Transcription of the episode “Early childhood classes: Crucial (and endangered) developmental support”

[00:00:15] Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. 

[00:00:16] Jon M: And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guests today are Leslie Koplow, director of the Center for Emotionally Responsive Practice at Bank Street College of Education and Allison Demas, a long time educator and an instructional coordinator in the New York City Department of Education. Allison is speaking for herself and not as a representative of the Department of Education. Welcome, Leslie and Allison. 

[00:00:40] Lesley K: Thank you. 

[00:00:42] Amy H-L: I understand that three hundred sixty early childhood social workers and instructional coordinators, ICs, in the New York City Department of Education learned two days before the start of school this year that their jobs have been eliminated. Although they’re still employed by the DOE, they were told they couldn’t respond to requests for help from the people they’ve been working with. Lesley, can you tell us what’s happening? 

[00:01:09] Lesley K: Since we first thought about this topic, there’s been so much reaction to the loss of essential supports from principals and teachers that the social workers are being told that they should go back into the schools on Monday, even though they were, on paper, excessed. And it’s very unclear what will happen next, but there’s been a big reaction, not only from members of the social work and IC communities, but members of the early childhood community at large. And it’s really good to see that whoever is making decisions that are not in the best interest of children are feeling pressured to back pedal.

[00:02:12] Jon M: Has there been any follow up as far as the ICS are concerned? 

[00:02:17] Allison D: Yes. We were also instructed this week to go back out. They keep insisting we weren’t excessed and we keep saying we have the excess letter and we keep, requesting, um, Insisting that the letter should be rescinded before we go out.

They spoke with Legal and they worded it in such a way since we’re supposed to revert to our original position or our current assignment when we received the letter, that assignment was the IC. So if we are not excessed, we would need to go out into our roles. And if we are excessed, we’re excessed and reassigned into the role of IC. So we need to go out and do our roles, and we are still requesting that they put in writing that we are either excessed or not. So we’re sort of in a holding pattern. 

[00:03:12] Jon M: This is certainly better news at any rate than the initial things that happened. What do early childhood social workers and instructional coordinators do?

[00:03:22] Allison D: To address that, I need to talk a little bit about instruction and explain a little. There is this ubiquitous belief that instruction should focus on the academic goals. And those are the small discrete elements of literacy and numeracy, the a, b, c, and the 1, 2, 3s. The word academic, the definition, is of no particular value. And in and of themselves, those academic goals are of little value. But they’re the tools, they’re the essential elements that need to be acquired and mastered in service of the pursuit of intellectual endeavors. Those are the intellectual goals. And that’s the question, the reasoning, the analyzing, the seeking of inquiry.

The instructional coordinator coaches the teachers toward the understanding they need so that they can create the environment in which the children are able to explore those intellectual goals as they acquire the academic ones. So it’s not rote drill. It’s about a bigger picture. The instructional coordinator, the work they do goes hand in hand with that of the social workers, but it doesn’t overlap. It interlaces collaboratively. We weave a net of safety for these children. It doesn’t restrain them. It provides them with the security they need in order to explore and grow. They then have the opportunity to try and fail. Failing is just an attempted success. So they learn from that, and then they can fail better. Children in distress, like being separated from their parents, especially for the first time, especially after the isolation of a pandemic, are so trapped in their emotions, they’re in a mire of emotions, that they struggle to be able to engage with the instruction. 

The social worker concerns the social, emotional, the mental health and wellness of the children. So the social worker supports the teachers in learning how to support the children so that they can continue doing it on their own and in turn support the children to learn to do it for themselves. And that’s the self-regulation, the self soothing, the social interactions. 

The interlacing of these chips, the social emotional with the instructional, brings us to the what do we put in place. How do we foster this? How do we value these children so that we can learn about them and honor them by creating the best environment we can so that they can better access and engage in all aspects of the instructional, pursuing those intellectual pursuits, while growing in their social emotion. Sometimes we go out together. Sometimes we alternate weeks. So we’re each keeping a hand in. We check in with each other, we’re collaborating all the way. It depends on the school. It depends on the site. It depends on the children. It depends on their needs. We build relationships with them. We build relationships with the children. We build relationships with the teachers, the leaders, the families. We’re part of their community. And in a system that is based on compliance, we serve a non-evaluative support role. That’s it. We are only there to help. And this is evidence based. Research shows schools do better when they have this model because you have the two components working together to support the teachers so that they can best support the whole child.

[00:07:35] Amy H-L: Allison, could you give some examples of the IC and the social worker and the teacher working hand in hand?

[00:07:44] Allison D: Okay. Sure. Actually, this was a pre pandemic because last year was a very strange situation. Um I was assigned to a site. And the school hadn’t even started yet. The teacher had just graduated. Brand new. And I called them to set up a meeting. When would you like me to come? Oh, today would be good. That was the response. Okay. So I showed up, she needed a lot of support. The children need a lot of support. So it wasn’t just a me story. So I reached out to the social worker. She went separately. We kept alternating because the children needed the support directly from the social worker. And she set things up in showing them how to self- soothe or maybe what to do when they were missing their parents. She showed the teacher what’s what supports to put in place, the picture of the family, having the center set up so that the children can draw pictures for their family. And then when I came in, I supported the teacher, explaining how we set up the environment so that these children felt comfortable and safe and were able to use it so that they could independently explore. But the social worker and I were always in connection with each other, debriefing about what was happen. This child needs this. So then I would work with the, teacher. Let’s open up the writing center. That child’s very distressed when she comes in in the morning. The social worker has helped to help that child support herself and sooth herself by giving her the tools of drawing a picture for her mother or writing a letter to her mother. I’m supporting the teacher by explaining how this center is used and how we provide the child the independence to go when she needs to use it in order to support her own growth. 

