Grand Challenges project aims to strengthen early childhood workforce

· 5 min read

Grand Challenges project aims to strengthen early childhood workforce

Research team photo with members sitting and standing by a wall.
Kyleigh Skaggs | CYFS
The team of Nebraska researchers is leading a large-scale program to create an integrated, educational approach to support professional workforce development and mental wellness among early childhood educators — and to encourage educator retention.

Nearly 28 million children in the U.S. experience childhood adversity — neglect, parental substance abuse, mental illness, racism and bias.

Such hardships cause significant stress to children at crucial stages in their development, putting them at risk for academic difficulties and health and behavioral issues — all of which have consequences into adulthood.

High-quality, equitable early childhood care and education services provided by a diverse and skilled workforce are essential to children’s long-term success — and a prosperous future for Nebraska. However, significant obstacles such as gaps in educator skills and services, increasing behavioral challenges among children, unprecedented levels of staff burnout and turnover, and a stressed early childhood education system leave thousands of children at risk for potential lifelong negative outcomes.

Lisa Knoche, co-director of the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools, is leading a large-scale program aimed at leveraging the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s strengths in early childhood education to create an integrated, educational approach to support professional workforce development and mental wellness among early childhood educators, and to encourage educator retention.

The five-year project is funded by a $3.44 million Grand Challenges Catalyst Award. The team includes 18 faculty, along with university, state and community partners. Several Nebraska communities will also be involved.

Grand Challenges | CYFS Research Snapshots
Video | Grand Challenges: CYFS Research Snapshots

The project, Knoche said, is designed to create connections among the university and community partners to promote early childhood workforce development and retention — and as a result, promote children’s social-emotional development.

“Our work will help ensure that all children, despite early life adversities, are positioned for lifelong health and social-emotional well-being, which enables them to develop into capable and productive citizens who contribute to Nebraska’s vitality and social good,” Knoche said.

One product that will be developed is Connections for Kids, an integrated approach to individualized and inclusive professional development. Grounded in collaboration and partnership among researchers, educators, parents and community partners, the program is designed to measure and boost children’s social and emotional skills, which offer protective factors that improve resilience and reduce the risk of future problems.

“We know that our current interventions being used in early childhood programs are making positive impacts or children and families, but it’s not fair to early childhood educators to keep endlessly expanding their roles,” Knoche said. “We want to transform the way our interventions are being used in Nebraska early childhood programs by taking good elements from each and combining them into something that will be more efficient and practical for the workforce.”

Connections for Kids will adopt the most effective elements from three evidence-based interventions widely used in Nebraska early childhood programs — Cultivating Healthy Intentional Mindful Educators (CHIME), Getting Ready and Rooted in Relationships/Pyramid.

After developing the program, researchers will test its effectiveness in randomized classroom trials, examining children’s social skills and problem behaviors, and teacher practices in early childhood classrooms.

The project will also create an early childhood assessment tool for researchers and early childhood teachers to measure children’s social emotional well-being. A public awareness campaign will be implemented to broaden understanding and support of the important of young children’s social-emotional skills.

“We know there are multiple systems that affect children — situations in both classrooms and the family,” Knoche said. “Additionally, teachers’ well-being also affects children. That’s the strength of this approach. We want to be part of the solution to the early childhood workforce crisis so teachers feel better about what they’re doing, know what to do with children, and are better able to make connections with families. Through this integrated approach, systems will be strengthened, and children benefit by having stronger systems around them.”

Along with Knoche, other project researchers include Carrie Clark, associate professor of educational psychology; Jenna Finch, assistant professor of psychology; Kathleen Gallagher, director of research and evaluation, Buffett Early Childhood Institute; Jemalyn Griffin, assistant professor of practice, College of Journalism and Mass Communications; Holly Hatton-Bowers, associate professor of child, youth and family studies; Kelli Hauptman, project director, Center on Children, Families and the Law; Soo-Young Hong, associate professor of child, youth and family studies and assessment lead, College of Education and Human Sciences; Natalie Koziol, CYFS research assistant professor; Jennifer Leeper Miller, director, Ruth Staples Child Development Lab; Jennifer PeeksMease, assistant vice chancellor of inclusive leadership and learning; Susan Sarver, director of workforce planning and development, Buffett Early Childhood Institute; Rachel Schachter, associate professor of child, youth and family studies; Sue Sheridan, CYFS director; Julia Torquati, professor of child, youth and family studies; Changmin Yan, associate professor of advertising and public relations; and HyeonJin Yoon, CYFS research assistant professor.

Community partners include Nebraska Children and Families Foundation, Panhandle Partnership ( and Public Health Solutions.

Learn more about the project in the CYFS Research Network.

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