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The promise of early childhood development in Indian Country

Implementing culturally based early childhood programs may help Native communities mitigate the effects of historical trauma and give their youngest members strong foundations in life.

November 17, 2017


Rob Grunewald Economist, Community Development and Engagement (former)
The promise of early childhood development in Indian Country
ECD in Indian Country, preschoolers displaying their art, 2 column
Photos courtesy of White Earth Child Care/Early Childhood Programs

On a spring morning in April, young children and their parents meet with teachers to the sound of drumming and singing in the rotunda of the Wewinabi Early Education Center on the Mille Lacs Reservation in central Minnesota. All classrooms, meeting rooms, and hallways in Wewinabi orient to the center of the building, where each month families gather for a powwow.

There, children and family members move together in a circle, holding hands as they walk or dance to the drumbeat of Ojibwe songs that offer prayers for the well-being of children and community. After a few songs, the children say goodbye to their families and return to their classrooms to continue their day of learning.

Wewinabi is an example of a Native American early childhood development (ECD) program that provides a culturally enriched education experience for young children. Support for programming at Wewinabi comes from federal and state sources, such as Head Start and child care subsidies, as well as the tribal government.

Programs like Wewinabi have sprouted up in Native communities across North America to support development during children’s first years of life. As many tribal communities grapple with the symptoms of poverty and historical trauma, ECD programs can help children start strong. In addition, Native communities see ECD investments as part of a strategy to close relatively wide and persistent gaps between Native children and white children in school achievement and high school graduation rates. (For an illustration of these achievement gaps, see the chart below; for insights into their causes, see this recent blog post.)

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When the right components are in place, Native ECD programs can achieve a variety of benefits to children and communities. For example, evidence suggests that Native ECD programs that integrate the culture and language of indigenous communities can promote resiliency in children and sustain Native approaches to living. Strategies for building successful Native ECD programs and systems incorporate parent engagement, professional development, coordination across sectors, and culturally sensitive assessments.

While much has been learned about successful ECD programs in Indian Country, challenges remain. Funding for Native ECD programs across state and government agencies, philanthropic organizations, and tribal governments falls short of meeting demand for services. And several ECD program directors note difficulty attracting qualified applicants to fill job openings, which points to a skill gap in the Native ECD workforce. But despite these and other challenges, Native communities are making advances in support of their youngest members.

This article first looks at the linkages between intergenerational historical trauma and ECD. It then turns to the role of ECD programs, especially those that incorporate Native language and culture, in helping mitigate the impact of historical trauma, and highlights examples of programs showing positive effects for young children and families. The article concludes with strategies that can support the effectiveness of ECD initiatives.

Intergenerational historical trauma

ECD in Indian Country occurs in the context of tribal communities healing from the impact of historical trauma. Beginning in the 16th century, Native Americans faced exposure to infectious diseases from Europe, forced displacement from traditional homelands, and confinement on reservations. In addition, starting in the 1860s, thousands of Native American children were removed from their families and communities to attend boarding schools designed to separate children from their language and culture.

Symptoms of historical trauma—including poverty, substance abuse, and disproportionate representation in the child welfare system—are evident in many Native American communities. And while many of the traumatic events happened decades ago, the impact can be passed from one generation to another as children grow up in challenging circumstances in their homes and communities.

Many families in Indian Country face adversity in the form of unemployment and poverty and have fewer resources to provide for young children. Parenting practices, which are shaped by parents’ own upbringing, play an important role in child development, too. Children who face excessive stress without the buffer of supportive caregivers are at risk for having learning difficulties and long-term health problems.

ECD in Indian Country, preschool girl reading, 2 column

“We start with the assumption that all our parents want to be good parents, all our parents love their children, but they haven’t necessarily received parenting tools through their own childhood experiences,” said Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of New Mexico. “We all learn how to parent from how we were parented unless something in our lives changes that in some way.”

Trauma can also be passed on to children through pregnant women’s behavioral health. Smoking, drinking, or abusing chemical substances can have profound effects on fetal health with potentially lifelong implications. That’s one reason widespread opiate addiction has become a primary concern. The Minnesota Department of Human Services recently reported that about 1 in 10 pregnancies on reservations is affected by prenatal opiate use.1 

Science also shows that the impact of traumatic experiences can alter how children’s genes are expressed.

“The experiences we have, particularly early in life, modify our genes and the way genes express themselves. Nature is all about adapting us to the context in which we are going to live,” said Megan Gunnar, professor of child development at the University of Minnesota. “Experience is critically important for building brain architecture.”