[00:09:39] Amy H-L: Why is it especially important to have social workers in the classrooms now when students have experienced isolation and loss due to the pandemic?

[00:09:48] Lesley K: Can I answer that one? 

[00:09:49] Amy H-L: Yes. 

[00:09:50] Lesley K: One of the things that was a secondary outcome of the pandemic was an increase in social and emotional isolation for children, for parents, for everyone, for teachers. And social emotional isolation over time heightens risk for depression and antisocial behavior. As children grow, when children carry intense emotional experience that they can’t communicate to other people, they can’t play about it, they can’t draw about it, they can’t talk about it. When it just stays internal, it builds risk. And one of the things that early childhood social workers learn to do is to gear their mental health support to this age group. It’s not the same as an older child who comes into your office and you say, so what’s bothering you. Because little kids, it doesn’t work that way. They need to play about what’s going on in order to make sense of it. And that’s where social workers and educators really need to hold hands. Because in order to be able to develop the symbolic capacity for play, you need relationship support, and you need an environment that encourages and facilitates that kind of developmental work.

So I was telling a story the other day about a site that we were in, where there were children who had very traumatic immigration journeys and a teacher read a story and it evoked that traumatic memory. And kids were frantically telling stories about it. A social worker could write the story down and help them play about the story. And eventually that same child who had been screaming and running out of the classroom every day stopped doing those things and started to use blocks to build forts so ICE couldn’t come in and take his family. So it’s a very specialized kind of practice. And most clinicians don’t know what to do with really little kids. And having it in school means that children inherit it just by coming to school. Their parents don’t have to have health insurance. They don’t have to have somebody to bring them someplace after school. They don’t have to be on a waiting list that’s six years long for help. 

[00:12:38] Jon M: So the fact that the DOE was trying to do this. They had to back off, hopefully, you know, they’ve had to back off, but you were just talking about sort of the really special skills that apply for early childhood social workers, instructional coordinators around the country. What do you see in terms of how early childhood specialties are, are seen? Um, is there, I guess are they always sort of under threat that when a school system decides that for whatever reason they want to save money or they want to do a reorganization or something like this? Do you always have to worry that early childhood is what’s going to get disrupted? 

[00:13:39] Lesley K: It’s the easiest one for them. They don’t understand it. People making decisions don’t understand this and since they don’t understand it, they really don’t value it. They think, again, going back to how they view academics, how they view education. So they’re looking at only those number grades. They’re not looking at their early childhood for what it really is, which is the foundation for everything else. And they see it as play and they don’t understand play either or how much hard work is in play and how much learning comes from play and how much social growth comes from play. So if they don’t understand it, how can they value it?

And they don’t make the attempt to understand it so they don’t value it. And that’s why it’s always at risk. I think also that over the years, education has been put in the hands of politicians who know absolutely nothing about children. And their motivations are political. Their motivations aren’t centered on the children in the room or the children in the school. They’re centered on their own, what they perceive as benefit, from recommendations that will have concrete outcomes, a very shortsighted kind of outcome. 

[00:15:08] Amy H-L: So does that mean that in graduate schools of education, is an area where curriculum is lacking, that teachers do not understand the full impact of early childhood education in a broad sense?

[00:15:27] Lesley K: I don’t think it’s about the graduate schools. I think it’s the pressure that teachers feel once they enter the public school system, depending on where they’re teaching. Of course, a lot of the pressure is sort of score driven, even though you don’t give tests to four year olds. Thank God. But it’s like, well, you have to do this so they’re ready. There’s a lot of preoccupation with being ready for the next grade. And one of the things we always always teach teachers and social workers is you can’t be five before you’re four. You’ve got pre-K. Your job as a teacher is to give them the best four year old experience that they can have. The next teacher will give them the best five year old experience that you can, but the way the system work, there’s enormous pressure to be driven toward future outcomes, which is a paradox, because if you pressure children academically, too, you heighten the risk that they will become allergic to learning, heighten performance anxiety, which makes it much less likely that they’re able to reach their own potential.

[00:16:50] Jon M: Is there anything else that you’d like to add that we haven’t asked?

[00:16:54] Allison D: I have a saying, a question, above my desk. “Are we being good ancestors?” There’s a Masai greeting: how are the children? And the answer determines the wellbeing of a society. For the measure of a society is how well it treats its most vulnerable members, the children who are the future of that society. If the answer to the second question is “the children are well,” then the answer to the first is “yes.” The current situation right now prevents us from being good ancestors. For the children to be well, the teachers must be well. For them to be well, we need to be, instructional coordinators and social workers, need to be in there helping them. And only then can we all be good ancestors,

[00:17:43] Jon M: Thank you, Lesley Koplow and Allison Demas. 

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