meetings. We also have a student of the month award for the preschool!”

This type of model is significant to note as it’s not the norm for other districts implementing preschool. CI and TFFF work with districts that, despite getting Preschool Promise dollars, are not close to achieving pay equity. Preschool teachers are not embedded into the schools and are rarely included as directors or in administrative school district decision-making. It is not uncommon even for principals to have a cloudy idea of their role in preschool implementation. This unique collaboration between the preschool and the district, has been a powerful tool in the initiative’s transformation and one which will facilitate sustainable continued growth for years to come. 

Berry and Helgren haven’t been afraid to push each other to find the best solution for tough problems. One day they might be brainstorming ways to get buses for kids to access after school activities across town. Another day they are making plans for the next community event that will draw hundreds of people from the area. 

Today, Helgren’s role has evolved from site liaison to principal at the elementary school. For Berry, he sees a tremendous change in the district since early learning became a Yoncalla staple. 

“Students come into kindergarten with better school readiness skills. Teachers are more prepared to meet the diverse needs of the community and their families. That was not happening before,” Berry said. “And I want to make sure that what we’re doing in the elementary grades stays with kids all the way through middle and high school.

Expanding Health Care Access

Helgren, alongside parents, educators and community leaders, wanted to address unmet health care needs in their region of North Douglas County. Health was a core pillar of Early Works from the outset, recognizing that wrap-around services for families are vital to creating a healthy community and successful schools. 

This programming took time to be fully implemented, as trust building between the preschool and parent education took time to establish. CI and TFFF first conducted a Community Health Assessment that was community and parent-led.The CHNA was a catalyst for amplifying the need for health care and behavioral health services in the region,” Helgren reflects. Her team visited AVIVA leaders nearly a year prior to the health center opening to share their data. What was unique was the focus of the CHNA, specific to the region, versus a broad sweep that did not match the county wide health assessments. It was clear the needs of the rural community were not being adequately met.

In order to address this disparity, the Umpqua Community Health Center, now Aviva Health, opened a clinic in 2019, in the small neighboring town of Drain, just 10 minutes from Yoncalla Elementary. The goal was to expand access to essential health care services, including preventive care, immunizations, vision and dental screenings.

Inside an exam room at Aviva Health Clinic in Drain, OR

Inside an exam room at Aviva Health Clinic in Drain, OR

Today, Dr. Kanani Dilcher, a family medicine physician with an extensive background in community health, manages the clinic and provides care. She has also worked closely with the Yoncalla School District to secure grant funding for afterschool programming focused on health access. These after school movement activities create safe opportunities for kids to get exercise and receive a healthy meal under the careful watch of invested adults. She has helped students get urgent dental care and the required transportation. And she believes so strongly in the vision in Yoncalla that she transferred her children to the district for preschool and elementary school.

Dr. Kanani Dilcher managesd the health care clinic and provides care to families from Yoncalla and Drain

Dr. Kanani Dilcher managesd the health care clinic and provides care to families from Yoncalla and Drain


Pivot Point: Engaged Families

Key partners for Yoncalla Early Works have been the parents and families from the Yoncalla community. The relationship between the school and families has strengthened over the years, but it took a steady effort to build trust and communication. 

In the past, it wasn’t common for parents to be invited into the school buildings, much less participate in school activities and decision making. Many parents had negative memories of school and felt disempowered to get involved and connect with the learning experience for their children. 

When Helgren began working in the Yoncalla community, she saw barriers to family engagement that were negatively impacting school climate and student achievement. “Children are always ready to learn but sometimes teachers aren’t prepared to teach in ways that feel safe,” Helgren said. “The relationship between successful students and effective teachers often depends on building trusting relationships with families.” 

Helgren has helped coordinate numerous parent engagement opportunities over the years. Today it isn’t uncommon to see parents at the school helping in classrooms, assisting at lunch or on the playground, or getting involved in after school activities. 

Buy-in from parents has grown substantially,” Berry said. “Parents are beginning to volunteer and not see the district as an obstacle to be avoided. We are seeing the students who were part of the preschool program get involved in our youth sports programs. Their parents are joining the booster club and the local Yoncalla Engaged Parents group.” Increasingly, families feel welcomed and honored. Parents and teachers often work together to create an ecosystem of care for their children, and parent involvement permeates the entire school experience.















