Early Childhood Experiences from Birth with Cynthia Jackson
May 16, 2023
Early Childhood Experiences from Birth with Cynthia Jackson

Research shows that children who have had access to early childhood experiences show up to kindergarten more prepared to learn because they have improved cognitive development, motor skills, and behavior expectations. Those who don’t have access aren’t as prepared to learn and typically start out their formal education a bit behind. This can cause challenges for years to come.

What we need is tools and resources to help support young children, before they head to kindergarten, so they can be prepared to thrive.

That’s what Cynthia Jackson is doing at Educare.

In this episode of the podcast, I sit down with Cynthia, the Executive Director of Educare, a learning lab that advances quality learning with partnerships, policy, and research so every child can thrive.

We talk about how children are learning from birth, the responsibilities of early childhood professionals, how data can create a continuous quality improvement mindset, and how other educators can get involved.

About Cynthia Jackson:

Cynthia D. Jackson leads the Educare Learning Network, a generative, coast-to-coast network of high-quality birth-to-five schools that function as innovative learning labs for the field of early childhood education. In her dual role as Senior Vice President at Start Early, she works alongside other senior leaders to advance the organization’s mission. In collaboration with the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, Educare Learning Network school leaders and other early childhood stakeholders, Cynthia advances practice, research and policy solutions to create greater system-wide impact. Prior to joining Start Early, she served as national director of training and technical assistance for Healthy Families America at Prevent Child Abuse America and director of the Midwest Learning Center for Family Support at Family Focus, Inc. Cynthia holds a master’s degree in counseling and health education from the University of North Texas.

Jump in the Conversation:

[1:50] – Where advocacy for young learners began for Cynthia
[3:30] – Children learn from day one
[4:18] – What is Educare and how does it contribute to a critical development stage
[5:25] – How partnerships in Educare work
[8:19] – The difference between children who have had access to early childhood experiences vs. those who haven’t
[9:25] – How Educare addresses policy
[12:05] – How Educare manages the dynamic of cutting vs. adding
[13:02] – Innovative learning labs
[16:30] – Theory of change model
[17:35] – Parents are first and best teachers
[18:29] – Ways listeners can help shake up the resources for early childhood education
[20:42] – Turbo Time
[24:15] – Cynthia’s Magic Wand
[26:01] – Maureen’s Takeaways

Links & Resources



Maureen O’Shaughnessy 0:03
Hello fellow parents and educators. Thank you for joining me at Education Evolution, where we are disrupting the status quo in today’s learning models. We talk about present day education, what’s broken, who’s fixing it, and how. I’m Dr. Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your host and founder of Education, Evolution, micro school coalition, and co founder of Edactive. I consult and train with schools and leaders who are fiercely committed to changing the narrative, reimagining the education landscape, and creating learning that serves all children and prepares them to thrive. If you are new, welcome to the podcast. Please subscribe on our website to get it delivered to your inbox weekly. If you’ve been around a while, have you left a review?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:08
Hi, Cynthia, it is so good to have you on Education Evolution.

Cynthia Jackson 1:12
Thank you. Thank you for having me, Maureen.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:14
And listeners today I’m chatting with Cynthia D. Jackson, who serves as the executive director of the Educare Learning Network. This network is a coast to coast network of high quality birth to five schools. That function is innovative learning labs. On top of that, Cynthia is Senior VP at start early, a national nonprofit of leaders in early learning and care, addressing policy research and forming partnerships across the country. So Cynthia, you sound so busy, let’s dive in.

Cynthia Jackson 1:47
Okay, let’s go.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:50
I’m sure you’ve always been an advocate of our youngest learners, where did this story of wanting to be a part of transforming this education experience begin for you?

Speaker 2 2:02
It actually began in I’ll say, really college, and I have the interest in the health sciences, and didn’t quite know exactly what I wanted to do. But I started out with a health education, health promotion background, from a formal educational training standpoint, and worked over the years at every level of public health, basically, city, state, county, and then the national level. And what I discovered is that the earlier we start with children and their families, the better potential we have for their law, lifelong access, be it in education, be it with their health, and all facets of their life. And so that’s how I came to really want to work in the early childhood space. And I’ve done that both with home visiting programs, as well as family support programs, professional development of staff that work in these areas, as well as center based programming, which is the edge care learning network. Network of schools.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 3:12
Wow. I think that’s wonderful that you went from Hmm. I have this college education and have taken it. I feel like we have said kindergartens, important. Come on, we’re going to make that mandatory. We’re going to take it from half day to full day and a preschool is not a bad idea. But I agree with you, what are we doing zero to five? How intentional are we?

