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Early Education With Heart

By Jillayne Flanders, CEI Faculty and Board Member

Rising Priorities and Intertwining Fields

CEI’s work in HCL is predicated on social emotional development, psychology and physiology. These fields have risen to a priority in the past ten years, although all the underpinnings were in place long ago. I believe the extensive research and revelations gleaned in brain growth, neurology and child development enhanced the explosion, and we are working hard to keep abreast of new information while acknowledging that all the individual fields are intricately tied together.  This theme, of intertwining fields, takes us back to recognizing that we support the whole child as we connect with children in school.

We cannot assess academic growth apart from social and emotional growth, or apart from physiological growth. We cannot separate the influences of a child’s family from her classroom peers and adult educators in how these relationships have an effect on the child’s growth and development. (I would say the same is true of academic curriculum strands, that isolating reading from math, or science, or social studies doesn’t create a full picture of the world of learning, but that is another topic for another day.) It has been a goal of CEI’s work to maintain the balance between all these factors as we support a child’s development with Heart Centered Learning. It is refreshing and rewarding to find outstanding examples of similar work occurring in the field.

Harvard Early Education Initiative. In July, 2016, the Harvard Graduate School of Education launched the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative to pursue interlocking strategies for impact: conducting research to drive policy and practice, designing and spreading high-quality professional learning, and pioneering a fellows’ program to build a pipeline of new early education leaders. Under this umbrella, researchers are investigating children’s development in the context of their learning experiences and environments; equipping early educators with knowledge, tactics, and networks to enhance their work; and building a pipeline of leaders ready to drive transformation in the field of Early Education.

It has been my honor to participate in the initiative for the past year, as a learner and leader. In June, 2017, a two-day program, ‘The Science of Early Learning and Adversity-Daily Leadership to Promote Development and Buffer Stress,’ was launched with a cohort of 150 educators from all over the country and a few international communities. Developed and chaired by Stephanie Jones and Nonie Lesaux, we were prompted to examine our own bias and knowledge  about how we can strengthen learning opportunities for ALL children. With the careful, yet challenging, coaching of Walter Gilliam, Director of the Ziegler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University, participants examined inherent bias and its effects in the pre-school classroom. We were guided through expected and unexpected impacts of our interactions with young children, and how we could develop possible opportunities and solutions to buffer stress,  not only for the children, but for ourselves. We considered expulsion statistics, eye tracking data, empathy and risk factors.  We left understanding that we must ‘love our babies more than our egos.’

Then we were prompted to get to work to develop a strategic plan for our own programs to address an identified challenges. Our challenges ranged from culture development to closing leadership gaps, the need for instructional support, locating resources, and improving classroom practices. Participants left with a outline of our plans, steps for implementation, and a scheduled collaborative call in two months to discuss progress and further strategies. It was an exhausting and energizing 48 hours, and personally, the support has kept me engaged with the goals I established.

T. A. L. K. In December, 2017, a second cohort was convened, with the topic ‘Promoting Young Children’s Language, Literacy, and Social-Emotional Competencies.’ Again led by Stephanie Jones and Nonie Lesaux, this smaller group of 100 early educators were challenged to review the current landscape of Early Education practice and policy, and the effects of increasing diversity, exposure to stressors, and the need for enhanced communication and problem-solving skills. We need to understand that children are not born with skills in cognition, language, and social-emotional areas; we need to cultivate and support growth for proficiency from birth, but particularly between the ages of 3 and 8. We practiced among ourselves how children learn when they T.A.L.K: Tell, Ask, Listen, Keep conversation going. We also discussed how layers of language, cognitive development and social stress can impact  learning. By applying current research in the building blocks of cognitive, social, and emotional domains, we examined how the arc of a child’s learning development can be impacted by poverty, psychological and physiological stress.

Balance. The good news: nationally, there is an emerging policy shift away from prioritizing academic success to a more balanced focus on the many areas of development, addressed as equally important: language, numeracy, social, emotional, motor, literacy, and behavior. In a child’s developing system, each area influences the others in profound and unexpected ways (Lesaux, Jones, Harris, & Kane, 2014). As Ron Lally and Jay Stewart said as early as 1990,  “A child care environment is not neutral. It is one of the child’s most valuable teachers. The space a child feels and moves in minute by minute and day after day is what introduces the child to the colors, shapes, smells, and sounds of the world. Infants and toddlers grow and learn by interacting with their environment, including people, and watching what happens.” The message is clear: early childhood educators can create environments for young children that will not only support development and growth, but enhance it. We need to look to an integrated instructional approach that does not separate social-emotional skills from cognitive skills; we need to plan and provide educational space that supports growth in motor skills, as well as behavior and cognitive skills.

Cultivating Consciousness

In conclusion, the Zaentz Initiative proclaims we can cultivate consciousness throughout a child’s day, in every setting, by embedding what we know about play, inquiry, talking, listening, and caring. In other words, CEI’s Heart Centered Learning.

The Zaentz Early Education Initiative continued this past April, and another cohort will convene in June. More information on the initiative, and applications for joining a cohort ,are available at 


Lesaux, N., Jones, S., Harris, J., & Kane, R. (2014, Spring). Lead early educators for success. Issue Brief 4, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Lally, R. & Stewart, J. (1990). A guide to setting up environments: Infant/toddler care giving. Sacramento, CA: California Department of Education.


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