Questions, Comments, or Corrections? Let us know!

What Happens When a Program Reaches Step 5?

The Step Up to Quality process consists of five steps. Once programs have made it to the fifth step, they’re rated every five years to maintain that level.

But first, celebrations are definitely in order.

“It’s a big accomplishment!” said Lynne Cook, the coaching specialist at Step Up to Quality.

Lifelong Learning

They’re not just kicking back and relaxing at that point, though.

“Just because you’re at a Step 5 doesn’t mean the learning ends,” Lynne said.

For programs at a Step 5, and even at any point, it’s time to keep on top of what it means to be a high quality early childhood educator.

“Step Up to Quality is all about continuous quality improvement,” she said.

This could mean achieving the Child Development Associate credential, attending a training seminar or even listening to a new podcast.

Quality Tips

Jen Nelson, who operates a family child care program out of her home, was one of the first providers to reach a Step 5 in Nebraska. Jen has also gone back to school to earn her degree, and loves taking advantage of development programs and conferences.

“What’s next?” she asked Lynne.

Lynne had some tips for Jen – view their conversation below and share on your social media feeds!

A New Emphasis on Quality Child Care

With many parents working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, and with many child care providers temporarily closing or reducing the number of children they care for during that time, we are seeing a new level of appreciation for high quality care.

Grateful Parents

Parents have always appreciated their child care providers – after all, these teachers are taking care of a mom and dad’s whole world. Most parents previously recognized how important early education is on a surface level. However, now many families are articulating and demonstrating a greater understanding of how difficult it is to be a good teacher. It’s a deeper and more compassionate level of respect for their kids’ teachers.

Celebrity singer-songwriter John Legend, father to two-year-old Miles and four-year-old Luna with his model-cookbook author wife Chrissy Teigen, expressed his appreciation for educators on The Late Late Show with James Corden.

“You gain a new respect for what preschool teachers do for five, six hours a day,” he said. “They find ways to keep them active and stimulated and we’re struggling.”

It takes skill, training and discipline to provide an environment conducive to learning and growth, and to provide the empathy, attention and energy young children deserve. The effort is worth it – high quality early childhood education has been proven to catalyze achievement in reading and math later in childhood, among many other benefits.

Focused Providers

The pandemic, while a difficult time for all child care providers, has been an opportunity to renew their commitment to high quality care and to evaluate each aspect of the child’s experience while in their care.

With new guidelines from the state of Nebraska and from the CDC, implementing new procedures is a given. But for providers enrolled in Step Up to Quality, improving processes is a common task and state of mind.

One of our Step Up to Quality providers, Angie Lange, described the mentality as this in her blog:  “We often talk about how we want to raise the bar on child care, because we believe that our kiddos deserve the best.”

For quality-focused child care providers, they’ll do anything necessary to make sure the children in their care are given the environment to be safe, to grow and to succeed. Because succeeding is a never-ending journey…but square one has to be a solid foundation in order to accomplish all the goals and achievements each child is capable of.

High quality early childhood education closes opportunity gaps that are in place because of poverty, trauma, and all the unfortunate circumstances that stem from those, like poor nutrition, lack of sleep and less time spent reading, for example.

By giving each child the opportunity to succeed, we are setting in motion a generation of intelligent, compassionate, kind, energetic, happy, hardworking Nebraskans. High quality child care is where it starts.

5 Tips on How to Find High Quality Child Care From a Distance

A common piece of advice when parents are searching for child care is to “trust your gut” when meeting with the director or owner, and touring the facility.

But what can parents rely on when they can’t tour a facility in person?

The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way a lot of things are done, and searching for child care is no exception. The good news is that parents can find high quality child care without going on a tour. It’s not ideal, but families have been in this circumstance before. For example, families who are moving to a new town, members of the military who are stationed away from their children and people who are immunocompromised all have had to choose child care providers without meeting in person.

