History of Raising the Bar

Hamilton service providers have a long and rich history of working collaboratively to ensure the provision of quality services to children and families in our community. Certainly this tradition has been very evident in the development and functioning of the Hamilton Early Learning Partners for Best Practice (HELP-BP), formerly Community Collaboration and Capacity Building Committee.

The foundation for the HELP-BP was laid in the early 1990’s. At that time, three interrelated groups (the Special Needs Preschoolers Network, the Cross-Agency Coordination Planning Group and the Day Care Task Force) were interested in the development of a more integrated approach to the delivery of service to young children in the formal child care system. With a grant from the Association of Agencies for Treatment and Development (Community Development Fund), they conducted a research study of all licensed child care centres. Known as the “Hamilton/Wentworth Preschool Services Prevention Planning Initiative- Working Together to Build for the Future”, this study surveyed over 271 Early Childhood Educators and 80 Supervisors and collected data on over 3,300 preschoolers. The final report was released in 1992. One significant finding was that Early Childhood Educators (ECE’s) identified 9.6% of the children in their care as having emotional and/or behavioural problems. They also expressed a strong desire for more support and training in how to better respond to the needs of these children.

Based upon this finding, the Prevention Planning Initiative (PPI) decided to focus further attention on issues related to this specific group of children. Over the next two years a second phase of the study was begun. Further data and information related to the prevalence of aggressive behaviour in preschool settings was obtained. Through interviews, focus groups and informal surveys, it was confirmed that managing behaviour, particularly aggression, was one of the greatest challenges faced by centres. The study also identified key components which made for more effective behaviour management within centres.

In 1996-1997, under the Child Care Advisory Committee, a third phase was undertaken by the Prevention Planning Initiative using information gathered through Phases I & II. With a grant from the Hamilton Community Foundation and the support of the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton-Wentworth, the third phase focused on facilitating ECE’s and parents in the development of child guidance strategies, tools and resources based upon the unique needs and preferences of their particular centre. The project targeted three pilot sites. The experience clearly identified the importance of taking a more systematic approach and involving staff in determining what would work best in their particular setting.

While the work of PPI was unfolding, staff from Hamilton’s Integration Resources Hub, a collaborative of special needs resource agencies, were increasingly being approached by ECEs for concrete support in responding to challenging behaviour in their classrooms. In addition, the Behaviour Therapy Consultation Services (McMaster Children’s Hospital, Chedoke Child and Family Centre) was experiencing an increasingly unmanageable demand for behavioural consultation in child care settings. They expressed an interest in enriching the existing skills of ECE’s to empower them to better respond to children with challenging behaviour. They hoped this would not only promote earlier intervention, but also result in more appropriate referrals to, and effective use of, the limited clinical services.

In 1998 there was renewed interest by the Child Care Advisory Committee to encourage the development of a more integrated, community-wide plan to better respond to children with challenging behaviour. Representatives of the Prevention Planning Initiative, Integration Resources Hub, Chedoke Child and Family Services and Affiliated Services for Children and Youth agreed to meet to bring together the data, experience and knowledge gained over the previous few years. Together they began to develop a common vision. The group remained strongly committed to working together and adopted the name the “Community Collaboration and Capacity Building Committee” (CCCBC), now known as Hamilton Early Learning Partners for Best Practice (HELP). Membership was expanded to include greater representation from licensed child care centres as well as the City of Hamilton, Ministry of Community, Family and Children’s Services, Mohawk College ECE Program, and the Specialized Treatment and Assessment Team (McMaster Children’s Hospital, Chedoke Child & Family Centre). Working from the belief that capacity building within centres would be the key to success and sustainability, the Committee focused its efforts on ways to support and empower ECE’s. Strong linkages were also developed with the local Supervisors’ Network to more actively engage the broader child care community.

Late in 2000, Affiliated Services for Children and Youth (ASCY) was successful in receiving special project funding for one year through the City of Hamilton to facilitate the HELP in its work. In 2001, a Project Coordinator was hired to research, develop and implement a “Healthy Child Care Environment Project”. The focus of this project has been on strengthening community supports by enhancing best practices in early childhood education. Core elements of the project included training early childhood educators in the use of environmental assessment tools, primarily ECERS-R (Harmes & Clifford), networking and mentoring and increasing access to professional development and consultation services. As these activities were underway, the child care community began to explore quality indicators with a view to identifying and adopting community standards for high quality child care. This process resulted in the development of “Raising the Bar”.

A second project of ASCY and HELP-BP, also in direct response to the early PPI study, culminated in the production of the interactive CD, forgoodness sake – An Applied Method of Behavioural intervention. This groundbreaking interactive CD provides step-by-step training for early childhood educators, parents and caregivers in dealing with children’s challenging behaviour and emotional problems. It features award- winning TV broadcaster, Paula Todd, as the video host. Visit www.ascy.ca for more information regarding “For Goodness Sake”.

In 2004, the Committee began to focus on evaluation of existing projects and partnerships were expanded to included the City of Hamilton, Public Health Services Department, Program Policy and Planning Division, and McMaster University Department of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour. The Executive Summary of the evaluation of the Healthy Child Care Environment Project conducted by the Research and Evaluation Committee of HELP is included in the Appendix.

Hamilton’s Story – The Journey Begins 

Those of us working in early childhood education have long believed that we can make a difference in children’s lives. However, this belief became publicly affirmed when Fraser Mustard and Margaret McCain released their landmark Early Years Report. This study sent a clear message that high quality, early childhood experiences are important for all children. As our profession welcomed this recognition, it also accepted the inherent responsibility of providing high quality – for all. In communities across the province, child care service managers and advisory boards began to ask, “How will we measure quality? How can we support high quality in all environments? How much will it cost? Can we justify taking dollars from an already underfunded system for additional administration to monitor quality?”

