Ross “Chad” Nunamaker: Building the Future of the Early Childhood Field

August 27, 2020

“I knew from an early point in my life that I wanted to make a difference in other people’s lives,” Chad says. As he explored varied fields in high school, he was always interested in a lot of different things, including math, anatomy, physics and other types of hard science. Then he took a course in developmental psychology during college. That was a turning point that sparked his interest in a pressing question: “How can we help young children develop in ways that are most beneficial to them throughout life?” The search for answers has driven him since then as an educator and advocate who helps teachers and parents turn early childhood theory into practice.

Chad’s commitment to serve young children has taken him in a wide range of directions, and he’s still interested in a lot of different things. He’s a child development specialist and early childhood mental health specialist, a director of curriculum and kindergarten program lead, and an adjunct professor at Wright State University. He’s executive director and director of training at the Lynda A. Cohen Center for the Study of Child Development in Dayton, Ohio, as well as executive director and communications manager at Southwest Ohio Association for the Education of Young Children, which he now considers his major role. He’s also working on his Ph.D. at Concordia University Chicago, where he explores a blend of different things: parent-teacher education, adult-child interactions, prevention science and early childhood mental health.

Despite the breadth of this list, “I don’t feel like I’ve done so many things that are different from each other,” Chad says. The issues he addresses all cross the lines of advocacy, policy and academia—and they’re all related. “As an early childhood professional, everything I do deals with children and families and teachers. And I like to see myself as a model of what you can do with the field. This is a big, broad profession and once you enter it, you can build a lifelong career.” Getting this message across is important to attracting and retaining teachers with the skills to raise outcomes for children and the passion to produce changes that will elevate the field. “Traditionally, the work of educating young children is not seen as very prestigious,” he says—and that’s especially true for men. “When I look back on my own career, I realize that it’s been rare for me to work with other men because there are so few of them in the field.”

Early on his own career, as Chad recalls, he faced the usual roadblocks that discourage men from teaching our youngest children. “When I told people that I wanted to be an early childhood educator, they would literally laugh in my face and ask why I would want to do that.” But he persisted because he’d seen the impact teachers make as a volunteer at the school where his mom taught kindergarten and first grade. “I had that template laid out,” he recalls, “as I went on to study early childhood education in college, teach kindergarten and then the early grades in school. I was working with third graders when it became clear to me that it was too late to have much of a huge impact on some of these kids. So, I moved down to working with toddlers, which isn’t especially common for men.”

But there are strong advantages to having more men work with young children, as Chad has seen in both the classroom and in his current work at the behavioral health clinic. “A lot of the referrals I receive are for boys who are at risk of being expelled from preschool, and I think one of the strengths of having more men in the field would be a reduction in this type of referrals. Men interact with boys in some different ways than women do. And I experienced this first-hand when I was a toddler teacher, working in a room with two women. There were things they thought I was letting go, especially when boys would get rowdy and roughhouse in class. But I didn’t see this as a problem, and I would even play along with the boys in active ways that the female teachers wouldn’t,” he recalls. And like many other male teachers, he also put that extra effort into his work. “As a minority in the field,” he explains, “you have to prove yourself because you know people are judging your ability to succeed with children.”

Part of the reason few men take on that challenge is they don’t have enough role models to give them the inspiration they need. “There’s an interesting study on early childhood education textbooks that I like to discuss with my students and other groups with which I work,” he says. “It shows that the textbooks don’t have many images of men interacting with young children. And the images that are there show men interacting in different ways than the women are. So, I think we need to do some work to show that men are doing the same work as female teachers and that this is a professional field that offers men a career path they can pursue.”

To bring more men into the field, we need to look at the bigger picture and make systemic change, as Chad explains. “If we, as a society, really followed what the scientific research says, we would make our biggest investments in those early years when the brain develops most. Yet we tend to pour the most money into older age groups, and it’s kind of backwards. Though you make the most impact during the early years, there’s a whole tradition that gets in the way of how society spends its money on education,” leading to the low pay and low status of both men and women in the early childhood education field. “So, a lot of things that would bring more men into the field are things we should be doing across the board, such as improving early educators’ pay, training and recognition.”