Here are five tips on finding high quality child care, even when you’re unable to take a tour:

    1. Start with Step Up to Quality. Your first step in finding high quality child care providers in Nebraska should be referencing Step Up to Quality’s list of providers who are enrolled in the program. This list can help you narrow down your choices – programs that are participating in Step Up to Quality are going above and beyond normal licensing requirements to continuously improve the quality of their care.
    2. Ask your network. Check with friends, co-workers, neighbors, family members and even your pediatrician to see if they have any recommendations. Search on social media, including ones like the Nextdoor app, to see if people have referrals. Google and Yelp reviews can also sometimes help.
    3. Take a virtual tour. Most people have smartphones with video capabilities, so ask potential child care providers to take you on a live video tour of their facility. Whether it’s by FaceTime or Google Meet or Zoom or any number of free video conferencing tools, a live view of a child care’s rooms and surroundings is important to see. Don’t be afraid to “direct” the tour by asking to see specific corners of a room or areas like the director’s office or their kitchen.
    4. Check your priorities. Make a list of “must-haves” and “nice to haves” and take notes about the different child care providers you are considering.
    5. Consider relationships. How accommodating is the child care director to your questions and your needs? Do they seem flexible and eager to work with you? Developing a relationship with the director or owner is important right off the bat, and can be a key factor in deciding what provider to choose.

While searching for a child care provider from a distance can involve a few extra steps, with careful consideration and using the resources available to you, your child can end up in a place where they’ll grow and thrive.

What is it Like to Go Through the Step Up to Quality Process?

When you ask people for advice, the most valuable insights often come from peers who are in the same situation as you.

Sometimes that extra empathy and a “I really get it” mentality helps to provide additional clarity and wisdom. Others who might not have walked in those shoes don’t have the benefit of those lived experiences.

Child care providers who are thinking about participating in the Step Up to Quality program are encouraged to talk to other providers who are in the process or who have reached Step 5.

A Challenging but Attainable Goal

Even though the benefits of going through all five steps are many, it’s not an easy process. It’s time consuming, but more than worth it in the end.

As any provider in the process will attest, it’s a self-paced program and Step 5 is attainable by anyone who sets their mind to it. Going through each step in the process is a great goal for those providers looking to continuously improve the quality of their care. It’s easy to get started: interested providers can enroll on Step Up to Quality’s website and the orientation is all online.

Insider’s Point of View

Becki is a director of a busy, established child care center in Omaha. She’s been thinking about enrolling in Step Up to Quality, and asked Suzanne, who was a director of a preschool in Lincoln at the time, about the process. Suzanne now works for an early childhood advocacy group.

“I’ll be honest, it’s hard. But I would do it all over again because we are a better program for it,” Suzanne said.

See more of Becki and Suzanne’s conversation below, and please share on your social media channels when you’re done!

Gratitude Ideas for Provider Appreciation Day

It takes a village to raise a child: parents, families, teachers and child care providers all contribute to shaping the next generation.

With more than 75 percent of both parents in Nebraska homes working outside the home, children sometimes spend more of their waking hours with child care providers and teachers than with parents and family — meaning it’s important to find quality care to nurture their development. Children who receive quality early child care and education are more likely to be on track for life-long success, and those who are committed to establishing this essential foundation deserve recognition.

Child care providers are often with our children through the highs and lows, the good days and challenging days. Friday, May 8 is National Provider Appreciation Day, and it’s a great time to recognize those who go above and beyond to help educate Nebraska’s kids.

Gratitude Goes a Long Way

When asked on Step Up to Quality’s Facebook page about some of the most memorable ways families have said “thanks” over the years, many child care professionals had something to contribute. Here’s a selection:

  • “I recently had a parent send a handwritten Christmas card, noting very specific things that she appreciated I had done to help her child. That is a card I will keep. It made me want to cry.” —Lindsay Ferguson
  • “I often think the biggest gift is not necessarily something of monetary value. When seeing kids later in life, and they stop to talk or share hugs, or when I receive an invite to their graduation or even weddings, speaks volumes about how they feel about me.” —Melloney Tenopir
  • “I had a family buy me a tree last year. When their child and I would go for walks, we would see this beautiful tree with purple flowers on it. We would talk about the colors, flowers, smell and how I loved that tree. On our last week together, they brought me my own purple flowering tree. Every time I look out my front door I think of little Henry!” —Angie Kaup