Madison Kokos, a Yoncalla parent, grew up in Yoncalla and can see that things have changed significantly since she was a student at the elementary school. Her two children are now elementary students and attended preschool. Her youngest will enter preschool in the fall of 2023.

“My experience wasn’t terrible, but also not great,” Kokos said. When she became a young mother, she wondered if things would be the same for her children. Her oldest son had a successful preschool experience with Yoncalla Early Works. He was thriving and loved school. In kindergarten, however, he received numerous discipline referrals and had low academic performance. The message seemed to be that there was something wrong with her child. “Nearly every day there was a line of kindergarten students waiting to meet with the principal, sent by their teacher. Kids were always in trouble, especially boys,” she said. Discipline referrals were being made at an alarming level, making both kids and parents feel that school was not a place where they belonged or could find success. 

Kokos, who remembers when Early Works started, said the focus was on getting kids ready for kindergarten. “After going to kindergarten, we realized kindergarten wasn’t responsive to kids,” she said. “My son had a sensory issue that he was not able to get help with which impacted his behavior. His teacher was not responsive to his needs. Students were typically asked to sit for far too long and focus on activities that were not developmentally appropriate. Expectations for behavior were unrealistic.”

Helgren and Berry responded to Kokos’s concerns, along with other parents, and could see that the teaching philosophies used by preschool and elementary teachers were very different. They began the process of integrating the teaching practices from preschool into elementary grades. They worked with teachers, offered training, and helped the school community as a whole, recognize student strengths and respond to student needs. 

This transformation took time and finesse. Getting into the school and shifting practice was hard. On the surface, things looked good. School staff attended community events, participated in statewide and even some national training and seemed to be saying all the right things. Teachers were being taught about conscious discipline and how to shift their practice, but in reality were often using punitive approaches. It took time for leadership to recognize the practices and values were so misaligned until Kokos and several other parents sounded the alarm. This pivot point in the program’s history is important to recognize, as it came to impact how CI and TFFF thought about ESS and the importance of starting with classroom practices, as opposed to starting a preschool program and family engagement strategies from the outset.

Helgren and Berry worked hard to shrink this gulf. Eventually, the practices used in preschool settings were brought to higher grade levels and, over time, the learning experience for kids began to evolve. By the time Kokos’ second child reached kindergarten, the difference was stark. 

“My second child’s transition to kindergarten was really smooth,” she said. “When her speech issues were identified early on in preschool, those interventions followed her to kindergarten where her teachers were responsive and open.”

This kind of evolution of the teaching and learning environment has reduced the presence of shame and blame and brought more joy to the school. “There was also this idea that if kids were having fun, they weren’t learning, that anything enjoyable couldn’t also be educational,” Kokos said. “That has shifted. Teachers have created an environment where kids have fun and learn and, I believe, learn more efficiently and effectively. When kids are enjoying school, they have fewer behavior problems.” 

“The biggest sign for me as to how things were changing, was when the pandemic hit. My sons were so sad that school was closed,” Kokos said. “Before, my oldest son never wanted to go to school. But during the shutdown, he kept asking me why he couldn’t go. He even went as far as to say, ‘Why are you punishing me?’” 

Kokos remembers the early days of Early Works, recalling that many people in the community did not yet see a need for a new preschool. The small private program that was in place at the time was good enough for those who could afford it, but its limited programming left many children and families without access to adequate high quality early childhood education. 

The Early Works team launched summer play groups and created opportunities for parents to engage with the school. Over time, community conversations and activities helped open the door to the idea of expanding early learning opportunities, including preschool, early intervention, home visits, and more. 

A pivot point was asking families to engage in conversations that explored resistance to preschool programming and then create a governance committee to help guide school administration in co-creating a program,” Helgren said. “We needed to listen to the community and respond to its needs and values. Many people were engaged in that work of problem solving, planning, and collaboration.” 

Yoncalla Students participating in summer learning

Today, teachers offer home visits before the fall school year begins to build relationships and get to know incoming children. The school offers parent education courses, cooking classes, classroom volunteer opportunities, and after school and summer programs. Some parents have become so inspired by what they see inside classrooms that they have become cooks, janitors, bus drivers, teachers aids, and office staff, among other roles. Family participation has resulted in a transformed school community, one that centers children. This has resulted in increased enrollment, student transfers from neighboring schools, improved attendance, growing achievement and decreased drop out rates.