Emerging evidence in epigenetics, the study of gene expression, suggests that not only can experiences such as excessive stress change how genes express themselves, but that epigenetic mechanisms could transfer biologically to the next generation. However, Gunnar cautioned that “the epigenetics research is exciting, but ridiculously complicated. It’s dicey to make broad conclusions at this point.”

The promise of Native ECD programs

Since a child’s early years are a sensitive period for development, they provide a window of opportunity to buffer the impact of historical trauma. ECD programs hold promise to help break the cycle, whether the intergenerational transfer of trauma is through behavioral or biological mechanisms.

Research on ECD programs targeted to disadvantaged children shows they can support children’s cognitive and social-emotional development, reduce the need for remedial education, improve high school graduation rates, and, in the long run, reduce crime and increase earnings. Studies of the Perry Preschool Program in Michigan,2  the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina,3  the Chicago Child-Parent Centers,4  and the Elmira (N.Y.) Prenatal/Early Infancy Project5  have demonstrated inflation-adjusted average annual rates of return from 7 percent to about 20 percent. According to Art Rolnick, senior fellow at the University of Minnesota and former research director at the Minneapolis Fed, “The evidence is overwhelming that investments in young children from disadvantaged environments have a large public return.” While these studies were not conducted in Indian Country, they provide context for the type of benefits children, families, and communities can see from making investments in high-quality ECD.

Research on ECD programs targeted to disadvantaged children shows they can support children’s cognitive and social-emotional development, reduce the need for remedial education, improve high school graduation rates, and, in the long run, reduce crime and increase earnings.

Within the context of the Native American experience of historical trauma, evidence shows that ECD programs are likely to be more effective, and yield additional benefits, when they integrate their community’s culture, language, and values. There are a number of common values and practices in Native cultures that help families and children heal and thrive, and can serve as protective factors for facing adversity. For example, ECD programs often incorporate lessons into their curricula about the interrelationship among people, animals, plants, the elements, and seasons. These lessons can help children build supportive connections with their community and environment.

In North America, a number of tribal communities are beginning to implement Native language immersion programs for young children. Learning a Native language can help foster brain development and cultural identity. In addition, the concepts and values expressed through a Native language can support children as they face challenges.6 

Integrating language and culture into Native ECD programs can have reciprocal benefits for the broader community. When young children learn their Native language and participate in cultural practices, it can inspire other community members. This helps Native communities meet their goals of preserving languages and cultural traditions that have been under stress for centuries.

ECD in Indian Country, toddler reading, 2 column

Evidence from high-quality ECD programs

As with ECD efforts throughout the U.S., there is a range of programs for young children in Indian Country, including family and child health and nutrition programs, parent mentoring, Head Start and child care, and the child welfare system. Across 527 reservations and several urban areas with Native American populations, there are many opportunities to incubate new approaches and bring effective initiatives to scale. Here are a few examples of innovative ECD initiatives and programs in Native communities in the U.S.

High-quality child care in White Earth

In 2012, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe in northern Minnesota took advantage of an opportunity to combine participation in Parent Aware, the state-level quality rating and improvement system for early learning programs, with funding to provide scholarships to young children in low-income families.

“The goal was to put high-quality early child care in every tribal community on our reservation … so that children have a safe place to go, a place where they are nurtured and supported and ready for kindergarten,” said Barb Fabre, director of White Earth Child Care/Early Childhood Programs.

The scholarships allowed children to attend an early learning program of their family’s choice, as long as the program participated in Parent Aware, which provides information to parents about the quality of programs and also offers pathways for improving quality, such as teacher training. On White Earth Reservation, scholarships were awarded to 144 young children, which provided an incentive for child care programs to join the rating system and receive resources to serve more low-income families and children with special needs.

Compared with most areas of Minnesota, whether tribal or non-tribal, White Earth now has a relatively large concentration of high-quality child care centers and home-based family child care programs. As of last year, 19 of 22 licensed providers were rated at 3 or 4 stars out of a possible 4 stars in Parent Aware.

“We were able to build a program that fit our community and fit our families’ needs,” Fabre said.

Educare Winnebago

Educare Winnebago at the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska opened in 2014 to provide early care and education for children from just a few months of age through preschool. The program is part of a network of over 20 Educare schools across the country supported by the Susie Buffet Early Childhood Foundation and is the only one on an Indian reservation. Educare Winnebago brought children who were previously served separately in Head Start and child care programs together under one roof. The Susie Buffet Early Childhood Foundation and Winnebago Tribe split the task of raising funds to build the 16-classroom center in Winnebago, Nebraska.

