Let Us Introduce You to the 2023 DIEEC Educators of the Year

Split-screen image of the 2023 DIEEC Early Childhood Educators of the Year: Kristen Swift (left side) and Lindsey Mulvena (right side)

Lindsey Mulvena – Center-based setting winner (St. David’s Episcopal Day School)

Lindsey is known for being the most patient and kind teacher who strives to create fun experiences for her students while teaching and keeping them safe. Her director referred to her as “an extraordinary teacher who is loving with the children and a strong communicator with their families.” Lindsey started in the two-year-old classroom and is currently teaching pre-kindergarten. She has her master’s degree and teaches courses at Wilmington University.

Kirsten Swift – Home-based setting winner

Playful learning is one of many things that describes Kirsten’s approach to teaching. With twenty-nine years of experience, she is known for her varied innovations and ability to balance child-led and teacher-led learning experiences that result in a meaningful play-based environment. Her level of dedication, kindness, respect, and love for the children in her care, while celebrating their unique differences, shines through in the videos she shares monthly with her families. She is also growing an outdoor learning space which adds to the thriving growth of her students. Kirsten has her bachelor’s degree.

We asked Kirsten and Lindsey to share a little bit about themselves. 

DIEEC: How did you choose early childhood education as your profession? Who is someone who inspired or influenced you?

Lindsey Mulvena: “I began my teaching career as an elementary school teacher. Once I had my own children, I stayed at home with them. When my youngest child was two, I registered her for the two’s program at St. David’s and was notified that a position was open there. I was fortunate enough to get that position as a Pre-K teacher. I enjoyed my own children so much while they were preschoolers that I knew preschool would be a great fit for me as an educator. So many of my colleagues at St. David’s have inspired me throughout the years—from my director (and her dedication to our staff through COVID), my assistant teachers (who are so patient and compassionate with the children), and my fellow teachers (who work so hard every day to make St. David’s a welcoming environment). I also learned so much from Bev Igo, a seasoned three’s teacher, who retired during COVID. She inspired me to make connections with each child and provide activities and books that were developmentally appropriate for our students.”

Kirsten Swift: “I knew from a young age that I wanted to not only be a teacher but to also one day have my own preschool. This dream was inspired in me by my preschool teacher, Mrs. Kelly. I fondly remember being a little girl in her home-based preschool. From singing and crafting in the classroom to rolling down the hill and climbing the big stone wall outside, I remember feeling happy and free. I hope to provide this same happy and carefree feeling to my little sprouts as they come to school each day.”

DIEEC: What do you see as your philosophy on teaching young children?

LM: “My philosophy for teaching young children is to treat them as my own children. It is also important to show them respect first, valuing their thoughts and feelings. Once that is established, they will naturally mirror my respect.”

KS: “This is the philosophy I have shared on my website: ‘Teachers who love teaching, teach children to love learning.’ – Robert John Meehan

When a teacher is passionate about learning, she sparks a thirst for knowledge in the children she teaches. Teaching is an opportunity for me to nurture the curiosity of my students. As a teacher, it is my goal to love the children I teach, while instilling in them a love of learning. I hope that each day when my students walk through our classroom door that they feel loved and valued. When my students feel treasured as individuals, that they, in turn, feel safe to be risk-takers in their learning. As a teacher of young children, I strive to foster an environment where my students celebrate their own personal accomplishments and achievements and those of their classmates. Through both shared and personal exploration and experiences, my students will begin to understand that it is through their discoveries with trial and error that their authentic learning begins. Through my twenty-nine years as an educator, I have come to understand and believe that by fostering a sense of wonder and collaboration within my indoor and outdoor classrooms, my students will learn, and more importantly, they will love to learn!”

DIEEC: What is a piece of advice you would share with a fellow early childhood educator? 

LM: “How important it is at the end of the school year to reflect on successes and areas for improvement. It is also extremely important to focus on one or two elements for the following year, so it is not too overwhelming.”

