Flattening the Hierarchy — A Prerequisite to Transforming Early Childhood

The research, practice, and policy trio is revered, but typically there is a hierarchy. Researchers and policy experts are often elevated and compensated as professionals, while practitioners often feel invisible and are under-compensated. In early childhood education, this hierarchy is also racialized. While more than 40% of practitioners are “people of color,” this level of diversity isn’t mirrored at research and policy tables.

In our work at the Bainum Family Foundation, we are intentionally flattening this hierarchy. The research, practice, and policy trio work best when each area is respected and they are aligned to meet a common goal. That’s why we give our partners the resources, space, and time they need to create authentic relationships, addressing challenges as equals. We recently saw this up close at the Florida Association for the Education of Young Children (FLAEYC) Annual Conference, where early childhood policy experts and practitioners discussed policy changes, shared promising practices, and provided data to reimagine the future of early childhood. They engaged as fully equal partners.

It was inspiring to witness how FLAEYC, Florida Family Child Care Home Association (FFCHA), Children Movement of Florida, and Children’s Forum were all in sync and created space for early childhood professionals in Florida to inform and drive their shared advocacy agendas. Together, the Children Movement of Florida and Lift Orlando co-facilitated a session. They are now working to ensure Lift Orlando and administrators at 20 early learning programs are prepared to be effective advocates in Tallahassee during the next Children’s Week. FFCHA made sure that even practitioners working in home-based settings, typically at the very bottom of the hierarchy, were seen and heard.

We were excited that policy experts had a chance to learn from practitioners on the front lines in serving young children and families.  For example, early childhood education and healthcare practitioners from West Lakes Early Learning Center showcased their comprehensive “whole person care” approach to early childhood education (which offers more than 12 therapeutic and pediatric services on-site) and offered strategies to help others do the same. Following this session, West Lakes Early Learning Center staff also participated in a roundtable with government affairs experts to discuss the current child care crisis.

In addition to the conversations about the current challenges, the FLAEYC conference also provided an opportunity to have a visionary discussion about what could be. Throughout the event, we were thrilled to host the foundation’s futuristic exhibit, where we asked early childhood professionals (i.e., our proximity experts) what they wanted to see in their ideal child care system. Sadly, these front-line experts are rarely asked what would work best for them and the families they serve. We encouraged them to use their imagination to dream big and not be afraid to ask for the bold shifts required to improve outcomes for children. This traveling exhibit is all about reimagining the early care and education system and helping shift mindsets about when learning begins, who needs care, what it costs and who pays for it, how to define quality, and where decision-making lies.

The exhibit is our way of ensuring that practitioners drive policy and research agendas.  After all, they are the ones closest to the kids and families. Through experiences such as this, practitioners are determining their ideal compensation packages, flexible schedules, and staffing models that support child and adult well-being. In addition to the FLAEYC conference, this exhibit has traveled to the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s conference in Washington, D.C., and the National Association of Family Child Care’s conference in Atlanta, GA. We will soon be sharing data from more than 1,500 practitioners across 49 states and three territories.

Our research, practice, and policy partners are amazing in their own right. But when all three tiers are working together and respecting each other as experts, that’s transformational.