Dialogue

“CreaKids” manager Daina Kājiņa: crisis for preschools Is the time for opportunities and gains

The changing world sometimes makes us look for rapid decisions and quick solutions. At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, preschools were a part of one of the many sectors that had to rearrange their work very quickly without stopping it altogether. To the questions of how the adaptation to the new situation went and how this summer has looked, answers Daina Kājiņa, head of the CreaKids Latvia and Private Pre-School Association of Latvia.


Business card:
Daina is a mom of three: Adele (19), Edvards (13), Gustavs (10)
Education: pre-school teacher, accountant-economist
Passion: hiking
Favorite time of day: morning


“CreaKids”:
“CreaKids” is a regional component of an international educational institution; 4 branches are opened in Latvia, the fifth is on the way. 
In Norway, more than 230 pre-schools are active following this educational authorship program.

Branches are also established in Sweden, Germany, and the United Arab Emirates.

 

How do you remember the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis?

That day, when the state declared a state of emergency, I had planned to go to Liepāja to visit my husband, allowing the children the next day, which was Friday, not to go to school. A journalist from "Panorāma" contacted me on Friday morning and asked if I could comment on the situation. I agreed.
Unstandard situations excite me – just hand me something to resolve! Already during the first evenings of the crisis, I was creating new plans. I first sent letters to municipalities and all owners of the buildings our preschools are in and asked for discounts. I was prepared for any results. However, there was a very good communication with municipalities on the maintenance of co-financing and the abolition of bureaucracy regarding doctors' granted leaves, as well as a rational and clear dialogue with the representatives of the State Service for Education Quality.
I recently had a very interesting conversation with a math teacher who couldn't explain to elementary school children that they needed to learn math. But life is proving its usefulness: in crises, when I am overcome with emotion, I set up an excel sheet, put all the pluses and minuses in it, and then I see clearly which solution is most appropriate in the case at hand.
On a quick side note, I would like to say that the basic idea of "CreaKids" – working with love and professionalism – is very important to me in life. A Norwegian colleague, Yvonne, has said in seminars that she cannot be a successful teacher if she does not put all her heart in pedagogy. At the same time, you can't be too sweet of a person without a professional backbone. Like this, we have to look for and find the right balance in the crisis, at what we, the Private Pre-School Association, have succeeded. We immediately organized a joint WhatsApp group and launched an intensive debate to look for solutions. On the one hand, we, 42 institutional leaders and owners, are mutual competitors, on the other hand, at this difficult time, the exchange of ideas and paddling our boats together through this situation turns out to be beneficial. 
I have made peace with the fact that the life as we've known it up till now will not return in its identical form and that caution – more or less – will have to be observed all the time, but it is nice to see how our government is managing these processes, and this can also be seen within the result.


Did the crisis seem to come suddenly, or could any signs be felt before?

No, I didn't expect that, but I was interested in comparing the experience of Latvia and Norway. The Norwegians responded to the pandemic quicker - my colleague Yvonne was scheduled to travel to Latvia, but she said two weeks beforehand that because of Covid-19 she would not be traveling. I was surprised because I believed it was not so bad, it would be all right.
In Norway, the kindergartens were closed momentarily for a few weeks; then, following strict recommendations, they gradually resumed their work. I was inspired by what Yvonne said: we are not guilty of what has happened, but we can act based on the best scenario we can come up with and do everything our governments recommend.


Does that mean that private pre-schools are having tough times right now?