Other Gratitude Ideas

A small act of kindness can mean the world to our providers. Here are a few more gift ideas:

  • Classroom materials and supplies
  • Gift cards (coffee shop, nail salon, restaurants, garden center)
  • Delivery of lunch or coffee
  • Relaxing items like candles, lotions or bath bombs
  • Framed pictures
  • Art made by your child

There are so many ways to show appreciation for the work that goes into educating kids. Emotional burnout is real in all fields, but especially in early childhood education. It is important that we uplift our child care teachers every day, and we encourage you to use this holiday as a special reminder of your thanks.

Why is Play Important for Kids?

Kids naturally love to play, and parents often love to join in on the fun, too.

But is there more to play than what meets the eye?

Awesome Adventures

Jene and her husband love to take their toddler on little adventures and they love to spend time with him and play. But like a lot of parents, Jene wants to make sure their son is developing and learning.

“Why is play so important for early childhood development?” she asked.

Jenny, a program quality specialist with Step Up to Quality, offered her expertise.

“Play is an important part of a child’s early development – they learn to communicate, they develop their motor skills, and they learn problem solving, along with many other benefits,” she said.

Silliness at School (and at Home)

Play should also be a big part of a child’s day at school, too. Kids should have a lot of room to run around, and they should be given time to interact with their classmates and choose activities that most appeal to them.

When looking for a child care provider or preschool, make sure the children have time in their schedule for independent play, and make sure there’s space for them to move, be active – and be silly!

Even at home, play should be encouraged.

Use Step Up to Quality as a Resource

Child care providers who are enrolled in Step Up to Quality place an importance on play. These providers are going above and beyond normal licensing requirements to ensure the care they offer is truly high quality – and that includes scheduling play every day.

Step Up to Quality maintains a list of providers who are enrolled in its process on its website. When searching for child care, check Step Up to Quality’s list of enrolled providers.

No matter where providers are at in the Step Up to Quality process, parents can have more peace of mind knowing that those providers are prioritizing the quality of their care, and prioritizing play.

View (and share!) Jene and Jenny’s conversation in the video below:

We Want to See Those First Steps!

That first step.

It’s a milestone moment. It signifies a whole new chapter, a new way of living. It’s hard to overstate what a big deal it is — you may not even realize it in the moment.

We could be talking about any first step — the first training run for a marathon, the first application completed for college, the first audition for a play. Or even the first action parents take when looking for child care.

The person or people who will care for your child while you’re at work is one of the most important decisions you’ll make, so that first step when researching is equally important, too.

The first step parents should make when looking for high-quality child care in Nebraska is referencing Step Up to Quality’s list of enrolled providers. Parents can rest assured that these child care providers are all committed to quality, no matter if they are at Step One or Step Five in the process. (Even child care providers have that important first step to make when pursuing a higher level of care!)

A Baby’s First Step

But back to a baby’s first step. It’s one of childhood’s most revered moments, and even though it happens at different ages, it’s something parents have in common.

Usually parents can sense that first step is about to happen. Babies get a little more confident while they’re cruising along furniture, and they probably will try and fall a few times before they take that true first step on their own. Because there’s usually a build-up before that first step happens, and especially now when video cameras are within arm’s reach at all times on a smartphone, lots of first steps are being captured and shared on social media.

We want to see your baby’s first steps! There’s nothing we love more than seeing babies develop, and there’s nothing quite like that first step. Can you imagine what that must feel like for a baby who is used to leaning on things, to be independent for that first time? You can see the pride and joy in their eyes. Or the surprise after falling. Either way, it’s magical and we can’t wait to celebrate your baby’s achievement.

Share your videos by using the hashtag #FirstStepUptoQuality, and we’ll share them on our channels. It doesn’t matter if your baby just learned to walk, or just learned to drive, we love those first steps no matter how long ago they happened. Be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for these first step videos, plus more great content on parenting and child care!

The Power of Play

There are some misconceptions about play distracting from learning. But play is an invaluable vessel for developing social skills, cultivating creativity and applying lessons. A reputable childcare provider will have a good understanding of the importance of play.

