Who knows what about early childhood?

A roundtable discussion with WKKF leadership

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) often uses research to learn more about its grant investments. Usually this comes to us packaged in reports dense with narrative, pie charts, bar charts and data tables.

It’s good and necessary stuff. In their weighty, spiral-bound certitude, research reports can give us the intellectual heft we need to understand, in great detail, the issues we care most about. Specifically, those related to vulnerable children.

Thoughts of these reports loomed large when we considered the question “Who knows what about early childhood?” In some fashion, WKKF’s program leaders ask this question every day. And the answers come from a combination of knowledge, facts, experience, observation, intuition and horse-sense. Not even a five-pound report (and yes, we have some of those) can provide all that.

It was in this spirit that we interviewed a group of WKKF executives for the 2013 annual report. We wanted a conversation, not a dissertation. We wanted a give and take of the sort you’d have in a teacher’s lounge over a cup of instant coffee and a cupcake. So the questions and answers aren’t exhaustive. They instead reflect the everyday ways we think about our work and the people we’re here to partner with and to serve. 

In your view, what is absolutely fundamental for early childhood development?

LA JUNE MONTGOMERY TABRON, incoming president and CEO:

LaJune_1000x672_RN2_6122_scg“I’d just want every early childhood investment to be of the highest quality; it’s that important. No matter where you live, no matter what your family background, no matter what language you speak, in an urban, rural or suburban area, you’d have access to quality early childhood opportunities. And I’d find a way to make sure that all families feel welcome at a school or center. They shouldn’t be places that feel socially or culturally intimidating.

“I’d also try to figure out how much love that child receives. If it’s not there, how do we build support for it? Inside or outside the family, a child needs to know there’s always someone who can give them the love and care they need.”

JOANNE KRELL, vice president for communications:

“I would (also) think about early childhood from an economic standpoint. Think of the parents: do they have jobs and where do they have jobs? We say that ‘If your child care isn’t working, then nothing is working.’ That’s also true on a larger level when it comes to your income. If parents or caregivers don’t have a job, if they don’t have some level of economic security, then it’s hard for everything else in a child’s life to work.”

What does WKKF know about early childhood that others may not?

GAIL CHRISTOPHER, vice president – program strategy:

Gail_1000x672_RN2_6687_scg“We have a deep understanding of children from a life course perspective. We know how important the life experiences of parents are in shaping the experience of a child. We also understand the impact of childhood adversity that results from the circumstances and conditions in a child’s life. There are toxins, in society and in a child’s physical environment, that can have a negative cumulative effect. We do all we can to mitigate that.

“One example is our emphasis on breastfeeding – what we call ‘first food.’ We know that the human need for social interaction is as fundamental as our need for food, air and water. Neurologically, we are wired for socialization. So the precious time that a mother spends nursing her child not only feeds the body, but the heart and soul. It begins a pattern of interaction that will make the child healthier and more resilient.”

STERLING SPEIRN, outgoing president and CEO:

Sterling_1000x672_RN2_6700“The Kellogg Foundation’s ‘competitive advantage’ is that our work in early childhood crosses health, education, food, family economic security and racial equity. We can triangulate across those areas to serve the whole child. This includes their social, environmental, cognitive, physical and even spiritual dimensions.

“We also work on what I’ve called ‘early, early childhood.’ That can start when the baby’s in utero, as Gail says, and continues with first food, mother’s milk and the mother’s language. For at-risk kids, if we wait until age 3 or 4 to intervene they may already lag far behind developmentally. We need to bridge that age gap. Otherwise, it’s like saying, ‘Here, take this leaky rowboat across the river and hope that you make it safely to the dock.’”

What should WKKF know about early childhood development that it doesn’t know?

LINH NGUYEN, vice president – Learning & Impact:

Linh_1000x672_RN2_5991“We’re in the business of improving systems and conditions (for vulnerable children). All of that rests on the assumption that the beneficiaries of our grants have the capacity and motivation to change … and capitalize on what we’re building.

“For me, the missing link, the last piece in the puzzle, is what strategies, what practices work in terms of giving people incentive to change their behavior? Because my thinking is that we could spend years or decades building a beautiful vessel. But that assumes that if we build it, people will use it. I’m not entirely sure that’s the case.”

Is there a belief or perception about early education that you once held, but have since changed your mind about?

JAMES MCHALE, vice president – program strategy:


“I think I’ve learned that sometimes we (foundations) don’t fund things long enough. I recall one school improvement project that we funded for three years, thinking that the state government would fund it after that.

“Well, after our grant ran out the program stopped for lack of funds – even though we had good data to show that it’d been working. We wanted to see short-term gains, but we didn’t sustain them with a longer-term commitment. That’s what happens when foundations suffer from a short attention span!

“We were focused on the program details that would make the project successful. But we overlooked the organization’s ability to sustain itself. Did it need more staff support, more operating support, more technical assistance? Did the executive director know how to run an organization that had suddenly gotten a lot bigger and more complex? I’ve learned that unless we pay attention to some of these issues, creating good programs may not matter.”

Apart from subject matter expertise, what are some key traits of a successful WKKF grantee?


“There’s some humility to what they do. There’s an understanding that they don’t have all the answers and that it’s not only about them (the funded organization).

“For me, it’s a successful grantee visit when I spend more time with community members than I do talking with the organization that got the grant. I get nervous if it’s been a few hours and I still haven’t seen anyone from the constituency they’re serving. It makes me ask, ‘Where’s the community in all of this?’ I want to know that the organization is connected to the community – and isn’t trying to control everything.”


“I look for a certain light in the eyes of the children. Do their bodies appear to be aligned, are they walking straight and standing tall. Are they making eye contact, is there a sense of trust? If children radiate that, then something good is going on with their education, their diet, their health and their lives. It’s so sweet. A grantee can dress up a building if they know you’re coming to visit, but only a child can turn those lights on. You can’t fake that.”

Do you have a favorite story or anecdote that you use to explain the essence of WKKF’s work?

CARLA THOMPSON, vice president – program strategy:

Carla_1000x672_RN2_6167“I’ve got one that I tell about a parent leadership training program in Connecticut that we funded as part of our racial equity work.

“A mother in this program had two school-aged children, but they were really getting unequal treatment. So she went to her local school board meeting to discuss the issue. ‘I’m not sure why we have this unevenness,’ she said, ‘and I’m wondering if it’s related to race?’

“She was an African American woman, and the school board was like ‘No, no, absolutely not! You don’t know what you’re talking about!’

“So she said, ‘Well, then help me understand how my African American son, who is getting straight A’s, has not been placed in any honors courses. While my other son – who is white – is getting C’s, but keeps being placed into honors courses.’

“After that the meeting blew up! I’ve served four terms on a school board so I can imagine what that was like. But the story still speaks to me about all the hidden things in a school that aren’t visible at the forefront.”