KS: “Step back and let the children lead. When I let go of my expectations, authentic learning experiences unfold naturally through the eyes and hands of the child. This can be a truly magical experience for all members of the classroom. Another good one is to expect the unexpected and be ready to pivot at any moment. Life in the classroom with three and four-year-olds throws any teacher its fair share of curve balls. Seeing this and adjusting is key to meeting the needs of the children I teach.”

DIEEC: Can you tell us about a recent accomplishment you experienced as an early childhood educator that you’re proud of? 

LM: “One recent accomplishment I am proud of was, last year, I was lucky enough to have a student who had a severe communication delay. Although we had challenges, he made me a better teacher and person—I cared for him as my child.”

KS: “I am proud of my ongoing effort to enhance the outdoor classroom of Little Sprouts School. As I opened my preschool last June, I took my foundation in outdoor education and applied what I had gleaned from previous experiences to develop our outdoor learning space. Recently, I was fortunate to be selected as a recipient of the Let’s Go Outside initiative this spring, which was just awesome! I am very excited about the improvements and enhancements underway…and all the ways they will help foster and encourage collaborative and joyful learning in and for my students.”

Tune in this fall to learn more about Lindsey and Kirsten on the DIEEC podcast, X Why Z: Reflections from Early Childhood Professionals, where they will share more about their journey in early childhood education. 

A “Little Bit of Sunshine Daycare & Preschool” Lighting Up Young Children’s Lives

In 1995, Stacy Morgan left her banking career to start her family child care program to spend more time with her one-year-old son. More than 25 years later, she’s helped launch generations of children in Townsend, Delaware, with her investment in creating an environment that facilitates learning and character development.

“At my program, Little Bit of Sunshine Daycare & Preschool, it is important for me to provide not only a safe environment but a loving, nurturing, and play-based/nature-based program,” said Stacy. “A learning environment that is not just learning ABCs and the 123s but is also teaching values such as honesty, courage, self-reliance, potential, self-discipline, and moderation.”

To accomplish these goals, Stacy spends much of the day in the outdoor classroom, where activities are more child-led than teacher-led. Stacy has participated in DIEEC’s “Let’s Go Outside” professional learning experiences, developing her skills to facilitate outdoor learning. The nine children in her care, infants through school age, learn through play and weekly lessons from the “Mother Goose” curriculum, which Stacy uses as a guide to ensure she is touching on each developmental skill daily.

For example, there is a creative corner activity set up outside, and when possible, she adds nature items to use as art tools. Small group literacy and tabletop math are on large wire spools in the outdoor classroom. The children also can practice writing the monthly letters in dirt and/or sand or on the sidewalk with chalk. The curriculum also has STEAM ideas which she sets up in the outdoor classroom for the children to explore all month long. These centers include blocks, sensory, science and nature, outside discovery, and dramatic play.

A fundamental of Stacy’s philosophy includes teaching social and emotional skills. She believes a mixed-age group increases the opportunity to build secure, attached relationships and supports children’s social and emotional development.

According to Stacy, a family child care setting also helps build these skills and facilitates close relationships. “It provides a small, secure environment for children during the most critical development time. Family child care offers a home away from home that provides children with ‘siblings’ of all ages, races, religions, or abilities. It allows them a safe place to play, socialize and learn with friends.

“In my program, I work daily with the children to develop these strong social and emotional skills. I believe it is highly important for them to learn how to manage their emotions, empathize with others, establish healthy relationships, set positive goals, and make responsible decisions,” said Stacy. “My goal is to prepare them to succeed in school and live their best life.” And she is doing all she can to live her best professional life. Stacy is a part of the DIEEC CDA cohort and is working on getting her credential. Additionally, she participates in a Community of Practice to share strategies and insights with her family child care colleagues. And finally, she takes many of the DIEEC professional learning experiences, with “Shining the Light on You,” a health and wellness initiative, being one of her favorites.

