Inclusion: 4 Critical Roles of the Program Administrator

Last month’s blog covered four elements of high-quality preschool programs: effective interactions, curricula, assessments, and family engagement. As noted in the blog, we all want the same thing: access to quality for ALL young children! 

ALL children includes children with disabilities, as we introduced in our 2-part series on inclusive practices (February and March 2019).

In Virginia there are nearly 6,500 four-year-olds and 4,300 three-year-olds with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) in our public schools.

source: Augusta County Public Schools

Yet, we as a Commonwealth (and a nation) still have a long way to go.

Did you know: Although the inclusion of children with special needs with their typical peers has been happening for over three decades, inclusion nationwide has only increased 5.7%?

In Virginia, the data is even more disheartening, with inclusion of children with IEP’s in school-based preschool programs falling far below the national average. 

*Each bar represents a state or territory.
Data source: Special Education Child Count December 1, 2017.
Image source: VDOE

Research indicates that state and local administrators and other program leaders play a pivotal role in making inclusion work. 

In this blog, we will discuss 4 critical roles that program administrators play in developing and maintaining inclusive early childhood programs.

Role 1: Understand and Convey What Inclusion Is

What is inclusion, really? Can you (and your staff) define it?

According to the Virginia Cross Sector Professional Development Inclusion Task Force,

Inclusion supports the fundamental right of every infant, child and family to actively participate in all learning and social activities as a full member of their community.

At the heart of it, this definition seems simple enough. It is every child’s right to participate in all activities. Yet, despite laws that expect inclusion, advancements in education, and research supporting benefits, inclusion for many young children with disabilities is still just an ideal.

Watch this video [3:15] developed by Virginia’s Integrated Training Collaborative titled, “Inclusion Means Everyone!”

Role 2: Set the Tone and Philosophy

While it may come as a surprise, research indicates that beliefs and attitudes are the primary barriers to inclusion.

Inadequate or misleading information can drive fears and contribute to personnel, and even families, being reluctant to include children. Inclusion will not occur without intentionally building shared attitudes and beliefs across staff and the community at large.

It is important for program administrators to establish a program philosophy and provide information on the importance and benefits of inclusion to set a positive tone.

Do you (and your staff) know the numerous benefits of inclusion shown in research?

(An entire blog could be devoted to this topic, but only a few highlights are provided!)

Inclusion benefits:

  • Children with disabilities as it helps them reach their full potential, including improved social emotional skills and language and cognitive development.
  • Children without disabilities as they appreciate diversity more and grow up to be more empathetic.
  • Families as they report feeling more connected and a part of their natural community. When a family experiences a high degree of belongingness with their child during the early years, it positively shapes their expectations for the future.
  • The entire community as all children are better equipped to learn, live, and work in inclusive communities.

Role 3: Know (and Follow) the Laws

Three main federal laws related to services for children with disabilities:

  1. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal education law, ensures all children and youth with disabilities access to a free, appropriate public education.Each eligible child has an IEP outlining the range of services needed. Children with disabilities are to be educated in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) alongside typically developing peers to the extent possible.
  2. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal civil rights law that provides people with disabilities equal rights in employment, state and local public services, and public accommodations, such as schools and early childhood programs.
  3. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination against children and adults on the basis of a disability by any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

To learn more about these laws, see the Virginia Early Childhood Inclusion Guidance Document (page 12).

Did you know?: These 3 laws apply to preschool programs provided in our public schools, including the state-funded Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI) and federally-funded Head Start.  In these programs, children with disabilities are expected to be included. Head Start takes this a step further by requiring that 10% served are children with disabilities.

Role 4: Convene an Inclusion Planning Team – and Start Taking Steps

The keys to the success and longevity of inclusive placement opportunities are systematic planning, commitment, and execution of critical action steps by program leaders that will support a unified early childhood program.

It is imperative to develop an inclusion planning team who can plan how to make inclusion work in the school division and in the community. The team should be diverse, composed of school division representatives, child care, Head Start, families, and others (like division fiscal and transportation reps) to collaboratively make decisions and take steps.

There are 5 key stepsto Plan for Inclusive Practices outlined on the Virginia Early Childhood Inclusion Guidance Document (page 24). These steps include convening stakeholders and planning to conduct ongoing Professional Development jointly across early childhood and early childhood special education.

For aligned, in-depth planning guides and accompanying resources see the Inclusive Placement Opportunities for Preschoolers (IPOP) manual.

 There is no longer a question about whether or not to include children with disabilities.

The question is how and where to begin.

In addition to knowing following the laws, you as an early childhood administrator have critical roles in being educated about inclusion, setting the tone and philosophy, and leading your inclusion planning team toward measurable improvements.

For support and guidance on how to take a step forward, explore the linked resources above (VDOE Guidance Document and IPOP manual) and reach out to your regional T/TAC provider!