Educare schools layer together government and philanthropic funding to provide a high-quality program for young children. Educare Winnebago incorporates the features of other Educare schools, including professional development for teachers, low teacher-child ratios, and assessments and data to help inform high-quality teaching practices. The program partners with the University of Nebraska Medical Center to conduct assessments.

“Children have shown average gains of more than a year of learning on assessment tests between fall and spring over the past two years,” said Amy LaPointe, co-director of Educare Winnebago. “Most children graduate from the program on-task for where they need to be for kindergarten.”

At Educare Winnebago, the Winnebago Tribe’s Ho-Chunk culture permeates the experiences of children and their families. Language and culture are taught throughout the day in classrooms. The program also has a strong parent engagement component offering family activities each month and quarterly classroom meetings with families, teachers, and specialized staff.

“We have four support staff members who work with families to conduct needs assessments and help families create goals,” LaPointe noted.

Parent education programs

Family Spirit and Positive Indian Parenting are two examples of culturally reflective parent education programs in Indian Country. Family Spirit is a home-based and family-based parenting program that “uses the strength of traditional teachings to foster the therapeutic relationship and sense of belonging,” according to Jackie Dionne, director of American Indian Health at the Minnesota Department of Health.

Under the Family Spirit program, home visitors use a curriculum that includes topics such as prenatal care, breastfeeding and nutrition, parenting skills, child development, and substance abuse prevention.

“The curriculum is extensively reviewed and revised by local staff and community members,” Dionne said.

Randomized control studies of the Family Spirit model show improvements in parenting and parental mental health, such as increased maternal knowledge, reduced parental stress and maternal depression, and reduced substance use. In addition, at one year of age, children exhibit fewer behavior problems.

We are documenting that our traditional parenting practices—what our ancestors knew how to do—are not just good ideas, but are based on inherent wisdom about what children need and what the brain needs to develop.
—Terry Cross, founding executive director, National Indian Child Welfare Association

Positive Indian Parenting was developed by the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA), which works to address child abuse and neglect in Native communities through training, research, public policy, and grassroots community development. The parenting curriculum provides culturally specific training for tribal communities through Native values and belief systems.

“As we built this curriculum we knew we had to start out helping people believe in themselves and their own culture,” recalled Terry Cross, founding executive director of NICWA who now serves as senior advisor to the organization.

Positive Indian Parenting uses a train-the-trainer model by working with community trainers to build knowledge and cultural awareness of traditional parenting practices passed down through the generations. Trainers receive templates, tools, and guidance for designing and implementing their own culturally reflective version of the program and working with parents and families from a Native perspective.

Cross is working with others at NICWA to align child development with traditional ways, such as Native approaches to support pregnant mothers and infant care.

“We are documenting that our traditional parenting practices—what our ancestors knew how to do—are not just good ideas, but are based on inherent wisdom about what children need and what the brain needs to develop,” he said.

Strategies for building high-quality ECD programs

ECD initiatives like these often don’t succeed on their own; rather, they are supported by policies and systems in their communities. At a 2016 conference on ECD in Indian Country hosted by the Minneapolis Fed’s Center for Indian Country Development (CICD), participants representing Native communities from several states identified practice, policy, and system issues that can affect development outcomes for young children. (For more on the CICD and the conference, see the sidebar below.) Aside from integrating Native language and culture into ECD programs, strategies include parent engagement, professional development opportunities, cross-sector coordination, and the use of culturally sensitive assessments.

Parent engagement

Engaging parents and other primary caregivers in their children’s learning is essential in supporting ECD, but directors of ECD programs note a number of challenges. Parents lead busy lives and many families struggle with poverty, unemployment, and substance abuse. Program directors report that making family events engaging, serving food, or providing child care or a gift can encourage parent participation. At Educare Winnebago, for example, “we try to come up with ideas that make it fun for families to interact with each other,” LaPointe said.

Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz, vice president for program initiatives at the American Indian College Fund, points out that there is a continuum of ways for parents and other caregivers to get involved with their children’s education experiences, starting with attending a school event or chaperoning a field trip. But parents can play an even larger role.

“Ultimately, we want parents at the table to engage in developing the curriculum and implementing it with our children and teachers,” Yazzie-Mintz said.