Why is play so important?

In early childhood education settings, learning and play have a symbiotic relationship. Play gives learning much-needed, rich context. It’s one of the most important ways young children gain essential knowledge and skills. According to the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts and to learn self-advocacy skills. High quality child care providers should create environments that encourage play, exploration and hands-on learning.

As a program through Nebraska’s Department of Education, Step Up to Quality educates and coaches a variety of child care programs, from home-based providers to public school preschools, who are committed to the very best standards in early childhood education. Each of the quality Nebraska providers has been taught how to implement meaningful play in their curriculum.

What defines meaningful play?

While play is many things, early childhood education experts have found indicators of meaningful play. According to UNICEF’s report on learning through play, meaningful play should enable children to take on an active role and ownership in their experiences as the leaders of their learning journeys. When searching for the right child care provider for your family, consider these facets of meaningful play:

Play is joyful

Children may face challenges during play, as good learning should, but the overall feeling should be one of motivation and thrill. Ask potential child care providers about activities they feel their children enjoy the most.

Play is actively engaging

Children should be engaged physically, mentally and verbally during play. Passive learning through screens or worksheets doesn’t stimulate childrens’ minds to grasp and retain new information as much. Ask potential child care providers if and how children have active involvement in the creation of their daily activities.

Play is iterative

Iteration in play doesn’t necessarily mean doing the same thing over and over. It’s important that play has a good mix of skills practice, exploration and challenges to instill deeper learning. Ask potential child care providers how their playtime structure allows for expanding play possibilities.

Play is socially interactive

By allowing children to socialize during play, they work on their social interaction skills. These skills are invaluable in developing abilities for powerful relationships, empathy and social understanding throughout the rest of their lives. Ask potential childcare providers about what activities allow collaboration between children during play.

The power of play should never be underestimated. It allows children to create ideas, explore worlds and master skills beyond the confines of traditional learning. If you’re searching for a child care provider who understands the value of play and diligently works to apply it to their care setting, check out Step Up to Quality’s list of quality Nebraska providers.

Why We Use the Term ‘Child Care’ and Not ‘Day Care’

For starters, if you use the term “day care,” you’re not wrong. Plenty of professional, high-quality providers still call themselves “day cares.”

It’s just that there’s a better term that more accurately describes what early childhood educators do, and it’s “child care.”

Simply put, these teachers are taking care of the child. That’s where the priority is. So while this care does happen during the day, and a part of the provider’s job is to manage and schedule the day, the number one focus is the child.

Quality Matters

As the field of early childhood education has grown and evolved over the last few decades, the way we think about those first few years of a person’s life has changed, too.

Research and data have shown that learning starts at birth, and the subsequent early years of childhood are the most formative over a person’s entire lifetime.

“While it is fairly easy to put kids in a room with toys and make sure they’re well fed and they don’t hurt each other, we’re missing out on a huge opportunity if the learning during those early years isn’t more intentional,” said Step Up to Quality Coach Mike Stiehl, who has been in early childhood education for 40 years.

Quality early childhood education matters because it’s been proven that kids who are given an environment conducive to learning at an early age (for example, teachers who are trained in best practices, materials that help facilitate development, etc.) are more successful adults. They learn how learning happens and they understand how to relate to people.

Language Matters

If the overall societal perception catches up with the field, we will see a tidal wave of benefits. The Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission recently released a report that makes the case for prioritizing teachers and the ripple effect it will have on our state. Early childhood education will receive more funding, more attention in the media and more status as a sought-after career.

It starts with how we talk about it. It’s something everyone can do…because the status and overall quality of early childhood education affects everyone.

We believe there are fewer things more important than giving a child the best start in life. We want children who are going into kindergarten to be ready to learn. We want that solid foundation of social and emotional development to be instilled in every child – these are skills a person uses throughout their whole life.

Kids who have a quality early educational experience end up earning more money as adults and they’re more responsible. In other words, they’re much more likely to contribute to society.

So let’s start by calling it “child care.”