Crisis for preschools is an important time of benefits and opportunities, as it illuminates what issues need to be addressed.
When the state of emergency was announced, parents on social networks were debating why private preschools still take a fee for pre-school service. Therefore the issue of co-financing the costs of one child in pre-schools was raised. Municipalities a fixed sum of money per child, which is calculated according to the government's methodology and includes specific headings of expenditure, but do not include all real-life costs. For example, infrastructure – private preschools pay rent or repay loans for real estate in which their kindergarten is located, but the municipality does not have to include such costs in the fixed sum. More specifically, rentals are included as a column in the methodology, but in front of it the municipalities write 0, but we meet up to €100 per child. In an emergency, when we were asked to cut the parents' co-payment, it was one of the topics of discussion - how should we do it? As we are returning to the normal pace of life, it is necessary to focus on improving the calculation methodology and to set precise and appropriate criteria that mirror real costs so that this lopsided practice does not arise.
If we look at Scandinavians, there's no difference for parents, whether a child goes to a municipality or private kindergarten. In this context, I would like to mention the audit organized by the State Chancery in 2008-2009 on the supervisory functions of educational establishments, where it was clear and unequivocally concluded that the requirements of both private and local authorities for preschools are identical - only the founder and financial sources differ. Consequently, the government should work and seek solutions so that municipalities and private kindergartens are not pitted against each other because we all do the same job.


At the beginning of Covid-19, the day to day life and rhythm of preschools changed rapidly. How does summer look?

We have always worked during the summers, but not at the same level as in the cold period of the year. In June, July and August, we typically run with a 70% turnout. As the situation has stabilized, children are coming to kindergarten and we are also working this summer.
The accountants tell-off our employees about the accumulation of vacations, and the accumulation happened, despite the planning of vacations - they accumulated because teachers are due for eight weeks of vacations. We did not prevent any employee from going to rest, but somehow it was building up. Along with an emergency in March and April, teachers were able to use it. Parents, on the other hand, have spent their vacations and their opportunities to leave their children at home, and the effects of that now are felt by kindergartens. We surveyed parents on how they feel in this crisis. It must be said that the answers were opposed, from delight to criticism, from interest to complete ignorance, to the whole gamma of color. But that information helps us move forward and understand what and how to do better in the future.


What impact does Covid-19 have on business and the industry as a whole?
At this point, it is too early to draw any conclusions, given that the economic crisis can indeed be in the future.

 

You feel responsible for the company, the employees. Don't you sometimes feel as though you want to stick your head under the blanket and don't think about it for a few days?
No, it has never been like that, and from the beginning, I knew I had to find a solution.
Two years ago, there was a huge demographic explosion amongst our employees, and this summer these employees come back from their maternity leave. As we open a new branch, it will be possible for everyone to have a job and no one needs to be fired. I am convinced that regardless of the economic situation, kindergartens will always be needed, even if practical work has to be organized differently.

What did you do before “CreaKids”?

I worked in a municipal kindergarten for 15 years since 1993. Not purposefully, but the circumstances developed so that I quickly became the head of the kindergarten. Of course, I did encounter many obstacles while experiencing many interesting things.
From time to time, I remember the overhaul of that kindergarten. As a relatively new manager, I was full of optimism – repairs planned, budgeted, builders promised to do everything in four months. I was sure it would be the way it was promised, although my colleagues said that it never works that way practically and they were right -  and all the repairs were delayed. I talked with parents who had the opportunity to stay home with their children and for those who couldn't, I got them places in neighboring kindergartens. in short, everything did fall together perfectly, but during the repairs and when my second child came in 2007, I realized that I had gotten tired from the huge waiting lists of kindergartens. At the time, if 88 children could be admitted to kindergarten, five or six hundred babies were waiting in line. In the absence of an electronic registration system, every year in April, parents who wanted to confirm their readiness to place their child in a given kindergarten had to come to re-register. It was a huge burden a struggle with windmills, and every parent who came to re-registration expressed their view that the whole system was wrong at the root. Then I had a feeling that maybe it was time to change things in life.
I began to consider opening my kindergarten, I even had found potential financial partners. But then I met the owner of kindergarten Patnis, Zane Ozola, at one event, and agreed relatively quickly with her on the job at Patnis intending to open a new branch. In parallel, my activities at the Private kindergarten association began. The former leader said she wanted a replacement, and I agreed to take her place for a year, but now I have been there for 12 years and there is still so much work to be done. 
When the Patnis branch was open, I helped with the opening of several more kindergartens, and then met Hans Jacob, the owner of CreaKids. At first, I advised him on how to open our preschool in Latvia - we had cooperation for over half a year. And when I had decided firmly to leave Patnis, he made an offer, but I didn't say "yes" immediately - it was important for me to be in Norway and see what he wanted in Latvia.