“Mr. D” Does His Part: The Influence of Men as Early Childhood Educators

It is imperative to have men in early childhood education, but why? According to recent research by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (naeyc), early childhood education plays a critical part in young children’s gender identity development. When young children do not have relationships with male teachers and caregivers, traditional gender stereotypes become reinforced.

For Darnell Couch, a classroom educator at St. Michael’s School and Nursery, the answer for his career choice is simple: “I absolutely love children.”

Darnell has spent his 25-year career working in early childhood education, primarily teaching four-year-olds. At 18 years old and the oldest of five children, with lots of babysitting in his background, Darnell started working at a center. He had no idea that what began as a way of making extra money would turn into a career and his passion.

“I pour love into each child and am committed to being there for them,” said Darnell. “I give them what I have, and they become a part of my heart.”

When asked about gender stereotypes, specifically about the traditional role of women caring for young children, Darnell understands it. Still, he is unaffected because his presence is entirely positive in his experience with staff, children, and their families. According to Darnell, staff and the children’s families have collaborated highly throughout his career. “They understand I’m trying to make a difference.”

“I’m comfortable with myself,” said Darnell. “Many kids don’t have a male figure in their lives; I’m willing to do what it takes, and if that means being a role model, that’s O.K.”

Besides being there emotionally and socially, Darnell is doing all it takes to be the best educator. He recently received his Child Development Associate (CDA) credential and is pursuing his associate degree in education at Wilmington University.

“We’re all unique,” said Darnell. “Each child is unique, and I may be unique in my role, but that’s how we learn from each other.”

Family Child Care Educator’s Plan for Professional Development Goal – Completing Quorum

With this month’s editorial focus on self-care, our Voice’s from the Field series spotlights a family child care educator who invested in herself by setting a goal and achieving it in her professional development.

Patrice Battaglia shares her approach to completing 120 hours of training through the Quorum online learning platform in three months. This education is the first step in earning the Family Child Care Child Development Association (CDA) credential – Patrice’s ultimate goal. To stay motivated, she kept this goal top of her mind. “Know your reason,” says Patrice.

Here is her strategy. First, have a plan for working on this training. Patrice looked at her schedule for the upcoming months and recognized a three-month window before an infant joined her program. With that timing in mind, she committed to using the two hours while her children were napping to work on classes.

“Budgeting enough time to complete that training is essential,” adds Patrice.

But as an early childhood educator knows, the best-laid plans can often be interrupted because of the unpredictability of schedules. Step two in her strategy is to have a backup plan for setting aside time.

“Life gets in the way,” said Patrice. “Some days, it seemed impossible to sit down during nap time. A sick kiddo may need you or a large mess from the morning’s activities to clean up.

Give yourself grace. The plan may not always work out for you, and that’s ok. Pivot and continue.”

As a result, Patrice would incorporate additional time during the evening hours or Saturday mornings.

“The original plan was 10 hours a week, but as I moved through the courses, it was logical for me to finish one a day,” said Patrice. “A four-hour course I could start at naptime and finish in the evening. The more hours I finished, the more drive I had to knock out additional hours.”

Patrice became driven to take the courses because the new information was “intriguing.”

“It was like finding a book you enjoyed reading. You find every spare moment to dive back into that ‘good book’,” Patrice concludes.

Spotlight on the Professional Learning Experience

Group image of DIEEC Leadership Cohort

We are taking a different approach to this issue’s “Voices from the Field” installment. We are hearing from early childhood educators recently taking the DIEEC professional learning experience (PLE), “The Business of Early Childhood: Leadership Cohort.” This PLE series brought together leaders in the field to build skills to help improve the quality and culture of their programs while supporting each other.
A group of about ten participants in Sussex County, Del. began meeting in September to participate in the first module, “The Business of Early Childhood: Your Purpose, Passion, and Position as a Leader.” In this PLE, leaders learned about the importance of self-reflection and self-awareness and developed their understanding of how their values and beliefs shaped their leadership styles. Each participant identified their leadership style, learned the difference between leadership and management, and shared personal and program core values.
“This module helped me be open-minded and not be so hard on myself,” said Mary Akins of Smart Start Learning Center. “I also understand that my staff has a different sense of ownership than I have.” 