Yoncalla Engaged People

The broader community supports Yoncalla’s children and families in a variety of ways. The Yoncalla Engaged People group, formerly called Yoncalla Engaged Parents, has grown steadily over the past decade and now has approximately 40 members. The group aims to be inclusive and engage a diverse group of community members while helping elevate parent voice in the school system and empower families to get involved. Additionally, the booster club, which has historically been focused on supporting sports, has expanded its focus to meet other community needs. Today, the club is responsible for a coat closet for the preschool and elementary school, and they are developing a food pantry to help offset food insecurity for families. When there is a need, the community has learned to rally and work with school leaders to find solutions.

What is best for kids? 

In 2018, when teachers began the work of adopting Conscious Discipline, their focus was on using a trauma-informed approach designed to transform teaching and learning with a focus on social-emotional learning. They have spent a significant amount of time learning to create a culture of compassion and how internal emotional states affect behavior, for students and adults. 

These approaches have taken time to become fully integrated. Helgren reflects, “It was a hard shift and has only been somewhat actualized over the last two years or so.” These practices were a vital tool in programming and the commitment to using them has been integral to its success. When parents came to Helgren and Berry with their worries, they responded by bringing this training to the upper grades, and the growth continues today following kids up through middle school with the goal of reaching high school too.   

“Conscious Discipline means adults have to be willing to dig in and do the hard work,” Helgren said. “It’s about increasing self-awareness and helping the adults in the building understand that they need to learn to co-regulate with kids. All adults in the school have access to this training, teachers, parents, instructional assistants, custodial staff, bus drivers, everybody.”

Helgren said she relies on reflective supervision to help her peers take the opportunity to learn. “I have to create space for adults to express themselves, which means sometimes I feel more like a social worker or therapist.”

Berry said, “Sometimes, that’s the job.”

In the classrooms, teachers have found that disruptions to the school day have been minimized and there are fewer discipline referrals. Adults embrace a culture of empowerment, acceptance, growth, and learning. When kids experience emotional dysregulation, they are given tools, starting in their very first moments as preschoolers, to cope with their big feelings and solve problems.  

“We used to think that preschool was about fun and games,” Berry said. “Now we think that preschool gives kids the essential skills they need to be successful in elementary school and beyond.” 

Teachers in the upper grades comment that they often overhear kids at recess working out a problem using the conflict management skills they learned as 3 and 4-year-olds. This radiates to peer interactions, classroom climate, academic performance, and school attendance. 

Helgren, as principal, does not take her teaching staff for granted. She recognizes that teaching can be rewarding, but also demanding and stressful. She leads and problem solves each day. When staff complained that the new literacy adoption wasn’t addressing the unique needs of their students, many of whom were two grade levels behind reading benchmark standards, Helgren invited curriculum experts to the district to work with Yoncalla teachers. They fine tuned their approach and built on existing skills and resources. That approach has helped teachers address specific needs relevant to their students, and elementary literacy scores have climbed. 

The school has also adopted a culture of mindfulness to offset the stress and fatigue that comes with each day. Yoga classes are available, helping teachers ground themselves and refresh. The staff room is designed for connection with no teaching supplies or copy machines allowed. Helgren encourages self care and incentivizes staff to do so by participating in wellness activities. All of these efforts are designed to boost staff morale, fight burnout, and create connection so the adults at Yoncalla can truly work in service to children. Collectively, they are guided by a single, recurring question: what is best for kids?


An Ecosystem of Care and Community

IIn Yoncalla, a multitude of community members are at work to make the town the best place to be a kid. Transformation has been possible because of an engaged community committed to growth, to acknowledging its history and recognizing its strengths and assets. Humble leadership and deeply respectful partnership built the trust necessary to make meaningful change, and ultimately bring about healing. 

“Yoncalla is a big deal,” Berry said. 

“Everything we do here is a collaboration,” Helgren said. “We value each other. We’re working on positivity, and that positivity is contagious.”

“The changes we’ve made, the investments in preschool and in children in general… it will pay off forever,” Berry said. 

