Hester Paul | Small Changes that Pay Off Big

July 25, 2023

“Early childhood professionals have a lot of power to protect the children they serve,” says Hester Paul, national director of Eco-Healthy Child Care, part of the Children’s Environmental Health Network in Washington, DC. The first few years of children’s lives are crucial to their future development and health, she explains. So, the small changes that providers make have a big impact on the children under their care. Providers who limit children’s exposure to harmful chemicals in the classroom can help prevent children from suffering from conditions like asthma, developmental disorders—even some forms of cancer. And Paul knows the research that shows the importance of reducing children’s exposure to environmental hazards like pesticides and unsafe plastics.

She speaks nationwide on ways to make classrooms healthier for young children, and her knowledge is hard won. “I faced a steep learning curve when I went to work for Eco-Healthy Child Care in 2008,” she admits, “since environmental health was not my first field. I initially earned a master’s degree in clinical psychology while living in Mobile, Alabama, so I could help children live happy, healthy lives. Yet, when I started doing therapy, I didn’t feel like I was effecting enough change because I was only supporting one child at a time. So, when I moved to San Francisco, I took a position at the Children’s Council of San Francisco, a child care resource and referral agency, and my first job there was as manager of an inclusion project for children with special needs.”

The job was great, as Paul recalls. “At the same time, I wanted to serve children before they faced a challenge. So, I still didn’t feel fulfilled.” Yet she did come away from the job with a good grasp of child care systems and their sources of funding. It was knowledge that would serve her well in 2008 when she took a job with the Oregon Environmental Council, the group that started Eco-Healthy Child Care to teach Oregon providers about environmental health hazards. When Paul came on board, the council had a grant to nationalize the program and its public health experts needed Paul’s knowledge of child care systems, licensing and levers for making change. She also added to her value by getting up to speed on environmental health while spending more than two years piloting the Oregon program in seven other states.

During those initial years, Paul connected with a wide range of stakeholders in the early childhood field. “It could be the child care licensing office, state child care resource and referral network or a group that managed nurse and health consultants,” she recalls, “but our goal was always the same: to bring together these stakeholders and trainers so they could redistribute our resources to local providers and give them technical assistance.”

Providers needed the help, as Paul came to see after flying around the seven states for over two years. “So, my task at this point was to figure out whether anyone else was working at the national level on the intersection of child care and environmental health,” she says. “It turned out that the Children’s Environmental Health Network was the first to do that, and we merged our programs in 2010. Eco-Healthy Child Care became a national program, based in Washington, DC. And since then, it has conducted train-the-trainer programs on environmental health in 33 states.”

Paul has conducted many of those sessions, and she’s found that educators are thrilled to have the information that she provides since they haven’t heard it before. “They’ve had a lot of education around inclusion for children with special needs, disaster preparedness, literacy and movement,” she explains. “But they’ve heard very little about lead or mercury exposure and unsafe plastics. And they want to know about these hazards because they love children and want to protect them. Many of the teachers are also upset because they didn’t get this information earlier in their careers. And that’s why I’m pleased to be partnering with the Council for Professional Recognition on ways to make environmental health a part of professional development for teachers.”

The presentations that Paul will make at the Council’s Early Educators Leadership Conference this fall are part of her overall goal to embed environmental health into existing systems of child care, she explains. And one of the ways her organization has done this is by putting together a 35-item checklist of environmental hazards that providers should address. “The point of the checklist is to give providers a list of best practices in environmental health,” she says, “and if they can check off 30 of the 35 items, we’ll endorse them for two years.”

Providers can also learn more about the checklist when they take Eco-Healthy Child Care’s online training, which includes the following three modules: improving indoor air and selecting art materials; protecting children’s health by choosing safer furniture, playground equipment, toys and pest control products; and reducing exposures to household chemicals and unsafe plastics. The course counts toward continuing education credits and gives providers practical, low-cost strategies for preventing children from being exposed to toxins. “For example,” Paul says, “green cleaning supplies cost almost the same as unsafe products, and we’re seeing the price of the green supplies go down as the market grows for safer products.” And Paul wants to fuel the demand for these products by providing concrete data on how environmental health-related steps improve the well-being of children and providers.

“Right now, most of the research on this topic focuses on K-12,” she explains. “Very little of it addresses the impact of environmental health-related improvements in child care settings. So, we’re trying to fill the gap by partnering with the Helen Walton Children’s Enrichment Center on a project called Growing Up Healthy. We have placed indoor air quality monitors in many of their facilities, and we’re helping them make changes in line with our 35-item checklist. We’re working with them through webinars and giving them virtual technical assistance in the hope of seeing a drop in substances like carbon monoxide, particulate matter and formaldehyde. Then we hope to publish our findings so people can make a key connection: If you reduce chemical exposure and have better ventilation, you’ll have better indoor air quality, which will lead to fewer absences among child care staff and their young students.”

This is a goal that matters to the Council for Professional Recognition and other groups that devote themselves to the development of young children. So, Paul has also partnered with several other child care groups to raise awareness of environmental health among providers. “For example, we helped the National Association for the Education of Young Children to adopt about 35 new standards pertaining to environmental health,” Paul says. “We’re going through the same process right now with the National Association for Family Child Care, and next year they will be releasing new lead exposure standards that we helped them create. The next step in our partnership is to create standards pertaining to safer household products. We’re doing the same thing with the Association for Early Learning Leaders. And all the groups have acknowledged that we need to do better on environmental health and move the field ahead by making it part of accreditation for teachers nationwide.”

Key people in a number of national nonprofits, including Child Care Aware and the Environmental Law Institute, support Paul’s mission, she says. “They’ve joined our National Advisory Committee and they’re thinking about strategies to make systemic changes in environmental health for young children.” This is a long-term project that Paul compares to how you build a pyramid, as she explains.

“At the bottom you have professional development and increasing the awareness of child care providers and their knowledge of the checklist. Then you go up and try to make a change in national thinking by having child care leaders agree that environmental health is an important part of health and safety for young children. From there you start to effect concrete change at the state level by having states integrate environmental health in their quality rating systems, and we’re already making some progress in this direction. We’ve been working with Maryland and Utah, where they now give providers a gold star if they’ve gained an endorsement from Eco-Healthy Child Care. And that’s a step toward our top goal as we build a strong structure to support long-term change. We would like to see environmental health be among required standards for state licensing of providers,” Paul says, and that would be the pinnacle of her work.

There’s a long way to go before Paul’s group reaches this goal, as she admits. “We’re still at the pyramid’s base and getting the word out to people so they can do more to keep children safe from environmental hazards. We’re still working on strategies for educating providers and integrating our knowledge into their training programs and into the textbooks they read.” And getting the message across to teachers matters because the small changes they make now in child care settings can pay off big for young children—an approach that also guides Paul’s work. “My strategy,” she says, “is to take one small step at a time and build up to make early childhood settings better and healthier for all children.”


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