Barbara T. Bowman

The child advocate founded Erikson Institute with three others 50 years ago. She continues to teach graduate students as the Irving B. Harris Professor of Child Development and advocate for children in local and national leadership positions.

Until the 1960s, early childhood education, then called nursery schools, was essentially for middle class children. Head Start changed that. There were only a handful of programs in the United States to focus on early childhood, and Erikson Institute was one of them.

At Erikson, we felt like we were on a cusp of a movement with strong backings of research in many fields, including child development, education, and anthropology.

One of the central issues today is whether to think of early childhood programs as primarily care or primarily education — but programs will need elements of both. Young children begin to learn about the world at birth and need the care of supportive adults who understand the social-emotional and biological needs of children, and also how to help them develop the skills and knowledge they need to be ready for school. Because of the differences in children’s ages and cultures, plus the demands of our post-industrial society, they need thoughtful, knowledgeable teachers able to build responsive relationships and promote children’s intellectual development as they lay the groundwork for academic success.

Understanding the role of culture in development is important. My first jobs exposed me to people who saw the world differently than I. The more I learned about why they held their beliefs, the more I understood.

Today, ask my students to think about their own culture and life experiences as the first step in understanding and relating to the children and families they will encounter in the field. That is central to Erikson’s approach to preparing professionals. We need an educational system made up of professionals with different backgrounds, capacities, and goals, who can bring the knowledge of their own culture and life experiences to the care and education of young children. We are one of the few institutions thinking about how to achieve that.

Erikson is asking its students to think about and address the issues facing schools today: How do you create a truly inclusive school? How do we address issues of economic and social segregation? How do we provide real opportunity for all children?

It depends. That’s one of our code phrases at Erikson. It is meant to convey the complexity and ambiguity of human development. It says that what is right or wrong has to be viewed in the context of different social, cultural, and personal realities.

We’ve made extraordinary progress, but we still have a long way to go. As child advocates, we need to ask if our education system is flexible enough to meet the needs of all our children.

What We’ve Learned Over 50 Years

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