The hills around Yoncalla are still lush with evergreen trees, and in some ways are a reminder that the town has recreated itself, persevered. Inside the school walls, teachers, parents, family members, and community leaders ground themselves in the idea that they are planting seeds for the future. The work they are doing today, and the seeds they are planting, creates the foundation for a new tomorrow, an ecosystem of care and community meant to transform the lives of children, their families, and Yoncalla’s future generations.

Oregon’s Push for Increased Public Investment

Oregon’s Push for Increased Public Investment

This article was written by Nicole Hsu and originally shared through New America on May 15, 2023. The link can be found here.

Across the nation, people are connecting the dots on just how critical strong early childhood infrastructure is for the nation’s overall economic well-being. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the fragility of the early childhood system to the public, demonstrating and demanding the need for increased public investment.

As President Biden and members of Congress continue to take steps to make child care more accessible and affordable at the federal level, state legislators are also championing a strong early learning system that supports children, families, and providers.

Like many states, Oregon is facing a child care crisis. The state faces an estimated negative economic impact of $1.4 billion each year because families cannot access consistent child care. A 2020 analysis of Oregon’s pre-pandemic child care supply found that all counties are child care deserts for infants and toddlers, meaning there are more than three infants and toddlers for every available child care spot. The availability of child care isn’t much better for preschool-aged children, where 25 of the 36 counties are child care deserts.

Over the years, collective advocacy and organizing efforts led by groups such as the Early Childhood Equity Collaborative, Early Childhood Coalition, and Child Care for Oregon have resulted in more state investment in early childhood, including raising child care reimbursement rates. The Student Success Act, passed in 2019, doubled the state’s investment in early learning and care from $400 million to $800 million over two years.

But, as Dana Hepper, Director of Policy & Advocacy at the Children’s Institute, an Oregon-based policy, research, and advocacy organization, noted, the state still has a long way to go to serve all of Oregon’s children and families. Among this year’s child-centered legislative priorities are increasing funding for the Early Childhood Equity Fund, a dedicated funding source for culturally affirming early childhood programming, and increasing child care subsidy reimbursement rates.

In addition, advocates want to reduce barriers to entering and moving up in the profession. Before the pandemic, between 25 to 30 percent of Oregon’s child care workforce left every year. Even without the latest numbers, Hepper shares, “We anticipate that it’s only gotten worse. So we knew it was a crisis before, and that crisis has only been exacerbated, which just increases the need to do something about it now.”

There are not enough people currently in or entering the profession to fill these jobs. To create accessible and equitable workforce pathways, HB 2991 would require the Department of Early Learning and Care to commission a study to identify barriers and inefficiencies in the early childhood profession. The study would result in recommendations to streamline credentialing and credit transfers, include clear standards for reviewing qualifications and experience, and provide access to materials in different languages that reflect the linguistic diversity of the workforce.

Yet, even if the state were to solve the workforce shortage crisis and have a sufficient and stable workforce, it would not have adequate physical space necessary to provide care for all children who need it. Investment in a robust, diverse workforce needs to be paired with investment in physical spaces where learning happens. And, the investment needs to extend to all learning settings within Oregon’s mixed-delivery system.

In interviews conducted last year as part of the state’s Preschool Development Grant, families with young children reported a clear need for child care options in rural and remote areas, that reflect non-traditional working hours, and for families who speak languages other than English. Home-based providers, making up almost a quarter (23 percent) of Oregon’s early childhood workforce, are more likely than center-based providers to meet these needs. Because where they live is also where they work, there is a need to clarify the rights of home-based providers who are renters and their landlords. SB 559 would ensure that landlords cannot prohibit renters from operating licensed home-based child care programs and provide protections for both parties.

Furthermore, early childhood providers are small business owners. They face costs associated with establishing, expanding, or maintaining a learning environment that is safe and developmentally appropriate for young children. However, differences in the types of loans and state funds available to providers across the mixed-delivery system, along with the complex and costly system of zoning and permitting, result in inequitable access to capital for child care infrastructure.

