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How Reading to Children Improves Kindergarten Readiness

If you’re an early childhood professional, reading to children is probably already on your agenda. For some children, your classroom may be the only place they get this experience. According to a 2019 study in the United States, nationally representative data suggests that around 25% of caregivers never read with their children, creating a “word gap.” Cumulatively, over the five years before kindergarten, researchers estimate that children from literacy-rich homes hear approximately 1.4 million more words during storybook reading than children who are never read to.

Reading to children supports school readiness in an incredible amount of ways. In addition to phonemic awareness and reading comprehension, hearing stories expands children’s vocabulary as they encounter words that may not be used in their daily lives. It also aids their creativity and imagination when they hear stories, visualizing new environments and guessing what’s coming next. Even further, children’s social and emotional development is boosted when hearing stories about challenging experiences or potentially emotional situations, like starting at a new school or resolving conflict between two characters.

Intentional reading for different age groups

All children can benefit from having a caregiver read to them. Here are some tips for how to make the most of story time with each age group to help children develop skills and gain a life-long love for reading. These tips are good to use both in the classroom and at home — each environment should encourage reading to help close the word gap.

  • Reading to babies: Babies who are six months old or younger benefit from books with high-contrast, bold pictures. No words on the page are necessary, but you can talk to them as you flip through the pages. As babies get closer to 12 months, consider incorporating books with simple words or phrases that relate to the pictures. As babies begin to babble and talk, try engaging them in conversation about what’s on the page. Ask them questions (“Is that snake green?) or declare what you’re seeing (“Look at that silly puppy!”)
  • Reading to toddlers: Toddlers are more interested in books with an action-filled plot and pictures than too many words on the page. Introduce them to books that show examples of how a character’s actions impact the story or how the character overcomes an obstacle. You can make observational connections to their life, too. (“There’s a bear in this story! What other stories have we read about bears?”) Ask children to describe pictures and repeat phrases used in the story.
  • Reading to preschoolers: This age group can start to handle more intricate plots and more words on the page. Ask preschoolers questions as you progress through a story to check their comprehension and encourage their imagination. These questions should be more focused on how the story may unfold based on the narrative (“What do you think happens next?”) rather than observational questions.

If you’re ready to learn other ways to boost the quality of your care, Step Up to Quality helps great child care providers become even better. If you’re a parent who’s on the search for providers who are committed to quality care, check out our search tool to find options near you.



Step Up to Quality Celebrates 8 Years

Step Up to Quality is now eight years old!

We celebrated our anniversary in July and recently released our annual report. The best news is that we are continuing to grow.

We’re nearly at the 700-participating-providers mark! Which leads us to our most meaningful statistic: nearly 38,000 children have been educated and cared for by a Step Up to Quality-rated program in Nebraska.

Read more about our impact in our annual report.

Despite the challenges that the pandemic continues to bring, early childhood education providers all across the state have quite literally stepped up and shown their commitment to continuous quality improvement by participating in Step Up to Quality. We’re so proud of each and every one of them.

Quality improvement continues to be something we take seriously as a team, too. We have some exciting announcements related to how we are improving the quality of the Step Up to Quality process, so be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for more information about these changes.

Here’s to more growth, high-quality care and healthy children who love learning!



Earlier Coaching Now Available for Nebraska Early Childhood Education Providers

High-quality early child care and education is crucial to a child’s future success, and we know that supporting the professionals who shape these children is just as important. Now, Step Up to Quality is offering more coaching and peer support for providers at an earlier stage in our program.

What is Step Up to Quality?

Step Up to Quality helps early child care providers and educators recognize and improve the quality of their practices, going beyond what is required to do better for their children’s and families’ futures. The five steps of our program guide providers on a path to higher quality at their own pace, and completing any step is a reason to celebrate.

We greatly value feedback from our providers, and we learned through meetings and surveys in the Step Up to Quality 2.0 process that they want access to earlier coaching on their Step Up to Quality path. Previously, providers would not have the option to request a free, one-on-one professional coach to support their classroom, home or center until they completed Step 2.

More coaching and network building opportunities

Now, providers at Step 1 (or entering at Step 3) can access coaches during a series of virtual group meetings in what we are calling quality foundations coaching. We intend to group providers by child care type, such as family child care providers or child care centers. We think this is a wonderful opportunity to not only provide earlier opportunities to meet with our excellent coaches but to build a network with other providers in each cohort to share advice and celebrate successes.

