Christen Million Shares Why We Need to Close the Gap of Systemic Inequities

“More neurological connections are formed in the first three years of life than at any other point in development.”

I can remember sitting in my Child Development class at the University of Arkansas, hearing those words, and thinking, “How can anyone think that there is work more important than serving our youngest children?” 

I always knew I wanted to work with children. My vision for what that looked like changed and grew throughout my undergraduate program and the beginning of my career. Ultimately, everything led me to exactly where I needed to be, which is currently an Assistant Vice President of Early Childhood Mental Health with the Rooted in Relationships initiative at Nebraska Children and Families Foundation, and one of the co-leads for the Nebraska Pyramid Leadership Team.  

The Pyramid Model is a framework of evidence-based practices that help to promote the social, emotional, and behavioral competence of young children, ages birth-8. It was developed in 2003 by two national, federally-funded research and training centers: The Center for the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) and Technical Assistance Center on Social Emotional Intervention for Youth Children (TACSEI).  

It builds upon a tiered approach to providing universal supports to all children to promote social-emotional well-being, targeted social and emotional supports to children who need additional support, and intensive interventions for the small number of children that need them. 

I learned about the Pyramid Model at my very first job out of college. I was working for the Head Start Program in Wichita, Kansas as a Mental Health and Disabilities Specialist. That position served as the catalyst for the rest of my career, and I’ll always be thankful for the opportunities I had there. It exposed me to so many wonderful national early childhood advocates and researchers. It launched me into a lifelong passion for promoting early childhood mental health. 

In Nebraska, the Pyramid Model has been implemented since 2006. As the Pyramid Model has continued to expand across the state over the last several years, early childhood systems have been expanded to support the growth and sustainability of Pyramid practices. Currently, the Pyramid Model is being implemented in Nebraska in a variety of diverse ways, including child care centers, family child care homes, Head Start, and public preschool programs. 

Rooted in Relationships (RiR) is one initiative that works to improve the social and emotional development of children from birth through age 8 across Nebraska. The initiative builds on the early childhood and child well-being work of Nebraska Children and Families Foundation, targeting specific service systems and partners within communities.  

Nebraska Children partners with communities to support them in the implementation of the Pyramid Model in selected child care centers and family child care homes. In addition, communities develop and implement a long-range plan that influences the early childhood systems of care in the community and supports the healthy social-emotional development of children.  

RiR currently supports twelve collaborative hubs serving multiple communities, in various stages of the initiative, inclusive of planning, implementation, expansion, and sustainability: Buffalo, Dakota (Dixon and Thurston), Dawson (Frontier), Dodge, Douglas, Hall, Keith (Chase, Hitchcock, Lincoln, Perkins, and Red Willow), Lancaster, Madison, Platte, and Saline (Jefferson and Gage) Counties as well as the Panhandle (Box Butte, Cheyenne, Dawes, Deuel, Garden, Morrill, and Scotts Bluff). 

Nebraska is a state that I didn’t think about a lot before I moved here. If someone told me 10 years ago that I would be working my dream job, and co-leading Nebraska’s Pyramid State Leadership Team, I’m not sure what would be more surprising – the work I would be doing, or the fact that I would be living in Nebraska. 

It didn’t take me long after living here to see all the amazing work happening around early childhood. I had never seen a state collaborate so well in its efforts to move early childhood forward, and I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of for the rest of my career. Joining the Rooted in Relationships team in 2019 felt like a reminder that I was exactly where I needed to be. 

The Nebraska Pyramid Leadership Team was formed in 2007 and is currently co-led by me, and Ginny Howard, Education Specialist with the Nebraska Department of Education Office of Special Education. This group meets quarterly with Pyramid partners from across the state. The group consists of four-goal groups, each focused on a different priority that aligns with national guidance on statewide implementation using four essential structures.  

Goal Group 1 works to ensure that the Pyramid Framework is embedded in all early childhood workforce education and training from pre-service to in-service.  

Goal Group 2 supports the ongoing development and maintenance of statewide infrastructure to promote the implementation, expansion, and sustainability of the Pyramid Model. Goal  

Group 3 works to evaluate the effectiveness of training, coaching, and implementation of the Pyramid Model to fidelity.  

Goal Group 4 supports the administration, infrastructure, and public outreach of the Nebraska Pyramid Leadership Team. 