Local efforts to expand and improve child care facilities in all early childhood settings, like San Francisco’s Child Care Facilities Fund, have become models for California’s new statewide Child Care and Development Infrastructure Grant Program. Oregon is hoping to establish something similar with HB 3005, which would allot $100 million towards a Child Care Infrastructure Fund to finance new and existing early learning and child care facilities, with a 25 percent minimum allocation to culturally specific early childhood programs and a 25 percent maximum for school districts. In addition, HB 2727 would initiate a review of zoning, land use, and building codes and make recommendations to improve permitting processes to support the expansion of early childhood facilities.

In 2022, when the state legislature allocated $22 million towards the Child Care Capacity Building Fund, more than $170 million was requested in the first round of applications. In addition, research conducted by the Children’s Institute estimates that around $40 million worth of early childhood facilities across the state are ready to expand with a pipeline of more than $40 million worth of facilities that would apply for funding if such a fund is created.

Source: Children’s Institute

Early childhood champions in Oregon are advocating for increased public investment in child- and family-centered policies without compromising on the state’s longstanding commitment to a mixed-delivery early learning and care system. For the state, at this particular moment, this means public investment in the workforce and infrastructure. At the end of the day, Hepper hopes “people see Oregon as a place that is really pushing the envelope and being really innovative in terms of solving these challenges facing children and families. And, as a state who knows that this is work we need to come back to session after session.”

Setting the Record Straight on Social-Emotional Learning: A Teacher’s Perspective

Setting the Record Straight on Social-Emotional Learning: A Teacher’s Perspective

Social-emotional learning (SEL) has been in the news a lot lately, and this recent surge of news about SEL has come with a good deal of misinformation. In this blog series, we’ll attempt to set the record straight on SEL by exploring the benefits and importance of SEL for young children, highlighting its recent politicization, and understanding what polling tells us about the best way to communicate with parents about the topic.

The term “social-emotional learning” does not necessarily lend itself to a clear picture of what takes place inside the classroom, especially when compared to a reading or math lesson. Some parent groups have taken advantage of the general lack of understanding about what social-emotional learning (SEL) actually looks like to accuse teachers of acting as “unlicensed therapists” in the classroom or using SEL to indoctrinate students. Others are drawing comparisons between SEL and critical race theory, stating that SEL is somehow related to an agenda that encourages students to “dismantle our country.”

This simply isn’t true. For this blog post, we attempt to clear up the picture of SEL by going straight to the source to learn more about how SEL is taught, the goals of teaching SEL, and what sort of topics SEL lessons cover. Far from attempting to indoctrinate students into any sort of ideology, we find that, when done well, SEL helps equip students with the skills needed to be happy and successful members of the classroom.

We interviewed Nury, a veteran teacher with over twenty years of experience who teaches three, four, and five-year-olds in a public charter school in Washington, DC.

Nury emphasized the importance of teaching social-emotional skills throughout the school year, but noted that these lessons are especially important at the beginning of the year: “Some children come to school with limited vocabulary or limited opportunities to interact with peers. That can challenge them to express their needs, ideas, and emotions. However, with this daily focus on social skills and practice, our children show progress in healthy social interactions and vocabulary.”

Feelings poster

SEL lessons at the beginning of the school year often focus on things like paying attention to teachers and classmates, helping students ask for what they need or want, and calming down when upset (see chart to the left). For example, students are guided on what to do when faced with common classroom scenarios, such as needing help tying their shoes or putting on their coat. SEL lessons often focus on understanding different facial expressions to help children in identifying feelings such as happy, sad, surprised, and angry. 

“When children don’t know how to take turns, resolve social conflicts or ask for help, we guide those students to gradually develop the strategies and vocabulary to be focused and collaborate,” said Nury.

Over the course of the year, these lessons build on each other as students become more confident in their ability to problem solve in social situations. For example, students learn to use their words to apologize to classmates when they accidentally did something, such as knocking over building blocks, that upset a peer (“I didn’t mean to. It was an accident. Are you okay?”). Students also learn about the benefits of using positive as opposed to negative self-talk (“I can do it if I work hard!” as opposed to “I’m no good at math.”).

We asked Nury how she knows that her students are making progress in their social-emotional skills throughout the year: “We see progress when students become more independent in daily routines and are more willing to do things for themselves. We also see by the end of the year that the students start to develop a sense of community and teamwork by showing respect, empathy, and kindness for others.”