And let’s continue the conversation around the importance of high quality early childhood education.

What Does it Mean When Providers are Enrolled in Step Up to Quality?

Searching for a high quality child care provider or preschool can be daunting.

But Nebraska parents have an incredible resource at their fingertips: Step Up to Quality maintains a list of providers who are enrolled in its process on its website.

These providers are going above and beyond normal licensing requirements to ensure the care they offer is truly high quality.

How to Use Step Up to Quality

When searching for child care, the first thing parents should do is check Step Up to Quality’s list of enrolled providers.

Meleah, a working mom who lives in Omaha with her family, referenced Step Up to Quality’s list when looking for a preschool for her daughter.

“It took the guess work out of the process…knowing they are providing quality care,” she said. “But what exactly does it mean when a provider is participating in Step Up to Quality?”

Morgan, a program coordinator with Step Up to Quality, offered a simplified explanation.

“Step Up to Quality is a rigorous process for child care providers, and they are rated on their curriculum, environment, professional development for their staff, and communication with parents, among other things,” she said.

Next Steps

Parents can use those categories – curriculum, environment, professional development, communication with parents – as topics to ask about when talking to potential child care providers.

No matter where providers are at in the Step Up to Quality process, parents can have more peace of mind knowing that those providers are prioritizing the quality of their care.

“You can be assured they are committed to the very best in early childhood education, whether they’re at a Step 1 or a Step 5,” Morgan said.

View (and share!) Meleah and Morgan’s conversation in the video below:

Men, Be Like Mike: Become an Early Childhood Teacher

As early childhood educators know, young kids are awesome.

“They’re funny, interesting, honest, innocent, and you get to watch them change right in front of your eyes,” said Mike Stiehl, a Step Up to Quality coach who has been in the profession for 40 years.

So why aren’t more men like Mike becoming early childhood teachers?

Stigmas and Stereotypes

As gender roles and societal notions change, many professions that used to be seen as men-only have been equalizing and now have a more balanced representation, like accounting and law.

But men have been less likely to pursue what had previously been done by mostly women, like teaching. And even less so, early childhood education, where just 2.3 percent of all teachers are men.

Experts cite several reasons for the lack of men in early childhood education:

  1. Role models. Specifically, the absence of them. If boys don’t see any male teachers, they might grow up thinking that it isn’t an option for them.
  2. Status. Early childhood education as a field has been gaining more recognition recently, as research and data proves the importance of learning during the early years of a person’s life. But even today, the term “day care worker” is still frequently used, rather than the preferred “early childhood educator” or simply, “teacher.”
  3. Pay. It’s the far-and-away number one reason why more men are not choosing to be early childhood teachers.

“The tough reality is that you can probably make more money at your average retail store than as an entry-level pre-school teacher,” Mike said.


Forty years ago, Mike had just gotten out of the military and was wondering what to do with his life. When Mike was 12 years old, his mom taught at an early childhood care center and he loved helping her out. His brother was born at around that same time, and Mike also helped out with the baby.

“I always trace my interest in early childhood education back to those two things,” he said.

He earned a physical education degree from Bellevue College (now Bellevue University). As part of his degree program, he student-taught first graders, which ended up not being the right fit.

“First graders are kind of set in their ways and do most things for themselves,” Mike said.

He ended up getting a job at a child care center, driving their van. After several months, they asked him if he wanted to move into a classroom teaching toddlers.

“I think they thought, ‘this guy is kind and nice and seems to like being around kids, let’s give him a chance,’” he said.

Toddlers ended up being a little too young for his teaching preferences, so he moved to the preschool room, where he clicked with the four-year-olds. He stayed for five years, until he moved to a different center where he taught four-year-olds for another decade.

“They know just enough to take care of their basic needs, but still need to learn about getting along with others, and taking care of each other. Teaching them how to solve problems, and regulate emotions and behaviors, is extremely rewarding,” he said. “I just knew this is what I was meant to do.”

But things like low pay and minimal benefits were hurdles he had to overcome. He kept part-time jobs to help supplement his income, and he freely admits that if he had a family to help support at that point in his life, he might have had to switch professions.