And so did your introduction to the Norwegian experience begin?

Yes. When I introduced the Norwegians to the Latvian system, I showed the best kindergartens I was proud of. They acknowledged that it was a pleasure to see that children had good conditions, but at the same time, it was difficult to accept the unequal situation that some children had beautiful kindergartens, some of them having to pay for it, while some children had no access to kindergartens at all. This vision of theirs gave me a completely different point of view.

When I was in Norway, I was surprised to go into a simple building, which is not an architectural miracle, but inside I felt great love and openness and saw an environment created directly for children.
It all inspired me so much that I was ready to accept the new challenge. Of course, several things seemed to be impossible to achieve. One of them, white walls in the rooms. Previously, my approach to kindergartens was - the more colorful, the better. Now I agree that white walls are the best solution, but in 2011 it was a challenge. At first, the parents asked – when will you paint the walls? But after a while I realized it was working, because there were children's artwork, photographs, any design on white walls, so we could make a different environment and feel harmonized every day.

The Norwegians also have different perspectives of spatial planning - there are group rooms and workshops. Each kindergarten must have arts, hearts, languages, and math workshops, and the room of each group does not have to be arranged with many identical materials. Children work in workshops from which the necessary materials may be taken, if necessary. I remember vividly the comment of one of the kindergarten's colleagues – there is a feeling of emptiness but it feels very good. Therefore, I still believe it is important to make the environment meaningful, not just full of things. 


What's your status in CreaKids?
The management board of the company has an owner and financial director, but my powers are laid down in the proclamation. This means I can do business on behalf of the owner. My direct contact for work is Yvonne, who performs similar functions in Norway as I do in Latvia. By organizing "CreaKids" activities in Latvia, I feel 100% of the responsibility. We have introduced a Norwegian system for the administration of the company in Latvia, which means that there is one manager who organizes the whole work and in a classical sense, she or he has no deputies. The manager can outsource specific questions, such as food technologists' who calculate menus. At the same time, the manager is the one who needs to see the whole area and know all the topics related to the kindergarten.
I started building the "CreaKids" team during the previous crisis - in Latvian Television, we applied the heading "Here's Work." There are a lot of employees who have been working since the first day, but of course, there are also those who have realized that we are not the best fit. Each of the four branches of Creakids has its manager, and all of them have started with us as assistant teachers or teachers. We have experimented and tried to organize management work in different ways, yet the model that each branch has its manager, while we work as a united team, has proved to be the most efficient. We support each other, we can help out whenever needed and fully trust each other.
In terms of growth, it is important to trust employees. Sometimes I think I know all the right and best ways, however, I have to get over that. We as leaders work a lot with ourselves, supervision is mandatory once a month. Looking at how to improve our work, we found that the "Lean" company's management system could be helpful, which helps you to do better, more effectively, with smaller investments and a more achievable outcomes. The developed system is like a driver's manual, which you can always look to when making decisions that are not emotional, but rational, structured, and justified. Of course, as the number of kindergartens increases, there are also challenges, however now with certain problems that tend to repeat, we know how to proceed.


As the number of gardens expands, you still have more work.
Yes, but there are fewer daily jobs at the same time because I am not the manager of any branch at the moment. At the moment, my work requires careful planning, because it takes a lot of time for both the digital project* and the opening of the new kindergarten, where room plans, playground settings, and other things still need to be finalized. About the new kindergarten, its developers are optimistic, but of course, they should keep a hand on the pulse and look at the adjustments that Covid-19 will make and its impact on the economy.