We asked Nury if she was able to think of a specific student who showed a lot of growth in their social-emotional skills over the course of the year and she immediately shared the story of Bill* with us:

He was a child with difficulties in making friends, regulating his own emotions, waiting his turn, and sharing. Bill also came to the school with a limited vocabulary. He did not have a positive concept about himself because he said that other children were not interested in playing with him. So he played alone most of the time. When he wanted to get closer to a group of children who were playing, he just watched them with interest for several minutes…observing the way they were playing.

We started working with Bill one-on-one and also with the whole class in different activities to promote social-emotional skills so he can learn how to identify and manage emotions, make friends, share, wait for a turn, and learn and use strategies that will help him feel better when he experiences strong emotions. Gradually, Bill began to show greater interest in playing with other children, initially by asking for a teacher to help. And then, little by little, he began to approach other children, smiling, and then putting out his hand as a sign of interest in playing with them.

After some months, he was able to use his words independently in different social situations. Bill also developed the skill of being able to label his emotions and express himself properly when he felt angry or happy or sad or frustrated or upset. After seeing this amazing progress with Bill, one day he went up to an adult who was having a hard moment and said to her, “Maybe you are feeling frustrated today. I think you need to take a big breath to feel better.”

Nury’s story about Bill’s progress throughout the year highlights how, when done well, SEL builds skills that help young children become happier, more confident students. Far from being a “child-indoctrination scheme,” SEL is focused on building children up so they have the skills necessary to live confidently in the world. Nury perhaps said it best about the ultimate goal of SEL: “We need to build self-worth in our children so they can face the challenges that life will bring to them in a more resilient way.”

* ”Bill” is a pseudonym used to protect student privacy.

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY 4.0). It is attributed to Aaron Loewenberg and Nicole Hsu. The original version can be found here.

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Setting the Record Straight on Social-Emotional Learning: The Business Case for SEL

Setting the Record Straight on Social-Emotional Learning: The Business Case for SEL

Social-emotional learning (SEL) has been in the news a lot lately, and this recent surge of news about SEL has come with a good deal of misinformation. In this blog series, we’ll attempt to set the record straight on SEL by exploring the benefits and importance of SEL for young children, highlighting its recent politicization, and understanding what polling tells us about the best way to communicate with parents about the topic.


Manny Fernandez, Managing Partner at KPMG Dallas, put it succinctly: “Step into any high-quality early learning setting and you’ll find educators focusing intently on the very same social-emotional skills [as those needed in the workplace]. They’re exactly what I’ve looked for as a mentor to hundreds of people on our team at KPMG. I’ll be the first to admit that you can’t succeed here without those skills.”

Companies continue to face unprecedented challenges in hiring workers in various industries and the resulting labor shortage has reduced overall sales revenue across the country by over $700 billion. Part of the challenge is likely related to what’s been called a “soft skills” gap in which employers have a hard time finding qualified applicants who have essential workplace skills such as teamwork, collaboration, conflict resolution, and interpersonal communication.

2017 poll makes clear that business leaders are paying growing attention to the importance of hiring employees with adequate social-emotional skills. Zogby Analytics was commissioned by Council for a Strong America – ReadyNation to survey approximately 300 business leaders with over 100 employees. The largest percentage of respondents (42 percent) were leading businesses that employed over 1,000 workers. The survey findings reveal just how important strong social skills are for succeeding in the modern workplace.

Consider the fact that 62 percent of business leaders experience more difficulty finding job candidates with adequate social-emotional skills than candidates with the right technical skills (only ten percent of leaders found it more difficult to find candidates with the right technical skills while 28 percent said they had an equal amount of difficulty in hiring for technical skills and social-emotional skills). Additionally, 88 percent of leaders agreed that there will be a growing need for strong social-emotional skills among employees in the future. Ninety percent of business leaders surveyed believe (rightly) that it’s more difficult to develop those skills in adults entering the workforce than it is to develop them in childhood. Given these stats, it’s no big surprise that almost 90 percent of business leaders signaled their support for public investment in early education as a way to help young children acquire strong social-emotional skills.

