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Transformative Early Childhood Education: An Interview with Dr. Kathleen Gallagher

Two little girls playing with blocks

This podcast is an interview with Dr. Kathleen Gallagher. In this interview, she discusses her own story of becoming an early childhood educator and shares her perspectives on how high-quality early childhood education can transform the lives of young children.

More About Our Guest

Dr. Gallagher is the Cille and Ron Williams Community Chair for Early Childhood Education at the University of Nebraska at Kearney and the Buffett Early Childhood Institute. Dr. Gallagher is an educational psychologist and an early childhood professional with more than 30 years experience teaching, home visiting, and leading early childhood programs, including early intervention and inclusive preschool programs.


This interview was recorded during her visit to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus for the Child Development Laboratory’s 75th anniversary lecture in November 2017.


Thanks for joining us for a podcast from the Illinois Early Learning Project. Our project is part of the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and funded by the Illinois State Board of Education. On this podcast, we share information about how young children grow and learn, as well as strategies adults can use to help them thrive. My name is Rebecca Swartz, and I am one of the project staff members.

Today is November 9, 2017, and I’m joined by Dr. Kathleen Gallagher. Dr. Gallagher is the Cille and Ron Williams Community Chair for Early Childhood Education at the University of Nebraska at Kearney and the Buffett Early Childhood Institute. Dr. Gallagher is an educational psychologist and an early childhood professional with more than 30 years experience teaching, home visiting, and leading early childhood programs, including early intervention and inclusive preschool programs.

Her research and professional development focus on identifying, implementing, and evaluating practices, programs, and policies that support the development and well-being of young children, their families, and early childhood professionals, particularly in the context of poverty, disability, and cultural diversity.

Dr. Swartz: So, tell me a little bit about yourself, how you became involved in early childhood education, and your current work.

Dr. Gallagher: So, I went to a school in Milwaukee called Cardinal Stretch University, and it was the most spectacular place to be trained a teacher. I studied early childhood and special education, which both things were relatively new fields in the early ’80s, and my career started as an early intervention teacher in a program with Easter Seals in Milwaukee, Wisconsin …

Dr. Swartz: Okay.

Dr. Gallagher: … and I taught 1 and 2 year olds in a half day, early intervention program—this is before Part C …

Dr. Swartz: Okay.

Dr. Gallagher: … so children were, either had a disability or were at risk of a delay or disability.

Dr. Swartz: Okay, so they’re very small.

Dr. Gallagher: Almost to 36 months, at 36 months they would be evaluated and placed in public school setting or not, right.

Dr. Swartz: Okay.

Dr. Gallagher: So, that was my entry, and it’s one of those things that I think carries into my career now that I learned then, was that I loved to get the nontalkers. Back then, children did not, the speech therapist really didn’t want to work with children before they were talking. And so, I would say “Give me, give me the nontalkers. Give me the nontalkers.” And, they would give me the nontalkers and I would get them talking. That was my, that was kind of my gig. And people would say, “How do you get them talking so quickly?” And I was really trained in doing like one-on-one and small group speech interactions you know where we used a lot of, actually a lot of behavioral techniques combined with a lot of play. But I said, you know, I get them to like me and then they do what I’ve asked them to do. (laughter) So in other words, I was building relationships. Right?

Dr. Swartz: Right.

Dr. Gallagher: And so I wasn’t doing it because of any real sophistication, I just loved it, right? That’s what I loved doing. And so, that was something that really worked for me. I wasn’t the best teacher they ever had, I wasn’t a perfect teacher. I learned a lot. But the second thing I really took from that experience is I did home visits every Friday with our families. And, I wasn’t very trained in home visiting. And I wasn’t very trained in working with families. I was 22 years old. And I was always kind of surprised that they didn’t kick me out of their house, because I’d walk in with my toy bag, and I sat down, and talked with them about how to support their child’s development. But again, I just tried to develop relationships, and they taught me.

I don’t think I taught them much of anything. They taught me about what it was like to be a family whose child had a risk for disability, or delay. And most of our families lived in poverty, and struggled with stressors beyond anything I’d been exposed to up ’til then in my life. And so, families taught me about what it means to raise a young child, and to deal with stress, and I’m forever grateful to those families because I’ve carried them with me.

Dr. Swartz: That is a great story, especially for new teachers and providers in the field. Many of us start because we just enjoy developing relationships, and through those relationships we understand the importance of connecting with children and their families. So, you’re here today on the University of Illinois campus at Urbana-Champaign to celebrate the Child Development Lab’s 75th anniversary, which is a big milestone.

The Child Development Lab has long been a contributor to research, teaching, and outreach related to early care and education. And, the title of your talk is “Transformative Early Childhood Education: What it Means, and What it Takes.” This is a very intriguing title! So, I’m hoping that today on the podcast you’ll tell us a little more about what you mean about early childhood education being transformative.

