Start Early. Start well.

December 22, 2022

'It Brought Me Back to My Purpose With Children': Teachers Examine Learning Through the Lens of the Child

Instructional toolkit workgroupTwenty-four early educators and instructional leaders from the Omaha metro area have spent the past year working to create new resources for classroom instruction. Members focused on key experiences that help children grow, learn, and feel a sense of belonging in the classroom.
By Erin Duffy 

Nikki Wilson’s day-to-day work as a child care owner and director at TenderAcres in La Vista often revolves around operations—budgets, staffing, logistics.  

But working on the Essential Child Experiences Toolkit left her feeling like she had returned to her roots—teaching and caring for young children.  

“It brought me back to my purpose with children,” she said. 

For the past year, 24 early educators and instructional leaders from the Omaha metro area have gathered once a month on Saturdays, using their expertise to create new resources for classroom instruction.  

The first Essential Child Experiences Toolkit workgroup just wrapped up its work on the project, which is led by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska. The project is part of the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan supported by the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties.  

The Buffett Institute is recruiting a second workgroup for 2023 that will build on the efforts of the first. A $500 stipend will be provided and educators must work within Douglas or Sarpy County. Applications are due Jan. 4:  

As part of this project, educators and leaders serving children birth to Grade 3 work with Institute staff to examine 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.  

Amy Schmidtke, the Institute’s director of program development, identified the six essential childhood experiences: collaboration among peers; language-rich communication; cognitive challenge; cultural, linguistic, and personal relevance; child decision-making and planning; and child-initiated exploration and innovation.  

“We know through the data that in classrooms nationwide that these practices aren’t happening with as much frequency, depth, and duration to really support children’s learning,” Schmidtke said.  

Through the workgroup, teachers can benefit from opportunities to deepen their understanding of these essential child experiences as well as concrete examples that show how they can be implemented in different learning settings.  

“Curriculum instruction is always looking at what does the teacher do, how does the teacher interact with children broadly, what does the teacher need to teach during the year, versus what does that look like for Julio or Johnny?” Schmidtke said. The toolkit process is “pushing teachers and leaders to really think about it through the lens of the child, not the lens of the teacher.” 

Through the workgroup, educators studied the six experiences, journaled about their own students and reflected on their teaching, and divided into groups to begin to create a learning tool for the toolkit based on each experience. In the next phase of the workgroup, those tools could become a video showing specific instructional practices or a learning module.  

Buffett Institute staff called it an innovative approach—resources like this are usually top-down, created by curriculum writers or state agencies.  

“It’s really great to have teachers and child care providers and instructional leaders creating the tools that will be used by future teachers to help children,” said Tonya Jolley, the Institute’s instructional program administrator. 

Tasha McNeilTasha McNeil, a workgroup member
Angela Bruno, a teaching and learning consultant with Omaha Public Schools, gravitated to the group that explored cultural, linguistic, and personal relevance. Her group talked a lot about bringing students’ experiences and backgrounds into the classroom more: when it comes to birthday celebrations, do all families celebrate? What songs do they sing? Would a child prefer their teacher to say, “happy birthday” or the Spanish “feliz cumpleaños”?  

They also discussed allowing children to take a more active role in activities such as parent-teacher conferences.  

“We’ve been through so much these last few years,” Bruno said, referring to the pandemic. “As we’re trying to restart and refresh, these essential child experiences really need to be at the forefront.”  

The workgroup included educators from a variety of backgrounds and child care settings, including home providers and K-12 teachers and administrators. 

“I just know that sense of community was really built amongst the workgroup,” said Melissa Cleaver, a professional learning specialist at the Institute. “There aren’t many times that a school educator has the opportunity to engage with a home provider. Having them be able to hear each other’s voice was valuable and encouraging to see.”  

Those voices—the first workgroup and its next iteration—will shape and influence the final form of the Essential Child Experiences Toolkit.  

Despite all her qualifications and experience, Wilson sometimes worries she’s still not seen as a professional in a field—child care—that isn’t always fully valued.   

Participating in a professional workgroup felt satisfying and validating, she said. “Bringing together professionals from all corners of early childhood—that doesn’t happen very often.” 

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.  
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