Hello Head Start/Early Head Start Director and Manager,
I’ve been spending time recently with lots of you talking about data, compiling a series of videos for our Head Start Data Essentials course offered in partnership with the National Head Start Association.
These conversations are fascinating to me. I’ve been inspired, frustrated, and most of all, motivated to share. So here goes:
Next to staffing and enrollment, data is an “extreme stressor” for a typical Head Start/Early Head Start director. The story sounds the same as I hear it over the course of many separate conversations. It goes somewhat like this:
- We’re expected to do so much in such a short time and count it all accurately and perfectly.
- If we don’t get it done and/or count it right, there can be serious consequences.
- My staff feels this stress very strongly. As director, I have to support them and bolster their morale, while also holding them all 100% accountable. This is really hard.
- Just about all of my staff go “above and beyond” getting it all done and counting it all.
- When it is over, I don’t feel successful. I feel exhausted, and I also feel relieved.
There are variations on this sequence, but the story is largely the same. “We work so hard, we TRY so hard, but it very much feels like constant, unforgiving stress.” *
* I want to note here that many of the respondents are quite GOOD at data (they make up a cohort of “Head Start High Achievers”). This is important. This is not a “we can’t figure out how to do it” issue. It is simply a reality of their situation.
I worry that lost in here is the entire purpose of the program: to improve the lives of the children and their families that they serve.
When data is just numbers that are required to be submitted for zero-tolerance compliance, then data will quickly become a workplace adversary.
Is it done? Was it on time? Was it 100% complete? Is it accurate? Does it feed the PIR correctly? Why is this part missing? Who didn’t finish? Why are we behind last year? What happened in this classroom?
In these conditions, with data, it might be helpful to sort things out a bit. In Head Start, I’ll state that there is before stress, during stress, and after stress.
Before stress is the deep, annual worry that you have enough people, the right systems, and the time to complete the task. You may recognize before stress every single August and September. Consider the ASQ-3. Are we ready to distribute the exact right version to each family for each child? Are our teachers and family advocates truly fluent in the tool? Did we set up our system to catch all the incoming data? Is our schedule set? Are we Ready-Ready??
During stress is the day to day job of getting all those ASQ-3s completed within a certain period of time, parent by parent, child by child, classroom by classroom, site by site. Then transferring all those bubbles and all those developmental levels into an electronic format to count and understand everything, let alone organize referrals and follow ups and case management. Everybody’s in the trenches. Everybody’s responsible. Everyone is giving max effort. During stress is just sort of happening all the time, really.
After stress is the realization that when it is all done, it is most likely wrong. What a terrible feeling. Interestingly, the more you know about data, the more you experience after stress. Any thoughtful analysis of Head Start data shows the expected and numerous inconsistencies that occur during collection, coding, and entry, often with a spotlight that cannot be turned off once activated (ASQ-3 “final” data fully qualifies for this description). It is also extremely difficult to “go back and fix” data. Who wants to experience another round of before stress and during stress? Especially when everything is already “done”?
Data is much more than numbers to be submitted for zero-tolerance compliance. Data is the information about your team’s effort to provide comprehensive services for children and their families.
Organizing the massive intake of information to build an understanding of where each family and each child is when they join your program is effort. Every year there is a massive “getting ready” right before each program year officially launches, across all content areas.
Completing all the work required to build that understanding is effort. Every Gold and DRDP and ASQ-3/SE and Family Needs Assessment and Nutrition Screening and Eligibility Form that someone on your teams owns and loves on and caretakes and completes and enters is effort.
Counting and entering and counting and entering and analyzing and reporting is effort. Making sure no one is missed. Running countless reports to ensure timeliness and accuracy. Following up. Reminding. Checking. Analyzing. Reporting. Let alone case managing, following up, again and again and again, once “round one” is complete.
Have you ever quantified all this effort?
What I mean by that is – everyone (and I mean everyone) at your program is collectively responsible for getting ready to serve children and families, serving children and families, and then reporting on how they served children and families.
All of that is countable. That is a story worth telling.
“These are all the things we got done and the data we collected in doing so” is the story programs currently tell. It’s a compliance story (we did all the things we are required to do, in the way we are required to do them). It’s a Focus Area 1 and 2 story (we are fully aware and have people and systems in place to do our work, and we can show hard evidence of doing all the work).
But “This is what it took from our staff to do it” is what I am talking about.
Data, in Head Start, is EFFORT. It’s waking up in the middle of the night knowing you missed something. It’s writing a note on your phone to check on it the next day. It’s accepting responsibility for things only you know about, care about, and track obsessively, because you know you’re the only one who can make sure it’s done on time, in full, and correctly.
Gather your staff. Ask about that. Count that. Write that down. Record them talking. There are so many stories to tell.
Data is EFFORT. Effort happens when there is caring. Caring comes from knowing that you are serving children and families who need you.
And this is the connection. When Head Start staff talk about data, they don’t necessarily talk about that at all. They talk about the before, during and after stress. They talk about there not being enough time, enough support, enough recognition, and enough focus on the real mission. Honestly, really, that is what they say.
Is it any wonder that programs across the country are struggling with retention?
The staff do have a lot of wonderful stories to tell. They just don’t necessarily connect the dots with data.
Data shows very powerfully just how much effort and caring by your staff has taken place in such a short period of time.
This is regretful. Data is wonderful! Data shows very powerfully just how much effort and caring by your staff has taken place in such a short period of time. Data allows you to know what you did. It empowers you to make changes to how you did it for next time to do it better. It celebrates you. It measures your impact.
During the videos I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I heard about this from managers and directors who were working very hard to connect the dots for their staff back at their programs. The best stories made this easy to understand and simple:
Data is a parent and child that have begun a nightly reading tradition after a healthy dinner. Data is a family moving into affordable housing. Data is a cavity that will soon be filled. Data is a four year old getting registered for Kindergarten in the fall, who is “readier” than she would have been a year earlier. Data is an individual child ready for school who represents all the children in your program.
Data is effort. The next time you and your agency are preparing for your FA2 review and organizing your Data Tour, consider quantifying and storytelling around what it took from your staff to do it right alongside these are all the things we got done and the data we collected in doing so.
Your staff will notice and appreciate it. What better use of data could there be?
Final note: If the descriptions of before stress, during stress, and after stress with regards to all things data resonated with you, our team is here to help you. We teach, we train, and we roll up our sleeves alongside you, because we understand how to help and lower those stressors.