Cynthia Jackson 3:34
Absolutely what we know all the research tells us about brain development is that children are actually born learning they’re learning even in utero. They sense they feel. And so it’s really important that from the earliest years and birth through five in that early childhood space, and even up to eight years old, which is also categorized as early childhood, we put our best effort forward to ensure that our children have what they need, again, to be successful, both from, you know, the social, emotional, cognitive development standpoint. And that’s the beginning of their life. And it’s critical time.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 4:17
Yes. So what is Educare? And how does it contribute to this critical development stage?

Speaker 2 4:24
Well, Maureen, you mentioned it just a little bit in your opening. It’s a it’s a network of 25 schools across the country. We are learning labs, we are learning what works best for which children in which community settings in which cultural expression, and we formed together with a specific goal of ensuring again and I hate to be repetitive that every child has a good start in life. Our mission is to advance quality early learning experiences through partnerships and innovation around both program practice, policy and research so that every child can thrive. And that’s our, that’s our basic mission. And these 25, schools are voluntary. So they come together because they want to be a part of this network. And each of them has a specific role that they play around those three elements that I mentioned, both the, you know, the high quality programming, advocacy and policy and evaluation and research.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 5:23
So, tell me about the partnerships. Is it like Microsoft hosts one? Or they? I mean, how does I don’t understand the partnership piece yet?

Cynthia Jackson 5:32
Yeah, the partnership. Yeah, the partnerships are critical. What we know about early childhood, in this country is that there’s not enough early childhood for all the children that are in that age range five to 6 million children that don’t have high quality early learning. And so we really want to make sure that when we start these Educare programs first started here in Chicago, and we had a philanthropic foundation, the urban Harris foundation that worked with start early to develop the first educator, which was on the south side of Chicago. And you need that through philanthropy, really, to close what we call the opportunity gaps. So the Educare programs consist of Head Start early Head Start child care, school dollars. So that’s the public funding stream, as well as private dollars from philanthropy. Community Partnerships, also, typically a school district, or school will also be a partner to the edge care school in every community. And it’s those partnerships that really fuel how educator can survive in a community, how it can actually come to a community, and then how it can address all of these areas, not just the high quality educational program in the early childhood space, but also have the resources for advocacy so that more children can receive high quality early learning. And every program also has what we call a low local evaluation partner, again, that word partnership, and our local evaluators collect resource data and information from both the children, the families, as well as the staff about what’s working well, and where we could make changes or improve. So it’s a continuous quality improvement cycle with our evaluation partners. So partnerships for us are critical. That’s what this model is built on. And there are other partners and communities, which we’ll be talking about some of those today, you know, as we talk about nutrition, because no one program can do all this work themselves. So you have to have community partners that come in, that could help parents and families with if there are, you know, additional needs that the family might have nutrition needs, and the community housing needs back to school for the parents, all kinds of resources that people in America typically have, but everybody doesn’t have it because of the inequities that exist. Yeah.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 8:05
Well, I love that this is holistic, this is wraparound, because our youngest learners aren’t widgets that just need to go to a daycare and learn something. That’s not what you’re talking about. So you, you just mentioned that not every child has access to something like this. What do you see in communities that maybe have very limited resources? What do you see as the difference of a child who has had access to Educare? And a child who hasn’t when they enter public school for kindergarten?

Cynthia Jackson 8:40
Yeah, what we know about children who have an early childhood experience is that they actually show up for kindergarten, much more well prepared to learn from both the cognitive standpoint, their language skills are better, their physical and motor development is often better. And they understand from a social and emotional development standpoint, you know, the behaviors and the expectations of being in a in a structured, you know, classroom setting. And those children that don’t have that early childhood experience, are not as prepared to show up to kindergarten ready to learn.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 9:16
Okay. Wow. I’m always curious, because policy kind of scares me. I’ve been in K 12. And I’m not sure who behind the curtain makes all those policy decisions. Can you explain what your role is and how you impact policy?

