Early learning programs benefit from teachers with advanced degrees

Children’s Creative Learning Center director Silvia Valdes (far left) with teachers Janice Lopez (middle) and Libby Kirsch (far right) interact with Amber Badal (center) and her 5-year-old daughter, Alisa (in blue) and Ximena Eraso, 6 (in yellow), both students at the Center.

For many parents, choosing an early childcare center is a first step in preparing their children for kindergarten or elementary school. But the quality of education can vary widely and parents often don’t know how to fully assess available programs. Even places that advertise credentialed teachers can mislead parents.

According to the Florida Department of Children and Families, the regulatory department that oversees child care facilities, all early childhood center staff are required to complete a 45-hour introductory to child care training program and one staff member must hold a current certificate in first aid and infant and child CPR. Beyond these minimum guidelines, it’s up to each individual center to determine how the center delivers educational material, if at all.

“Research suggests professionals with advanced degrees are knowledgeable about the domains of child development and are able to recognize and encourage the development of emerging skills,” says Melinda Perry, quality improvement specialist at FIU Quality Counts Team, and Alison Gonzalez, quality improvement manager. “The interventions and curriculum provide the educational and social-emotional experiences required to facilitate the accomplishment of developmental steps.”

Quality Counts is a voluntary improvement program that reviews early learning programs, offering support and incentives to help providers reach their goals and improve the quality of early care and education programs in Miami-Dade County. As part of the program, Perry and Gonzalez see a wide variety of programs offered in Miami-Dade County. Year after year, the Children’s Creative Learning Center at FIU stands out among the best.

“At Children’s Creative Learning Center, the staff works together for the best interest of each child,” Perry says. “The teachers talk to the young children in a manner that encourages problem solving and respect for others. Children, beginning with the youngest group, are taught the value of self-help skills. The commitment to the children is noticeable from the moment one walks in the door of the center.”

As an early learning program at FIU, the Children’s Creative Learning Center is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (an accreditation division of AdvancED), which requires additional teacher qualifications. The center routinely surpasses DCF regulations, where all teachers hold bachelor’s degrees or higher in early childhood or elementary education. In addition, all staff members – teachers and administrators alike – are certified in infant, child and adult CPR and first aid. The center also outpaces the AdvancED Accreditation Early Learning Standards, and is just one of five early childhood programs in Miami to hold accreditation from the organization.

“Having the foundational background tied in with experience in the classroom is what differentiates the teachers here between a day care and other early learning programs,” says Silvia Valdes, director of the Children’s Creative Learning Center. Under her leadership, the center met 377 of the 378 standards through accreditation. Valdes says that having teachers with advanced degrees makes a huge difference in helping students achieve both learning of knowledge, and developing social and emotional skills.

A Children’s Creative Learning Center student plays with Tantrix, a developmental math game.

“Our teachers know what appropriate developmental activities are for the age group,” Valdes says. “They have planning time each week where they prepare activities based on the individual needs and developmental skills of students, such as improving fine motor skills with activities like cutting or ripping paper. We also target social emotional goals for students. For instance, if they struggle with separating from the parent, how can we help them with transitioning to school? We take the time to help the children understand why they feel sad or why they have tears to show them how to manage their emotions.”

For parents like Amber Badal ’16, the educational background of teachers was a big factor when selecting an early learning program for her children.

“I’m a pediatric nurse practitioner and while I know what the end goal should be in raising my small children, I did not know exactly how to get them there,” Badal says. “I did not get my degree in early childhood education as all of the teachers at the center have.”

Badal’s children were home with family until the age of two. But she recognized that family care had its limitations. “We wanted them to start a more formal education,” she says. “We fully entrust [the center] with the developing minds of our children and because of their education, we know that our children are in good hands.”

Oliver Solorzano, whose two daughters attended the center, also feels the educational background of the teachers helped his daughters prepare for elementary school.

“Our oldest daughter graduated from there last year after completing kindergarten,” Solorzano says. “She is currently attending Archimedean Academy and is a superb student. We believe that foundation was set at the center.”

Lilian Solorzano (left) with her daughter Lorena, 5, and teacher Libby Kirsch.

Another unique quality at the center is parent involvement, which is not only encouraged, but required.

“Observations can help parents understand how to handle situations,” Valdes says. “We want to create consistency at home and in school. When we meet with parents, we can talk about things going on at home like, if the child is having a hard time going to bed at night or getting ready in the morning. It provides support for the parents, too.”

Solorzano underscores this aspect. “Our style of teaching at home, the basic communication both emotional and verbal, have been influenced by the observations of the communication methods applied by teachers at the center,” he says.

Badal also feels that the center has supported her as a parent.

“It has made us the parents we are today,” she says, “and I know that the parenting and life skills that my entire family is learning there is going to benefit us 10 years down the road as well, as we face the daunting task of raising our teenagers.”

For more information about the Children’s Creative Learning Center, visit children.fiu.edu.