Dr. Joan Lombardi: Empowering the Adults in Children’s Lives - Early Learning Nation

Dr. Joan Lombardi: Empowering the Adults in Children’s Lives

Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the 2023 National Black Child Development Institute’s annual conference in Charlotte, NC. We had rich and illuminating conversations with early learning researchers, policymakers, advocates and practitioners of all ages. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.

Dr. Joan Lombardi has spent her career exploring early childhood learning from multiple perspectives: policy, public sector, private sector, university and more. Among her current efforts is leveraging unique survey data and insights to identify “material hardships” that parents face, and identifying new ways to empower communities to advance the developmental continuum and—in Dr. Lombardi’s words—“raise the barn” together.

Chris Riback: Joan, thank you for coming by the studio.

Dr. Joan Lombardi: Oh, it’s great to be here.

Chris Riback: You have been in this field throughout your professional career. Give me an overview. Where are we today? What are the significant changes that you’re seeing?

Dr. Joan Lombardi: I’ve been lucky, Chris, that I’ve been able to see the field from multiple perspectives, from the policy side, from the public, private sector side, from the university side. What’s been exciting for me is that everyone is trying to make a difference for young children and their voices together, I think collectively, are starting to cut through.

Chris Riback: What are the top issues today around early learning and children and our society?

Dr. Joan Lombardi: That’s a very big question. I think that the most important people in children’s lives are the adults in their lives, the caregivers, their parents, and those who care for them every day. Both of those groups are not being supported the way a country like ours should be doing it. We’ve got a long way to go to make sure that the living conditions of families are promoting responsive parenting, supporting responsive parenting. We’ve got a long way to go before we can be sure that those people that are caring for children every day have working conditions and recognition that will allow them to thrive so children can thrive.

Chris Riback: What is the Rapid survey?

Dr. Joan Lombardi: Rapid is a rapid cycle research effort. It’s a survey that we’ve been doing since April of 2020, since the very early days of the pandemic. In the beginning of the pandemic, we were surveying about a thousand parents of young children a week. We then moved to every other week, and now we’re doing it monthly more and more to really hear from them what are the issues that they’re facing, not assume we know, but listen to their voices, have the data that really reflects what parents are saying in real time.

Chris Riback: Do you derive conclusions each month off of that data or you provide the data and then people who want to access the data to find their own conclusions can do that?

Dr. Joan Lombardi: Well, it’s a little bit of both. I think that we analyze the data. For example, we’ve done a lot of looking at what parents are saying about material hardship and that they certainly felt during the pandemic things got a little better when we had policies that supported them. Now those policies have lapsed, and so I think families are feeling that. We also wanted to see how they felt that was affecting that material hardship was affecting their family wellbeing and their children. What was the relationship among those? Because we know that economic supports for families matter to child development in the field. We often talk about early learning environments, but the early learning environment for a child is the whole community. It’s the

Chris Riback: Whole community, it’s the whole world. It’s everything that they touch. Speaking of communities and moving towards solutions and what you see out there, are there some innovative solutions or communities that you’re seeing with innovative solutions out there?

Dr. Joan Lombardi: I’m seeing them all over the country, and unfortunately the news at the national level and in the international level is very difficult. We are talking about poly crisis, covid, conflict, climate change, environmental issues. But at the local level, what I see is people trying to come together, set a north star. We want all our children to thrive along that developmental continuum, and we want to bring everybody together with the objective of reaching that north star. It sometimes reminds me of the early days in the country when everyone got together to help raise the barn. That’s the analogy that I sometimes use.

Chris Riback: Yes. What a great image.

Dr. Joan Lombardi: It is an image that, and you see it in small villages all over the world.

Chris Riback: From raising the barn to raising our children.

Dr. Joan Lombardi: Raising our children in a collective way.

Chris Riback: Yes.

Dr. Joan Lombardi: That doesn’t mean that we’re taking them away from their families. It’s the opposite. We’re trying to support their families so they can provide better care.

Chris Riback: One last area where I think where it seems that families are needing support is around the climate crisis. What can we be doing? Are there individual actions or collective actions we can be doing around climate and early learning?

Dr. Joan Lombardi: Well, it’s interesting that you asked that because we recently included some questions on the Rapid survey about what families were feeling about climate and their overall environment around their homes and in their communities. Over 70% of those parents said they were concerned.

Chris Riback: Wow.

Dr. Joan Lombardi: It’s children all over the world and it’s children of the future who are going to inherit the earth. So I think it’s the issue of the moment. It’s one of the issues of the moment, and that we all have to take some responsibility for changing it. I’ve had people say to me, because I’m doing a lot of work in this area, “You’re doing climate now, Joan?” We have so many issues in the field, but to me and to many of us, it’s a child rights issue.

I think we have to take lessons from the youth of the world who are standing up and saying, “Wait a minute, this is my earth that you’re talking about. This is my future and we’re not going to stand for the way we’ve treated it in the past.” Something is changing. Of course, for many children, this has been an issue for years. I remember my first classroom in Boston where this is in the early 70s, where I saw children coming at three and four already showing signs of asthma because their environmental conditions were not supportive of their health. This for many people is not a new issue. Climate’s made it worse.

Chris Riback: Joan, thank you for the work you’re doing today on that. Thank you for your historical work and for coming by the studio today.

Dr. Joan Lombardi: Thank you, Chris, for having me and for being here. Thanks a lot.


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