Taking the 4 Ingredients of Quality to SCALE, Across Virginia

We’re wrapping up 4 years of intensive work to expand access to and quality of PreK for vulnerable children in 13 high-need communities around Virginia (supported by a federal grant).

There’s much to celebrate– over 13,000 more children having accessed highly effective programs that made a demonstrable impact (spoiler alert!)

Block pyramid

While we’re transitioning from VPI+ to a new chapter, we are faced with the challenge/opportunity of bringing lessons learned about improving quality at scale.

This takes us to the Commonwealth’s vision for early childhood, as voiced by our Chief School Readiness Officer, Jenna Conway:

The vision for early childhood in Virginia:

Quality for every child, in every setting, in every classroom, in every community.

Regardless of zip code.

Regardless of the sign on the door.

As Virginia moves ahead to enact this vision on many fronts–through the new Preschool Development Grant 2.0: Birth to Five, the VPI Plan to Ensure High-Quality Instruction, and Mixed-Delivery Preschool Grant Program, to name a few– there are lessons to glean fromVPI+.

In this month’s blog, we’ll cover key take-aways, illustrated through visuals and videos.

At the end, we’ll share the link to a white paper where you can dig into data and take-aways in more depth!

4 Key Elements of High-Quality Preschool Programs

The VPI+ design for preschool program quality, which parallels the vision for Virginia statewide, identifies four elements:

  • effective classroom interactions,
  • evidence-based curriculum,
  • formative assessments, and
  • family engagement.

Watch the video below to learn more:

Video [3:10]

The Impact of High-Quality Preschool on Children’s Learning and Development

Results from a rigorous evaluation study conducted by SRI International demonstrates many significant, positive outcomes for children who attended VPI+, including:

1) enhanced kindergarten entry skills,

2) closing of gaps for Dual Language Learners, and

3) accelerated growth in preschool learning and development, within and across years.

See below as one example– participating in VPI+ amounted to 3.4 extra months of math learning and 8.8 additional months of literacy skills!

bar graph: math and literacy gains
source: SRI 2019

Numbers don’t lie– it worked!

What worked, and How?

VPI+ raised quality in many ways, including use of evidence-based curricula, formative assessments, and enhancing teacher-child interactions. Look at how CLASS® interactions grew over 2 years!

Bar graphs of CLASS (R) improvement
SRI 2019

To achieve these quality enhancements, VPI+ provided teachers individualized, data-driven professional development including coaching. Programs provided families additional supports, such as comprehensive services and home visiting through the work of family engagement coordinators. Finally, program leaders received training and support around data use and continuous improvement.

3 Key Lessons Learned to Take Statewide

#1 The success of VPI+ required an investment in capacity building at all levels– state, division, school/program, and individual educators.  You can hear from teachers about how the investment in effective, supportive professional development made a difference for them here.

#2 The effective use of data was a consistent focus of capacity building at each of these levels– helping teachers use formative assessment data to individualize instruction, helping coaches use classroom data to target professional learning, and supporting leaders in using data to develop and maintain rigorous approaches to continuous improvement.

#3 Ongoing success and scaling will depend on collaboration statewide to address some of the most pressing issues, such as

  • Access: ensuring sufficient access to high-quality preschool and other early care and childhood education (ECCE) settings
  • Attendance: working to help families so that children can attend regularly
  • Challenging behavior and Inclusion: helping programs to effectively meet the needs of children with challenging behavior as well as children with varied special needs
  • Data use: continuing to invest in effective data use at all levels.

Many of these issues have been raised by programs across settings… so it’s a matter of coming together to better understand the causes and align our efforts to solve them!

To learn more, download the white paper here: Increasing the Impact of Preschool in Virginia: Lessons Learned in VPI+ (PDF)

Stay tuned in the coming months for more on the topic of inclusion and the future of PreK/ECCE in VA!

Source: P-3 Institute, University of Washington, Kristi Kauerz

Quality Interactions for ALL Children: Part II

Last month, we introduced the concept that ALL children have special needs, whether they have an IEP or other unique needs, such as language learner status, food insecurity, or a history of trauma.

Teachers seek to balance the needs of all children, every day in their classroom. And the CLASS tool gives us a useful lens for looking at strategies to help children with a range of unique challenges, styles, interests, and competencies.

The first 3 strategies related to relationships, awareness of individual needs, and providing choices. These corresponded to the first 3 dimensions of CLASS: Positive Climate, Teacher Sensitivity, and Regard for Child Perspectives.

Keep reading to learn the final 3 strategies, linking to the other areas of CLASS® tool!

