Kevin: Kai-lee Berke is a lifelong early childhood educator who has been at the forefront of early childhood education strategies for more than 20 years. She is the co-founder of Noni Educational Solutions, a company dedicated to helping young children affected by trauma. Kai-lee is also the former CEO of Teaching Strategies and has co-authored several books, including The Creative Curriculum for preschoolers.
Kevin: Kai-leé Berke is the co-founder of Noni Educational Solutions, a company dedicated to helping trauma-impacted young children. She also is the former CEO of Teaching Strategies. Kai-leé has been at the forefront of early childhood education strategies for more than 20 years. And she is the co-author of several books including "The Creative Curriculum for Preschool." She's with us today to discuss what preschoolers really need from their teachers and their schools, and what we can do together to deliver it.
Well, Kai-leé, thank you for joining us. I'm so excited to have you on "What I Want to Know." And I'm so struck by your life experiences, and what led you to this work. And I was reading about how you dealt with your mother's illness and the different experiences you and your brother had, and I get the sense that helped guide your approach to early childhood education.
Kai-leé: Going through my early childhood years with a parent who was ill, I really relied on my teachers, my early childhood teachers as my constant. They were the people who loved me and cared for me, and told me that I was special, that I could do anything I wanted. They supported me through that time. And I feel so fortunate for those experiences.
My older brother, he was a little older and, by nature, maybe, didn't have as close of relationships with his teachers, and really missed those years with a supportive adult. And so when I look back at those experiences that we had during those critical years, I credit my teachers with being the people who supported me through that time. And, by doing so, really changed the trajectory of my life.
Kevin: How can we make sure that all kids get that, even if they don't have what they should have at home?
Kai-leé: The work I do now is with trauma-impacted children and families, which makes perfect sense, given my early childhood years and my brother's experience. The most important factor in whether or not a child can survive and thrive after trauma is if they have the presence of a nurturing, supportive adult relationship, and it doesn't have to be with their family. You know, yes, it's wonderful if it is their family, but that's not the case for all children. That's not the case for many children. So having a teacher who can be that person, who can make a child feel supported, make them feel safe, be a trusted and trusting presence in their life, that can actually buffer against the negative impacts of trauma and, you know, what we refer to as ACEs or adverse childhood experiences.
But, I think, it really does take teachers' understanding, you know, why children may behave the way they do. You know, you think of young children coming from a chaotic and unpredictable home environment, when they're in the classroom, they're gonna be the children who are provoking chaos in the classroom. They're gonna be the children who are engaging in dysregulated behaviors. So helping teachers understand that can create some empathy for, you know, why are children behaving this way in my classroom, and that can then lead to a stronger teacher-child relationship.
Kevin: Was that part of the...that approach, that mindset, that helped lead to you writing The Creative Curriculum? Was that part of that?
Kai-leé: All my classroom experiences really guided me toward the importance of relationships. And, even though I ended up in education technology, which might seem like, "Oh, what does that have to do with relationships?" that critical importance of knowing children well.
Kevin: Talk about the thesis behind The Creative Curriculum, and how you blend the need to make sure you're getting these kids ready to learn but at the same time, look, you're showing them love.
Kai-leé: The Creative Curriculum really rests on this idea that relationships are central to all teaching and learning. The primary goal at the start of the year is to establish a nurturing, trusting classroom community where adults and children start to begin to establish that trusting relationship, teachers are working to facilitate relationships between children. And that solid foundation that you established, then allows for you to introduce all of the great content learning that you can do through project-based investigations and by introducing content learning. But, if you don't take the time to establish that foundation, you won't be able to get to all of that other learning.
Children are super close to their development. That's kind of the way I think about it, right? Like, what's happening physiologically in their brains and bodies is just percolating right at the surface. And so if a child is not in a regulated state, right, if they're experiencing stress, they can't access their prefrontal cortex. You know, they literally cannot learn. And so if you haven't done the work of establishing a relationship and helping children to stay in that kind of regulated state, so taking the pressure off, alleviating the stress, then you won't have successful learning outcomes.
Kevin: You had to be an amazing teacher and, you know, had a trusting presence, nurturing presence. Why did you leave teaching?
Kai-leé: I moved on to be an administrator and really a teacher trainer, I felt like, "Okay, I love what I'm doing in the classroom. How can I bring the success of what I've learned to more people?" And so I loved being a program administrator. My job was to go to the schools and be in the classroom and be a teacher coach, and that was awesome. And then I was actually moving and was looking at taking another job like that at a larger organization when the founder of Teaching Strategies and I kind of just happened to meet for lunch, and she said, "Forget about it, you gotta come do this work because if you like being able to influence a hundred teachers, imagine, if you could influence thousands of teachers." And, I think that there was something about that idea of being able to share what I learned through my experience with other people that was really appealing to me.
Kevin: Isn't that the beauty of the challenge of life, when you find your life's work, you figure out where you can make the most impact? And then, as you start making an impact, you say, "Wow, I can also make an impact over there." And then you've gotta balance those things. You started Noni Educational Solutions, and talk to me about what they're doing. You mentioned it's a technology company, which is, you said, it doesn't feel as touchy feely, if that makes sense. But there is value-add, particularly today as we've seen with the pandemic. So talk about Noni.