White Earth’s Barb Fabre noted there are also opportunities for parents to develop capacity to serve as advocates for their own and other children.

“We can empower parents to become part of the change process,” Fabre said.

Professional development

Training opportunities for program directors, teachers, home visitors, and other staff can increase program effectiveness and offer career pathways. However, accessing professional development can be challenging, particularly for relatively remote tribal communities.

Tribal colleges and universities play a key role in providing training and certification programs in child development and early childhood education.

ECD in Indian Country, kids painting, 2 column

“Early childhood has become a critical area of work in tribal colleges,” said Yazzie-Mintz. Of the 37 tribal colleges and universities in the country, 23 have early childhood education programs or degrees.

The American Indian College Fund’s Wakanyeja “Sacred Little Ones” project in four tribal colleges in Alaska, New Mexico, Washington, and Wisconsin offers professional development opportunities at colleges and creates partnerships with local early learning programs, schools, and other community organizations. The program is designed to help improve cognitive and social-emotional skill development among young Native children; improve early childhood teacher education; bridge the transition from preschool to K-3 education; and integrate Native languages and cultures into curriculum development, teacher training, early childhood centers, and elementary school settings.

Leadership development training for ECD program directors can also support successful ECD initiatives.

“We need to have strong front lines, but also strong leaders,” said Michelle Sarche, associate professor at the Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health in the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. “Not anybody can step into the role of program director; there are skills to creating a healthy organization as a leader.”

The coordination of professional development opportunities is a priority for the Minnesota Tribal Resources for Early Childhood Care (MNTRECC), a network of Native ECD practitioners that includes child care and Head Start leaders from the 11 federally recognized tribes in the state. The Minnesota Department of Human Services provides funding and staff to support the network’s quarterly meetings. MNTRECC facilitates shared trainings with tribes in remote areas and also advocates for professional development that reflects the culture and values of participating Ojibwe and Dakota communities. MNTRECC members also share best practices and resources.

Coordinating across sectors

Ideally, communities would coordinate across ECD sectors to work more effectively with families and reduce duplication. But Native and non-Native communities alike often find that coordinating across different types of ECD programs, such as child care, Head Start, maternal and child health, and child welfare is a challenge. Sectors often operate within their own silos, each with its own combination of federal, state, tribal government, or philanthropic funding streams and requirements.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services started the Tribal Early Learning Initiative (TELI), which provided grants to ten tribal communities to develop and implement strategies to coordinate services across ECD sectors. The grant also included support for infrastructure to assist with coordination, such as shared data systems.

White Earth received a TELI grant to form a collaboration with Head Start/Early Head Start, child care, and family home visiting.

“It led to fewer assessments and enrollment forms, less screening, and less duplication of services. It really helps families so they aren’t filling out too much paperwork,” Fabre said. The collaboration also brought staff from the three participating ECD sectors together to learn about each other’s work and share professional development trainings.

In addition, the collaboration adopted White Earth Collaboration, Assessment, Referrals and Education, or WECARE, a comprehensive case management system within the tribal government. Thanks to the system, a family that seeks services from one program can access coordinated services across several programs at the same time. The tribe also worked with a software company to build a coordinated database.

“It’s fine and well to have a case management system, but you need the data to help inform practice and policy,” Fabre observed.

Culturally sensitive assessments

Assessments of a child’s learning provide information to teachers about the child’s progress, which can help tailor instruction to her needs. Evaluation results are also useful to highlight for current and potential funders who want to know the impact of an ECD program.

As Native communities integrate culture and language into ECD programs, they recognize that assessment tools modeled after those used in mainstream programs likely don’t capture the full breadth of Native children’s learning. In contrast, assessments tailored to the context of Native culture and language can better measure cognitive and social-emotional development of Native children.

“Tribal communities rightfully question the validity of existing assessment tools to measure Native children’s development,” said Sarche with the University of Colorado. “Cultural values, especially regarding social-emotional development, don’t always map onto standard assessment tools.”

Assessments tailored to Native ECD programs can not only better evaluate children’s learning, they can also focus on outcomes valued by Native communities.

Assessments tailored to Native ECD programs can not only better evaluate children’s learning, they can also focus on outcomes valued by Native communities.

“Researchers could work with tribal communities, especially in the social-emotional arena, to identify positive indicators of development,” Sarche said. She added that such indicators may differ among American Indian communities, as “there is not a universal American Indian.”