“We want to empower and build the capacity of these providers. They’ve been doing this work for many years, so their experiences and knowledge is incredibly valuable to share with the group among experienced and newer providers,” said Coach Specialist Lynne Cook. “We’re helping each other do our best.”

Benefits of coaching

Both forms of coaching support are completely free and voluntary for providers enrolled in Step Up to Quality. The quality foundations cohorts will focus on what evidence could be collected to fulfill high-quality indicators. One-on-one coaching is more intensive, focusing on a provider’s child care practices and setting to understand and support their personal vision and goals.

“We want to honor providers’ philosophy,” Lynne said. “A coach should be viewed as a partner in this. They’re a guide through the process and a resource. Providers get to decide what their program should look like.”

If you’re already enrolled in Step Up to Quality, you can request to join a quality foundations cohort. If you’re a provider who’s looking to boost the quality of your care, you can enroll in our online orientation when you’re ready to learn more and get started!

Interested in becoming a Step Up to Quality coach?

We’re always open to recruiting more coaches who meet early childhood qualifications. Our coaches are experienced professionals who are looking to shift into more flexible, part-time schedules. Learn more about coach qualifications and complete our coach application. Contact Lynne at lynne.cook@nebraska.gov or 531-207-2218 with any questions.



How to Help Children Stay Present with Mindfulness Activities

Take a deep breath in, hold for three seconds, and let it out. Simple activities like these can help you become more aware of the present. Mindfulness allows you to tune in to what’s happening now, whether that’s the different smells or noises you hear around you. Being mindful is simply being aware of what you are experiencing in that moment.

Benefits of mindfulness for young children

While children might not have a meeting they’re running late for, or wake up and realize they forgot to do laundry, they too have to overcome different stressful situations. Babies cry when they need something, and toddlers try to communicate but can have a hard time expressing their needs with words. Every stage of life brings new and different adversities people must overcome.

By teaching children at a very young age how to appropriately find ways to work through their stressors, children will be able to carry such practices into adulthood. The ability to retain these habits is possible because mindfulness can chemically change the brain. A study done by researchers from the University of British Columbia and the Chemnitz University of Technology found that the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for self-regulation, had performed better in people who practiced mindfulness compared to those who did not. Their findings showed self-regulation works to purposefully direct attention and behavior. The anterior cingulate cortex is also associated with learning from past experiences and helping to choose between right and wrong. These optimal learning skills can help enhance how children learn at such an early stage of their cognitive development.

Mindfulness might seem like another fad, but teaching mindfulness to children does in fact have lasting effects. It gives children the tools to build confidence, deal with awkward or challenging situations and cope with stress. Mindfulness helps with three very important skills developed in early childhood: increased focus, improved academic performance and decreased levels of stress.

Tips for incorporating mindfulness into everyday life

When it comes to teaching children about mindfulness, it is better to slowly warm them up to the idea rather than diving in head first. Make sure they are actually understanding and aware of what is around them and not just doing as they are told. After you are done introducing children to the idea of mindfulness, they can be more receptive to sitting still and focusing on themselves. Try these easy and fun introductions to mindfulness.

Snack time mindfulness

    • Start by giving out an age-appropriate snack
    • Before eating, have children smell the snack and describe what they smell
    • As they are eating, ask them to describe what they taste or feel on their tongue
    • After eating, ask them to describe how they felt while eating the snack

Teddy bear breathing exercise

    • Have children lie down with a stuffed animal on their belly
    • Ask them to breathe in and breathe out
    • As they are breathing, have them notice how the stuffed animal moves up and down with every breath they take

These exercises introduce children to the idea of being aware of their senses. It also provides them with a fun way to experience mindfulness by having a snack or playing with a stuffed animal.

Once you’ve introduced children to mindfulness, they can start diving into some more comprehensive activities. As a parent or provider, this should not be stressful for you. Be sure to reference the many easy guides online for ideas, and simply have your children follow along and listen. Here are a few:

Be Like Nature: Mindfulness for Preschoolers

A 4-Minute Meditation for Kids

Clouds: A Guided Meditation for Kids

Mindfulness activities are just one way to boost the quality of care

You may already have mindfulness activities in your curriculum without realizing it, and we hope these tips give you ideas for new, fun ways to step it up a notch. If you’re ready to learn other ways to boost the quality of your care, Step Up to Quality helps great child care providers become even better. If you’re a parent who’s on the search for providers who are committed to quality care, check out our search tool to find options near you.



Let’s Get Musical: Incorporating Music in the Classroom and Home

Whether your child will become the next Mozart or strictly stick to banging pots and pans around the house, music can be an excellent aid in their development. Music-related activities help children develop fine motor skills, improve language development, increase the neural activity within their brain, and help them to understand how different objects go together. With all these reasons and more, music can be an integral part of a child’s early education.

