Penny Mansell wants to build something special.

Penny Mansell

That’s why Mansell is so excited about the second annual Celebrating and Highlighting Early Childhood Respect (CHEER) Conference from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday in the new Phil Hardin Innovative Learning Lab (PHILL) in the Mississippi University for Women’s School of Education.

This year’s event will capitalize on the momentum from the inaugural conference and will focus on helping educators who work with children from the day they are born through their first 36 months.

“Our inaugural CHEER event was such a huge success,” said Mansell, the director of the Child and Parent Development Center (CPDC) in The W’s School of Education. “CHEER was created to make a huge splash in Columbus and Lowndes County, and even statewide. The focus is on the importance of early educators and recognizing and supporting their work for the children we serve in the community.”

Dr. Bonnie Camp, a graduate of The W, has provided some of the funding for this year’s event. Camp worked as a researcher and a developmental pediatrician and now lives in Colorado, but Mansell said Camp is still engaged in the work at the CPDC and that The W is doing in the community.

“Dr. Camp is amazing,” Mansell said. “She provides wisdom and financial support. This year we are focusing more on her work and areas of expertise as they naturally tied in with our statewide early education focus. We are thankful to have such an accomplished alum who supports and contributes to our grassroots efforts.”

Columbus Rotary’s Bright from the Start project, International Paper and Columbus-Lowndes Excel by 5 have provided additional funding.

Mansell said she and the team from the School of Education used data and feedback from last year’s conference to create an agenda for the conference that followed the statewide focus on developmental milestones and early language. She said the plan is to rotate the CHEER Conference with the larger whole community group next year and follow with a targeted training year. Mansell said a keynote speaker has been secured as part of the planning for a large event in 2024.

While the focus for this year’s event has shifted to educators who work with children from birth to 36 months, Mansell said the idea behind the CHEER Conference remains the same: to promote, emphasize and elevate the early childhood educator profession. The CHEER Conference will celebrate an “Educator of the Year” and recognize other professionals who commit their lives to being a resource for young families and children. The “Educator of the Year” celebration with Columbus Mayor Keith Gaskin will be at 11:30 a.m.

“Early educators for children birth-36 months sometimes feel less appreciated than the preschool educators who focus more on academic skills,” Mansell said. “We, as a society, don’t do a great job of celebrating and highlighting their important work. The medical and educational research all shine a spotlight on the importance of the foundation early educators, and even parents or caregivers can provide during these very early years. We know the synapses in the brain all begin to fire in the birth – 36-month range, and it really begins to taper off after age 5. As much as 90% of the brain growth and synapse firing happens within these first few crucial years. We call early educators brain architects because they have such an important role in laying the foundation for learning and life.”

The conference will focus on a number of topics, including using puppets to encourage language-rich interactions, responsive care giving with infants and toddlers and responding to special needs or developmental concerns. Mansell said the focus on developmental milestones and Early Intervention is emphasized in Mississippi for advocacy and in current legislative and congressional work. She said the conference will feature experts from Mississippi’s Early Childhood Inclusion Center at USM to help train teachers on the importance of screening, documentation, milestone monitoring and encouraging milestones in classroom activities.

Mansell said Camp will provide support in the second session that will focus on early language and caregiving interactions. She said research shows early language experiences and talking and encouraging conversation with young children can build processing skills and strengthen vocabulary and understanding. Mansell said the use of finger puppets has been instrumental in encouraging language and meaningful interactions with young babies and toddlers.

Mansell hopes the sessions give early educators the skills, knowledge, materials and confidence they need to have success in their classroom and serve the children and families in the area.

“Both of these sessions will give educators tools they need to use in their classroom,” Mansell said. “For the Language and Puppets session, we will model and go through steps to use to encourage language in the classroom. We also will work on preparing items to go back home to parents of the children in these classrooms. The educators will get multiple puppets to use in their classrooms.

“For the session on development, we are focusing on empowering educators to have a voice in the milestones in their classroom. We have so many great ideas on how to take and track development, create folders and make anecdotal notes. We are giving them all the tools and materials they need to go back into their classrooms to be successful.”

About The W

Located in historic Columbus, Mississippi, The W was founded in 1884 as the first state-supported college for women in the United States. Today, the university is home to 2,227 students in more than 70 majors and concentrations and has educated men for 40 years. The university is nationally recognized for low student debt, diversity and social mobility which empowers students to BE BOLD.

Be Bold. Tower with Blue.