You told us a little bit about how early childhood education experiences transformed you as a teacher. Maybe there’s other things you can tell us about transformative early childhood education.

Dr. Gallagher: Sure. Well, first of all, this is really exciting to be here for the 75th anniversary. This is, this is undoubtedly one of the oldest, and easily one of the most accomplished child development programs in the country. So, this is a privilege for me to be here for this event. But, when I talk about transformative early childhood education, I’m thinking about the ability of high-quality, circle-return interactions to change the course of a child’s life. Especially for children whose families who struggle to provide access to those resources early on. So I’m thinking, I’m thinking about the inequality at the start of school. And the degree to which the experiences children need early on can transform their lives—not just transform their fourth-grade reading score, right? But transform the trajectory of their lives. And we have data now that show that. We have studies that show that lives are better when early childhood experiences are rich, and involved, and intensive, warm, ongoing interactions with grown-ups and other children. And so, I think it’s important to remember that we’re not just talking about “this is good for kids.” It’s necessary for their lives.

Dr. Swartz: The university spent a lot of time trying to get that word out. And you’ve done that in several roles, you know, the land grant universities especially, like the University of Illinois, have a three-part mission to do research, teaching, and outreach. So, maybe you can tell us an anecdote about how research has been transformative and then how teaching teachers can be transformative? And then we’ll share this podcast as a way to get some of your ideas out as outreach.

Dr. Gallagher: Okay.

Dr. Swartz: That would be a great way to do that.

Dr. Gallagher: So, research. You know, tonight I’m going to talk a little bit about the Abecedarian research. Which is, which is one of funded models for research that has shown how early, intensive, high-quality care and education has the ability to create a context for a healthier life.

Dr. Swartz: And the Abecedarian Project factored into your first experiences as a teacher.

Dr. Gallagher: It did, thank you for remembering that! So, so, when I was in that early intervention classroom, before I graduated—I was a teacher assistant there—and my lead teacher handed me the Learning Games book and said, you know, “Here, take this and go find something for Marcus to do tomorrow.” And it was my, it became my little curricular bible. Because we didn’t have curricula for children under 3 back then.

Dr. Swartz: And then you found yourself at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is the birth place of the Abecedarian Project.

Dr. Gallagher: Exactly.

Dr. Swartz: At the Frank Porter Graham Institute.

Dr. Gallagher: That’s played a big part in my life, even though I wasn’t one of the researchers who did the work.

Dr. Swartz: Sure.

Dr. Gallagher: But it’s a great example of how, we learned that when kids get this high-quality early care and education, they have, the men have better heart health, the women are less likely to get depression, the mothers of the children were more likely to graduate or hold a job, and to have fewer children. It just impacted lives. And it wasn’t perfect research, or perfectly clean research. The children who were in the control group, and the children who were in the treatment group played with each other in their neighborhoods. So, but the care that they received during the day was intensive, was language-rich, was focused on circle-return interactions with grown-ups and kids. That’s what it takes.

Dr. Swartz: So, just like the land grants have taught us a little bit about—a lot about—feeding young children and how to keep their bodies healthy, the land grants and university research has taught us how to help children develop holistically through early childhood education opportunities.

Dr. Gallagher: Right.

Dr. Swartz: So, have you thought a little bit about the types of teacher training and provider training, because lots of people interact with children who pass through universities? So do you think that universities might have a special role?

Dr. Gallagher: I think there are some things that we’ve been doing well in universities for transforming preservice and in-service for leader-level education. But, I also think there are some opportunities that we haven’t taken advantage of yet. So, things we’ve done well. I believe we are, in the last years, have really grown in our understanding and capacity of the importance of reflective and intentional teaching. I think for a long time we’ve focused on curricula and teaching people to train children in different domains, you know, to support cognitive language, physical development. We have shifted, I think, and we are moving slowly but successfully to supporting the development of professionals who observe, reflect, and intentionally support children in their next steps of learning. I think that’s the place where we’ve made some great gains.

Dr. Swartz: So, we’re turning from just “what does the child need” to “how do we get the adult to do what the child needs”?

Dr. Gallagher: Right.

Dr. Swartz: In that context.

Dr. Gallagher: Right. And we are turning from a delivery model—right—we’re not teaching children content, we’re not delivering. We are—and this is a special space that early childhood goes to—we are in an interactive model. Where the adults in constant interaction with the child supporting the development and learning. So, I think, I think that’s a real strength. I think a challenge is that we have not well prepared early childhood professionals to advocate for themselves, for our profession, and to be healthy and well themselves.

Dr. Swartz: That’s really interesting.

Dr. Gallagher: So, it’s a profession that we’ve, we now have some significant data that shows that early childhood professionals are under a lot of stress in their work. It’s very demanding work, and it’s done very often with low esteem and almost always with poor compensation.