Benefits of music in early childhood development

While encouraging children to sing “Sweet Home Alabama” won’t make them smarter, researchers have found a direct link between language development and learning music. According to the Children’s Music Workshop, recent studies have clearly indicated that musical training physically develops the part of the left side of the brain known to be involved with processing language, and can actually wire the brain’s circuits in specific ways. Linking familiar songs to new information can also help imprint information on young minds.

Making music can also help to connect brain and body movement. When a child claps their hands or stomps their feet to a song, they understand that their movements are making noises. Creating that understanding through a fun activity like music listening will not only help their brain to body movement but also their fine and large motor skills. While these things seem so simple, they help build important connections throughout many parts of the brain.

Children also learn how to express their emotions during these early years. While children sometimes have a hard time getting their emotions out, creating songs or games can help them to understand how to show someone what they are feeling. They can start to learn that a slower tempo usually means sadness, while an upbeat, fast tempo correlates with happiness or joy.

Tips for incorporating music into your home and classroom

There’s a whole spectrum of music-related activities, from simply listening to creating music. Following these tips can help turn any classroom or home into the School of Rock!

Let children make their own instruments! If you allow children some freedom, they will surprise you with how ambitious they are. Here’s an example of an easy DIY musical instrument:

Bell bracelets

  • Gather medium to large craft bells and pipe cleaners. Make sure the bell size does not present a choking hazard for young children.
  • Help children thread the bells through the pipe cleaners.
  • Twist the pipe cleaners ends together.
  • Now the children have tambourines to shake with their hands or wear on their arms!

Allow children to move their bodies while listening to music. If you show them how to move slower during a down-tempo passage and faster during an up-tempo passage, it will help them to understand how the brain and body are working together.

Another great idea is to have the children sit in a circle, each with an instrument in front of them. Let them take turns being the leader and creating their own beat. Once they have created their beat, have the other children try to mimic that beat. This helps children understand that different instruments make many different sounds.

Interested in other ways to boost quality?

Many child care providers already have music in their curriculum, but we hope these tips give you ideas for new, fun ways to step it up a notch. If you’re ready to learn other ways to boost the quality of your care, Step Up to Quality helps great child care providers become even better. If you’re a parent who’s on the search for providers who are committed to quality care, check out our search tool to find options near you.



Make the Most of Water Play This Summer

Whether you’re preparing for summer activities in the classroom or in your home, children greatly benefit from the wonderful world of water play. Playing with water presents a range of opportunities for children to develop their fine and gross motor skills, to work on sharing and social skills, to explore concepts of math and science, and to relax and have fun while learning.

How to build your own water play environment

Water play can be as simple or as elaborate as your budget allows. While there are pre-made water play tables for purchase, it’s easy to create your own with items you may already have.

In the classroom, a water play station could be several shallow plastic bins outdoors or indoors over a tarp. At home, it could be a bathtub filled with a few inches of water or a baby pool in the yard. Common items from school, home or nature, like cups, ladles, squeeze bottles, toys, leaves or sand, are a good place to start — but the possibilities are endless, and children will enjoy a variety of options.

Make sure the items can’t easily break and are child safe. We recommend avoiding straws for very young children. All water play should always be supervised by an adult.

Connecting water play to learning

Once you buy or build an environment, it’s time to play! Water play activities present many opportunities for learning and skill development.

Children can increase their fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination by using tools to grab, pour, squirt, stir and squeeze. Because water play typically occurs in a limited space with few supplies, children can also practice their communication and social skills by sharing tools with each other and working together to achieve a goal, like moving water from one bucket to another with cups.

Exploration and learning is plentiful in water play. Basic mathematics concepts like full, empty, half and less, or measuring amounts of water and comparing volumes, can have fun, hands-on application in water play. You can also take dry substances, like dirt, sand or rocks, and allow children to explore how adding these items to water can change their properties.

To make the most of water play, be an enabler — not a director. Water play, like other forms of play, is most impactful when children take an active role and ownership in their experiences as the leaders of their learning journeys.

  • Structure your water play area to have interesting and challenging materials. Once children get used to using certain tools, try incorporating others for play. For example, if children have been using tongs to pick up objects out of the water, introduce ladles as another method. You can also alter the water itself: add a few drops of mild dish soap to create bubbles with a whisk or wand or add food coloring to explore what combinations create new colors.
  • Ask open ended questions, such as “What do you think will happen to the volume of water if we drop this rock in a cup?” This is a chance for you to model new vocabulary with children and encourage prediction.
  • Give children the chance to debrief the situation, telling others what they did and learned through play.