Early childhood teachers, whether working with Native or non-Native children, can benefit from training on how to use assessments that show how a child compares with her peers, along with other observations and information, to tell the full story of a child’s development. In Sarche’s words, “The person doing the assessment needs to understand a child’s broader context, including culture.”

What success looks like

In May of this year, more than 50 ECD leaders and practitioners from Native communities in Minnesota gathered as part of the Healthy Children, Healthy Nations initiative to share ideas on best practices, markers of success in ECD, and a long-term vision. (For more on the initiative and its convenings, see the sidebar below.) Sustainability, Native cultural sovereignty, and provision of indigenous-based education and nutrition were frequently cited as key goals.

Participants noted obstacles to success, including multigenerational trauma and disjointed and unclear policies. ECD leaders also identified a number of successful approaches under way across different sectors—including health and nutrition, parent education, and early learning—in response to or in spite of these obstacles. They acknowledged, however, that the reach of these efforts only goes so far, depending on resources.

Many ECD leaders at the May gathering also noted that Native communities will be more likely to reach their goals if they follow holistic and comprehensive approaches.

“Healing historical trauma and supporting children and families requires addressing several levers at once, not implementing a narrow focus,” said Dionne of the Minnesota Department of Health. “Since Native people were traumatized in a systematic way, as Native people we can untraumatize in a systematic way, too.”

Finally, Native leaders agreed that indigenous wisdom can support child development and help communities heal from historical trauma. As Terry Cross of NICWA said, “This little spirit comes here and knows how beautiful it is to be with the Creator, and if we don’t treat them just as well, they will want to go back there. We have to sing to them, we have to hold them, we have to talk to them, we have to make them feel welcome in this world.”

Fed’s Indian Country center spotlights ECD

ECD in Indian Country, CICD logo for sidebar, 1 column

Shortly after it was established at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis in 2015, the Center for Indian Country Development identified education as one of its four focus areas. Within education, CICD chose to first focus on early childhood development (ECD), building on the Minneapolis Fed’s longstanding research on the economic benefits of investing in young children.

In October 2016, the CICD held its inaugural conference, Early Childhood Development in Indian Country. Directors of Native ECD programs, researchers, funders, and tribal leaders from across the country met to discuss strategies to implement high-quality ECD programs, identify policy and funding barriers, and share best practices in advocating for ECD as a key priority in Native communities. Videos of the proceedings are available on the conference web page.

Following the conference, Better Way Foundation, Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, and the CICD created the Healthy Children, Healthy Nations (HCHN) initiative to develop a strategic plan to improve ECD and childhood nutrition in Minnesota’s Native communities. The collaboration is working to identify best practices and promising models in Native ECD and nutrition, determine critical needs, and build consensus around strategies and funding recommendations.

At an HCHN convening on May 10–11, more than 50 ECD leaders and practitioners from Native communities in Minnesota gathered to share ideas on best practices, markers of success in ECD and nutrition, and a long-term vision. This convening was followed by a July 11 gathering of about 40 representatives from foundations and state government agencies that fund or administer ECD and nutrition programs in Native communities. Before HCHN culminates with a report and recommendations later this fall, the initiative partners will meet with tribal government leaders and conduct interviews with community stakeholders.


1 Minnesota Department of Human Services. Minnesota State Targeted Response to the Opioid Crisis, Project Narrative. April 2017.

2 James Heckman, Seong Hyeok Moon, Rodrigo Pinto, Peter Savelyev, and Adam Yavitz. “The Rate of Return to the HighScope Perry Preschool Program.” Journal of Public Economics 94(1-2), 2010, pp. 114–28.

3 Jorge Luis Garcia, James Heckman, Duncan Ermini Leaf, and Maria Jose Prados. “The Life-cycle Benefits of an Influential Early Childhood Program.” Human Capital and Economic Opportunity Working Paper Series. The University of Chicago, 2016.

4 Arthur Reynolds, Judy Temple, Barry White, Suh-Ruu Ou, and Dylan Robertson. “Age 26 Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Child-Parent Center Early Education Program.” Child Development, 82(1), 2011, pp. 379–404.

5 Lynn Karoly, Peter Greenwood, Susan Everingham, Jill Houbé, M. Rebecca Kilburn, C. Peter Rydell, Matthew Sanders, and James Chiesa. Investing in Our Children: What We Know and Don’t Know About the Costs and Benefits of Early Childhood Interventions. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 1998.

6 For more on this, see “Early childhood Native language immersion develops minds, revitalizes cultures” from Community Dividend, August 2016.