“CreaKids” will have its fifth branch in Latvia?
Yes, it will be next to the IKEA shop – a new mall is going to be there and the kindergarten will be attached to it with a separate entrance. The preschool is for 100 children, and although we haven't officially said anything until now, all the places have already been filled. This, in my opinion, vividly reflects this problem of endless queues for kindergartens, not only for our kindergarten as such, but the availability of preschools at all.

 

Don't you ever get tired of the amount of work you do?
Of course, and it's perfectly normal. I have a new hobby now - my friend and I are hiking a lot together. We've been doing this for a third year, and the original goal was to go 100 kilometers a month outside everyday activity. We like to walk around the forests in Garkalne, motivating each other, either by walking in workday evenings in small pieces or by taking longer hikes during weekends. During COVID-19, when work was more organized from home and time was saved at the expense of driving, we walked 250 kilometers a month. As a tradition, Sunday Morning Walking was established - we get up earlier than our families and go on a 20-kilometer hike. My friend works in a completely different industry – marketing – but we have so much to discuss. And it helps with tiredness and charges our energies so much!


You said there had once been an idea of your private kindergarten. Don’t you go back to that idea from time to time?
No, and that's the best thing that's happened to me. Now I would not build my private kindergarten, knowing the extremely wide range of issues that have to be addressed – finance, teaching content, work organization, and a hundred other questions.

When “CreaKids” started, we licensed the teaching methodology as an author program. We believe in our program and see the result of it. At the same time, it should be mentioned that the Norwegian leadership very much respects local freedom, including local traditions and opportunities. A couple of fundamental differences – we have working hours from 7 to 19, for them – 7 to 17. 

I like to be part of such a big company. During COVID-19, we often met in videoconferences with colleagues from Norway, Germany, and the Arab Emirates, and this international environment creates a fantastic feeling with no negative competition, but an opportunity to see others' strengths and things that could be changed.

Four years ago, "CreaKids" opened a kindergarten in the United Arab Emirates, and I was offered to go there to share my experience. I was surprised that there might be 17 children of different nationalities in the kindergarten, each graduating kindergarten at different ages. Then I realized how familiar the arrangements and rhythms were with us.


A big aspect of working in a kindergarten is communication with parents.
I have thought a lot about this over the years and worked with myself internally. At the end of the 1990s, I participated in the Soros Fund-funded "Step by Step" project, which talked about absolute innovation at the time: how to adapt children to kindergarten and how to initially have a parent by the child's side. I thought it was right for those parents who wanted this approach to come in August, but certainly not in September. Looking at the Norwegian experience, I realized that, as a rule, parents were with a child during adaptation. In taking over this idea, we say that it is also parental responsibility for the sake of the child, for the sake of the parents and for the sake of the staff, to understand whether the model is appropriate for the child and family. I do not claim that everybody needs to like everything, above all, to find their style of adaptation and to be satisfied with it.

I remember that when I worked in a municipal kindergarten with four groups, I automatically split my parents into those who are responsive, who are not, and who are "bad". Later, when I arrived at Patnis, it was a surprise that parents came with totally different expectations - because they chose the private kindergarten they were paying for it! It felt as if they had come to look for something better. At the same time, there is some experience to which they refer that it is not positive. When all parents come together, they are expected to look for the best, and if they don't find it, they react automatically. That was the moment when I also learned that I had to be able to address the concerns of every parent and make sure that I don't want to cross the street when I see any of them. Every parent wants the best for their child and every staff member wants to do the best they can at their job so theoretically they want the same thing – so why should there ever be a conflict? Sometimes I hear that the parents of this generation are harder to deal with but I completely disagree – I have also had different interesting situations in this regard, but I have learned how to deal with them. One of the manners I have found very useful is mediation. 


I think you have an enormous ability to see the positive in people. You will not achieve this view by means of learned methods.
Regarding the positive attitude, I've learned a lot from Yvonne. She often recalls, and I also say this to my parents at meetings – we are jointly responsible for a happy childhood of a child. I believe it wholeheartedly, and it allows me to do my job with the best conscience. If I say I'm doing the best I can, it doesn't mean I can't be wrong. If I work at my maximum, but the person will be able to point to errors objectively, I can change something. In that sense, every parent who comes up with justified or less justified claims is a challenge that promotes growth.