Many child care providers already have water play in their curriculum, but we hope these tips give you ideas for new, fun ways to step it up a notch. If you’re ready to learn other ways to boost the quality of your care, Step Up to Quality helps great child care providers become even better. If you’re a parent who’s on the search for providers who are committed to quality care, check out our search tool to find options near you.



650+ Reasons to Be Thankful

We’ve declared 2022 The Year of Quality, and while we celebrate the quality child care providers enrolled in Step Up to Quality all year long, we especially want to lift them up on National Provider Appreciation Day, which happens on the Friday before Mother’s Day every year.

Participating in Step Up to Quality means that child care providers are already going above and beyond regular licensing requirements to continuously improve the quality of their care. During the pandemic, providers across Nebraska went even further to ensure the safety and health of the children they teach and nurture every day.

There are more than 650 providers participating in Step Up to Quality across Nebraska now. We want each of them to know how much we appreciate their hard work. There is no doubt in our minds that they are quality. Which is why we recently sent them a reminder of this, as a thank you for all their extra efforts.

If you have a child enrolled at a family child care home or a center, please thank the teachers, directors, cooks, custodians, volunteers and everyone involved in educating your child. While this is an extremely rewarding field, these have been the most difficult times in recent memory. A sincere “thank you” from parents goes a long way.

To our valued providers: your work matters. The children in your care are learning, developing and growing because of you. Thank you for being a part of the Step Up to Quality family. We appreciate you. You are quality.



How to Shift Children’s Art Activities to Focus on the Process

Artistic expression is beneficial in early childhood settings, especially when it comes to unrestricted exploration. As a child care provider, you probably already have art activities in your curriculum. Or as a parent, you may have art projects that you facilitate for your child at home. But are these activities focused on the product or the process? Examining the difference and incorporating these tips can help improve your quality of care and strengthen children’s development, like fine motor, language and cognitive skills.

What is process-focused art?

Process-focused art is when children are given an open-ended project to express themselves through their work. There are no step-by-step guidelines or samples to model where everyone’s final piece looks the same — which may leave children feeling frustrated if they don’t “create correctly” or finish their project. Instead, children are given tools and encouragement to explore and create, fostering a sense of enjoyment, discovery and pride in their work through meaningful play.

While painting and drawing are the most frequently visited forms of early childhood art activities, you can consider ways to approach music, theater and dancing through this lens, too.

How to guide process-focused art

It may seem like a contradiction to “guide” process-focused art, but as an educator or parent, you’re the one who is setting the stage for the activity and providing the tools for expression. Here are some tips for any type of process-focused art activity:

  • Offer self-serve supplies that children can easily use independently
  • Allow children to come and go as they please
  • Provide interesting art materials
  • Allow children to follow their interests
  • Keep the focus on open-ended activities that don’t have just one outcome
  • Be playful, joyful and encouraging in the art-making process
  • Ask open-ended questions and make objective comments about children’s work

The transition from product-focused to process-focused art can be tough. When children’s end products don’t look intentional (to the children, they are!) or widely vary from each other’s, it can seem like no progress has been made. When planning a process-focused art activity, think about what the children will do first and foremost, rather than what they will make. This will keep your focus on the process and developmental outcomes behind the art experience, rather than prioritizing a “refrigerator-worthy” activity focused on the product.

Step Up to Quality helps great child care providers become even better. If you’re a provider who’s ready to learn other ways to boost the quality of your care, we’d love to have you on board. If you’re a parent who’s on the search for providers who are committed to quality care, check out our search tool to find options near you.



Nebraska Child Care Stabilization Grant: Get Ready for Round Two

In 2021, Nebraska child care providers had the opportunity to apply for the Child Care Stabilization Grant to stabilize the child care sector and ensure families would have equal access to high quality care. Fortunately, many Step Up to Quality providers received funds to help improve the quality of their care during an uncertain time.

Marti Spitz, the director at Beginnings Early Development Center in Hastings, is grateful for the support.

“The Child Care Stabilization Grant couldn’t have come at a better time!” Marti said. “After an uncertain year in the child care industry, we are now able to breathe a sigh of relief. This grant allows us to continue providing quality child care, hire and train new staff, cover expenses and give my dedicated team a much-needed retention bonus. In a field often overlooked, the pandemic has reminded us how vital child care is to families, employers and communities.”