In Hamilton, Ontario, this questioning has led to the creation of Raising the Bar – a strategy based on collaboration among the diverse agencies that serve children and families in the community. It has become an integrated community-wide system of area networks, mentoring, staff development and ongoing implementation of tools to observe and measure quality such as the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale or ECERS-R (Harms and Clifford).

The project was widely supported from the beginning. In March 2001, a supervisors’ symposium was held to officially launch the project and to introduce the concept of a community standards program. The Hamilton Supervisors’ Network followed up quickly thereafter by forming a sub-committee to explore accreditation program models and review research on quality. This group co-authored “Raising the Bar On Quality”, now known as “Raising the Bar”.

An astounding 71 child care programs participated in the pilot review conducted in the spring of 2003 and revisions were made based on feedback from reviewers and participants. While supervisors reported that Raising the Bar was a lot of work, their enthusiasm was infectious nonetheless and participation has increased in each subsequent year.

Word spread quickly to neighbouring communities and quality child care projects following the Hamilton model were launched in Waterloo Region and Brant County, as well as in London/Middlesex, Huron, Perth, Elgin and Oxford Counties, & Lanark County. Plans are also underway in Peel Region.

Raising the Bar is a “grass roots” engagement strategy as opposed to an enforcement process. In the early stages of development, the development team expressed concerns that an accreditation program would be seen as an additional layer of regulations to be adhered to and consequently enforced. “Will we simply end up aspiring to a new minimum?” one team member asked. The goal was to introduce a program that would be voluntarily supported by child care iv supervisors and staff, and ultimately empower early childhood educators to continually strive for best practice.

Raising the Bar is based on the following principles:

  • Achievable by all: The success of the systemic approach to enhancing quality hinges on the “buy-in” from stakeholders and so, from the outset, the authoring committee considered potential barriers from the perspective of a variety of types of programs, and consulted with supervisors from various types of licensed centre-based programs to ensure that each item was achievable. In collaboration with ASCY, the development team planned workshops, formed mentoring groups and developed resources for supervisors.Communities from other regions who are following the Hamilton Raising the Bar model examine each standard in terms of achievability for their area. In some cases, modifications are made to reflect the local initiatives and /or needs for training. Previously identified operating criteria or community standards can be integrated into Raising the Bar.Child Care operators providing subsidized child care in Peel Region are required to follow “Operating Guidelines”. In preparation to implement RTB, the standards were cross-referenced with the operating criteria.
  • Sustainable: As Raising the Bar is a peer-review process, managed and conducted by members of the supervisors’ network group who volunteer to undertake the task, it can be sustained on an ongoing basis with minimal funding. In Hamilton, where ASCY is funded through child care resource dollars to provide consultation, training and resource services, there is no cost for child care programs to participate in Raising the Bar, other than workshop fees which are based on cost recovery, usually $5.00 per person. In other RTB communities, collaborating agencies have contributed in-kind and have coordinated existing resources and professional development services. Participants pay an annual fee of $25.00 to cover the cost of RTB materials and other incidental expenses. At the time of publication, RTB communities include The Regions of Waterloo, London and surrounding counties of Middlesex, Huron, Perth, Elgin and Oxford, Brant County and Lanark County. Peel Region is also preparing for implementation.
  • Fair and Objective: The format for profile submission and review was carefully planned to ensure the peer review process could be conducted efficiently, fairly and objectively. Participating programs submit a profile of information and documentation to demonstrate they have policies, procedures and/or mechanisms in place to support best practice in child care management, and have undertaken a series of annual activities to monitor program quality. In addition, verification of staff members  participation in professional development activities is also submitted within the program profile. Each participating program is given a profile template to facilitate consistency in terms of style and format and, therefore, support an objective review process. The role of the peer review team is not to evaluate profile contents but to confirm that the required documentation is in place. In some cases, the team will propose strategies to guide the program as they take next steps in the coming year.
  • Recognized: Raising the Bar is not a new tool in and of itself, but rather a system to guide the application of known quality indicators from research on quality. References include material produced by the Canadian Child Care Federation, Gillian Doherty, Mustard and McCain, and Canadian Paediatric Society, among others.
  • Engagement and Mentorship: A commitment to “high quality child care for every child, every day” infers a responsibility for the children who are under your roof as well as the children who are around the corner in the care of someone else. Raising the Bar is a vehicle for networking and dialogue, contributing to the breadth and depth of expertise across the child care community.
  • An Annual and Ongoing Process: The Raising the Bar standards are divided into three categories: Quality Assurance Cycle, Best Practice in Management, and Professional Development. In each category, there are bronze, silver and gold standards and participants are encouraged to raise the bar within their programs each year.Raising the Bar participants don’t rest on their laurels. The profile binder, prepared by participants and submitted for peer review, serves as a guide for supervision and management and the peer review process serves as an annual check-up. Program supervisors set goals each year based on their quality assurance activities as well as on the outcome and recommendations of the peer review process. At the community level, the RTB coordinating committee gathers feedback each year to gauge what additional resources and training are required. Furthermore, a function of the steering and advisory committee is knowledge transfer and there is ongoing exploration of ways to take research to practice. The “bar” is adjusted along with the community’s capacity to support higher standards.


In the field of early childhood education, we edge closer to a national system based on the “QUAD” principles: quality, universal, accessible to all and developmentally appropriate. The system that is envisioned will require significant investment and, ultimately, a cultural shift which we as professionals can lead and influence but over which we do not have complete control. However, the quality of the services we provide is very much within our control.

Whether as entire communities or individuals, people across the country are exploring and designing ways to monitor quality and support best practice.

This manual has been prepared to share lessons learned in Hamilton and to guide others along a journey to “Raise the Bar”.