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INNOVATION IN ACTION

Changing the Focus: Building the Capabilities
of Home-Based Child Care Providers

This Innovation in Action interview is one in an ongoing series of portraits planned by the Center that will highlight the innovative, collaborative work of the members of Frontiers of Innovation. In this interview, FOI member Jessica Sager, the co-founder and executive director of the non-profit organization All Our Kin, discusses its work in New Haven and Bridgeport, Conn., training women in low-income communities who provide care in their homes for infants and toddlers. Additional comments are provided by Kia Levey, project director for the New Haven MOMS Partnership, which is a collaboration of agencies across New Haven, including All Our Kin, that work together to support the mental health and well-being of mothers and families living in the city.

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Question:

What does All Our Kin do?

Jessica Sager:

Jessica Sager

Jessica Sager, co-founder and executive director of All Our Kin

We know that infants' and toddlers' early learning experiences—their early attachment relationships—are critical to their development. And most of our infants and toddlers, particularly in low-income communities, spend their days cared for by women who take care of community children in their homes. We at All Our Kin care really deeply about the quality of these children's experiences, and so we find the women who are caring for children and we invest in them, taking a strengths-based approach, where we give them training and resources and support to give children wonderful, high-quality learning experiences.

Kia Levey:

Kia Levey

Kia Levey, project director for the New Haven MOMS Partnership

All Our Kin is on the cutting-edge, really, in New Haven and the State of Connecticut of looking at quality, home-based child care, because quality, affordable, accessible child care is something that isn't easily, nor readily, available—particularly for families who may not have an abundance of resources. Building the capacity of home-based providers to not just be babysitters but to provide quality child care for parents in places that are convenient—that are in community, that are in neighborhoods—is critical to people building a life for themselves.

What does All Our Kin do?
What does All Our Kin do?

Question:

Why is All Our Kin's approach innovative?

Jessica Sager:

So, the reason we use the strategies we do, and the reason why I think the strategies that we're using are innovative—a lot of policy makers are aware that family child care is out there, and it exists. And to be honest, a lot of it is pretty terrible. And their approach has been to sort of ignore it, or to do this kind of very light touch work where you'll sort of send someone in with a bag of materials to do some felt board stuff with the kids around a particular book—which is lovely—but is not going to make transformational change.

And at All Our Kin we say, "We're going to take the extra step of truly investing in women in the community who have the heart and the mission and the love for this work, but don't have the training or support to do it well, and we're actually going to send in coaches who are incredibly skilled teachers with years of knowledge and experience in the field who are going to work with these providers."

caregiver and child readingThey're going to do deep, reflective work, and at the end of the day you're going to have a provider who becomes a renewable resource in her community because she's going to deliver high-quality experiences to kids this year, and another group next year, and maybe even 20 years after that. And if you put in the time, you can actually affect so many children.

Kia Levey:

I think the focus on adults is critical. I'm often struck by organizations that are focused on youth development or child development and focus solely on the child. Adult take care of children. They feed them. They nurture them. They model behaviors for them, and so if an adult is healthy, if an adult is stable, if an adult has the ability and the resources to do for a child what needs to be done, then they both benefit and the child benefits the most.

Why is All Our Kin's approach innovative?
Why is All Our Kin's approach innovative?

Question:

What does it look like to have a well-qualified provider giving high-quality care to kids?

Kia Levey:

High-quality care looks many different ways, and it takes many different forms. I think that it is an atmosphere where there is the right amount of adult-to-child interaction, where there's really good, intentional child-to-child interaction, where there are learning tools, toys, books, props—if you will—that begin to stimulate development in cognition and different ways.

And a well-trained provider will notice when those things are not developing in ways they should, and so, if there are problems, they can be identified early.

What does it look like to have a well-qualified provider giving high-quality care to kids?
What does it look like to have a well-qualified provider giving high-quality care to kids?

Question:

How has working with Frontiers of Innovation influenced your work?

Jessica Sager:

For us at All Our Kin, working with Frontiers of Innovation has been incredibly exciting for, I would say, three reasons.

So, the first is, at All Our Kin we care so much about infants and toddlers in low-income communities. And the truth is that far too many policymakers, citizens, community makers aren't really thinking yet about how fundamental these children's early experiences are. And we are devoting our work to giving these children the foundations that we need. And so, Frontiers of Innovation gives us the research to do our work better, but also to make the case for why that work is so important. So, that's the first thing that's exciting about it.

You absolutely have to focus on the adults in children's lives if you want to make transformation for children.The second is that at All Our Kin, we transform children's lives by focusing on caregivers. And Frontiers of Innovation, I think, is really in the vanguard in terms of recognizing that you absolutely have to focus on the adults in children's lives if you want to make transformation for children.

The third reason is that through Frontiers of Innovation, All Our Kin is part of this very select group of nonprofits around the country. And it's a really multidisciplinary approach to transformation, from pediatricians to mental health practitioners to foster care agencies. So it's able to give us a kind of breadth of vision in thinking about our practice and bring really great ideas from other sectors that inform our work with kids.

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How has working with Frontiers of Innovation influenced your work?

Question:

What are some of the changes—or challenges—you've seen while doing this work with home-based child care providers?

Jessica Sager:

child care provider and childThe vast majority of our providers come to this work because they love the kids, and they want to give them love and security. But they can be so overwhelmed by the day-to-day requirements of their work that sometimes they neglect to make those connections. And so on the one hand, helping them get the day-to-day down to a science so that they can focus on the kids, and on the other, really helping to ground them: Calling out those moments of connection, lifting those up as something to be celebrated. That can really help providers change the focus of their day to the kinds of interactions that they're having with the kids and think about that as the most important and profound piece of what they do.

Kia Levey:

When you look at the impacts of poverty and access and reach for extremely vulnerable populations, often children aren't getting the brain stimulation, or the social interaction, and developmental benchmarks that they need when they're just in at a babysitter's or at a family member's. It's fine: Their basic needs are cared for. They're fed. They're clothed. They're changed, but some of those key developmental cues may be missed if there are not these intentional interactions around paying attention to developmental stages.

And so, having high-quality child care and child care providers who understand developmental stages and the introduction of certain stimuli that children need at various ages is so important to populations that are vulnerable so those children don't miss the mark because they just happened to be resource-deficient at this point in their life.

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What are some of the changes—or challenges—you've seen while doing this work with home-based child care providers?

Question:

What is the broader applicability or significance for the field of your work with FOI, particularly the theory of change of improving caregiver capabilities?

Jessica Sager:

So, in thinking about Frontiers of Innovation's applicability to the broader community, I think about two things. And the first is this idea of working through caregivers to impact children and seeing caregivers as valuable resources to be invested in—not to be sort of dealt with, or managed, or ignored and worked around. That, I think, is profoundly important, and can change the way lots of people think about this work with children.

pull quote 2The other is this idea of continuous learning in the service of really high-level, difficult, challenging goals, and this is a concept that is employed in lots of other areas of innovation, particularly in K-through-12 education, but for the most part hasn't sort of reached the early childhood field as yet. And so, I think this way of thinking, where you say, "We're going to make significant investment. We're going to understand that some of this investment is going to go for great ideas. Some of it is going to go for lousy ideas. But the most important thing is that we're going to be continuously learning and getting better. And at the end of the day, we're going to hold ourselves responsible for making deep, deep change."

That's a long-term world view. It requires a lot of resources, but its potential is enormous. And if we can get enough funders, policymakers, and practitioners bought in, it really may lead to some of the transformational outcomes that all of us dream of.

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What is the broader applicability or significance for the field of your work with FOI?

Photos provided courtesy of All Our Kin

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