Danielle McLellan-Bujnak | Changing the Image of the Child

January 24, 2024

Danielle became an Amazon best-selling author last summer after she presented at the Nannypalooza Conference in Washington, DC. The conference attracted 200 nannies who had such a passion for professional growth that Danielle decided to write a book for them. An A-Z of Respectful Care takes professional nannies through the key skills and techniques they need to provide competent, loving care for young children and their families. Danielle’s expansive reference guide covers everything from understanding child development to communicating effectively with young children and their families—knowledge that nannies are eager to get. So, they bought enough copies of her book to make it a surprise hit.

Danielle’s book answers a need, as she explains, because nannies make up a really underserved part of the early childhood field in terms of professional growth. “We know little about nannies. The scholarly work on nannies is slim and tends to include nannies as an afterthought or aside to another issue. So, nannies are a marginalized group within the somewhat marginalized early childhood workforce. And nannies face added roadblocks because many are women of color and immigrants for whom English is a second language.”

Danielle identifies with them because she, too, is a nanny—albeit one with an advanced degree and a wide range of experience in several parts of the ECE field. “I have a unique perspective because I’m one of the few people who has taught at an early childhood center and worked as a high-level professional nanny,” she says. Danielle also has a high-level perspective because she has served on the board of directors of the Newborn Care Specialist Association and been a committee chair for the International Nanny Association. She has published numerous columns in the Nanny Magazine and just published a new guide for families called This is Not a Parenting Book. Danielle straddles the worlds of ECE theory and practice with a sense of commitment to children that goes back to her early youth.

“My mom was a Montessori teacher who supported my interest in caring for young children,” Danielle recalls. “I was an only child until I was 11 years old and always wanted to have siblings. So, when my little brother was born, I was deeply involved. I went to prenatal classes with my mom. I was present at his birth, and I held him when he was 10 minutes old. When he came home from the hospital, my mom showed me how to burp, bathe and change him. Then, she also guided me on how to interact with him and help support his development from a Montessori perspective based on fostering children’s self-directed learning and respecting their independence.”

Danielle also advanced her knowledge by earning a degree in early childhood education at Northern Lights College in Canada, where her mom was born. “When I returned to the U.S. 10 years ago,” Danielle says, “I was hired right away as a lead teacher at a Head Start Center in California.” And this was Danielle’s dream job because she wanted to support children who came from challenging home situations. “Most of the children’s parents were working in the fields 12 hours a day and couldn’t spend much time with their kids, leaving the children hungry for attention. They were constantly looking for hugs from the Head Start teachers, and this could make it hard for the teachers to do their work.” So, Danielle brought in a “hug jar” to the center.

“I bought a big plastic jar filled with little, brightly colored bean bags on which I drew a heart on one side and the word hug on the other,” she recalls. “Then I set it out in the classroom and told the children how to use it. “When you want to have a hug from a teacher and we are interacting with another child, you should understand that it’s not appropriate for you to interrupt us, I explained to the class. But what you can do is you can bring us a bean bag when you need a hug. That will allow us to reach out and hug you while we continue to work with another child.” And it was an idea that worked even better than Danielle imagined. “Soon the children were bringing the bean bags not only to the teachers, but to other children. And that shows how children can extend their learning.”

Danielle decided to extend her own learning in 2016 by earning a master’s degree in early childhood, leading to the current focus of her work. “I paid for my master’s degree by working as a professional nanny and newborn care specialist because it’s not easy to afford a master’s degree on center-based care wages,” Danielle explains. So, she pursued her studies while working for different families on short-term contracts and expanding her contacts in the community of nannies. Advancing their own professional growth became the focus of her graduate research project.

“I created an eight-hour course for nannies and worked with more than 100 participants over a period of two years,” she says. “The course was half pedagogy and half neuroscience with the goal of helping the nannies understand what it feels like to be a child. We engaged in a lot of discussion and dialogue as we explored two ways of looking at children: viewing the child as incompetent and a blank slate or viewing the child as a partner in teaching and learning.” This is the way Danielle sees young children, and she made a major impact on the nannies by the end of the course, according to the responses she collected. “Their positive view of the child increased from 34.9 percent to 67 percent,” she says, “and their negative view of the child decreased from 15.6 percent to 3.5 percent.” She had helped change their image of the child.

Danielle has also made an impact on many other nannies besides the first 100 that she taught while earning her master’s degree. “The research project was at first meant to simply fulfill the requirements for my degree, but it reached a wide audience due to my many connections in the nanny community,” she explains. “Soon nannies across the world began connecting with me and asking whether I could do the course in their city. So, I ended up teaching the course 16 times in 13 cities around the United States and the United Kingdom.”

Now Danielle is teaching the course in person and online through her company, Respectful Care, which provides professional nannies and parents with a gentle and effective way to transform behavior. “Respectful care,” she explains, “is a unique and distinctive approach to human development and care based on five dimensions of respect. They are respect for self, respect for co-parents and other family members involved in the care dynamic, respect for other professionals involved in the same care dynamic, respect for professional standards and laws, and finally respect for the child—which depends on the first four dimensions of respect. Without them, we cannot build a relationship of authentic respect for the child.”

Respecting the child also requires us to be clear about our priorities, as Danielle explains. “If we disregard our own well-being, then the care we have to offer quickly begins to fall short. If we disregard any other person who takes part in the care dynamic, that is a disservice to the child and that other person. If we disregard laws or regulations on children’s well-being, that, too, is clearly not in the best interests of the child. So, we should always put children’s health and safety first while continuing to regard them as competent human beings.”

While children are too young to give legal consent to others, they do have the ability to assent, Danielle explains. And she shows what this means by talking about Sarah, a toddler who she cared for as a nanny. “Sarah needed to have her diaper changed,” Danielle recalls, “and didn’t want to stop playing to have me do it. So, I gave her a choice. I said we can change your diaper now or we can change it in two minutes. She chose two minutes, but when the two minutes passed, she said no and started crying. I insisted to her that it’s really important for me to take care of your skin, so I’m going to carry you to the changing table. Once she was on it, she continued crying, but she lifted her bottom so I could clean her up. And this is what I mean by assent. Sarah felt a sense of agency and that led her to be a partner with me in her care.”.

Working with children like Sarah is an inspiration for Danielle, as she explains. “I want all children to have an adult in their lives who is aware of what they bring to the partnership. In our society and culture, we tend to see children as helpless and needy. But children can be competent and exceed your expectations, as Sarah did,”—the message that Danielle is passing on to nannies in her courses on respectful care. She’s seen how eagerly they respond and insists they deserve more opportunities like this to grow and learn.

“While teaching my course, I’ve learned that nannies have a tremendous desire for information that’s directly related to the context in which they work,” she says. “And I’ve documented the stunning difference that a single day of instruction makes on their understanding of children. The early childhood field is missing out by not doing enough to support the development of these dedicated and enthusiastic professionals in ECE.” So, Danielle is committed to changing the image of nannies and the young children to whom they provide care. Both deserve more of our respect.


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