In the first blog post of this series, we pointed out a few reasons why, when done right, teaching social-emotional skills to young children can be beneficial. To recap, we know that children who learn to understand and manage their emotions, develop healthy interpersonal relationships, and practice social problem solving have increased success in school and life. We also know that these sorts of skills tend to remain malleable for longer periods of time than cognitive skills, such as a child’s academic ability in math and literacy. And a study published in 2015 shows just how important it is to develop strong social-emotional skills in young children to ensure that they’re eventually able to successfully enter the workforce. Specifically, the researchers found that every one-point increase in a child’s social competence score in kindergarten was associated with the child being twice as likely to attain a college degree in early adulthood and almost 50 percent more likely to have a full-time job by the age of 25. Every one-point decrease in the child’s kindergarten social competence score was associated with a 67 percent higher chance of being arrested by early adulthood and a 64 percent higher chance of spending time in juvenile detention.

There’s sometimes some understandable discomfort around making a business or economic case for teaching certain skills to young children. After all, most people, including myself, don’t decide to teach early childhood education because they’re passionate about helping to produce individuals who will make effective and efficient employees many years down the road. But my recent interview with Adam Tyner of the Fordham Institute helped convince me that the specific language we use around SEL matters, especially when attempting to appeal to a more conservative audience.

Just as early childhood advocates frequently cite the economic case for early learning, proponents of SEL shouldn’t shy away from making the case that teaching social-emotional skills to young children makes good business sense. There are a lot of important reasons for teaching these skills starting at a young age and the fact that these skills will make it easier down the road for students to succeed in the workplace is a fact worth highlighting.

In the next blog post in this series, we’ll get a teacher’s perspective on the importance of teaching social-emotional skills to young children and how developing these skills throughout the school year can make a profound difference in children’s school experiences.

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY 4.0). It is attributed to Aaron Loewenberg. The original version can be found here.

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Setting the Record Straight on Social-Emotional Learning: What Do Parents Think?

Setting the Record Straight on Social-Emotional Learning: What Do Parents Think?

Social-emotional learning (SEL) has been in the news a lot lately, and this recent surge of news about SEL has come with a good deal of misinformation. In this blog series, we’ll attempt to set the record straight on SEL by exploring the benefits and importance of SEL for young children, highlighting its recent politicization, and understanding what polling tells us about the best way to communicate with parents about the topic. While trying to gain a better understanding of parents’ perceptions around SEL, I found a 2021 survey of K-12 parents commissioned by the Fordham Institute to be particularly helpful. To learn more about the survey’s findings and in an effort to better understand some of the concerns about SEL that have been expressed by conservatives, I interviewed Fordham’s Adam Tyner via email. Adam is national research director at Fordham and managed the survey project.

Let’s start with the basics. What made you decide to poll parents about their views on social and emotional learning (SEL)?

As your readers surely know, SEL has become a big buzzword and a big industry in recent years. The term has been around for a couple of decades, but around 2015 it really took off. What wasn’t clear to us is what parents thought of this new fad in education, so we worked with the global polling firm YouGov to conduct this survey.

How many parents were surveyed in the poll and when was the poll conducted? What were the key findings from the poll?

We surveyed 2,000 parents of students in grades K through 12 in the spring of 2021, but we also conducted some mini-surveys in the months before and after that to see if parent views were fluctuating substantially in response to the pandemic or the 2020 election. Parent views were relatively steady during that time, but after the controversies around critical race theory and school reopenings emerged in the summer of 2021, it’s quite possible that parent views on SEL have also shifted somewhat since our study concluded.

We wrote a whole report that is available at sel.fordham with five key findings and four policy recommendations — along with selections from parent free responses and other background and context. A couple of things stood out to me about parent views of SEL.

First, parents strongly support schools teaching all of the specific SEL-related competencies we asked about. These include stuff like setting goals, navigating social situations, and controlling their emotions. On the other hand, parents aren’t nearly as excited about the term “social-emotional learning” itself. (They far prefer the term “life skills,” however cringy that is to education experts.)

Second, when forced to make tradeoffs, parents want schools teaching analytic and practical education above all: the top valued skills were reasoning, math, vocational education, English, and taking responsibility for one’s actions. This may be because the survey also found that parents overwhelmingly see the family, not the school, as the most important venue for cultivating SEL.

Something I’m not sure about is whether the average parent who is busy with their job and raising a family really knows what is meant by the term “social and emotional learning.” What did the poll find in terms of describing these life skills in ways that parents understand and support?

