Work Together Wednesday: Donna Hufnagle

April 18, 2018 | Article for the Week of the Young Child™  by Cassandra Caffee Morelock, Virginia Quality, United Way of Southwest Virginia
Donna Hufnagle | Weber City Head Start | Scott County, VA

Donna Hufnagle, Work Together Wednesday’s spotlight professional, has two favorite words when it comes to messy projects in her Head Start classroom: “It’s okay!” She says, “I let them explore with everything. Doesn’t matter if it’s a mess – it cleans up.” That’s her expert advice after working with young children as an educator for the past 32 years. Donna understands that it’s the process that helps her students master skills, not the product. “A lot of teachers think [projects] should look a certain way, but you have to let the kids be able to do it. You have to let them have that freedom.”

Her students have ample opportunities to indulge in that freedom throughout the school year. “I usually make things with boxes with [the children]. They LOVE a box!” Their biggest box project this year was creating a Christmas Train for a Scott County Head Start Family Engagement annual event called, “Night at the Museum”.

The first step was deciding together as a group that they wanted to make a train. Then, research: “We read books about trains to get ideas. We talked about transportation, and that trains are a form of transportation. One little boy talked about his trains at home. He was the expert. We googled, and looked on the internet to see different trains, then figured out how to make it and put it together.” The class had extra help from parent volunteers and their “foster grandparent”, Mr. Keith, who went out to stores to find boxes.

Donna and her assistant, Whitney, brought the boxes outside to paint them. The children had a variety of colors to choose from. “Some of them wanted it to be ‘Thomas the Train’,” said Donna, “but we had different colors and they decided it wasn’t ‘Thomas the Train’ because,” as the young aforementioned train expert exclaimed, “‘it’s not blue!’” The train project provided abundant opportunities to practice a wide range of early childhood developmental skills, such as gross motor, fine motor, math, and, perhaps most importantly, social/emotional skills. “We didn’t have enough paint brushes for everyone, so they had to take turns. They went off and played if it wasn’t their turn, then they would come ask if it was their turn yet, and kids would give up their paint brushes.”

Despite the increasingly academic focus of kindergarten, kindergarten teachers continue to believe in the importance of Social Emotional skills for learning. For example, 91 percent list “can follow directions” as a critical kindergarten readiness skill, 87 percent list “takes turns and shares”, and 77 percent list “pays attention”, according to a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Donna understands how crucial it is for young children to practice these skills before entering kindergarten. “It’s a big world out there and they have to problem solve the rest of their life. We’ve got the ‘Al’s Pals’ curriculum that teaches them different [social/emotional] skills. When they go off to kindergarten, they’re already going to know the emotional language they can use because of what we do in here. They’ve gotta have those social skills everywhere they go. They have to work it out, and I stand back and let them work it out, unless they need me. Now, at the end of the year, they’re just telling each other, ‘You made me mad!’ instead of hitting.”

Donna shares how the young train expert has come a long way in gaining those skills, “He used to get really frustrated. It was bad. He has come so far, and I’m just so proud,” she says, her eyes brimming with tears. “The temper tantrums that he threw every day, he doesn’t do them anymore, and it’s because of the ‘Al’s Pals’ curriculum. And even this morning, he said, ‘no, don’t do that.’ He’s learned to communicate.”

Donna’s ability to engage students in meaningful activities like the train project, and her highly specialized skills as an intentional teacher didn’t come overnight. Originally from New Jersey, Donna moved to the area with her father and stepmother after graduating High School in 1981. She was the first person in Scott County to apply for a license from DSS when she decided to open a child care program in her home. She says the need of the community for day care services motivated her to make that choice. That driving internal motivation is what also led her to the decision to pursue her Child Development Associate (CDA) Credential.

When her son was ready to begin school at Nickelsville Head Start, Donna applied for a position as a teacher’s assistant. It wasn’t long before she felt inspired to become a lead teacher, and went back to school for her Bachelor’s degree. “I loved every minute of it. I did my Bachelor’s at Virginia Intermont. The child development classes were my favorite.” But she didn’t stop there. She also has a Master’s in Human Service Crisis Counseling from Liberty University. “I’m the first one in my family that went to school.”

Donna recently had a chance to demonstrate her expertise, when her classroom got rated by Virginia Quality this past Winter. “My personal goal was to bring up my [teacher/child interaction] scores, and I did. But you can always get better. I tell the kids, ‘You don’t ever know everything. I don’t know everything!’ It’s a process throughout life.” She certainly knows a thing or two about high-quality early childhood education. Her high scores helped advance the center from a Level 3 to a Level 4 in the Virginia Quality Rating System.

After about a week of working together, the class was finally ready to present their train project at the Family Night at the Museum. “Getting it together and seeing them play in it was the most rewarding part.” Children from all the Head Start classrooms had a chance to try out the train, taking turns playing conductor and caboose. After the event, staff brought the train back to Donna’s classroom so the kids could continue to enjoy their creation. “I put it in the block center and let them play with it, and we would bring it outside and they would play with it out there, too. They played with it until it was ruined!” The children still talk about their train, months later. “Every time they see a box, they ask, ‘Are we going to make a train?’”

After all these years, Donna still hasn’t lost her spark for personal ambition. “I look to maybe retire from Head Start in two years, and then work with special needs children at an Early Intervention agency. Then I’ll go do something else – come back here and volunteer and make a train,” she says with a laugh.

Donna is a lead teacher at a Virginia Quality center, focused on high quality care and kindergarten readiness. By voluntarily joining Virginia Quality, early learning programs show their staff, families and community that they are committed to quality education for young children. To learn more about Virginia Quality and United Way’s other Childhood Success initiatives, visit

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This story is part of United Way of Southwest Virginia’s spotlight series highlighting five professionals in our Virginia Quality network during the 2018 Week of the Young Child™. Annually, during this week, we recognize the importance of early learning and early literacy and celebrate the providers who bring early childhood education to young children. Through the five stories we will publish this week, you will see the investment these professionals are making in the lives of our children – teaching them to create, problem-solve, engage, and celebrate – and preparing tomorrow’s workforce for the next steps in their journey from cradle to career in Southwest Virginia. To read other stories in this Week of the Young Child™ spotlight series, visit

United Way of Southwest Virginia fights for the health, education and financial stability of every person in Southwest Virginia because they are the building blocks for a good quality of life. Through an initiative-based cradle-to-career approach, United Way of Southwest Virginia is creating sustainable solutions to address the challenges facing tomorrow’s workforce. United Way convenes cross-sector partners to make an impact on the most complex problems in our region. Through collaboration with government, business, nonprofit and individuals, United Way innovates for positive, lasting social change. With a footprint that covers almost 15% of the state of Virginia, United Way of Southwest Virginia serves Bland, Buchanan, Carroll, Dickenson, Giles, Grayson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington and Wise, and the cities of Galax and Norton. For more information about United Way of Southwest Virginia, visit

Week of the Young Child™, sponsored by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), is an opportunity for early childhood programs across the country, including child care and Head Start programs, preschools, and elementary schools, to hold activities to bring awareness to the needs of young children. For more information and inspiration on how you can celebrate Week of the Young Child™, visit