Our failure to do so sometimes leads early childhood teachers, themselves, to dismiss the value of their work, as Chad’s observed to his dismay. “I’ve heard people who work with toddlers say I want to get my BA so I can become a real teacher,” he explains, “and I see that as a tragic point of view. They don’t understand that the work they’re doing now makes more of an impact than the work they might do with a third grader for example.” Children who are in high-quality early education programs don’t need as many supports, such as food stamps and welfare, later in life, as the data continue to show. “Fortunately, society is waking up to things the field has known for a long time, but there’s still work to be done.” And Chad is helping to clear the way for change.

In recent years, he’s moved out of the preschool classroom to focus on his Ph.D. and efforts to advocate for his profession. “But I still work with children,” he says, “at the behavioral health clinic, where I strive to improve interactions between them and adults. One of the key points I try to get across to parents and teachers is that you are a role model for children, who mainly learn by observing. So, you shouldn’t do anything with children that you wouldn’t want them to do with other people. It’s really the golden rule applied to children,” as Chad explains. And adults who follow it, under his guidance, don’t just improve their interactions with children. They gain more knowledge of themselves, understand the reasons for their behavior and see how their actions might send the wrong message to kids.

Candidates for the Child Development Associate® (CDA) credential also gain greater self-knowledge thanks to Chad’s work on behalf of the Council for Professional Recognition. “I’ve served the Council as a CDA Professional Development Specialist™ for about five years,” he says, “and I feel that work is really important for candidates, who are at the start of their careers. Some of the conversations I have with them will go in depth into the kind of career they want to have. And I really push the idea that this is a profession, not just a job, and that the CDA is the first, best step in a lifelong career. It’s a signal to the profession and to yourself that you’re committed to keep on growing and learning new skills that will benefit young children. So being a PD Specialist, in my view, goes way beyond doing just doing a verification visit to ensure candidates are competent in a classroom. Invariably we have a big picture discussion about how they’re part of a community joined by a sense of passion for the well-being of children.”

Chad also passes on that message in his advocacy role at the Southwest Ohio Association for the Education of Young Children. “Much of our work is focused on educating the profession and improving quality outcomes for children and families,” he says. “Recently, we conducted a lot of online training for parents and teachers, including a workshop to help centers prepare to reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m also working with Groundwork Ohio as part of their Early Childhood Mental Health Group and trying to integrate mental health sciences into our field.”

So, Chad’s advocacy work takes different forms as he keeps growing and exploring different facets of his field. “But there are questions,” he points out, “that I’m constantly coming back to: How can adults best support the development of children? How do you get parents and teachers to do that? And how can you put these best practices to work at a systems level? These issues are super complex because you’re talking about changes in higher education, teacher training and school funding.”

Some solutions may come from the advocacy-minded, young college students that Chad’s now teaching at Wright State University in Dayton. “Every semester, I have one or two students,” he says, “who are getting their BA in education, but their end goal is not to be a teacher. Instead, they want to work in policy or advocacy. And I encourage them by discussing how advocacy works, describing the complex systems involved and helping them think through the process. You have to engage the people who will take over after you or you’re missing the point—and your work will come to nothing.”

Chad is committed to keep on building the future of the early childhood field. So, he adds fuel to the young folks’ fire by talking about the trajectory of his own career. “On the first day of the semester,” he says, “I introduce myself and talk about all the ways I’ve worked to strengthen the early childhood profession. I say that I’m telling you this so you can see this is a big field that offers you a lot of different ways to support children.” And his words strike a chord. “I’ve had students tell me that I influenced them to stay in the early childhood program by showing them they had options besides teaching in a classroom all their lives. And that’s fine. So long as you center your work on children and families, you can’t go wrong.”


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