Misti Norman Taking on the 4-C Challenge

March 26, 2021

Misti Norman likes to compare the first years of life to the foundation of a house. “When you build a house,” she says, “the foundation has to be stable. You have to secure it and seal it so that it’s settled firmly, and it’s the same thing for some young children. If there are any cracks in their foundation, you’re just building on instability. Then when they turn 10 or 12, they start showing extreme behaviors. But these behaviors didn’t begin at that time. They started when the children turned two or three. So, we really need to take the early years very seriously.”

Misti learned the importance of those years as a mom of four, so she gives early care and education all the attention it deserves at Heavenly Kids Center for Learning in Columbus, OH. “My center is in the inner city and one of my goals in starting it was to provide inner-city children with top-notch care and programming,” she says. “Statistics show that inner-city children face a lot more challenges, whether it’s from lack of resources or lack of chances to learn. So, we provide food and do a lot of community work because our work is not just about child care and education. It’s also about supporting the entire family and making parents realize that their child is having issues—like not talking or throwing tantrums—that need some close attention.”

Misti identifies with parents like this because her oldest son had a learning disability when he was very young. “I ended up home schooling him for a year, and that’s how I got involved in the ECE field after a first career in marketing and business. I was the marketing coordinator for Faith Mission and other charitable groups,” she says. “I also had my own graphic design business where I helped my clients educate their customers.” And these entrepreneurial skills stood her in good stead as she decided to take her career in a new direction. She began a tutoring program and became a licensed independent tutor through the Ohio Department of Education. Then in 2007, she opened Heavenly Kids Center for Learning with one mission: “nurturing, teaching and growing children to reach their highest potential.”

Many of the children she serves need some extra support because they’ve been through a great deal of trauma in their short lives. “They’ve suffered physical and mental abuse,” Misti explains. “They live in bad conditions and they’ve been neglected. They’ve been shot at and seen their elder siblings killed.” Sometimes “it’s nothing short of a miracle that they’ve survived,” and it leaves a lasting mark on them, as Misti has sadly observed. “I’ve seen a huge increase in behavioral challenges, and I feel that the issue of trauma is more on the forefront than it was fourteen years ago when I founded my center. At the time, I might have had one child in 60 who had tantrums, spun around in their chair, spit at the teacher, or flipped out for whatever reason. Now it’s more like one in ten, and the rise in extreme behavior is very stressful for early childhood teachers.”

Still, our educators can’t give up because a young child’s entire future may depend on them. It’s crucial for teachers to empathize with vulnerable kids and know how to help them, Misti explains. So, she takes her staff through trauma-informed training at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and provides a lot of internal training at her center. “Every February,” she says, “we meet once a week and do a boot camp that I call the 4-C Challenge to tackle the areas of character, commitment, communication and change. The challenge is mainly about self-reflection, so we do a lot of self-study, watch videos, and join in team-building activities. The goal is to look inside ourselves and see how we can build our sense of empathy for young learners who’ve been through trauma.”

And the training has made a difference, Misti explains. “Once a teacher understands why a child is flipping out, it changes their impressions so they can discern what a child actually needs. And it’s so important for teachers not to put children in a box because if they do, they’ll miss important signs of what a child is actually going through.” They’ll also miss an important chance to prepare a child for future success in school. “It helps K-12 teachers when we pass them a child who is fully stable,” Misti says. And that’s increased her resolve to support young learners in their most formative years.

One of the ways Misti does this is by boosting the pool of qualified teachers, so she has partnered with Columbus Downtown High School to help students earn their Child Development Associate® (CDA) credential. “I see the CDA as a good, strong first step into the world of early education,” Misti says. “I also like it because it’s hands-on. The students have to put together a portfolio and gain a certain number of hours of experience. By doing so they can see the reality of the ECE field and decide if they’re really equipped to handle the work that it requires.”

Downtown High students get a good idea of best practices in the profession when they come to work at Heavenly Kids, and Misti considers these students her biggest success story. “Every year,” she says, “we hire at least four CDA students and have them train with a mentor teacher so they can get the experience needed to earn their CDA. After they graduate and get their CDA, they typically stay with us for at least five years.” Many of them also have the confidence to pursue their AA or BA thanks to these initial achievements, Misti says. “Folks are often intimidated when they hear the word degree and think about spending two or four years getting one. But when they earn their CDA, it puts them on the pathway to higher learning because we have partnerships with Ohio State University and Columbus State University that allow students to earn college credits for their CDA.”

This system is “priceless because you’re providing education, training and support,” Misti explains. She feels we need all these components to counter the high turnover that we’ve seen in the ECE field for some time. Our profession has always been under a lot of strain due to the lack of enough resources and preparation, as she points out. But it’s even worse since the start of the pandemic since teachers now face the risk of getting sick. In addition, parents are taking the stress they feel out on the children, leading to an escalation in early childhood trauma and extreme behaviors in the classroom. “All this adds an extra layer of stress to our already stressful profession,” Misti says. And she has acknowledged this by increasing pay for her staff and providing them with more resources to do their job effectively.

She’s also taken steps to advocate for her whole profession “I’m on the advisory board of Groundwork Ohio,” she says, “a strong advocacy group for the ECE field. They asked me to speak at the Ohio Statehouse back in 2019, so I appeared there to share my story. I also went to Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, last year right before the COVID shut down and talked to a number of lawmakers about the issues faced by our field, including the low pay and need for more publicly funded child care for vulnerable families.”

And she continues to eagerly advocate for her field because she knows early educators need to make their voices heard. “Educators need to be at the table when decisions are made about our field. Lawmakers are not always aware of what we’re experiencing and don’t always see the value of investing in our work. So, I keep going back and reminding folks that those early years provide a lifelong foundation. We pour money into building juvenile court systems and investigating low third-grade test scores. But if we put our efforts into younger age groups, when those cracks in the foundation first appear, we could prevent instead of repair the damage.”

Early childhood teachers do much of the groundwork to build a solid foundation in the early years, so “we also need to provide them a strong learning environment,” Misti points out. One of the ways she’s achieved this is through her 4-C Challenge, and she thinks that explains what happened after her center had a couple of COVID cases despite taking all the right precautions: handwashing, taking temperatures and wearing masks. “Of course, we had to close our doors for a couple of days while a company came in to sanitize everything in sight. When we reopened, most of our teachers came back and I think it was because of all the team building we do.” At Heavenly Kids, Misti and her teachers share a strong sense of commitment to the children they serve and empathize with their struggles. “When the children grieve, we grieve, too,” Misti says. And her heartache only makes her more eager to help them have better lives.


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