Sue Morse, director of the nonprofit Alpine Village Community Daycare in Verdigre, is also thankful for the relief, especially with a center that normally relies on in-person fundraising events.

“With the ability to use some of the funds for payroll, we were able to provide extra educational supplies for the children, acquire necessary cleaning supplies and give tuition relief for some who struggled to pay for care,” Sue said. “At one point, we had to close for a week because too many staff members were sick. The funds allowed us to give families tuition relief during this time and pay staff a portion of their wage as well. Times have been unusually stressful through all of this. I give all the credit to the great team of employees, awesome community support, and all of our children’s families for our ability to stay open and be as successful as we have been.”

Another chance to apply for grant funds will soon be available

While the first grant application period is over, The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services will be offering a second opportunity to apply for stabilization grants. The second round of applications will be available in spring 2022, targeting those who did not apply during the first application window and potentially including an expanded list of eligible providers, according to the department.

“The responses from providers have been overwhelmingly positive,” said Children and Family Services Director Stephanie Beasley. “From the beginning, we worked for a speedy disbursement of funds and ease of use in applying to ensure providers do not face barriers in receiving the needed funds. I commend the work our staff at the Department of Health and Human Services has done to aid providers in staying open during the pandemic and their commitment to children and families of our child care providers.”

Support for child care providers is always available with Step Up to Quality. Not only does our team alert providers of opportunities like these, we also provide other benefits like professional development and training, a free one-on-one coach, child care subsidy reimbursement and incentive bonuses.



Farm to Preschool Builds Healthy Eating Habits for Nebraska’s Children

Healthful, nutritious food is important for everyone, especially young children. Eating habits start in infancy, and by the time children enter elementary school, those habits are fairly established. So, if we want our children to have lifelong healthy eating habits, early intervention and experience with healthy eating is an important part of their development.

Get connected with Farm to Preschool

The Nebraska Department of Education (NDE) understands the importance of establishing early, healthy habits, so they began to include Farm to Preschool (also referred to as Farm to Early Care and Education) in the work of Nutrition Services in 2015 as a way to provide information to child care centers and family child care homes about the value of doing this activity. Farm to Preschool is not a program that you enroll in — it’s a slate of opportunities that include local food procurement, experiential education and school garden activity that are implemented by centers to educate children on where their food comes from.

Farm to Preschool activities also support core principles of high-quality early childhood education, the same principles that Step Up to Quality promotes throughout each of its steps. Learning through play, interacting with children on their level and providing tactile educational opportunities can all happen with Farm to Preschool efforts.

The NDE now hosts a comprehensive webpage for Farm to Preschool, providing guidance for providers and families on purchasing local and in-season foods, ideas for educational activities and use of gardens, tools for how to get started, and fact sheets and reports on Farm to Preschool research specific to Nebraska. You can reach out to Marla Kurtenbach, a nutrition services program specialist at the NDE, at marla.kurtenbach@nebraska.gov with any questions about Farm to Preschool, too.

“This doesn’t have to be a huge, time-consuming thing,” said Marla. “Any action can support local food systems, and starting with our littlest eaters just makes sense.”

Getting involved with Farm to Preschool can be as simple as making a commitment to incorporate a local food once a month in the meals you serve to the children in your care. Once you get your footing, you can take it even further: Tour a farm or have a farmer or gardener visit your program, grow your own garden, prepare meals with children or purchase produce from farmers markets to taste test.

Purchasing locally grown food also allows the early childhood education field to support our local economy. When this food is in children’s meals and classroom curriculums, it supports Nebraska’s agriculture today and enables us to plant the seed of interest for a whole new generation of farmers and market gardeners. Check out the Nebraska Farm to Preschool toolkit to find where you can buy locally produced food and drinks.

Tips for incorporating new foods into home meals and child care settings

The earlier children are exposed to a variety of foods, the more likely they will continue these habits as they grow.

“When implementing changes to child nutrition program meal patterns or menus, consider that early child care eaters are still establishing their habits and tastes,” said Marla. “It can be a good strategy to implement changes first at the early child care level.”

Sometimes, children need multiple exposures to a food to be ready to try it, so don’t pressure them if they don’t develop an immediate interest. Mix new food in with other food that they already know and enjoy. For example, if you know they like a few certain vegetables, mix in one more new vegetable. You can also involve other things children are learning, like colors, into mealtime by using a variety of colorful produce. Nebraska Farm to Preschool provides sample menus for how local foods can be incorporated into meals.