Consider the fact that when we asked parents a bunch of agree/disagree questions related to SEL in schools, there was over 90 percent agreement with the statements, “I want my child’s school to give them honest feedback on their academic progress and performance even if it may hurt their feelings,” and “Working hard helps students develop strong character.” Of all the SEL-related skills we asked about, “reasoning” and taking “responsibility for actions” were the top two most important. But I’m not sure this kind of stuff is what most SEL advocates are promoting.

This is all to say that there may be a big gap between the world of practices that support students’ social and emotional learning and new programs serving up trademark SEL. Since ours was a survey of parent views, it asked a relatively broad set of questions related to SEL and its implementation. Some of the survey questions were aligned to SEL domains in the Harvard EASEL Lab, and the survey defined the term as “the process of developing self-awareness, self-control, interpersonal skills, responsible or ethical decision making, and civic awareness.” Hopefully parents understood that, but I think it’s doubtful that the average parent has much of a sense of the nuances of the jargon-laden conversations around SEL.

A recent Washington Post article quoted a conservative parent group that referred to SEL as, “the latest child indoctrination scheme.” Why do you think SEL has become more controversial to some activists on the right recently?

I think there’s a few things going on. One is that there’s always been a “three Rs” contingent among parents that is skeptical that schools can do anything besides basic academics well (and maybe not even that). That means that when you start talking about the “fluffier” stuff in education, it automatically turns some people off. Then you have some people who are skeptical of the education establishment more generally and may feel like public schools are in some ways promoting values at odds with their own. When these folks hear about the fluffier stuff, they may perceive ulterior motives. SEL is more related to values than is, say, how you teach the periodic table, so it is natural that the topic will stir up more passion than more mundane school policies.

Another issue is that many conservative parents probably aren’t very interested in using the education system to equalize outcomes at an individual or social level, and tying SEL to equity as the CASEL organization and others have done, raises red flags for them. Many conservatives will get on board with the idea of “leveling the playing field” — and many strongly support their local public schools — but equity implies equalizing outcomes, which many conservatives do not think is ideal or practical. That means that connecting SEL to equity will naturally raise red flags for some conservative parents, especially those who are skeptical about what is going on in schools in the first place.

The jargon is also part of the problem. Along with terms like critical race theory, you’ve seen SEL pop up on lists of education terms that conservatives are concerned about in part because of what I was alluding to earlier about how ill-defined the term SEL is. The jargon excludes people from the conversation, and an understandable reaction to being excluded through jargon is to wonder what is being hidden.

Considering the recent controversy around teaching SEL in some communities, what should educators and policymakers who are looking to productively engage their communities in SEL efforts take away from the poll’s findings?

Our survey showed that parents — whether Democrat or Republican, Black, Hispanic, or White — believe that the family is the most important venue for cultivating SEL. That means that engaging the community is more important on this issue than it would be for an issue that is more squarely in the school’s wheelhouse.

Diverse communities are going to include some skeptics, and some of these skeptics are going to connect SEL to other controversies. That makes it very important for educators to speak plainly and concretely about whatever SEL-related plans they’re making. If you’re arguing about the abstract idea of an SEL program, not only does that term not resonate with parents the way “life skills” does, but also vague and abstract ideas are more likely to get people’s preconceived ideas projected onto them. So some parents might imagine it is helpful, while others suspect SEL might be related to outrageous examples of school policies or teacher misbehavior that they’ve seen on the internet. Instead, speaking about a very specific new practice that the school is implementing — adding a box to math worksheets to remind students of the importance of their effort, etc. — allows parents to engage that on its own terms rather than just projecting something, good or bad.

As I alluded to earlier, it’s not always clear what SEL programs are supposed to be doing or why all this new jargon is necessary in the first place. Putting up a wall of jargon around an issue on which the public has a strong stake and significant knowledge is elitist, and no one should be surprised by the pushback. Recall that parents strongly supported schools teaching all of the specific SEL-related competencies our survey asked about. But whether they support it or not, saying it in plain English will allow parents to engage, and since parents know a lot about their own children, getting their input will probably lead to better policy.

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY 4.0). It is attributed to Aaron Loewenberg.The original version can be found here.

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