The cohort finished the second PLE “Mission and Vision: The What, Why and How,” right before the holidays. Together the group learned about the intent of a mission and vision statement and why they are important. Then the “hands-on” work began with each leader updating their program’s mission to ensure it aligned with the program’s values, followed by creating a vision statement.

Many reported that they involved their staff in creating the vision statement. “I had my staff develop vision statements and share their core values,” said Frank Laura of Lil’ Red Hen Nursery.

“These tools will help me with the hiring process to ensure values, mission, and vision are known and familiar to staff, parents, and volunteers,” said Chantel Banks of Helping Hands Learning Center.

In January, the cohort begins the module “Your Role, as a Leader, In Creating a Great Place to Work.” Through this workshop and coaching, leaders will understand the different dimensions contributing to a center’s work climate.

By all accounts, participants can’t wait to continue with this work.

“It’s a great learning tool that has helped me be better at what I do. I met like-minded individuals and have built a network through this face-to-face learning experience,” said Kristina Hassler of The Next Step Learning Center. Marlette Lofland of Marlette’s Colorful World Daycare, a family child care program,  agrees with Kristina. “It’s the best place for all the right answers, and the leaders will definitely lead you in the right direction.”

DIEEC and Just in Time Learning Academy Partner for Long-Term Success

Molly White’s passion is providing families with a child care experience that fits the learning needs of each child while supporting the family, ultimately building community. To fulfill her vision, Molly opened her center in Milford during the pandemic’s beginning in the spring of 2020.

But according to Molly, the opening was “just in time” because this crisis provided her center with a more significant opportunity to serve her community.

“Even in times of uncertainty, there are opportunities for innovation, creativity, and personal growth,” said Molly.

Her partnership with the Delaware Institute for Excellence in Early Childhood helps Molly explore these possibilities.

First, Molly participates in DIEEC’s Community of Practice, a regularly scheduled meeting facilitated by a Technical Assistant where leaders share ideas and support each other.

“Molly is the definition of a leader,” said Nancy Hoffman, DIEEC technical assistant. “She is a risk-taker who consistently shows up with the same energy that spreads throughout her program.”

Together, Molly and Nancy put together a quality improvement plan (QIP) that included the program’s strengths and identified growth areas. 

“A QIP helps you anticipate and solve problems in the future,” says Molly. “Additionally, I love working alongside another professional to enhance the quality of our program, learning ways and/or strategies to improve, and gaining knowledge and insight into how to be more effective.

“Also, my technical assistant helps us be ‘aware’ of strengths and weaknesses as a group and individually. The QIP is a guide to enhance/sharpen the quality of our program.”

Molly’s involvement with DIEEC doesn’t stop there. She recently participated in the “Let’s Go Outside” professional learning experience.

“Outdoor learning fits with my vision,” says Molly. “Learning occurs naturally outdoors. Nature is the best teacher.

“It also helps children with their emotional and social skills. The same children that argue over a toy in the classroom are more willing to dig together and get along.”

Christina Cultural Arts Center – Early Childhood Education Arts Academy

Market Street is a hub for Wilmington’s cultural assets, with The Grand, The Queen, and the Playhouse on Rodney Square all located on five city blocks. Anchoring this lineup is the Christina Cultural Arts Center (CCAC), an integrated arts and academic program that uses the power of art to promote school success for Wilmington’s youth, the most crucial asset for the city’s future.

A part of CCAC’s work is teaching and caring for the community’s youngest members through the Early Childhood Education Arts Academy. The program serves three-year-olds through five-year-olds and employs the fine arts to teach educational concepts.