A Career Path

After 15 years in the classroom, and taking training all along the way, Mike decided he wanted to share his experience with other educators. He landed at Iowa Western Community College, teaching future teachers.

“It turns out that from a learning perspective, adults and kids aren’t all that different,” he said.

And, he wasn’t far from early childhood education classrooms – Iowa Western has an on-site child care center where students teach. Mike’s wife is currently the director of that center.

After 20 years at Iowa Western, he noticed that Nebraska was prioritizing early childhood education more than ever before.

“I wanted to get out in the community, and Nebraska was making noise in the early childhood education world that I wanted to be a part of,” Mike said.

In addition to coaching seven Step Up to Quality providers, Mike is currently an adjunct instructor at the University of Nebraska Omaha and at Iowa Western, he teaches the Early Learning Guideline Series, and also substitute teaches about once a week for the Nebraska Early Childhood Collaborative.

Even though as a man he is still a rarity among his early childhood education colleagues, he said he’s had a lot of support throughout his career, from mentors to parents to the kids themselves.

“Everyone has recognized I was there for the right reasons. I simply love being around children more than being around adults,” he said. “I was doing what I needed to be doing, and getting fantastic results.”

An Affirmation of Quality

Teaching and caring for children is in Kim Chase’s blood. Her mom was a teacher, and her aunt was an in-home child care provider.

When Kim was in college, she would do her laundry at her aunt’s house, and sometimes fill in for her aunt and care for the kids.

“When I had my first baby, I knew exactly what I could do to stay home with him,” she said.

That was 23 years ago. Since then, she and her five kids have seen dozens of babies grow up in the basement of their houses over the years.

“The joy of seeing kids grow and develop is indescribable,” she said. “All the smiles and hugs you get throughout the day, the relationships you build with families – it’s the best job.”

She currently has seven kids in her care, from ages eight months to four years old.

When Step Up to Quality formed in Nebraska in 2014, Kim was one of the first to know. She was involved in a focus group meeting and was immediately on board with the program.

“Anything that promotes quality is something I want to participate in,” she said.

Her in-home child care in Papillion, Chase’s Child Care Corner, was one of the first 20 programs enrolled in Step Up to Quality.

“It’s easy to enroll. The online enrollment and orientation make it super simple,” she said.

The best part of Step Up to Quality for Kim though, was her coach.

“I loved having a coach be a part of the program,” Kim said. “It was nice having an outside set of eyes here. She helped me realize that I was on the right path.”

Kim’s advice for fellow child care providers: take the Step Up to Quality process piece by piece and don’t be intimidated by the rating scales like FCCERS (for family child care providers) and ECERS (for child care centers). There’s some give and take where you can choose to implement the recommended changes, or not.

“You do become aware of areas where you can enhance what you’re doing to improve the quality of your care,” she said. “But overall, it helps you grow, and it validates a lot of what you’re doing.”

It all comes down to the kids and the importance of high-quality care.

“We’re in charge of so much of their foundational years,” she said. “Providing quality care helps kids grow and develop and be ready for school.”


Where Are They Now? Following Up With Jill & Aiesha

When we featured Jill, the early childhood site director at Kids Can Community Center, and her Step Up to Quality coach Aiesha, they were working on reaching their next goal: a Step 5 rating.

We are happy to report that they accomplished their goal! The team at Kids Can achieved a Step 5, the highest Step Up to Quality rating.

With guidance from coaches like Aiesha, child care directors and owners can often progress through the Step Up to Quality process more efficiently than on their own. Coaches are assigned to providers at Step 2 free of charge.

“Having a professional coach by their side is a big benefit to child care providers,” said Step Up to Quality Director Lauri Cimino. “We know that running a child care is a busy job, and it can be stressful. A Step Up to Quality coach can be an important source of support and encouragement, in addition to providing their expertise in early childhood education.”

It’s easy to enroll in Step Up to Quality – simply register and complete the online orientation – and you’re on your way to a Step 1!

