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Onboarding New Employees: Advice from Two Program Leaders

Early childhood education leaders know how important the first days and weeks of learning are to a new employee’s success. Training new teachers, administrators, support staff and volunteers is vital to the long-term success of any program. New hire orientation that is done well can increase satisfaction and reduce turnover.

How can you provide orientation and training that is engaging, allows staff to practice new skills and prepares them for success?

We asked two Arizona program leaders about their onboarding processes:

  • Jon Aitken is a district manager with Learning Care Group, which includes ChildTime, La Petite Academy and Tutor Time child care centers across the state and nationwide.
  • Beth Frost is the owner and director of Foresight Learning Center, a center in the First Things First Coconino region.

How does your program onboard new employees? Has it changed over the years?

Jon: In the past, new employee orientation included 20- 24 hours of online learning in the first few days. The topics were wide ranging, including mandated reporter training, safety, handwashing, transportation, supervision, curriculum, interactions and more. Basically, it included everything someone new to the field would need to know. It was also a good refresher for people not new to the field. The problem was that it was 20-24 hours of curriculum on an iPad, and we would essentially say, ‘Here, go learn.’ We know adult learners don’t necessarily learn best that way.

We’ve updated our orientation process to make it more intentional and focused. We built in time for targeted observation and reflection to go along with the modules. For example, if day one includes modules on safety, supervision and meals, the teacher now has time to spend in the classroom to observe these specific items immediately following the online piece. The new teacher observes a mentor teacher in action, asks questions in real time and can see how that content translates into reality.

We have also extended the timeframe for orientation. In the past, new hires spent their first two days in online learning. On the third day they were in the classroom and counted toward the teacher-to-child ratio. Now, we take a full week for orientation, with time in the morning for online learning and the afternoon in focused observation. At the end of each day, the new employee has 15 minutes with the director to reflect on what they learned.

During their second week, the learning continues with a mentor teacher. In this phase, the new teacher is in their classroom and counted toward teacher-to-child ratios, but they also have one hour of focused, side-by-side learning to discuss and practice additional aspects of teaching with a mentor teacher. This is scheduled either during planning and preparation time outside of the classroom or during naptime while children sleep. The scheduling depends on the needs of the staff and the center. This is when we build upon the foundation of week one to go into more depth. For example, we use this time to train on our program’s Descriptions of Learning, which is one way we document and display children’s learning. It is a more in-depth practice and takes more time, so this is covered during in week two, when teachers can really dig in. 

Beth: We have fine-tuned our orientation process over the years. It starts at the interview. We include a classroom observation for the candidate to meet the teachers and observe daily routines. This also gives a glimpse of how they interact with others. We added an interview and orientation process checklist. It includes the classroom observation, a review of all required documents, review of our curriculum and standards, DES Health and Safety trainings, Expulsion Prevention, enroll in CPR, Registry and so on. We assign a mentor teacher and provide a follow-up observation at the end of 30 days. This observation helps us create an individualized professional development plan. We encourage ongoing education and degree attainment within the plan.  

As a small center, we focus on making the process very personalized to the new hire. For example, we just hired a teaching assistant who was shy at first. She was in the classroom for almost a week observing to become familiar with the position. Someone with more experience or a different learning style might not have needed that extra time, but it helped her. Now she is comfortable and doing a great job.

Being in Quality First has helped tremendously. I have gotten ideas for orientation through my participation in Quality First, and the financial incentives helped with the budget for more staff hours during the orientation process. Another essential resource has been my staff. I consult with them on hiring decisions and all significant decisions including how we onboard new staff.

Why did you make these changes?

Jon: We were experiencing turnover rates higher than the industry average. I also heard from employees that they weren’t feeling prepared to do their job. We know adults don’t learn best by passively watching recorded content. In reality, only 10% of information is retained by reading, 20% of information is retained by observing, and 70% of information is retained by doing. So we wanted to flip our orientation to include much more observing and hands-on, side-by-side learning. We have also experienced the same challenges as other early education programs, with changes to the workforce and fewer applicants for each job opening, so we wanted to maximize our retention of new staff.

Beth: My approach to orientation changed when I realized what really matters to professionals in this field. People want to be supported. They want to do their work in a way that they can take pride in. The program’s culture is so important. So, I wanted them to see what we are all about right from the interview and as they begin onboarding. When we go over benefits, I laugh because I talk about the health and financial benefits we offer, but I tell them the benefit is you get to work with ten amazing professionals who all love being here. What could be a bigger benefit than that?

How has your new approach to orientation improved the quality of your program?

Jon: First, staff turnover has dropped by 50%, and child enrollment has improved as a result of having more teachers. Second, the number of reportable issues (these are instances of teachers interacting in way that is not acceptable or in compliance with standards) has plummeted. This is a sign that teachers have been trained properly. And third, I think if you were to survey families, they would report a higher quality of care. We believe it has made a tremendous difference to our overall program quality.

Beth: It has supported the professional culture of our program and helped us to keep turnover very low. We have been here since 1993. I have one staff member who has been here 20 years and another three who have been here over ten years. The professionalism among our staff has helped us make a bigger impact. We are seeing parents become advocates for their child’s education as they move out of our program and to the next stage. We know we have played a part in helping them attune to their child’s development and learning in ways that will carry forward in elementary and beyond. And that is worth all of the extra time and work. It’s something we take pride in because we know it makes a real difference.

What’s your advice to other programs about new-hire orientation?

Jon: Getting buy-in is essential. To effectively roll this out, we needed support from senior leadership and partnership across the organization. We put together a group of three regional directors, so we had a group of programs to contribute and provide real world feedback. It took a leap of faith to try something new. Change is always challenging, because it’s different and uncomfortable at first. But once the directors and staff were able to trust the process and take that leap, they saw the benefits firsthand.

Start big and then add detail. Once we developed the framework, the directors wanted more detail on how a new employee’s first weeks should look. We provided more specifics, for example, how to structure they daily schedule, how to adjust if someone finishes early, and so on.

Fight the the urge to get someone through training and into the classroom as quickly as possible. You have to balance short term gain versus long term return. From a financial standpoint, it takes thousands of dollars to recruit, hire and train a new employee. Anything you can do to slow down the turnover wheel is worth it in the long run.

Beth: I used to think it was so expensive to have two people on the clock at the same time, and how will I afford it? The answer is, turnover is the most expensive thing you can pay for. The additional time at the beginning for quality orientation and professional development is a very good investment.


ADHS Licensing Tips
  • Applicants in the interview stage should never be left alone in a classroom with children or counted in teacher-to-child ratios while observing a classroom.
  • Providers cannot use “working interviews” for individuals who are being considered for hire. Some providers have people in classrooms working with children on a trial basis to see if they want to hire them. This is not acceptable unless the facility has a complete staff file for the individual.
  • New staff may be counted in staff-to-child ratios if staff requirements are met as outlined in regulations.

To learn more, visit the links below:

Child Care Facility Rules and Statutes

Interpretation And Clarification Of Child Care Licensing Rules

Child Care Group Homes Rules & Statutes

At Quality First, we love to hear from you. Share your new and innovative practices so others can be inspired. Send an email to QualityFirst@FirstThingsFirst.org.