If you choose to start a garden, whether it’s a big plot or a few potted plants, letting children be involved with its care can increase their willingness to try the healthy foods they helped grow.

Interested in other ways to boost quality?

If you’re not already enrolled, we’d love to have you join Step Up to Quality.  We serve all child care and early childhood education programs throughout Nebraska with support and resources that continuously improve the quality of care provided. Learn more about our program benefits.



Why You Should Pursue a Career in Early Childhood Education

The early years of a child’s life can have an incredible impact on their future. They’re not only learning colors, words, shapes and numbers — they’re learning how to interact with others, explore the world, and understand and express their own emotions. It’s a great responsibility to be an early childhood professional, but it’s also greatly rewarding.

“I know I’m making a difference, not only in a child’s very early years of life, but also a parent’s life,” said Jenny Fleming, a program specialist at the Nebraska Department of Education in the Office of Early Childhood. “As a parent, there is no greater feeling when going to work every day than knowing that my young child is being loved and cared for in a safe, nurturing, quality environment with someone who wants to see my child grow and be successful.”

Early childhood professionals work with young children (birth through age eight) and their families. They work in a variety of settings and may also be referred to as teachers, child care providers or interventionists. The profession requires skilled, experienced, educated and dedicated workers, and while it may be a field that is often pursued by women, any gender can excel and find fulfillment working with young children.

Early childhood career paths

A common misconception about the early childhood profession is that there are limited job options and few ways to advance a career. But once you obtain the skills to get started in the field, there are many different jobs to pursue both immediately and along your career path.

“Since graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education, I’ve had a variety of roles in the field,” Jenny said. “I’ve taught infants through preschoolers, worked as a home visitor/family support worker, special education paraprofessional, director and assistant director in early childhood programs, and now, I’m a program specialist.”

In her current role, Jenny coordinates trainings for the Environment Rating Scales and the CLASS, observation tools used by Step Up to Quality to assess the quality of early childhood programs. She also has the advantage of working with a talented team of observers who go out into programs and complete the observations, making sure the programs are ready for them. Since she had been a teacher earlier in her career, her path prepared her for this role. She can relate to the educators who are receiving observations and help ease their nerves.

Jen Burkey, a Step Up to Quality coach, has also had the pleasure of a winding career path that has fit her needs along the way, always with the constant of children’s education. After getting her Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education, she worked as a substitute teacher for first and third grade, as an evening lead teacher for a learning center, and upon chance, found her passion for early childhood.

“As I was home with my own son, I began helping friends during the day with their little ones,” Jen said. “It became clear to me that I loved the three to six age group. All of the hands-on play, trips to parks, zoo visits and walks were never a burden to me. I realized this was where I felt so appreciated, needed and successful. Many outside individuals commented on my patience and how it took a special person for that age. This was the light for me!”

After that point, Jen’s kids grew older and attended school full time. She was offered a position at a preschool, an opportunity to take a further step in her career with an age group that she loves and align with her kids’ schedules.

After many wonderful years at the preschool, Jen reflected on her priorities and decided to move forward with becoming a Step Up to Quality coach, allowing her to have a more flexible schedule to visit her grown kids and dad while slowing down and enjoying her personal life.

“I love the chance to support and partner with teachers, mentor people, engage with kids in the classroom, and help educators create classrooms where the students are the center of learning through play,” Jen said. “What was a gift or talent I had to become a teacher, I can now share through giving my time to others.”

Advancing in the early childhood field

Whether you’re considering getting started in the early childhood field or are unsure where to go next in your career, it’s important to reflect on your “why.”

“A colleague of mine often asks in trainings ‘what is your why?’” Jenny Fleming said. “Ask yourself, ‘Why did I choose to be in this field? Why do I stay? What makes me smile every day when I go to work?’ If your answer is the children, know you’re right where you should be! It’s okay to explore the opportunities within the field and talk with others. Just always remember to ask what your ‘why’ is.”

Everyone will feel stuck at some point in their career, whether it’s at the beginning or somewhere along the way. In these moments, look to others, whether they’re advisors, colleagues, friends in the field or someone you look up to. It’s okay to ask for advice, and they may point you in a direction you never considered. This is a field that requires continuous reflection and learning.

“There are so many early childhood initiatives and support fields. Instead of staying on the same track, you could become a part of a different initiative,” Jen Burkey said. “For example, instead of a classroom teacher, become a trainer, mentor or coach. Education will always be a field where there is a constant need everywhere. This is a chance to make a difference during important, formative years and use your creativity to reach so many.”