One critical component of the Pyramid Model is data-driven decision-making. National, state, and local leaders are continuously evaluating the many components of their work. One priority that has risen to the top across the nation has been the importance of equity within all systems, especially early childhood education.  

Over the past several years, equity has also risen to the top of my priority list not only in my career but also in my own personal life. I have spent the last several years trying to reflect on my place in systemic racism, what I am doing to advocate and fight for change, how I wish to raise my children, and how I want to be known in my career.  

I don’t always have the right answers, but I am dedicated to always being open and willing to learn. In the Spring of 2021, three members of the Nebraska Pyramid Leadership Team were invited to participate in a series of workshops called “Equity and the Pyramid Model” through NCPMI.  

While the Nebraska Pyramid Leadership Team had already been focusing a significant amount of their work on embedding equity within the Pyramid systems in Nebraska, this series allowed Pyramid leaders in the state to take a closer look at equity within 4 specific essential Pyramid structures including the State Leadership Team, professional development network of program implementation coaches, implementation and demonstration programs, sites, and communities, and data and evaluation systems. Each of these specific systems ties directly to each of the existing State Leadership Team goal groups. 

Having the opportunity to attend this series allowed me to reflect not only on the work that we’re doing across the state, but it gave our team tangible tools to take back to our state leadership team. In the first session of the series, we were able to watch a presentation by the Children’s Equity Project. They shared their research from their Start with Equity: 14 Priorities to Dismantle Systemic Racism in Early Care and Education report.  

There were many things that happened during the series that impacted me greatly. During the Children’s Equity Project, we were shown a video of a 6-year old girl being arrested at school for “challenging behaviors.” It was very difficult for everyone to watch. People were discussing in the comments that it felt very traumatizing and showing a video of that nature should require a trigger warning to participants. 

Personally, I was sitting with difficult emotions as well. I felt sad and angry while watching the video. I thought about my own son and how I would feel if he was arrested at school for “challenging behaviors.” I thought about the trajectory of that child and how she would feel about school after having such a traumatizing experience. I wondered who was in her corner. Who helped her feel safe? Who was advocating for her to succeed and break down barriers? 

"I thought about my own son and how I would feel if he was arrested at school for 'challenging behaviors.' I thought about the trajectory of that child...who was in her corner. Who helped her feel safe?" Christen reflects on the importance of her work.
“I thought about my own son and how I would feel if he was arrested at school for ‘challenging behaviors.’ I thought about the trajectory of that child…who was in her corner. Who helped her feel safe?” Christen reflects on the importance of her work.

During this dialogue, Angelique Kane, Program Specialist with The Institute for Innovation and Implementation at the University of Maryland, School of Social Work, chimed in and said “As a Black mother, I don’t have the privilege of not watching these videos. I have to use them as teachable moments for my children.” 

This is a quote that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I had to turn off my Zoom camera momentarily as I tried to hold back tears. It was the reminder I needed that my comfort is not the priority in this work. There are real families and real children being impacted by systemic inequities. While I have never experienced it firsthand, it is my responsibility to fight for equitable practices where I can, and when things start to feel uncomfortable or difficult, I think about Angelique, and I am reminded of the incredible privilege I have to be able to teach my son about racism from an outside perspective. I will always remember that. 

After the series, the three members that attended created a plan to disseminate the information and ideas that were gathered during the series. This launched the entire State Leadership Team into a year-long effort to embed equity into the team’s current work plan. 

In January 2022, the State Leadership Team was invited to participate in a national webinar series through NCPMI called “For State Leaders, By State Leaders: State Leadership Team Equity Inventory.”  Ginny Howard and I were able to share about the work that the Leadership Team has been doing to address equity in the Pyramid in Nebraska. We presented alongside Maryland, including Angelique Kane, who had impacted me so greatly a year prior.  

To learn about the specific strategies the Nebraska Pyramid Leadership Team implemented to address equity in the Pyramid Model, you can find a recording of that presentation here.

Our team doesn’t have all the answers, but we are dedicated to ensuring that the social and emotional well-being of all children is equitable in Nebraska. The future of the state depends on it. 

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Nebraska Children and Families Foundation supports children, young adults and families at risk with the overall goal of giving our state's most vulnerable kids what they need to reach their full potential. We do this by building strong communities that support families so their children can grow up to be thriving, productive adults.

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