Learning How Kids Learn

Story and Photo by Mary Louise Speer

Shony Sefe said that she enjoys Early Childhood Education classes despite their workload.
Shony Sefe said that she enjoys Early Childhood Education classes despite their workload.

Whatcom Community College’s Early Childhood Education program uses a flexible class format to prepare students for careers educating young children.

That structure helped Whatcom student Sheena Benson juggle the responsibilities of a full-time job and manage home and family, while pursuing a certificate in early childhood education. She will graduate from Whatcom in June.

“The classes are really flexible. The teachers are flexible and they help you out,” Benson said.

Sally Holloway, the project director for the early childhood education program, said Benson will be recognized as Whatcom’s Early Childhood Education Outstanding Student for 2013 at the WCC Awards Ceremony on June 6.

Benson said she appreciates how the early childhood education classes are spaced out and the hands-on approach to teaching subjects such as art and music. Benson said attending instructor Kim Doyle’s class on art for children helped her understand how youngsters’ scribbling is a precursor to learning to write, Benson said.

Job possibilities in the field range from teaching at a daycare or preschool, to providing homecare for other people’s children. Whatcom students also observe in childcare facilities to see how the lessons prepare them for the real life realities of working with young children, Benson said.

Shony Sefe, who is in her third quarter at Whatcom, said she graduated a long time ago from high school. She hopes to get an associate’s degree and possibly continue her studies at Western Washington University.

“I really love all of the classes. There’s plenty of work but I really love all of them,” Sefe said.

Student Keeley Pollock is taking time off to attend college after working in childcare for 10 years. Pollack said her background experience and knowledge makes her eager to do the very best she can to help the next generation.

Pollock said “if I have a degree and the knowledge with the degree, that will give me the backing [to do what is best for children].”

Pollock said she hopes to work in a Montessori school setting that emphasizes tailoring education to the individual child’s needs. However, “there’s a lot of pressure on childcare to do what is best for the financial end,” she said. Some childcare facilities put funds into making new classrooms that look “really professional. But is it best for the kids?” Pollock said. “We want to put children at the center.”

Instructor Cynthia Johansen said she appreciates working with students who stop by her classroom on Monday evenings or Tuesday mornings.

“I think of it as upside down teaching. They’re not coming to me as the source of all knowledge,” Johansen said, adding she and the student discuss what happened while the student observed at a childcare facility. For example, the student might see youngsters making patterns with blocks, a skill that helps them develop beginning math skills, she said.

Sally Holloway, the project director for the early childhood education program, said Whatcom’s Early Childhood Education initial certificate is made up of three courses, 12 credits total, which enables students to enter the early learning field as a lead teacher in licensed child care programs. Students can also take a few courses to further develop their job skills, or study for an associate’s or transfer degree.

Currently the State of Washington requires a criminal background check and prospective child caregivers must attend a pre-licensing orientation.

The courses offered at Whatcom include classes on: Health, Safety, and Nutrition; Learning Environments for Young Children; Science Exploration; and Basics in Child Care. “I call it a smorgasbord of classes,” Holloway said.

This flexibility helps Whatcom students get the classes they want and get started in school at any time of the year, Holloway said. “One reason we have the smorgasbord is to get the class you want, in the quarter you want to take it,” she said.

Holloway said the other reason for offering self-paced and online classes is related to the nature and realities of students’ busy lives. The hybrid classes allow students to attend class once a week on campus and to study at home, Holloway said.

“Studying is a challenge when you’re so busy,” Holloway said.

The U.S. job market is expected to need about 262, 000 childcare workers by 2020, a 20 percent increase over 1,282,300 jobs in 2010, according to statistics from the U.S Department of Labor.

“The good news, demand is up. The bad news is families can’t afford to pay more for childcare,” said Holloway.

Sefe said there are many families who are struggling, who especially need good quality and affordable care for their children.

Whatcom is part of a consortium of Washington State colleges who are working to ensure their early childhood education classes meet the same benchmarks, she said.

“At least for 16 classes across the state, (these share) the same titles, same expectations of what students are going to learn,” she said.

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