Breaking Down Silos to Create Systems Change

Today’s blog has been co-authored by Nichole Parks, Leading for Children’s Director of Programs.

As the school year is winding down, Amanda, a pre-K teacher who has been at Oakdale Elementary for two years, is wondering how to support the children in her class during the summer. She begins to assemble an activity guide with suggestions for games, arts and crafts, and simple cooking ideas. Wondering whether other teachers at the school might find it valuable, she talks with Vivian, a more experienced teacher, about ways to share the resource.

Vivian replies, “You could, but most people don’t want to share.” Amanda, deflated, decides to keep to herself. She comes away from the interaction feeling like an outsider in the school, where the more experienced teachers set the program direction, and the newer teachers have limited options for expressing their ideas.

In early learning environments, experiences like Amanda’s are all too common, and they are rooted in the ways we communicate. When all of the adults in the early childhood ecosystem feel confident in communicating their ideas, feelings, and concerns openly with others, they can tap into the support and inspiration they need to create the best possible experiences for children. Sometimes, though, we gravitate toward familiar colleagues and ways of working. We develop patterns of communication that create little space for new voices and ideas, and in the process, silos begin to form.

Silos in early learning — which often stem from disconnected funding streams, unequal access to resources, and biases about roles, people, programs, and geography — are barriers to equity, strong systems, and leadership development. Instead of fostering collaborative relationships that elevate both collective and individual wisdom, silos stop the flow of ideas. There’s little opportunity to learn from diverse perspectives, and habitual, sometimes ineffective, ways of working become entrenched. Not only does this undermine equity by causing those outside the silo to feel disempowered, but it also prevents us from providing the best possible learning experiences for all children.

Vivian’s response to Amanda was not intended to make her feel like an outsider; she was simply working in the way she always had. Yet by sticking to old habits rather than listening to Amanda’s ideas and looking for paths forward, Vivian unintentionally perpetuated the school’s culture of silo working. The interaction could have gone differently if Vivian had refined her communication — actively listening and learning from new perspectives — as Amanda discovers later in the day.

During a lunch break, Amanda tells another colleague, Julie, about her idea of the guide. Julie, who has taught at Oakdale Elementary for nearly 20 years, listens carefully and goes on to say, “I see what Vivian is saying, but let’s think about how to get your ideas out there.” They work together to draft a message on the Facebook group for Oakdale Elementary teachers, taking care to refine their communication styles to emphasize others’ wisdom and set the tone for an open exchange of ideas. Their message says, “What a year it’s been. We’re certainly exhausted from the transition to online learning, and worried that we’re all out of ideas for supporting children’s learning over the summer. All of you are such creative thinkers — maybe we can reconnect for a coffee and brainstorming session?” Although Vivian’s words are echoing in her mind, Amanda is excited and appreciates Julie’s courageous approach. Amanda notices how Julie uses language to be inclusive.

Julie and Amanda host the gathering, provide some refreshments, and co-facilitate the conversation. They offer simple guidelines for sharing so that all voices are heard.

In this space of collaboration, the group’s creativity flourishes. They build upon each other’s ideas, creating a summer activity guide together. Everyone leaves the gathering excited to have a shared resource and a renewed sense of their collective wisdom. The process doesn’t stop there: seeing how well the guide turned out, the teachers commit to meeting weekly to learn from each other and create an environment where children benefit not just from the wisdom of one teacher, but from the wisdom of the group.

As you think about ways to break down silos in early care and education systems, we invite you to refine communication to ensure that you’re hearing others’ ideas and expressing your own in ways that invite collaboration. To get started:

Refining communication is just one of Leading for Children’s Five Commitments of Optimistic Leaders, which can be your guide to building equity, collaboration, and reflection into your daily interactions.

  1. Think impact: As you listen and prepare to respond, ask yourself: am I reacting, or have I taken time to reflect? How will my words and actions affect others? Will they build up or break down barriers?
  2. Cultivate self-awareness: Ask yourself, how am I showing up today? Will the way I’m expressing my thoughts and feelings help others feel comfortable with sharing their ideas?
  3. Nurture relationships: How am I supporting the relationships in the group? Am I creating space and taking the time to build genuine connections?
  4. Refine communication: Are my conversations two-way? Am I choosing words that help others feel open to sharing their ideas?
  5. Activate curiosity: Ask yourself, am I staying open to learn today or am I simply stating my beliefs over and over again? Am I looking for ways to connect my own learning and experiences to others’ ideas?

To further explore ways to break down silos to create equitable systems change, join Judy Jablon, Nichole Parks, and members of the Alabama Learning Network for our upcoming webinar:

Breaking Down Silos to Create Systems Change

June 24, 2021 from 4:00–5:00pm EDT (2:00–3:00pm MDT)

Click here to register

© Leading for Children, 2021.

Leading for Children is a national nonprofit that empowers adults across the early childhood ecosystem to be leaders and learners.