Speaker 2 9:32
Well, we address policy from the both the local level as well as the state and the federal level as well, because there are local policies that are in place that either can support children and families in the space or it could be prohibitive, prohibitive or not as family friendly or not as child friendly. And so our responsibility as early childhood professionals, as part of this educational on the network is to actually drive a policy agenda for early childhood, because it impacts at the, you know, the federal level as well. We have a partner the first five years from that as our federal advocacy partner. But we also address it at the state and local level. So as funding is being allocated for early childhood, for education for food programs, like snap, you know, nutrition programs, we’re right there advocating to ensure that families who are typically in under resourced communities actually have access to high quality services and supports for the Early Childhood space. So we have a policy agenda. We call it the Educare five public policy agenda that focuses on universal childcare for all children stable and supported families, thriving a thriving early childhood workforce. And if you’ve been, you know, keeping up with the news, we know that we’ve got a crisis in their early childhood space, as well as you know, all teachers across America. So we need to have a thriving early childhood workforce, healthy and supportive families. And this is where, you know, our physical mental health come into play, and strong early childhood systems in every community. And those systems again, you know, typically are run by state agencies that administer Headstart dollars, early headstart dollars, nutrition, you know, funding and things of that nature. So that’s our responsibility. We take that on as part of Oh, the educator Learning Network.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 11:40
Wow. I can see in both sides, from an outsider’s view, I don’t have a good sense of how policy happens. But I can see those that decide going, of course, our babies are vulnerable babies, we’ve got to make sure that they have these resources. I can also hear them saying, Oh, my gosh, we’re already stretched too thin, and we’re trying to cut not add, how do you manage that dynamic?

Cynthia Jackson 12:06
That’s a tough question. And, I mean, we don’t get in debates, you know, about right, which, which, which thing, you know, the federal government or your local communities or your state system should fund, we just advocate for what we know, early childhood is the beginning of life. And if we’re not paying attention to what happens with children and families in the early childhood space, we are really not considering how these children will grow up to be productive, contributing members of our society. And so we we stay right there. And children are vulnerable. And families are vulnerable. And so we advocate for that. And we just build the case around, you know, what the brain science and the research has told us for many, many years, the critical importance of the early years.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 12:57
And that makes sense. Yeah. So I love that the phrase, innovative learning labs, to me, sometimes it’s like, oh, daycare, I drop my kid off, and they get babysat. And they take a nap and whatever. And that’s like, that sounds really passive. And so innovative learning labs, some so dynamic, tell me more?

Cynthia Jackson 13:20
Well, you know, innovation is to take a look at what you’re currently doing, and trying to understand how to do it better. So, you know, I think I mentioned that a continuous quality improvement mindset. And so we look at, you know, the curriculum that we might use with children, we look at where children are, in their development, you know, be it again, the social emotional development, or the cognitive to development. And if it isn’t, doesn’t seem to be working for one child, or one group of children, we change, we try something different. That’s what we’re talking about, like a learning lab, we’re always open to try to learn, what are the strategies? What are the interventions? What are the supports that children need? What are the supports that families need to be successful in this space. And by, you know, collecting, research, and evaluating our work, we can then support our teachers, and our leaders and our families, support staff and family support advocates in the schools to actually meet the needs of families and meet the needs of children where they are. So we’re always learning,

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 14:31
resilient and lifelong learning. Boy, we all need that as individuals. So for Educare to be doing that, as an organization is powerful. And yes, I know in the K 12 system that there are accreditation models where an outside source comes in every five or seven years and checks, looks at our mission, looks at our resources looks at what we’re doing. And it’s valuable, but it doesn’t really drive the day to day because it’s not enough research and doesn’t cover enough in a two day visit, what you have built into your model is deeper evaluation than I’ve heard of in any other school setting.

