A Simple Guide for a Complex Problem: Engaging Families with Young Children

ECEBy Bill Robinson, PhD

Claims: Jewish early childhood centers (and similar experiences) are the principal space through which families with young children will (re)discover as a community the profundity and joy of Jewish life. It is also the primary space in which these next generation families will craft the future contours of Jewish life in America. If we accept these claims, then the most vital question that lies before us is simply: How do we engage more families in high quality Jewish early childhood education (and similar experiences)?

Since 2003, when I began working at the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, I have been trying to answer this question. During these 13 years, I have had the fortunate responsibility to guide the creation of the Jewish Early Childhood Educational Initiative (JECEI), craft a new network-based strategy to spread innovation (In-Site-Full Journeys) in partnership with Shellie Dickstein and her early childhood staff at the Jewish Education Project, steward the future of the Jewish Early Childhood Education Leadership Institute (JECELI) directed by Lyndall Miller at the Leadership Commons of the Davidson School, and now explore with Lyndall and Sonya Shoptaugh the power of Reggio Emilia-style documentation to power deep professional development and highlight the power of Jewish learning in early childhood centers. Along the way, I have learned from many practitioners, scholars, and funders in the field, too numerous to mention here (though I do want to at least call out the amazing efforts that have been underway in Denver, Chicago and San Francisco, among other communities).

I believe the answer, as with most efforts at social and educational change, is conceptually simple and practically complex. It involves three steps (each rising from a core assumption): Discover, Nurture, Connect.


The core assumption here is that the desired change is already underway. Because if it’s not happening somewhere locally already, we (at the national or communal level) can’t make it happen.

If you seek carefully, you can discover exemplary Jewish early childhood centers where communities of families are engaged recurrently in (re)discovering and crafting profound and joyous Jewish lives. If you look even closer, you can discover in most centers at least moments when this happening.

The practical challenges are three-fold: How do we make this discovery more visible to educators, parents, and funders in centers where it only occasionally happens, as well as beyond these to a wider audience of potential parents, funders, and educators? How do we raise it to the level of shared vision? And, then how do we enable early childhood teachers to realize this vision in more and more places?

Documentation, as practiced most proficiently in the schools of Reggio-Emilia, involves capturing in words and visuals the experience of learning from the perspective of the learner (be it child or parent), and then sharing these rich stories in documentary panels. It is the single best tool to make visible to (existing and potential) parents the powerful learning happening in the centers. It is also the most generative method for improving the work of teachers, by enabling them to create shared texts upon which to engage in appreciative and critical dialogue with one another.

We, at the Leadership Commons of the Davidson School, believe that a national documentation archive can also offer the field a vital resource for research, visioning, and advocacy, which can further fuel change on the ground. Thus, we are exploring the possibilities of building communal spaces for training teachers in documentation and, simultaneously, the building of a national archive.


The core assumption here is that you have to live it, you can’t fake it. Intentional and insightful efforts at marketing are important. But, if you are not living the brand (that is, your mission, values and vision) – through producing recurrent moments of profound and joyous Jewish learning and living – no amount of marketing will help.

While profound and joyous Jewish learning and living is already happening in many early childhood spaces, and through documentation can happen more frequently and more widely, effective leadership is required to nurture it.

Teachers need resources, guidance, and even permission to devote their time and energy to learning the craft of documentation (along with deepening their understanding of Jewish ideas and rituals, and all together improving their practice). It is not an easy endeavor. It requires leaders who are trained to empower and guide, leaders who can provide space for experimentation and reflection while expecting everyone to strive together to realize the mission of the center, and leaders that can embody the Jewish values and vision of the center in their everyday relationships.

Thus, we are proud that the Jewish Early Childhood Education Institute (JECELI, in partnership with HUC) is one of the signature leadership institutes of the Leadership Commons. Initially founded as a national project through a grant from Jim Joseph Foundation, it has trained early childhood leadership for 25 communities throughout North America. Through the largesse and guidance of the Crown Foundation, JECELI is currently nurturing the next generation of early childhood leaders for the Chicago community. And, we are now seeking new communities interested in addressing the challenges of leadership.


The core assumption here is that discovery and nurturing cannot be undertaken alone. They require leveraging the existing wisdom and resources of leadership networks to make them happen.

There are two different implications of this assumption. First, early childhood centers need to learn from the experiences of one another. They need to benefit from the emotional support that comes from feeling that we are in this together. They need to be inspired through seeing the remarkable results others have achieved (and being so honored themselves in the future). This only happens when we spend the time to connect them together.

Second, no national agency can achieve the desired continental transformation of Jewish early childhood education by working alone or by dictating to others the direction to go. We need to shift the lenses we use to think about change: less strategic planning and organizational change, and more networking, collective action, and social movement; connectivity over control. This is, of course, a difficult trade-off. In order to harness the resources, wisdom, and creativity of leading early childhood centers, communal agencies for Jewish education, and other stakeholders in the field, we need to let go of the idea that any one group of us knows best or even that we already know all you need to know to get the job done. Too often a national entity can suck as much energy from the field as it delivers, suffocating already emerging innovations. We need to build continental networks (which do need backbones) not national institutions, in order to let the potential that already exists to emerge fully.

As an example, instead of creating our own alumni program for JECELI, we have turned to the Paradigm Project to provide backbone support for our alumni as part of a larger network of emerging leaders in Jewish early childhood education. We empower the Paradigm Project and then rely on their creativity and competence to achieve common goals. Similarly, we are looking to build stronger relations with the communal agencies for Jewish education – fueling their efforts at strengthening communal networks while looking towards the future building of a coalition that can learn and coordinate our common efforts across the continent.


As Mark Rosen and others have pointed out, one of the primary criteria for any parent choosing an early childhood center is location. If there is not a high quality Jewish early childhood center nearby, then parents will likely not go far out of their way to find one. We will impact those already involved and attract some families living near existing centers, but we will not realize our full potential.

In addition to Discovering, Nurturing and Connecting, we need to be Seeding the existence of more Jewish early childhood centers and similar programs. This could involve working with entrepreneurs to build stand-alone centers from scratch. But, it also could mean helping existing institutions to devote their existing early childhood centers to being fully Jewish. Moreover, it could be seeding programs that offer profound and joyous Jewish learning and living for families with young children without offering a full educational program. Regardless, Discovering, Nurturing and Connecting will transform those that exist, and may even inspire others to build their own. But, they will need Seed funding to make that vision a reality and, in doing so, engage more families in Jewish early childhood education.

Notably in this area, I have no example from the Leadership Commons of the Davidson School yet to offer. Then again, it’s not about us. It’s not about becoming the national agency for Jewish early childhood education. It’s about building a leadership network across the continent that pursues an emerging vision held in common for providing the next generation of families with the educational opportunities to (re)discover and craft their own profound and joyous Jewish lives.

Bill Robinson, PhD, is Dean of the Davidson School of JTS.