Across Virginia, teachers and leaders have partnered to tackle a persistent problem in early learning: kindergarten readiness.
In 2018, nearly half of Virginia’s children entered kindergarten lacking foundational skills in at least one key learning area. Although some of these children catch up to their peers, readiness gaps often widen over time, making it more challenging for students to learn and for teachers to support student success in school.
As part of the effort to address the school readiness gap, state education leaders are working together to increase professional development opportunities for early childhood educators. The Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL), a research center within the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development, recently joined forces with the Virginia Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (VASCD) to host a conference for early childhood educators and administrators in Virginia.
VASCD invited CASTL to co-host their fourth annual PreK-Kindergarten Conference, held at James Madison University on June 17. Participants at this year’s conference learned about classroom strategies to strengthen children’s literacy, mathematics, self-regulation and social skills — the most critical areas for early learning — as well as the benefits of the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program (VKRP), a school readiness initiative that will expand statewide beginning this fall.
Supporting Professional Development
Nearly 120 early childhood teachers and administrators from across the state came together to attend the conference. “When educators and leaders work together to learn best practices and enhance skills, it leads to greater alignment and cohesiveness, resulting in greater success for children in the classroom,” said Laurie McCullough, executive director of VASCD.
Despite this benefit, professional development opportunities like the PreK-Kindergarten Conference are not always available at the division or school level. According to McCullough, VASCD established the conference after many of its members voiced concern over insufficient professional development for early childhood teachers. “A lot of our members work in school divisions that do not have the capacity to provide this kind of learning for what is a small proportion of their overall teaching staff,” she said.
Like all educators, preschool and kindergarten teachers face many challenges in the classroom -- their students have diverse backgrounds, different early learning experiences and varying skill levels. Perceived lack of support and preparation to approach these challenges and effectively teach children in the classroom can often leave teachers feeling overwhelmed, leading to turnover and teacher shortages.
Amanda Williford, associate professor at the Curry School and principal investor of VKRP, recently stated in an article in The Hill that 15% of early childhood teachers leave the field annually each year. To support our early childhood educators, Williford said more high-quality professional development opportunities are needed across the state.
Helping teachers learn more about VKRP, Williford said, is one way the Curry School is working to improve professional development offerings.
VKRP supports teachers and leaders by providing a more comprehensive understanding of children’s school readiness and success. To achieve this, the program uses mathematics, social and self-regulation skills assessments in addition to Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS), Virginia’s literacy skills assessment that was also developed at the Curry School. “By measuring kindergarten readiness across these critical learning domains, teachers can better support individual student learning and development,” said Williford.
Using Actionable Data
In order to make the greatest impact, investment in early learning should start before children enter kindergarten. “Without early intervention, these children are more likely to fall below grade level expectations, to be retained in school, to be placed in special education and to drop out of high school,” Williford said.
Indeed, children who attend preschool have an academic advantage. VKRP researchers found that more students from Virginia Preschool Initiative classrooms than their no-preschool counterparts were above the benchmark in three critical learning domains: 30 percent higher in literacy, 20 percent higher in math and 10 percent higher in self-regulation.
Educators, school leaders, families and policy makers can use VKRP readiness data to support children’s learning and success in kindergarten and beyond. When divisions have actionable data, it leads to better decision making, Williford explained at the conference. “Prior to kindergarten, reliable data helps educators know how to best allocate resources, understand how investments are working and identify benchmarks to monitor progress. In kindergarten and beyond, it helps educators guide classroom instruction, refer for early intervention and target curricula or professional development,” she said.
Learning Strategies for Effective Instruction
During the conference, Erin Carroll, director of the Office of Early Childhood at the Virginia Department of Education, provided opening remarks on the Commonwealth’s commitment to enhancing school readiness and the importance of VKRP as a means of furthering school success. Amanda Williford provided the keynote on a ‘whole child’ approach to school readiness, including the importance of integrating student self-regulation skills into ECE curriculum. CASTL and PALS faculty, staff and students led interactive sessions on the four critical learning domains, providing strategies that teachers can use in their classrooms to support young children’s learning.
For example, Willford’s keynote included the importance of fostering social-emotional skills by using an approach called In3 — or “Intentional. Integrated. Interactions.” In using this approach, Williford stressed the importance of intentionally integrating a focus on self-regulation and social skills into learning activities through teacher-student interactions that help children share materials, cooperate in a learning task, take turns, and more.
“Strong teacher-child relationships support children’s social, self-regulation and academic skills,” Williford said. “Through practicing this strategy, participants learned how it can disrupts negative interactions and improve the quality of teacher-child relationships, as well as how to implement in their own classrooms.”
The CASTL-VASCD partnership has already helped some of Virginia’s educators and school leaders gain a better understanding of VKRP assessments and strategies for more effective instruction. Statewide participation in VKRP will allow for a more comprehensive view of what it looks like when a child enters kindergarten ready to learn and what educators, leaders, families and policy makers can do to ensure it happens for every child in Virginia.