Dr. Swartz: Sure.

Dr. Gallagher: And, while we did not cause that as early childhood professionals, until we learn to advocate and to improve our skills so that we increase our value to the community and our value to children and families and advocate for that, and keep ourselves well, we’re never going to reach our full potential. And it’s going to impact our ability to really, effectively, work with children and families. So, that’s something that higher ed has not taken a role in—just started, just some little glimpses at some universities that are, for example, teaching courses in teacher resiliency. Yeah, so University of Washington has a nice course in resilience for early childhood educators. I think that’s a place we need to go.

Dr. Swartz: So, as we think about—as you’re here to celebrate the 75th anniversary—sounds like there’s still a lot of work to do for places like the Child Development Lab and other institutes in developing new practices and teaching teachers to use them effectively so that we can improve the lives of children and families. So that’s really what you mean when you say “transforming,” because through these practices we reach, in those relationships, children and families and help them change what, change their outcomes.

Dr. Gallagher: It’s no mistake that the institute of medicine, institute of sciences, called it transforming the early childhood workforce.

Dr. Swartz: Sure.

Dr. Gallagher: So, that our workforce, our professionals, I’m gonna say, really need to be supported and need the skills and the knowledge, and they need to be diverse, but they also need the proper supports—they need to be well.

Dr. Swartz: And the evidence validates the importance of investing in this workforce for the future health and wellness of adults.

Dr. Gallagher: Sure does.

Dr. Swartz: Start early, and lead to better outcomes for everyone. That is an exciting way that universities can invest and become part of the transforming of early childhood education for children and families. I was curious, actually, as we were talking, if you might have some just thoughts about the role of families in early childhood education. It’s thought of teachers as being kind of the focus of early childhood education, but you’re actually here today visiting the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, where the CDL is housed. (The College of) Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences is a place where we study families. So, tell us a little bit about families.

Dr. Gallagher: An important thing to think about is that we’re raising children together, right. And when I talk tonight I’ll talk about the fact that part of the reason children are sometimes struggling is because families are struggling. I actually started my work studying, in graduate school, I studied children and their relationships with parents.

Dr. Swartz: Oh!

Dr. Gallagher: And I did a postdoc in postpartum depression.

Dr. Swartz: Interesting.

Dr. Gallagher: So I came to my work thinking about the social-emotional well-being of professionals from understanding the social-emotional well-being of parental caregivers and family members.

Dr. Swartz: Sure.

Dr. Gallagher: So, so we’re doing the same job, sometimes with different hours of the day.

Dr. Swartz: True. And most, most children are spending a significant portion of their day in a child care setting, whether it’s home child care or a center.

Dr. Gallagher: That’s exactly right! And so, the degree to which we’re able to think of ourselves as partners, is going to be the space where we’re going to think of ourselves as successful. I think Head Start and Early Head Start made some really good inroads in the way we think about early childhood programs and family partnerships in this country. I think they’ve really done a lot of good work around that.

But, we do our worst work in early childhood when families are the bad guy. When we say “Oh, families just don’t get this.” Or we say, or we say “Oh, they just don’t listen.” Or, or when families say, “Oh, these teachers they always, you know, they don’t understand me.” So, somewhere—but think about the regular child care day. Think about how fast those interactions are between professional caregivers and parental caregivers. They’re like dropping off and picking up, and we’re not having those deep conversations that build those relationships.

And so, I really haven’t done much work in terms of research and projects around professional early childhood and parental relationships and family relationships, but it really is something that’s needed. We really need to identify spaces where we’re working together, where there’s that trust.

Even in our preservice teacher education, a lot of programs frame it as parent involvement. How are the parents supporting the school mission? How are parents volunteering in the classroom? No. It’s not about how parents serve us. And it’s not about just how we serve parents. It’s about how we are collaboratively supporting these little people and their development. And when we do it well, it’s beautiful. And when we struggle, it’s where things don’t go well for children.

Dr. Swartz: But it’s where we struggle that we have a place for universities and communities to collaborate, and think about new ways to transform early childhood education.

Dr. Gallagher: Yeah.

Dr. Swartz: So, I am very much looking forward to your lecture tonight, and thank you so much for taking time to record this podcast with me. Have a great time visiting the University of Illinois campus!

Dr. Gallagher: Thank you so much, Rebecca, it’s been my pleasure.

Dr. Swartz (as narrator): The Illinois Early Learning Project website at www.earlylearning.org is a source of evidence-based, reliable information on early care and education of parents, caregivers, and teachers of young children. Thanks for listening, and for helping the children in your home, classroom, and community have a strong start in their early learning.

IEL Resource

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Home
  • Family Child Care
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers
  • Faculty / Trainer

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2024