How to Strengthen Communication between Parents and Providers

Children often spend their day with teachers and child care providers just as much as their parents, which means intentional, open communication between parents and providers is an important aspect of quality care and successful outcomes. Providers are knowledgeable in early education and development, and parents are experts on their own child.

Whether you’re a parent looking for tips on forging that relationship, or a provider who wants to take their communication to the next level, we’re glad you’re here to learn more about strengthening communication in early childhood education settings.

Tips for parents to improve communication with providers

Here are a few ways to open new avenues of communication and bring more purpose to the ways you communicate with providers.

Let’s start with what’s happening now. If a teacher or provider has scheduled touchpoints with you to discuss how your child is doing, this is the time to have a conversation — which means you should come prepared with your own questions. It’s easy to forget to prepare for these touchpoints, especially when you’re not leading them. Consider asking questions like, “What is my child’s favorite activity? Are there any social issues I should know about? What can I do at home to help?”

Between these touchpoints, there can be other ways to check in with your child’s provider. A good starting point is asking them what their preferred method of communication is, like texting, scheduled phone calls or face-to-face interaction around pick-up or drop-off time.

Consider the nature of your conversation and how long it may take: Is it a quick hello or expression of gratitude? That may be appropriate for a short text or face-to-face chat. Is it a concern about your child? Schedule a sit-down or phone call. Teachers and providers really do want to communicate with parents, but their attention is first focused on the children in their care, so be respectful of their availability by asking ahead of time before broaching a topic that could take more than a few minutes to discuss.

If you’re a parent on the search for a new provider, we recommend using Step Up to Quality’s free Find a Provider tool. This online resource will help you find providers near you who are enrolled in Step Up to Quality — which means they’re committed to strengthening the quality of their practices and are held to our quality communication standards. Check out our visitation checklists that include conversation starters for infants, toddlers, preschool and school-age care settings, too!

Tips for providers to improve communication with parents

There are many ways to communicate with parents, which you can learn to improve in depth when you enroll in Step Up to Quality, but here are some thought starters.

Are you taking the time to check-in with individual parents about their child’s development? Newsletters, social posts and blog posts are great ways to showcase your center as a whole, but it takes regular one-on-one communication with parents to strengthen their trust in your care and success in their child’s development. Decide what frequency and form of communication works best for you and your children’s parents, like weekly text touchpoints, daily app updates and monthly phone calls.

How are you building positive relationships with parents? Inevitably, challenges will arise when caring for children. If a relationship is established prior to issues, it helps parents and providers face them as partners with a solutions-oriented mindset. Learn more from the nonprofit Zero to Three about ways to examine how you approach problems and communicate them to parents.

Improve communication practices and more with Step Up to Quality

We’re committed to improving early child care and education in Nebraska. Our coaches are ready to guide you on your journey to higher quality. Learn about the benefits of enrolling.



This is Quality

Every year, and every day, is about quality at Step Up to Quality. But in 2022, we’re going to be emphasizing quality in new ways.

The early childhood education field has been significantly impacted by the pandemic. However, child care providers have shown incredible resilience. People outside of the field now have a greater awareness of how essential child care is and how important high-quality early childhood education is for our youngest Nebraskans.

At the same time, we recognize that “quality” can be hard to define, especially for people like first-time parents. Even for experienced child care providers, new research and data is always being published, and the field itself is continuously improving.

Over the course of this year, we’ll be communicating what quality means to us. We’ll release new ways of connecting with our team, you’ll see the new ways that we’re reaching parents and growing awareness of Step Up to Quality, and you’ll learn of ways we’re improving our own processes. Throughout it all, we’ll be showing gratitude toward all the child care providers and early childhood education teachers who are participating in Step Up to Quality this year. These educators place a high priority on continuously improving the quality of their care, and they go above and beyond for Nebraska’s children every single day.

Above all, we’re here to ensure every child in Nebraska has the very best start in life. High-quality early care can make a tremendous difference in the future of our state, and we’re determined to make sure every child has access to it. Quality matters.



A Big Thank You for Early Childhood Professionals

As Nebraska’s quality rating and improvement system, Step Up to Quality has a mission to support and provide resources to those who are doing essential work in the early childhood education field. These benefits range from personal recommendations for improvement and financial incentives to something just as vital: gratitude and encouragement for our participating programs.

“Thank you doesn’t seem like enough, but I would like to extend a sincere, heartfelt thank you for the hard work of early childhood professionals, their selfless dedication and abundant love that they provide to the children and families they’re caring for,” said Lynne Cook, the coach specialist at Step Up to Quality. “They’re not babysitters. They’re professionals who have the incredible power and responsibility to prepare each child for their future success.”

