Erikson Institute, a private graduate school and research center, was established in 1966 in response to the critical need for early childhood professionals to staff the nation’s expanding programs for young children.

Three prominent child advocates — child psychologist Maria Piers, social worker Lorraine Wallach, and educator and activist Barbara Taylor Bowman — launched the institute with the support of businessman and philanthropist Irving B. Harris.

Each believed that a comprehensive understanding of child development was fundamental to the task of helping children reach their potential. They recognized a demand for well-trained early childhood teachers to work in newly launched Head Start programs. Harris and Piers went to Washington D.C. in late 1965 to seek funding for the school they had in mind. The response they received was promising but for months, no funds were forthcoming. Ultimately, Harris told Piers and her colleagues that he would cover costs if they went ahead.

The school — originally known as the Chicago Institute for Early Childhood Education — enrolled its first class of 16 student in the fall of 1966. Classes were held in the Hyde Park Bank building. In 1967, the school formed an affiliation with Loyola University Chicago to grant a master’s degree. In 1969, it was renamed for Erik Erikson, the German-born psychoanalyst and former colleague of Piers who first proposed that children are not simply biological organisms but also products of society’s expectations, prejudices, and prohibitions.

A unique approach

To prepare students to understand the whole child, the founders recruited faculty from early childhood education, administration, cultural anthropology, clinical and developmental psychology, pediatrics, and social work. The curriculum emphasized developmental psychology, biology, and social science in addition to more traditional disciplines.

Their vision was to create a multiethnic, interdisciplinary group of early childhood practitioners, educators, administrators, and community leaders committed to delivering the very best care and early education to young children and their families. These leaders would work as advocates for children at risk for school failure and developmental harm.

The method Erikson’s founders chose for preparing these leaders was unique, and it remains so today: relationship-based, theory-driven, self-reflective practice. From the start, Erikson emphasized the centrality of relationships in all learning and in successful intervention with families and community and institutional systems. Through small-group seminars and faculty mentoring, the Institute led students to examine their own responses to children, families, and professionals, instilling the habit of professional self-reflection. Internships are required so students hone their skills and see how lessons apply in the field. This intensive approach linking theory and knowledge to practice has become the gold standard in the field.

Following the same rigorous approach, Erikson added a Ph.D. program and dual degree program in child development with Loyola, as well as several certificate programs and master’s degree options. After several years of granting master’s degrees independently, Erikson received full accreditation from the North Central Association in 2000.

Community initiatives and applied research

From its earliest days, Erikson Institute has worked well beyond the classroom walls. Faculty have trained Native American teaching staff in Head Start programs on reservations, consulted with inner-city day care centers, helped develop child life and family education programs at local hospitals, and produced educational videos, articles, and booklets for a wide range of audiences. Today Erikson continues to provide professional development, consultation, and direct service to schools, service agencies, courts and lawyers, medical clinics, and many other community settings.

Erikson’s applied research programs also address community needs and focus on systems change. Faculty and researchers have established a literacy initiative to explore the preschool origins of reading and writing; examined the efficacy of early childhood intervention programs; researched the impact of violence on children and developed prevention programs to help children cope with violence; and measured the unmet need for mental health services among infants.

In an era of declining quality in urban public education, teacher education and curriculum change have been a major focus for the Institute. For nearly 20 years, Erikson has teamed with the Chicago Public Schools on many initiatives to improve teaching and learning and create an educational bridge between the preschool and elementary grades.

In 2005, the Herr Research Center for Children and Social Policy was launched with new support from Jeffrey Herr and several foundations to channel Erikson’s applied research into the policy arena. The Fussy Baby Network — Erikson’s first program to directly serve families — was launched in 2003 and joined in 2009 by the Center for Children and Families.