Kai-leé: So all of the work I'm doing now is focused on supporting trauma-impacted children by helping their teachers and caregivers. Like you said, I mean, that's everything from food and housing and security over the last 18 months to physical, emotional abuse, to the death of a parent, the deployment of a parent, you know, for military families. There's so much adversity that young children are facing. And teachers have this opportunity to be a buffer between the child and the negative impact of trauma.
And so what we've developed at Noni is really a digital coach for a teacher to help guide her through the process of building a relationship through children's displays of dysregulated behaviors. You know, kids who've experienced severe stressors show up in the classroom in stress response mode, and teachers need support to be able to help them regulate so that they can get out of stress response mode and back into learning mode.
When the child is aggressively defying safety rules or they're running out of the classroom, a teacher actually needs to know what do I do right now, how do I handle this, and then how do I help them build the skills or the replacement behaviors later so that that doesn't happen again. So that's one component that teachers feel very supported by, it's giving them information that they immediately need.
Another piece, and this may sound a little touchy feely, but I think a really critical thing that we should be talking about in education is teacher self-care. So a primary component of Noni also is helping teachers establish and maintain a self-care practice. So how do teachers stay regulated when there is a chaotic moment in a classroom or a child is behaving aggressively, how do they come back to center. And so, throughout the day, we prompt them with encouragement. We check in on how they're feeling. At the end of the day, we prompt them with a little 3-minute self-care exercise, but to help remind them that, you know, people are here for them, we care about them, their self-care is just as important if not more important so that they can show up for the children and families they serve.
Kevin: Oftentimes, the structure of schools, even the structure of some large daycare centers are the opposite of that, where the relationship is not at the center. It's administrative expediency, if you will, it's, this is the room that we've been given, or this is the bell schedule. There are all these things... And I remember, you know, Howard Fuller who was a former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools once said to me, and I use this when I was overseeing DC schools and having budget hearings that, you know, when you build a school budget or a school administration, you strip away everything except the teacher and the student. That's where you start. And then what does the teacher need to help guide the student, and what does the student need to help be in a situation where they can learn from this teacher.
So it's almost like building the budget from scratch because, oftentimes, budgets are built based on we've got to take care of this building, we've got to take care this classroom, we've gotta paint...but if you really start with being at the center, I mean, doesn't that make sense that everything that we do in education should really begin every budget, every curriculum discussion, every discussion about resources, what do those two most important entities need in order to grow? I think that we're losing that so how would you suggest that schools take that approach for preschoolers?
Kai-leé: I think we probably have the best shot of doing it in preschool. And, hopefully, if we can do it successfully in preschool, then it will have a trickle-up effect, because I think we should be doing it in high school too. I think it's sometimes a little easier for folks to understand when we're talking about 3 and 4-year-olds and so I think that's why we have the best shot. People tend to get that 3 and 4-year-olds still need love and nurture. Again, I'd argue a twelfth grader still needs love and nurture just as much as that 3 and 4-year-old but...so it's a little bit easier to make the argument for orienting that way. I think you're seeing more school districts embrace policies and curriculum approaches that do put an emphasis on relationships.
And if then, you know, there's always a data story that has to be told in education for the good and the bad of it, but if we could get some of those programs that are doing a really beautiful job being relationship-centered and show that children actually then have better long-term outcomes, you know, then, maybe, we can help make that change faster. Now I wish that they would just listen to what you said and everybody would flip the switch.
Kevin: Well, look, I'll tell you what, I didn't read the whole thing, but I'm gonna finish it. I love The Creative Curriculum. I love the heart and soul in that. This is what I really wanna know, how can we measure a teacher's ability to develop the right relationships with each preschooler in their classroom?
Kai-leé: I think there is a way but I think that it's a more holistic approach to assessment than we're used to. There's not gonna be a way to do it where it's a child's interfacing with an iPad.
Kevin: Love it, love it.
Kai-leé: If we take into account multiple types of measurement. So I do think there's always a place for looking at child outcomes. We need to show that children are making gains, and they're progressing. There are tools like CLASS, which measure teacher-child interactions in a classroom. Administrators need to observe their teachers and classrooms and know what to observe for. You know, I used to tell parents when they would ask me, "How do I know if it's a good preschool? I'm looking for a preschool for my child, how do I know?" And I would say, "Just sit there for 10 minutes and does it feel like the children are loved. And if the children are loved, it's a good program."
Kevin: That's the measurement because, I think, that the measurement metrics we use for preschoolers should not be the same measurement metrics we use for high schoolers, and this idea of kids feeling loved and making sure we don't snuff out that love of learning before they get started, we don't snuff out that innate curiosity, that has to be the starting point. How we measure, that's what I'm gonna suggest. I would say, "Kai-leé Berke said what we need to do is have everyone sit in a classroom of preschoolers for 10 minutes, and if the kids feel loved, we're rocking and rolling. That's what we're gonna do."
Kai-leé: I love it.
Kevin: Well, look, Kai-leé Berke, you're doing a lot of amazing things and I really appreciate you taking the time to join us on "What I Want to Know." Thank you so much.
Kai-leé: Thank you so much for having me.
Kevin: Thanks for joining "What I Want to Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining "What I Want to Know."
Kai-lee Berke is a lifelong early childhood educator who has been at the forefront of early childhood education strategies for more than 20 years. She is the co-founder of Noni Educational Solutions, a company dedicated to helping young children affected by trauma. Kai-lee is also the former CEO of Teaching Strategies and has co-authored several books, including The Creative Curriculum for preschoolers.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.