Erikson Institute began with Maria Piers, a Vienna-trained psychologist who focused on the psychosocial development of children. In the mid-1960s, as Head Start was launched as one salvo in the War on Poverty, Piers recognized a growing need for highly qualified early childhood teachers. She wanted to train teachers to apply modern psychoanalytic knowledge of child development to early care and education.
She found willing collaborators in social worker Lorraine Wallach, then an assistant director at the Virginia Frank Child Development Center, and Barbara Taylor Bowman, head teacher in a therapeutic day care program. They knew that too often, preschool was little more than babysitting, and they were well aware of the costs of failing to support optimal development and learning in the earliest years.
The three approached businessman Irving B. Harris with their idea to start an early childhood training institute in Chicago. Harris, who saw education as the key to preventing poverty, violence, and other social ills, was quick to see the benefits of their plan. He agreed to support the start-up, and Erikson began to make history.
Piers, well known and well connected in psychoanalytic circles, enriched the curriculum with lectures by the likes of Anna Freud, Rene Spitz, Jean Piaget, and Erik Erikson. Erikson’s theories about the resilience of children and the centrality of culture and context in a child’s development were so essential to the school’s approach that it was soon named for him.
The three founding faculty members recruited and inspired hundreds of students dedicated to the service of children. Piers served as dean until 1977; Wallach served in several administrative roles before retiring as professor in the mid-1990s. Bowman served as president of the Institute from 1994 to 2001 and continues to teach today, more than 40 years later.
While devoting their considerable energies to the growth of the Institute, they also spread their knowledge and influence far outside the classroom. They started or collaborated with community programs for families, advised government agencies and commissions, and led early childhood professional organizations. Piers, seeking to educate parents as well as professionals, created television and radio programs specifically to reach them.
The three shared more than a commitment to spreading knowledge of child development. They were also champions for equity and justice in the education and care of young children, especially for minorities and those from disadvantaged backgrounds — values that remain at the heart of the school they started.