Cynthia Jackson 15:09
Yeah, and it’s not easy. I will say that. But every one of the schools has their local evaluation partner that collects the data, they share that data with our national evaluation partners, who are at Frank Porter Graham at the University of North Carolina, they analyze the data, they provide it back to the local evaluation partner, local evaluation partner, works with the staff locally, in what we call research program partnerships for data dialogues to explain here is the information that we collect it. And this is what it potentially could mean. And let’s think about what are some strategies to address what we’re finding in our data. And that’s how we use it. So we use that data as best we can. And also, there’s formative data that goes on in some of the schools also, which are, you know, more real time daily kinds of activities around understanding what’s happening in the classroom setting with the children. We’ve got, I mean, there’s probably about 100 100, researchers across the country that are connected with university settings, some of them are embedded in the educator schools themselves, that are collecting this research. So very powerful. Yeah, and you know, our model, we have a theory of change. And our theory of change has, you know, four components, one of the first components of that model is a theory of change is data utilization. So we’re using data continuously to improve our practice. It’s high quality teaching and learning in the classroom setting. So that could be you know, use of curriculum and different kinds of models to engage the children ensure that they’re getting a high quality, early learning experience. There’s embedded professional development, which is coaching, and mentoring that happens with the teachers and the family support staff as they’re doing their job for, again, continuous improvement. And then to just have a peer to talk with about, you know, I tried this strategy with this particular child, because I wanted to see if I could, you know, help support their learning and development in this particular space. And it didn’t quite work. What do you think I could try different so it’s the peer to peer relationship. And then that’s the embedded professional development. And then finally, in terms of family engagement, so we do not do this alone. We know that our parents, our first our best teachers, they know their children better than anyone else. And the parents are the lifelong advocates have their children in the educational space. So we partner with the parents, as well, to help address, you know, what did they know about the children make that homeschool connection between the child and their parents and the teachers? We’re all in this together, supporting the child’s development and collateral surprise, it’s also what can we do to help and support parents, because they are the ones that are experiencing whatever challenges they may address in their own individual communities. And typically, our programs are in communities that are, you know, historically under resourced communities. So the partnerships and the parents and the model are really, really critical for what we’re doing.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 18:26
Yes. So for our listeners, what would be some ways that they could help us shake up the status quo in our zero to five, education and resources? There’s got to be some ways outsiders can be helping make a difference and serving your cause.

Cynthia Jackson 18:44
Yeah, I, you know, I would just reiterate that early childhood is the most critical developmental space, that when you understand the brain science and you understand that children are born learning, and that you know, daily, there are, you know, a million neuron connections that are happening from infancy every second, that lead to positive early experiences that can change the brain architecture and impact learning behavior and overall well being. That’s a reason why we need to invest more in the early childhood space. And we know that those you know, the fundamental importance of early learning helps us to create sturdy and the and, and sturdy foundation, brain foundation for ongoing development life law, and there are not enough children in America in the space that are receiving this comprehensive high quality for day, all year early learning experience that includes not just you know, as you mentioned before, this is not babysitting. This is early childhood development and supporting the ongoing development of children. So we’d like for more children in America to have access to this, all children should be universal. There should be no discrepancy or despairs, disparity between, you know, where a child may be born or the zip code that they’re in. And they have poor, right, early learning experiences versus other children that perhaps couldn’t afford their families can afford to purchase high quality early learning. And so that would be, you know, some of the things that I would share with folks around why this is important. This is our future

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 20:30
Absolutely. This is our future. Yes. Cynthia, I like to pivot, before we wrap up and get to know the person behind the program. May I ask you a few turbo time questions?

Cynthia Jackson 20:44

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 20:45
wonderful. What is the last book you read?

Speaker 2 20:49
Finally, me A Memoir by Viola Davis, an actress, and she talks about her early life experience that is so important, and some of the deprivation that she experienced as a young person. And so it just, you know, it just warms my heart to see someone that came out of that kind of struggle, and situation and an under research, under resourced, I’m sorry. And under nourish, community, environmental, environmentally stressed community, and to have some success. And there are stories like that for just common folks that aren’t, you know, actresses and actors are, you know, well known individuals. But that’s a very inspiring story.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 21:36
Oh, yes. How about two inspirational folks that you’d like to meet, they can be in history, they can be in literature and not real people, they can be present day.

Cynthia Jackson 21:49
Harriet Tubman. And Frederick Douglass?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 21:56
Yes. What is one passion you bring to educare?