How to Advocate for Your Child in Early Childhood Education Settings

Even though I have a college degree in early childhood education, even though I’ve worked and taught in the field for more than a decade, even though I am well-versed in the research and best practices in the classroom, my husband and I brushed off warning signs when we placed my son in his first preschool. It was not the right fit, to put it mildly.

Which tells me, it can happen to anyone.

Play is How Children Learn

When you’re looking at child care or preschool options, a great place to start is Step Up to Quality. They rate homes, centers and preschools on the most current standards in early childhood education. Programs that are in Step Up to Quality are showing a real commitment to their kids, which is the most important foundation.

Your options may be limited for a variety of reasons. My husband and I were looking for a preschool close to our home that offered part-time education and was affordable. We heard word-of-mouth recommendations and thought we had found a great place.

Except during our initial tour, I saw some things that bothered me a little. I ended up convincing myself they weren’t important, including:

  • Preschoolers were shuffled through five different rooms in two hours – which I had never seen before and isn’t a deal-breaker on its own but…
  • They were at the center for 75 minutes before they were allowed unstructured play – and study upon study, plus my own experiences, have proven to me that play is the undisputed way children learn.
  • The teachers prioritized “product art” over “process art” – some programs want to give parents cute art that will look good on a refrigerator so they over-direct it, versus giving kids the art supplies and letting them create what they want to create, even if it’s “ugly.”

I told myself I had unrealistic expectations, and we enrolled our son. He was there six times, two hours each time. They saw him for 12 total hours, and they told me I needed to have my son evaluated for behavior concerns.

No One Knows Your Child Better Than You

Let me tell you about my son.

He’s an amazing child. He’s a go-getter, he’s inquisitive and active, and he loves to explore. He spends a lot of time outside. He had never been in a classroom before – my mom watched him for the first three years of his life while my husband and I worked.

I recognized that when he turned three, he needed that social side of development.

At this preschool, his teachers told me he talked all the time.

My response was, he’s only there for two hours! What he needs to do is be talking.

Ultimately, he did everything he could to get attention, which translated to disruptions.

So he got sent to the office. He got put in time out.

They prioritized punishment over figuring out how my child learns. Needless to say, we pulled him out of that center after those six sessions.

The Cycle of “Bad”

My son’s behavior was unacceptable. I’m not condoning his behavior.

But if teachers are so focused on punishing a child, instead of “how can I support this child so he can be successful,” it’s a disconnect. Research tells us that punishment for young children does not change or improve undesirable behavior.

In our case, the teachers were so focused on our son being the problem, they failed to look at themselves to see how they could support our family.

Let me tell you about my son.

He’s re-directable. He’s empathetic, he cares and he listens to reason. His level of language is beyond anything I could have ever wanted at this time. He has all these pieces in place that could allow him to be successful.

But if he’s seen as disruptive or as an inconvenience, and adults don’t adjust how they deal with him, they risk killing a vibrant spirit so early and so young. All children don’t have to sit and listen. There are strategies and research about how to take children who are very active all day, and allowing them to be successful in a group setting.

The worst-case scenario is teachers telling children at a very young age that their personality is not right. Kids don’t know enough to know why; they just think they’re “bad” and people are mad at them. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – they’re good at being “bad,” so they just continue being “bad.” It’s easier being “bad” than going against who they are as a person.

How It Should Work

If you as a parent get the message that your child is struggling at child care or preschool, you have to know your child and trust that they are their own unique special being who should be valued and supported.

If you are only being told that it’s your child and something is “wrong” with your child, you need to ask the teacher, “What are you doing to help?” Even if your child is being disruptive or not listening. Your teacher should be able to tell you, “I’ve done this and this and this.” The dialogue has to be open on both ends. Maybe the next step is a conversation about other interventions or evaluations. But your child’s education is not a one-way street.

You are the expert at your child. You have every right and you should feel confident that you can question an educator. Now having been on both sides of that conversation, I feel stronger than ever that the communication should be back and forth.

Feel empowered to say:

  • “This motivates my child.”
  • “My child is successful when this happens.”
  • “This is what’s best for my child.”

You are your child’s voice. Especially when they’re super young, children can’t always articulate what they need.