“Art is another teaching tool,” said Shysheika Edwards, the program’s educational director. “We know the brain is developing quickly during the early years. Drama, dance, music, and art help us better address and connect with a child’s potential.”

This integration plays out in a lot of different ways. For example, educators use rhythm sticks to teach math, counting, and music concepts/notes. They utilize songs to teach social and emotional skills by acting out scenarios. When singing the “Going on a Bear Hunt” song, children express curiosity and fear while exploring movement and learning sequences.

In addition to the activities throughout the day, students participate in dedicated music and art classes during the week, culminating in three performances to celebrate Kwanza, Black History Month, and graduation.

“These performances teach children to work in larger groups, build confidence, and follow directions,” said Shysheika. “The shyest students find their voice.”

Equally as important, the celebrations bring together the community. The academy provides its students a quality education with family engagement at the heart of their work. Their enrollment includes ECAP slots which provide state funding to programs, helping families living in poverty.

ECAP funding requires the program to work toward Head Start standards. These standards, in part, focus on family engagement. Shysheika partners with Daphne Edwards, family services coordinator, who supports families though home visits.

“We empower parents through many initiatives,” said Daphne. “Parents participate in the policy council, so they are invested in the program. We want them to know that their presence matters in children’s lives.”

To this end, the academy builds partnerships with the families that often extend to many generations of the same family.

“We serve as a resource when a family has a need,” said Daphne. “We are who they call.” Shysheika’s echoes her thoughts. “We build a bond with a purpose. They know we are here to build community founded on respect.”

Celebrating the CDA Credential

About nine months ago, more than 90 early childhood education professionals began a journey to receive their CDA credentials by participating in a cohort facilitated by DIEEC professional development coordinators. The Child Development Associate (CDA) credential represents a pathway to learning best practices for early childhood educators.

More than 40 completed their portfolios after participating in the CDA cohorts, and we are thrilled to share that 16 educators have received their credential. In this issue, we will showcase and celebrate four of them but congratulate all who participated in the cohorts.

Clarise Brooks

Meet Clarise Brooks, a family child care educator from Middletown, Del. When asked about her “why” in making this commitment, she answered, “I pursued this credential for several reasons. To ensure that I provide the best quality care for the children and families in my program, to be up-to-date on the latest developmentally appropriate practices, and to add to my resumé for future employment opportunities.”

She also added that participating in the cohort provided excellent support. “Being in a cohort allowed me to work with other providers while pursuing this credential, gain new resources, emotional support, the ability to ask questions while receiving guidance and clarification, and be part of a great team that cared for each other. Lifelong friends have been made and, for that, I thank everyone!”

Crystal Brock

Crystal is a PreK teacher at Greenwood Mennonite School and pursued the credential because of her growth mindset. “I wanted the opportunity to learn and grow as a PreK teacher.

I want to ensure I’m giving the best care and education to students entering my program,” said Crystal. She found the cohort helpful with navigating the portfolio setup and the entire CDA process. “The instructors were amazing in always being available and offering help when needed. I am very grateful for the program that was offered to me,” added Crystal.

Janet Moody

Janet runs Janet’s Little Friends Daycare for children ages six weeks to five years old. She appreciated the support of working with other educators on the CDA process.

“Being in the cohort, you didn’t feel like you were out there doing it all by yourself. I saw and heard that I wasn’t the only one struggling with something in the portfolio, and we worked together to figure it out,” said Janet. “Thank you to Melissa and Angie for making it so easy to go through the procedures.”

Pauline Kugmeh

Pauline is another family child care educator who participated in a cohort. She manages M&M Daycare in New Castle, Del. Her goal in getting the CDA was to become a professional caregiver. “One has to learn the art of the trade,” said Pauline. “Without the cohort, I would have not gained greater insight about what a professional caregiver is like.”