Cynthia Jackson 22:01
I just love this work. I am passionate about it. Because I am one of those black and brown children that people are worrying about, right. And I was told that my parents, I should say, were told when I was in kindergarten, that I was behind. And so I am an example of that I moved from one school district, in kindergarten to another school district in first grade. And you could imagine one was a highly resource in my first grade, and they were already the children were already reading in first grade, and I was not. And that bothered me and plagued me. And I’ve had experiences like that almost every educational step of the way. Even in college, you know, they would tell, you know, people show up in college that, you know, look around, look to your right, look to your left, you know, one or two of you guys won’t be here. And I thought how that is horrible to start a freshman in college with that poor trajectory of outcome and success. And so that motivates me to be passionate to, I would say, drive against those kinds of stereotypes or negative insights about individuals and what they are capable of, if given the right opportunities. And so we’re talking about the opportunity gap here, right, people that have less resources, less resource communities, lack of resources overall. And when given those opportunities, and when given those resources, they can excel. And so that’s why you know, I love this work, I work with a group of individuals across this country of 1000, folks, 1000s of folks who also are passionate about this, and who knows that every child in America deserves a high quality early learning experience. And their parents also need support, and they need to live out their hopes and dreams, as well. And so that’s why I do this work and wild love and so much.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 24:09
It shows. Well, thank you, Cynthia, I wrap up our interview with a magic wand moment. So I’m giving you the education evolution magic wand, and you are the fairy godmother of all babies, children, zero to five, what are you bestowing upon them?

Cynthia Jackson 24:32
I would bestow upon them the opportunity for an early learning, care and education experience that meets the needs of the families in their cultural context in their communities that provide what families need for themselves, to take care of their children and to take care of them well and be it within an early childhood setting and what children need which is a high quality early learning experience, so to meet the needs of children and families in this country, and I would also, you know, wave my magic wand so that America highly values children. And I don’t think that that comes across as clearly as crisply. And as concretely as I think we needed to have to have that happen in America, we should highly value our children because they are the future. And they are the next generation that will lead and guide this country.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 25:35
Absolutely. Cynthia, Educare And our youngest learners are so lucky to have you as a fierce advocate. Thank you for being our guest on education evolution today.

Cynthia Jackson 25:47
Well, thank you so much, Maureen. It’s been a pleasure. Have a great day.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 25:51
Thank you, you too.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 26:01
With you believe we got our wires crossed. There was an agency that had shared Cynthia’s bio with me, and I created questions around the educational needs of our zero to five community. And she came on the show prepared to talk about nutritional needs. Cynthia navigated the conversation beautifully. I didn’t even know this disconnected happen until after we were done recording the happy outcome. Cynthia will be back on education, evolution, addressing nutrition in the near future. Children are born learning. That was such a cool statement. Of course they are. But when Cynthia said it, it really clicked. There’s a lot of research telling us what we can provide so that these first five years of life are full of children learning with a foundation of well being and in a direction that prepares them for kindergarten. Sadly, there is a huge need to close an opportunity gap in our country, and globally. I appreciate how Cynthia partners to be advocates for policies that support the healthy development of our youngest and most fragile members of the human community.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 27:17
I am including links in the show notes to both if the organization’s Cynthia serves. Many of the attributes and program features she’s discussed are worth following up on. I particularly appreciate that they have a continuous quality improvement mindset. That takes a lot of work and openness. collecting data, analyzing it, and then using it to inform decisions is time intensive. It also requires honesty, and a willingness to address concerns or deficits face on. It is extra powerful that all 25 of these innovative learning labs are collecting data, and the University of North Carolina is analyzing it, and is able to use the various learning labs to compare and contrast if helpful. The data dialogues that follow are a positive way to be curious about data and explore possible enhancements to the program. Clear outcomes, with data informing progress greatly improves the success of an organization. When Cynthia said that she was that kid who faced the various barriers and racial disadvantages. It touched my heart. Knowing that pain and being a force for good so that others might not have that experience is impressive. And I feel humbled and her magic wand. Yes, every child deserves the opportunity for Early Learning care, and to have a family who has the resources needed to support their happy and healthy development. We need to meet the needs of families and children. Stay tuned for a future interview with Cynthia. I can’t wait. Thank you for being a part of the education evolution.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 29:20
I know how challenging it is to make changes inside your own school or community. I’ve spent years working with schools around the world on creating learner centered programs. And it always struck me how much schools were able to get done with the right tools and guidance. If you’re ready to make changes like this in your own school, let’s talk and put together an action plan. Visit educationevolution.org/consult for a free 15 minute call. And let’s see if we’re a good fit for more work together. Thanks again for listening to support the edge Case evolution, subscribe so it lands in your podcast app and gets out to more decision makers. Then rate and review it. For more information and shownotes go to educationevolution.org. Education Evolution listeners, you are the ones to ensure we create classrooms where each student is seen, heard, valued and thriving. We are in this together and we need you. Let’s go out and reach every student today. Thank you for listening, signing off. I am Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your partner in boldly reimagining education.


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