Whether your program has been enrolled in Step Up to Quality for a while, is just starting out or is curious about what we do, we acknowledge and appreciate the hard work you’re doing. You’re building the foundation for people’s lives, which is already an important task, and the pandemic made it even more challenging. In addition to educating children and keeping them safe, their health became a bigger factor than ever. You have the courage to show up and be your best each and every day for your families — and we thank you for that.

Participating in Step Up to Quality is a continual source of encouragement

Gratitude and encouragement are ingrained in our coaching practices, too. Our intention is to be a partner in supporting and elevating programs. Providers have the option to be coached by an early childhood professional, who will guide and support them as they navigate the Step Up to Quality process. Coaches make sure that no one feels overwhelmed or isolated on their journey to even higher quality practices.

Our coaches respect what programs are aiming for, focusing on strengths while bringing to light some areas that may need a little attention or consideration. Our participating programs tell us over and over that this free coaching is one of the biggest benefits.

“Providers and teachers are educating the next generation, and we’re here to lift them up and encourage them to be the best they can be because that’s what we all want,” said Lauri Cimino, director of Step Up to Quality. “We want successful children and families, and that in turn will lead to successful communities.”

When programs decide to participate in Step Up to Quality, they’re also showing their families and community that they’re committed to going above and beyond to provide quality care and education for young children. We know this is a commitment that’s at the core of what providers do, and they’re already creating great experiences for children in their care. By being a part of Step Up to Quality, programs are formalizing and publicizing their efforts, and we even help amplify those efforts with our find a provider tool. Each participating program also has its own web page on our site.

The Step Up to Quality team and participating programs are a supportive network, and we’re here to uplift every early childhood professional, because every role in the lives of children is meaningful. Whether you’re a current participant or are thinking about enrolling, our team would love to help answer any questions you may have.



Tips and Tools for Teaching Children Emotional Skills

Children can experience a wide range of emotions throughout a single day, but they aren’t always able to recognize and understand emotions in themselves and others. That’s why it’s important for children to learn emotional skills in early childhood education settings.

More broad emotions, like happiness and anger, are generally picked up by children on their own. In experiments, researchers have found that 5- to 6-year-old children can identify both happy and angry faces with very high levels of accuracy. At the same time, recognition of sad faces can take years longer, with kids as old as 10 misinterpreting sad facial expressions as fearful ones.

Understanding emotions plays a fundamental role in the development of children’s social competence, which is why Step Up to Quality includes supporting emotional development in our rating of early childhood education providers and offers access to coaching and resources to improve it.

Tools to Practice Emotions

 Labeling and talking about emotions is a good place to start in supporting children’s emotional skill development. In one study of emotion identification, researchers gave typically-developing elementary school students training in the identification and self-production of facial cues. After only six, half-hour sessions, children improved their ability to read emotions compared with controls. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) experience a deficit in facial emotion recognition, but practice has shown to improve their ability, too.

As part of our efforts to help early child care providers and educators recognize and improve quality, Step Up to Quality has developed our own set of emotion identification cards that you can download, print and utilize for free in the classroom or at home. There are two deck versions available: one with illustrated faces and one with blank faces. The blank faces deck presents the opportunity for children to draw in emotions as part of an activity.

Download the Card Decks

Illustrated Card DeckBlank Card DeckPrintable Instructions

How to Use Emotion Identification Cards

 While social skills develop all throughout life, they grow most rapidly between the ages of 0 and 5. These cards can start being incorporated into curriculum for children as young as 18 months. Here are a few activity recommendations for engaging different age groups.

For children ages 18 months to 3 years:

  • Hold the stack of cards face down and flip them over one at a time to name each emotion.
  • Show children a card at random, ask them to act out the face pictured, then name the emotion together.
  • Place multiple cards on a table. Name one of the emotions showing and ask children to identify which face you described.

For children ages 4 to 5 years:

  • Hold the cards fanned out and ask children to pick them one by one until they find the emotion that they are feeling at the moment.
  • Have children choose a card and talk about a time when they felt that way. What happened, and what was it like?
  • Choose a card, name the emotion and discuss what you could do if someone around you was feeling this way.
  • Print off the deck with blank faces for the children. Walk through the cards individually, talking about what each emotion looks like and what situations may cause it to be felt. Then let the children draw in the face of that emotion after each card is discussed.

Have other ideas for emotion identification games? Share it with the Step Up to Quality team, and we may feature your classroom on our social media!