“I’m so grateful for the opportunity to participate in the program. My appreciation goes to Melissa Schulte for her relentless effort to ensure everyone succeeds. I say thank you. Also, my thank you to Angeline Riley for helping us all,” added Pauline.

“Let’s Go Outside” Takes Off

Did you know that the average child spends up to 44 hours a week on a screen and less than ten minutes a day playing outdoors?!

DIEEC’s Learning Environments team and the University of Delaware Lab School are partnering with early childhood programs through the “Let’s Go Outside” initiative. Together, they are determined to reverse this trend.

The initiative is underway with 22 program leaders and educators engaging in professional learning experiences to power and promote nature-based outdoor play and learning. And when asked about their experience, participants responded with one word. These included: “exploratory,” “adventurous,” “curious,” and “stoked!”

“We are passionate about outdoor learning because of the documented mental health benefits of spending time outdoors and connecting with nature,” said Christine Skrobot, DIEEC associate director of early childhood: learning environments. “Mentally healthy children are ready to tackle whatever life throws at them and have a more positive quality of life.”

“We are spreading the health, wellness, and cognitive benefits of outdoor learning environments to approximately 2,000 children (and the educators they work with) across the state!”

DIEEC has received applications for round two of the Let’s Go Outside initiative and is currently in the middle of randomly selecting the next group of ECE professionals who will participate in these professional learning experiences and receive grants for materials and supplies for outdoor classrooms.

Penny Whitehouse, founder of Mother Natured, said it best: “Restore balance. Most children have the technology, school, and extracurriculars covered. It’s time to add a pinch of adventure, a sprinkle of sunshine, and a big handful of outdoor play.”

Lil’ Red Hen Nursery and Pre-School

Classroom educators pose in front of table with students

Lil’ Red Hen Nursery and Pre-School in Delmar, Del., has the special distinction of serving both Maryland and Delaware. Located on the border of these states, this center has created one big community through its work in providing quality care to generations of these neighboring areas.

This community is what motivates Anne Atkinson, owner/administrator, to continue to pursue quality improvements for the more than 125 young children – infants to school age – in her program.

“We have parents who came to Lil’ Red Hen as children,” said Anne. “Now their kids are here because of the quality education. They keep coming back, and they give back.”

“The Delmar community helped support us during COVID. Families provided lunches and dinners and looked for every opportunity to accommodate our staff.”

And in return, Anne and her staff are steadfast in delivering an educational experience rooted in a philosophy that focuses on creating learners versus performers.

“Our educational philosophy is for our children to be excited about the world and willing to try new things – a learner,” Anne explains. “Versus a performer who is afraid to fail.”

To help cultivate this philosophy, Lil’ Red Hen utilized funding from the DIEEC “Let’s Go Outside” outdoor learning initiative to build an outdoor classroom. Additionally, Anne is a “Let’s Go Outside” ambassador and is excited to spread the word to other early childhood education programs about the benefits of outdoor learning.

Anne’s involvement with DIEEC doesn’t end there. She participates in Communities of Practice (CoPs). CoPs are regularly scheduled meetings facilitated by a DIEEC technical assistant (TA) where early childhood professionals can support and share ideas with others in the field.

“Our CoP most definitely helps support me,” said Anne. “It has been a sounding board where directors can share their successes and failures and give advice.”

Support has also come from Anne’s relationship with her DIEEC TA, Holly Griest. According to Anne, Holly “really understands” their goals and provides timely support with emails and counsel to help them make quality improvements.

“Our role has been to be a source of support and resources as the program makes efforts in improving their quality of care,” said Holly. “They expanded their learning with additional support and coaching.”

“They have developed a relationship and continue to consistently collaborate with me in working with the QRIS/CQI protocol to keep their momentum of wanting to do more and do better, constantly moving forward.”

“Finally, they are a staple in the Delmar community, and they take pride in that! Their efforts to provide the best care in the area are endless, and they are always striving to do better.”