Leah Shapiro: Saving the World by Serving Children

January 27, 2021

Leah Shapiro loved being in an early setting. “I loved arranging the classroom,” she recalls. “I loved getting down with the kids in the block area of the room. I loved researching new books and reading them to the children. I also enjoyed working with the kids, many of them from low-income families in Chicago. I was very committed to the children’s families and the communities from which they came. And I was an advocate who often marched to advance their needs. The two went hand in hand because I’ve always had this sort of save-the-world mentality,” she laughs. “And I’ve wanted to act on it serving young children.”

This mission has guided her during 50 years in the early childhood profession. She has a master’s degree in child development and an advanced certificate in infant studies, along with a wide range of experience in her field. Besides working as a preschool teacher in Head Start, she has served as an administrator, trainer and mental health consultant, as well as an education, mental health and disabilities coordinator for federal- and state-funded programs. She has co-scripted and directed a Magna System series on authentic assessment and school-age programs, and taught college courses on human growth and development. She has worked in the early intervention system as a development therapist. And she is also certified as a Professional Development Specialist who serves CDA candidates at center-based, family child care and home visitor programs.

Leah’s involvement with the CDA goes way back to the 1970s when the credential was still in its infant stages. “I was in in charge of CDA training in Chicago and trained many Head Start teachers,” she recalls. “I wrote a widely used CDA assessment instrument and taught CDA courses in a community college where I geared the courses to meet candidates’ needs. We had assistant teachers who were reading at the seventh-grade level, so we gave them the help they needed to bring them to the point where they could take a course like human growth and development. We also tailored the academic courses to fulfill the 120 clock hours required for the credential. So, by the time they took three courses, which led to an associate degree, they had the hours they needed for the credential. Then most of them kept going with their education.”

But Leah’s focus wasn’t just on the classroom requirements for the credential. “The CDA makes sure you don’t just talk the talk, you also have to walk the walk,” she explains. So, she placed CDA students in model sites where they could see best practices in action. “This also gave us a chance to see how they interacted with children, and that was important to us. You can get an A in all these courses, but that doesn’t mean you’re good with children.”

You also need specific training and skills to work with different age and demographic groups, as Leah understood. And she was instrumental in adapting the CDA to meet the needs of various early childhood programs. “When Early Head Start was developing in the nineties,” she recalls, “a lot of people who’d been trained to work in preschools didn’t have a clue about how to work with infants and toddler, so we wrote two courses that still exist about teaching infants and toddlers. We were the first to accept bilingual CDA portfolios and serve as observers for bilingual candidates for the CDA. We were also the first in the country to do a Home Visitor CDA because we were striving to be all inclusive.”

But whatever age group the candidates served, language the spoke or setting in which they worked, one thing held true for them all: their skill level largely depended on the kind of experience they received in an early childhood setting, she explains. “Whether a person succeeds in getting a CDA depends on the support a program gives them in learning developmentally appropriate practice. If you’re shouting at children and your director doesn’t tell you it’s inappropriate, there’s no one to stop you from shouting. As an educator, you learn things from the environment where you’re working.”

Leah has also learned a great deal from the many different environments where she, herself, worked. “I was a developmental therapist, and I went into homes and worked with children who had severe developmental delays or had been through trauma. I’m a play therapist because I’m convinced play is the way to help children develop. It’s a lot like being a home visitor because the primary caregiver has to partner with you and you are going into a child’s home, day care center or wherever they spend the day.”

While doing this work, Leah went around to a wide range of areas in Chicago and worked with families of all backgrounds: African American, Hispanic, Mongolian and more. “It doesn’t matter if they’re rich, poor or middle-income, children of all backgrounds have issues, trauma and developmental delays,” she points out. And working with them taught her not to be judgmental. “I learned to accept other families’ life styles and cultural differences,” she says, though sometimes it exposed her to disturbing aspects of life—and even danger.

“A lot of developmental therapists won’t go to certain parts of the city,” she recalls, “but being Leah, I went everywhere. One parent put her child in front of the TV all day and wouldn’t take her to the playground across the street because there’d been a gang killing there two days before. I had a child who threw toys at my head and lived with his mother in a shelter where all the moms were drug abusers. As a developmental therapist in early intervention, you get everything, and you either adapt or you don’t.”

She did, and she used her expertise to assist others in their work. “I’ve supervised home visitors and I’ve done a lot of training with bilingual home visitors,” she says. “I referred them to early intervention if I saw the child was having issues or developmental delays. I also collaborated with social workers. And I feel like I could have been a social worker because I became so knowledgeable about the families that I worked with.” And they’re still fresh in her mind because she gave up her developmental therapy work just a year ago though she’s now 74.

She no longer works directly with children because it’s hard for her to get down on the floor and play with them. “I’m semi-retired,” she says, “but I’m still very involved in my field. I still work as a PDS, attend seminars and do training because you should never stop learning,” she says. And one of her greatest concerns now is to help children also learn by bonding with books. “Parents and early childhood educators who enthusiastically share quality picture books with young children are promoting literacy in the fullest sense of the word,” she believes. “So, it is our responsibility as parents and teachers to bring books and children together. Next to hugging our child, reading aloud is probably the longest-lasting experience you can put into your child’s life,” she wrote in a recent paper.

Leah now spends a lot of time reading to her grandkids and helping them with virtual learning. They’re the love of her life and she sees them nearly every day—yet she hasn’t forgotten about the many vulnerable children who need her support. “I’m involved with Save the Children, and I advocate for families to get the funding they need for early childhood care. I now drive to meetings and demonstrations because I don’t march as well as I once did,” Leah ruefully says. But she’s still striving to contribute to her profession because she hasn’t given up her mission: to save the world by serving our youngest children.

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