Start Early. Start well.

June 29, 2023

Professional Development Resources Created by Nebraska Teachers, for Nebraska Teachers

Melissa Cleaver, Buffett Institute professional learning specialist, with members of the Essential Child Experiences Toolkit workgroupMelissa Cleaver, professional learning specialist at the Buffett Early Chidlhood Institute, with members of the second Essential Child Experiences Toolkit workgroup. This group has focused on creating learning tools that can be used by educators across the state.
By Erin Duffy  

It’s a Saturday in May, and more than a dozen early educators have given up their weekend morning to share and fine-tune ideas to help their fellow educators and the children they serve.  

They aren’t just going through the motions. They are fully engaged. They are, in the words of Buffett Early Childhood Institute professional learning specialist Melissa Cleaver, “buzzing.” 

“There’s always great energy and just a buzz. Everyone’s just buzzing to do the work,” Cleaver said.  

The 14 Omaha-area early educators are part of a second Essential Child Experiences Toolkit workgroup. They applied and were intentionally selected to represent a range of cultural backgrounds, experiences, and early childhood settings. They work with infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and school-age children in Douglas and Sarpy Counties, with teacher representation from the Bellevue, Omaha, and Ralston school districts.  

Together with Buffett Institute Professional Learning and Program Development staff and three facilitators, these workgroup members are helping to create new professional development tools for their fellow educators.  

The Essential Child Experiences Toolkit is an ongoing project led by the Buffett Institute. It is part of the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan supported by the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties.  

The Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan aims to change the way “schools do school.” That involves helping schools cultivate instructional excellence in birth through Grade 3 classrooms with resources that strengthen teaching—resources like the Essential Child Experiences Toolkit. The Toolkit will represent what the Institute, its school district partners, and early educators have learned about best teaching practices through the Superintendents’ Plan work, shared with districts and early childhood programs across the state and beyond the Omaha metro.   

Fred Abram, teacher at UNO Child Care CenterWorkgroup member Fred Abram is a teacher
at the UNO Child Care Center.
As part of this project, educators and leaders serving children birth to Grade 3 are examining instructional practices through the lens of the child, focusing on the key experiences that help children grow, learn, and feel a sense of belonging in the classroom.  

The Buffett Institute, under the leadership and direction of Director of Program Development Amy Schmidtke, identified the six essential childhood experiences based on a review of academic literature, evidence from the early childhood field, and knowledge of what children need to experience high-quality learning. The six experiences are: collaboration among peers; language-rich communication; cognitive challenge; cultural, linguistic, and personal relevance; child decision-making and planning; and child-initiated exploration and innovation.  

In one exercise, teachers took photos of their classroom and examined how it looked and may be experienced from the perspective of a young child.  

A previous workgroup met last year to study the experiences and how they relate to their teaching.  

The second workgroup, which wrapped up in June, has focused on creating learning tools for the toolkit, a professional learning resource for use by early educators across the state, with the potential for national reach. This resource is still in the design phase, but could include several different elements: online tutorials, in-person professional development opportunities, or classroom activities that reinforce child-centered learning.  

Recruitment will start in July for a third workgroup that includes educators from central and western Nebraska. Members receive a stipend for their work.  

Participants and Buffett Institute staff said early childhood teachers rarely get this kind of time and space to learn with and from each other.  

“It’s an awesome opportunity with people from all over,” said Karen Skipper, a first-grade teacher at Bellevue Elementary School. “I never thought about the (child care) centers, how they’re going to get the toddlers ready for me in first grade.”  

In May, teachers presented ideas for learning tools and shared feedback in small groups. One educator is exploring how to bridge home and school with a survey-like tool to help educators learn more about families’ interests, backgrounds, and cultures. 

“Everything that I heard was focused on the family and the child,” one teacher told the whole group. “It wasn’t just about making teachers’ lives easier.”  

Workgroup members have also prioritized the concepts of equity and continuity. Continuity is when children experience a related set of learning and educational experiences from birth through Grade 3, and equity involves promoting the development of all children by addressing disparities in learning opportunities, family supports, and child outcomes. 

The Buffett Institute’s Cleaver and Tonya Jolley have led the workgroups, with assistance from Kimberlee Telford and Mary Beth Pistillo, who serve as mentors, and Essie Beason, who supports staff. Three members of the first workgroup, early educators Nikki Wilson, Kim Chase, and Madison Markoff, have returned to be facilitators.  

Future workgroup members and Buffett Institute staff will refine the tools, finalize the toolkit, and likely field-test it with different school districts or child care programs.  

“This is a long-range thing,” Cleaver said. “This isn’t just one-and-done.” 

Erin Duffy is the managing editor at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and writes about early childhood issues that affect children, families, educators, and communities. Previously, she spent more than a decade covering education stories and more for daily newspapers.     
Have a comment, a question, or a story idea? Reach Erin at        

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