Spring Newsletter Editorial, by Mary O’Connell

At the heart of LifeWays’ principles and practices is the concept of relationship-based care, our unwavering commitment to the idea that we humans grow and thrive within the context of warm, consistent relationships.  Research and good, old-fashioned common sense support this conviction. Perhaps this is why it is so shocking and dismaying to observe the current trends in the landscape of conventional childcare and early childhood education, where warm, consistent relationships are assumed to be impossible to attain due to high turnover of staff, low wages, profitability, and efficiency.  By and large, child care care licensing rules and quality rating systems, created on the foundation of this assumption, overlook relationships and focus instead on filling the void with ”stuff” — curricula, activities, learning materials, manipulatives, and a multitude of things that hang on the wall. If the teacher or caregiver has a college degree it is a real bonus, but the relationship he or she has with the children is considered inconsequential in the grand scheme of measurement and quality assessment. If you’ve been following LifeWays, you know that relationship-based care is a value we have been heralding for a long time.

Imagine our delight when Oprah highlighted the importance of warm, supportive relationships in her 60 Minutes segment about childhood trauma in March! Her guest was Dr. Bruce Perry, senior fellow of the ChildTrauma Academy in Houston, Texas, whose work is featured in our class on Development Theorists in the LifeWays Early Childhood Training. Oprah and Dr. Perry spotlighted the brain research that supports the need for warm, consistent relationships in every child’s life, and most especially in the lives of children who have experienced trauma. In this segment, Oprah said the realization has been so impactful for her, she is changing the way she approaches philanthropy altogether, asking not, “What is wrong with this child?” but instead, “What happened to this child?”

Our delight that someone in the national spotlight is focusing on love and supportive relationships was mixed with the twinge of frustration that comes from being a small non-profit organization with very limited funds, who has something real and valuable to contribute to the conversation but hasn’t yet found a seat at the table. We decided to reach out to Oprah, offering our 20 years of experience in creating a model of relationship-based care that is replicable, attainable and teachable. We wrote her a letter (you can read it here if you like) and sent it to every address that might make its way to Oprah. We began tagging #oprah in every Facebook post and blog post that focuses on relationship-based care. And we continue to hope that one day the larger world of conventional early childhood education will look up and say, “LifeWays has a model of relationship-based care that we should pay attention to!”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, instead of having to continually ask, “What happened to these children?” we could proliferate a model of care that truly provides the consistent, nurturing relationships children need to thrive? It is possible. All of you out there doing this important work have shown us it’s possible. Thank you for the commitment you make to children and families every day. You fill our hearts with hope.

In gratitude,
Mary O’Connell
For the LifeWays North America Board