Advocate for your family – your input should be welcomed and expected from your child care provider.

A Much Better Fit

My son has since been enrolled at a new preschool in our community. He is still attending half-day sessions. His new preschool values play and incorporates developmentally appropriate practices into every aspect of their program.

But what impressed us the most was that they value my son’s voice and embrace his personality. The reports from school are a night and day difference to what we were hearing before, and most importantly, how they talk about our child.

This experience has proven to me first-hand why we as parents need to feel empowered to be our child’s advocate. It is important that we as parents feel comfortable and confident to have open conversations with our child’s teachers and providers about what ways they are supporting our child’s development.

We found a place that will be a partner with us in our child’s development – and so can you. If you have concerns that your child’s current placement is not the best fit, Step Up to Quality can be a perfect first step in finding the best place for your child.

Reflecting on 5 Years of Step Up to Quality

High quality child care is everyone’s issue.

Whether you have children or not, and whether you have children in child care or not, the state of child care resources in Nebraska should be an issue you feel strongly about:

  • It’s an economic issue. We’ve seen how quality child care can help boost a rural town’s development and pave the way for a thriving future.
  • It’s a human resource and job skills issue. Quality early child care centers can serve as a rewarding and meaningful career choice.
  • Most importantly to me, it’s a societal issue. Children who are given a supportive, educational, creative environment to learn and play in their first five years of life are more likely to be successful adults.

It sounds simple, but providing quality care to infants, toddlers and preschoolers is hard work. And there’s always room for improvement.

Quality Care in Nebraska

The great news is after spending five years directing Step Up to Quality, the State of Nebraska’s Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS), I can say without hesitation that we have very high quality child care homes and centers all throughout our state. At Step Up to Quality, we help great early childhood education programs become even better. Owners and directors go through a rigorous five-step process to improve their environment, curriculum, communication, teacher development and other areas to make the care they provide the best it can be.

It’s been a privilege to get to know these child care providers, and to recognize their incredible efforts to provide the very best atmosphere for the children in their care.

Unfortunately, you can find low quality care all over our state, too – which is why it’s important for parents to do their research and to trust their gut.

My own son and daughter-in-law had a couple of disappointing experiences in programs when their oldest was younger than two. They are now parents of two daughters and love the large facility that Mae and Lea attend.

My daughter and son-in-law prefer a smaller environment for Lilly, Penny and Charlotte. They drive across town every day to their family child care provider’s home. Cheryl is now a part of their extended family.

Every Child Deserves Quality Care

All parents should have access to quality child care for their children. I’m extremely proud of Step Up to Quality’s growth throughout the last five years, but also recognize we have a long way to go. Hundreds of child care providers in Nebraska have enrolled their programs in Step Up to Quality, but we have yet to reach hundreds more.

Even for those programs that have reached a Step 5, there are always improvements that can be made. The best programs continue to implement new strategies and follow current Early Childhood research.

The same goes for us at Step Up to Quality – our team is continuously learning and our program continues to evolve to improve the experience for everyone.

Celebrating 5 Years

Step Up to Quality is five years old in Nebraska, but I’ve been in the early childhood education field for nearly my entire work life. I began my career as a speech pathologist for Omaha Public Schools but soon realized educating young children is where my passion was. I’ve been an early childhood teacher, director, multi-unit manager, and coach before being lucky enough to join the Department of Education and become involved with Step Up to Quality as it was established in 2014.

Helping young children grow and thrive is what we strive for at Step Up to Quality – everyone on our team is just as passionate about the development of young children as I am.

Step Up to Quality is really a community, and it starts with our team in Lincoln. You’ll be seeing our faces more in the upcoming months as we continue our new video series. I’m so proud of this team – they work so hard for the kids in our state. I feel extremely fortunate to work alongside these ladies every day.

We hope to continue connecting the providers across Nebraska to each other – it doesn’t matter if they’re a family child care home, a Head Start or Early Head Start program, a public school preschool, or a large child care center – we’re all in this together.

Nothing is more important to us than providing a strong developmental foundation for our youngest Nebraskans so they get the very best start in life.