Changing the Culture of Learning in Your Center: Navigating the Accreditation Process
Like other early childhood educator centers, our goal is to ensure that families can count on our teachers and other staff to provide the highest quality education and care for their children.
About six years ago, we wanted to take our quality standards to a new level. We were looking for a way to validate and prove to others the exemplary work our teachers do every day. At that time, only a small percentage of our 1,300-plus KinderCare Education (KCE) centers were nationally accredited with NAEYC. We took great pride in those centers and were aware of the additional work it took to get them to that level of educational quality for young children in those centers.
The educational quality we observed in those particular centers was directly related to the work of accreditation. Accreditation belongs to the staff of the center pursuing it. These staff are the ones engaged with children, families, and their own community day in and day out; they live and breathe the standards of excellence daily. Accreditation is not a destination. No one thing changes after a positive final accreditation decision—but rather throughout the entire process the focus on quality, with the specific goals as outlined in the standards, makes possible steady incremental changes in all aspects of a center. Once accredited, this focus on improvement becomes the new normal for a center. Everyone involved, including teachers, management, families, and community members, are accountable to maintain and consistently improve the high level of early learning and care they are providing.
Because of these benefits to accreditation, we settled on a company-wide goal of 100 percent accreditation for our centers. A lofty goal, but we thought it was well worth the effort and financial cost to make sure that every location in every community was operating at the highest quality level. Today, we can proudly state that 97 percent of all KinderCare Education centers are accredited. This isn’t just a data point to us, but a badge of honor that gives everyone confidence in the level of care families receive when enrolling in our centers.
So where do we start? It can be overwhelming to think about the process and the work that may need to be done to be successful. Although resources and support from NAEYC are abundant, it can be a challenge to get the ball rolling in your center. This is something I saw every day with center directors who, in some cases, may not have even heard of accreditation before we began talking with them. With my experience in supporting many centers through accreditation, I offer this advice:
- Think about the process as a means for self-assessment and improvement. Remember, the end goal is to provide a better learning environment for children and for staff.
- Don’t look at the process as a means to a final destination. There is no end point. It’s a cultural and behavioral change that will benefit everyone for years to come.
- Yes, there’s work to complete—Program Portfolios, Classroom Portfolios, Staff Qualifications, etc.—but this work is simply documentation of the high-quality standards your center is meeting and the high quality teaching taking place in your program. Don’t separate the two. As your teachers work to complete their classroom portfolios, remind them that they are documenting (or proving) the amazing work they already do.
Once you and your staff have the right mindset to begin the accreditation process, try these steps to get the ball rolling:
- Rally the troops. Notify and inform everyone who will be involved—teachers, support staff, parents, and even children to some degree. Hold a meeting or event to talk about NAEYC accreditation. Be sure to explain the WHY. You have to embark on this with the goal of continual improvement—not just for the one time stamp of approval.
- Set a timeline. There is no rush, however. If you identify milestones to achieve with realistic dates, you’re more likely to keep up the momentum and move through the process successfully. Be realistic with your timing, taking into consideration the level of education and qualifications of your staff, the amount of training that may need to happen, and the overall needs for improving your facility.
- Dig into and dissect the 10 standards. Start with the standard that most interests you and your staff or that you feel needs the most work, and focus only on that one standard. Allow your staff to review the items and self-assess their capabilities. Also, offer your own assessment of your staff and give them feedback often. Set a regular and consistent schedule to observe your teachers and allow time for feedback and follow up.
- Use the NAEYC resources. Throughout the process, refer to the NAEYC Accreditation website for resources and support. Everything you and your staff need to know is available for your use. NAEYC also provides live support via phone consultations, so take advantage of those opportunities to ask for help.
- Pace yourself. Check in with your staff often throughout the process. Assign buddies throughout your center to hold each other accountable, and schedule time for them to document their work in their Classroom Portfolios.
Becoming accredited does require hard work and dedication to the process and, more importantly, to the final outcome of improved processes, systems, educational programs, and care. I don’t know a single director or teacher in an accredited center who isn’t extremely proud of the program they offer families.
Is your early learning program or school interested in becoming NAEYC-accredited? Learn more about the benefits of accreditation here: NAEYC.org/elp/interested
Christine Pieper has been in the early childhood education field for over 20 years, with experience in quality assurance, curriculum development, training, and operations support. She holds a MA in Education and a BA in Liberal Studies.