Cailin O’Connor: How Communities Become Early Learning Communities - Early Learning Nation

Cailin O’Connor: How Communities Become Early Learning Communities

Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s annual conference where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.

How do you know if you’re part of an early learning community? Cailin O’Connor, Senior Associate at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, introduces the Digital Progress Rating Tool, a new ELN offering [or new offering from ELN, CSSP and the National League of Cities] that helps stakeholders evaluate their efforts, chart progress, explore tips, and create a step-by-step action plan to create a thriving Early Learning Community.


Chris Riback:                 Cailin, welcome to the studio.

Cailin O’Connor:            Thank you.

Chris Riback:                 Thank you for coming by.

Cailin O’Connor:            Glad to be here.

Chris Riback:                 The Progress Rating Tool, congratulations.

Cailin O’Connor:            Thanks.

Chris Riback:                 Why is it generating so much excitement?

Cailin O’Connor:            There’s a lot of interest in learning more about how people can put the pieces together at the local level to really serve children and families better. And this tool is an accessible and really well structured way for people to get into that work and make sure they’re covering all the bases they need to cover.

Chris Riback:                 So I want to talk to you about the bases. I want to talk to you about the work and really get into the tool. But let’s start more broadly. How do you define an early learning community?

Cailin O’Connor:            We define that as a community where all babies are born to families that have the supports they need to really support that child’s healthy development, early learning and wellbeing. And so we’re defining it much more broadly than what a lot of people first think of when they think of early learning, which would be the formal preschool settings, and programs, and services. We really want to think about the whole community that surrounds that family.

Chris Riback:                 Give me examples of what those community supports might entail.

Cailin O’Connor:            We want to have families live in communities where they can get their basic needs met. They-

Chris Riback:                 Health needs, food needs?

Cailin O’Connor:            Health, food, services like childcare, having accessible parks and green space, having policies that support them in their parenting, rather than making parenting harder. And that support families being successful and thriving because that’s what we know is necessary for kids.

Chris Riback:                 And early learning community is a lot more than just sending your kid to a preschool or some early learning center. It’s the whole community.

Cailin O’Connor:            Exactly. Because families don’t say, “We’re raising our child in this program.” Whether that’s an amazing preschool that they love, that’s still not how they define where they’re raising their child. They’re not raising their child in any of our programs. They’re raising their child in a neighborhood, in a city, maybe in a county, in a rural area. But how they define that is much bigger than what we consider the early childhood services. So we really need to work together across lots of different sectors to make our communities places where families want to grow.

Chris Riback:                 And one of the key concepts that is clear in the conversations we’re having here at the ELN Studio and are being discussed is that children are always learning. It’s not like they’re only learning when they’re in that early learning school, or classroom, or whatever and then they shut it off once they go to the park, or go to the library, or go to the laundromat even. They’re always learning.

Cailin O’Connor:            Right. In fact, probably more learning happens in play, in running around, in conversations and interactions with caregivers than if you are sitting there staring at alphabet letters and trying to learn those. That’s not the kind of learning that we’re most focused on. Of course that’s important, but that comes naturally when children are getting the gross motor skill development, fine motor skill development, emotional learning, relational health where they’re really forming those relationships with caregivers that help their brains to make all these connections that are so rich. And all of that is what we call early learning. Kindergarten readiness is a really important concept and a way to think about how we want kids to arrive at school, ready to learn. The kindergarten teachers can manage the alphabet and the numbers, we’ve got to get the other stuff in place first.

Chris Riback:                 Let’s talk about the other stuff and the measurements of that. What is the Digital Progress Rating Tool and how did it develop?

Cailin O’Connor:            So the Progress Rating Tool is a tool that groups can use in communities. So one person would be the community lead and they can share this tool, surveys with other members of their community-

Chris Riback:                 Is that a policy maker? Who would be a community leader?

Cailin O’Connor:            Typically, it would be someone either in city or county government, or someone in a nonprofit, like a United Way or an early childhood hub of some sort.

Chris Riback:                 But somebody who has an overview of the entire community.

Cailin O’Connor:            Right. Someone who’s connecting to all these different service providers and sectors. And that community lead then can send survey links out to other people in their community. So a stakeholder goes into this survey and then at the end of the survey can select items to say, “I want to put this on an action plan.” And then the community lead can see all those results, including everyone’s action plans and pull from that into one solid community action plan. You could do at one time, make an action plan and not come back to it, but ideally you’d come back and then keep growing and saying, “Oh, last year we did this. We had this other item we wanted to do and didn’t quite come together, so we’ll keep that on our action plan, but we’ll add in some other new stuff.”

Chris Riback:                 And who can access it? Can others beyond the community lead access it or that’s part of the decision making that any community lead might want to make?

Cailin O’Connor:            The stakeholders can access all the questions. They can actually go back and revise their answers later, too.

Chris Riback:                 As things change.

Cailin O’Connor:            Yes. As things change, they can always add more items to the action plan. The community lead can see all of that and it prints off nicely with links to other resources that they might want to use as they figure out how to take on this work and they can share that however they like.

Chris Riback:                 You almost can do a SWOT analysis off of it and-

Cailin O’Connor:            Oh yes, definitely. It’s a way to say, “These are the things we’re already doing really well and these are the things we want to try to do better.” And we have … all of the ratings are on a scale from just getting started to doing really well. So you can say, “This is something that we’re doing really well. This is something we really want to be doing, but we’re only getting started at it.” We didn’t want to have anybody come into this tool and say, “Oh no, we’re not doing anything.” Right? There’s something there. All communities have some strengths and have some of this work already going on. So the tool allows you to find where those strengths are and how you can build on them and do new things.

Chris Riback:                 It’s just like Lake Wobegon, all of our children are above average.

Cailin O’Connor:            Exactly.

Chris Riback:                 I understand. Tell me about the building blocks. What are they?

Cailin O’Connor:            So the building blocks of an early learning community are four areas that we think all communities need to focus. The first one is commitment, the second one is services, the third is neighborhoods, and the fourth is policy. And in each of those, we’ve laid out what that really needs to look like in a lot of detail. But those are the four big areas. And we need to be thinking about who our partners are in each of them so that we can do that work.

Chris Riback:                 And to be an early learning community, those blocks need to build up together into almost a singular structure, I would think.

Cailin O’Connor:            Yeah. Or at least a well-connected set of structures, right? So there’s always going to be work happening at the neighborhood level that’s not focused on early childhood. But as long as an early childhood person is at the table and someone from community development is at the table when early childhood issues are being discussed, you’ll have that sinking of their priorities and efforts.

Chris Riback:                 And in addition, the private screening tool also provides quick links, doesn’t it? To tips, resources and examples, so people can continue to learn about other ideas, opportunities. What should I do now?

Cailin O’Connor:            Exactly. So we searched all of our partner organizations and other folks. We were working with the National League of Cities to develop this, and they have a lot of connections as well. So we pulled resources that could help a community that had decided they wanted to focus in a particular area. How they can go deeper, how they can learn more.

Chris Riback:                 What might’ve happened elsewhere.

Cailin O’Connor:            Right. What other communities have done.

Chris Riback:                 Well, it’s a really powerful tool and really clear how it can be useful for any community. Cailin, thank you. Thank you for stopping by the studio. Thank you for explaining the Progress Rating Tool to us.

Cailin O’Connor:            Thank you.




Get the latest in early learning science, community and more:

Join us