Israel Trip leads to Early Childhood Scholarly Exchange

BlogEarly ChildhoodMay 14 2014

After a series of recent visits with Israeli scholars both at Child Trends and during a trip to Israel, I have reaffirmed my belief that cross-cultural exchanges such as this are vitally important not only for fostering intellectual and practical exchanges of information, but also for identifying commonalities that may lead to mutually beneficial outcomes for young children and their families cross-nationally.

Child Trends recently hosted two Israeli scholars, Dr. Tali Bayer-Topilsky of the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute who shared her research on outcomes-oriented management and practice in the Israeli human services sector, and Dr. Miriam (Miki) Rosenthal of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who provided an overview of both early childhood policy and research in Israel from the late 1800’s to the present. These visits came about as a result of my trip to Israel this past November, when I was honored to serve as a visiting scholar at the Haruv Institute and the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute in Jerusalem. In presentations, I shared my thoughts on using data to support programs and policies for at-risk children and youth, and provided an overview of implementation science and its implications for early childhood interventions. Throughout my trip, I met with over 30 researchers of early childhood and youth development within some of Israel’s major universities and research institutions, including several researchers supported by the Irving Harris Foundation’s infant mental health and early childhood training grants and clinical post-doctoral programs. I also had the opportunity to see several early childhood programs “in action.”

One of the first programs I visited was Merkaz HaPaot (“The Toddler Center”) in Tirat Carmel, near Haifa. Merkaz HaPaot has been providing developmentally-appropriate care and outreach to the local at-risk community for 30 years and serves as a model program that many inside and outside the country come to visit. The center is comprised of three departments that work together: a department for parent and child programs, a department for treating developmental and special education needs of children, and a day care center and two small kindergartens. Merkaz HaPaot reaches out to at-risk families during pregnancy and the first years of life.

I also visited Beit Lynn (“Lynn’s House”), a child protection center in Jerusalem which opened its doors in 2002 and is supported by multiple government ministries and by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropic Network. What makes Beit Lynn unique is the concept of a “one-stop-shop” for coordination and delivery of services for children who are sexually, physically, or psychologically abused. The holistic center provides not only a warm and safe environment for children and youth, but also medical facilities and psychological services. Furthermore, there’s joint decision-making on cases among a multidisciplinary team consisting of a child protection officer, a youth investigator, a pediatrician, a social worker and other professionals, including the police.

I also learned about an innovative, comprehensive, community-based initiative for children called the National Program for Children and Youth at Risk. It is now being implemented in 164 of Israel’s most disadvantaged communities. This initiative utilizes an online data collection system that permits, for the first time, the compilation of systematic and comprehensive population-based information on children in the State of Israel. A recent report on the National Program outlines the results of the initial mapping of children and youth at risk in 70 localities across Israel. An important component of this National Program is New Beginnings, a national early childhood initiative that aims to centralize, upgrade, expand, and monitor early childhood services.

In visiting these programs, and by talking with Israeli researchers about their work and sharing my work with them, I realized that cross-cultural exchanges such as this are vitally important but also potentially very challenging. The common themes that could be built upon for future exchange include:

  • Commitment to interagency government collaboration in support of early childhood well-being;
  • Development and use of population-based data on child and family well-being, and services targeted to families with young children, for planning and monitoring purposes; and
  • Studying the implementation of early childhood programs and initiatives.

For example, Beit Lynn is harnessing interagency collaboration to provide seamless child protective services to families in Israel. While there are similar multidisciplinary centers in the U.S., every state and locality differs so it’s not a universal structure. Are there lessons to be learned from the structures put in place for child protective services in Israel that could be helpful to agencies in the United States, or vice versa? Similarly, the National Program for Children and Youth at Risk is focused on collaboration across early childhood services at the national and local levels. They are creating early childhood data systems to monitor child well-being and inform program improvement, reminiscent of the efforts underway in the United States. Would it be beneficial to create a forum where administrators of Israel’s National Program and administrators of state early childhood data systems in the U.S. could share “lessons learned” for linking data from the local to the state/national level?

But it’s not always so easy to see how to take “lessons learned” in programs or practices in one country and translate it successfully into another. One reason is the regulatory environments of the different countries. Because Israel is such a small country, the main policy and regulatory activity is centralized at the national level, whereas within the United States, there are both federal and state-level policies and regulations which govern services to families with young children. Take, for example, policies around early childhood education. While there is a national right to free, compulsory education for children starting at age three in Israel, efforts to implement government-funded pre-kindergarten for four-year-olds in the United States have been spearheaded by states and is far from comprehensive. Yet even though Israel may have more government-funded preschool than the U.S., they are not as likely to emphasize the importance of the quality of early care and education. In the U.S., there’s a strong emphasis both at the state and federal levels on promoting access to high-quality early care and education for children starting at birth. In contrast, licensing and quality standards for early childhood programs birth to age four in Israel have been recommended but not yet adopted.

As I learned during my visits in Israel, international collaborations can aid in our understanding of how national trends in child well-being fit into the larger, international landscape. I look forward to continuing the intellectual exchange in the future.