In private kindergartens, there is no pandering for anyone, and there are clear rules and arrangements, traditions, attitudes. Further, we are looking for an intersection for cooperation. So the key to successful communication with parents is an adaptation period when we need to invest time and patience in telling us what we do and what we don't.


It also means working with kindergarten educators.
This, too, is an aspect that needs to be thought of. For example, if a teacher thinks it would be great to have the children picked up by five o'clock, because the teacher could go home quicker – it might happen a couple of days, but on the third or fifth day the child’s parent cannot pick them up earlier than 7 o’clock. What happens now? The teacher's expectations have not come true, the child has not been picked up in time, and negative feelings, even anger, are automatically generated. Then the mother arrives, who may feel guilty, and says – madness, my child is the last! The teacher says -  yes, since five. And both sides are offended and frustrated. At the same time, the teacher, under the responsibility of being a kindergarten educator, knows that the job ends only at seven, so she or he needs to plan their time so that they don’t get worried that a child is picked up shortly before seven o'clock.

When my children went to kindergarten, I too had a reaction – madness, my child is the last! I think it's an automatic reaction from any mom. So it's important how the teacher will react to it. If the reaction from the teacher is – "my working time was up to seven, and we had a very nice time together", then the stress and frustration disappear.

I spent a couple of years teaching students about working with children's parents, and this work excited me a lot. I was honest about the fact that communicating with parents is not just a meadow with beautiful flowers, but also a challenge where you should find the good in a less positive conversation so that you do not have the desire to avoid parents.


What were you like as a mother?

With every child, I think every parent gets more relaxed. If I had the peace with the first child, that I had with my third, it all would have been so much easier! With the first child, every little thing gets you anxious. 

 

When the kids were small, was it easy to find a balance between work and home?
All my kids went to kindergarten where I was working, so I seemed to have no close contact during the day, and yet I was with them. Work in kindergarten was also helpful in the way that we got to share all holidays and evenings – their dad worked in Liepaja periodically, but he was home on holidays, and when he was in Liepaja we went to see him.

When in kindergarten, my boys knew the lines very well, they never came to me at the office or in any way didn't care about me being in kindergarten. The oldest children started kindergarten from the age of three, the youngest from two. And that's another thing that changed in my opinion. When I worked in a municipal kindergarten where children were taken from the age of 3, I defended the idea because it had its foundation. But the youngest child had a chance to start going to kindergarten from two years old. I was with him during the adaptation, and I was worried about how it would be when we were in the same building, but I would have to avoid him. A few times, trying to avoid him, I met my son and he looked at me without any emotion. So it was me who tried to imagine something more than it was. Because in the group he was also in absolute comfort even though he was only two years old.
When I opened the first CreaKids, I found out that the Norwegian children started kindergarten at the age of one. Respecting my employer, I didn't immediately oppose it, but I felt a great deal of surprise about it. In Latvia, we are accustomed to thinking about how it is right, and we can put our parents, especially our moms, under stress. But every family can have their observations, why something is needed. If we say it's right to put a child in kindergarten from the age of 3, how can a parent feel?

Another topic I love in regards to kindergartens has to do with a reform Norway had which I wish for Latvia to adopt as well – now in their groups with little children there has to be an adult per every four children and in their older groups – one adult per every six children. If you organize work in this manner, it is clear, that there is no problem with children attending kindergarten when they are one year old. All that matters then is whether or not parents are comfortable with it. In Latvia, there is the trend of women going back to work earlier, which is completely fine and then it is our job to make the family feel safe and happy. 

 


* With a wish to develop a set of digital learning and methodical tools, the private pre-school "CreaKids" has launched a "Development of digital learning and methodological tools to deliver innovative pre-school education programs". Training tools in the fields of languages, mathematics, health, and physical activity are planned to be developed to facilitate and modernize pre-school teacher preparations for teaching these topics.

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