#1 Facilitate Self-Regulation and Interactions Among Children

Teachers are presented with challenges each day when children have difficulty with self-regulation. This also may affect all of the children in the classroom at any given time. When children have a predictable, nurturing environment, they know what to expect. Spending the time to teach children ways to express their feelings appropriately and to provide children with clear and consistent expectations for behavior are the first steps in Behavior Management in the CLASS® tool.

Are the classroom routines and expectations clear? Do children know what to do and how to do it?

For example, “clean up” can mean many things to many children. When teachers are specific and use positive language, like, “please put the books back on the book shelf,” instead of “clean up the books,” it helps the children know what to do.

Productivity in the CLASS® tool refers to how well the classroom flows. It takes months for classrooms to become “well-oiled machines” as children progress through transitions and routines that are new to them. Some children may need repeated experiences with learning these expectations as this may be the first time they are participating with a large group of children and sharing the teacher’s attention. Some children may also need a visual schedule to help remind them what to do and some children may need to have the steps broken down in a first/then order or sequence.








#2 Focus on Engagement

Planning the daily schedule to meet the needs of all children is tricky at best. Important considerations for teachers include cutting down on the number of transitions each day, limiting whole group times to short periods, and allowing ample time for children to access materials and activities that interest them. A key question to consider throughout is:

How can every child in the group be an active, engaged member of the classroom community?

What we have learned from Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is that children need multiple means of engagement and multiple means of representing what they have learned.

Teachers must select a variety of modalities to present to children and NOT rely on oral instruction alone. For example, singing the ABC’s is one of the first ways teachers and parents talk about the alphabet, but letter recognition must be taught in many different ways:

  • an alphabet line,
  • magnetic or sandpaper letters,
  • finding plastic letters in the sand table,
  • forming letters with playdough on alphabet cards, or
  • “writing” letters in trays of salt or shaving cream.

Children get engaged in learning when action is involved! Also, a child is more likely to demonstrate what he or she has learned when a teacher plans activities with a child’s interests in mind. In the CLASS® tool, the above examples would be a part of Instructional Learning Formats.

#3 Provide Appropriate Academic Rigor

Reflective teachers help children learn to think.This takes places when teachers intentionally embed learning opportunities through their moment-to-moment interactions. These will look different for different children.

How do we ensure that each child has the kinds of interactions that grow his or her thinking skills?

When we ask children open-ended questions (an essential part of Language Modeling in the CLASS® tool), we first have to be certain the child understands the question. If the child does not understand the question, he or she may look away and not answer at all. Teachers may then try a different way of asking and make certain they allow wait time for individual children to process and respond. Responses may also be non-verbal and include pointing to a picture or using materials.

Teachers must be explicit when they integrate or connect new knowledge. (Think back to Piaget… Assimilation + Accommodation = Adaptation!). This is part of Concept Development in the CLASS® tool.

And as children learn new skills, hints and assistance may be needed for a child to be successful. The Quality of Feedback (CLASS® tool) teachers provide must be effective and meaningful for all learners. This may include a combination of gestures, signs, and/or pictures to engage children in a back and forth “exchange” that helps them complete a task or reach a higher level of understanding.


The Bottom Line

Think back on the 6 teacher-child interactions strategies we’ve covered:

  • supportive relationships,
  • awareness of individual needs,
  • providing choices;
  • facilitating self-regulation and interactions among children,
  • focusing on engagement, and
  • providing academic rigor

As we seek to promote quality interactions for ALL, we should keep in mind that ~48-month-old children are more alike than different!

When we view children with the same disability/label as being very similar (i.e., “children with autism” or “dual language learners”), it is not helpful as the same disability or ability may manifest itself in different ways in different children.

As a whole, 48-month-old children are curious and active explorers, who want to have fun, interact and play with other children.

When young children participate in a classroom together, teachers are poised to help these children to participate as part of a community and feel they belong. By making accommodations and modifications, all children can be successful. Our ultimate goal is to be ready to welcome all children, so they can grow, develop and have a positive disposition towards learning.


Quality Interactions for ALL Children: Part I

Our blogs have all addressed specific topics regarding this unique population of 48-month-old children that are in our school buildings and local centers. As we spring into the last few months of our work, this blog will focus on meeting the individualized needs of children with (and without identified) disabilities.

First, let’s be clear- Children ALL have special needs.

Yes, some arrive with an IEP or have developmental or learning delays that may have not yet been identified. Yet, others arrive at school hungry, without enough sleep, and not yet understanding the English language. In addition, young children often have bumps in their road to developing social-emotional and self-regulation skills!

Teachers have a resource with the CLASS® tool to assist them in looking at each child as an individual with unique needs, styles, and strengths.

Let us look at how teachers can see through the CLASS® lens as they implement 6 strategies captured in the CLASS® observation tool.

In this month’s blog, Part 1, we’ll look at the first 3 strategies.

#1 Build Genuine Relationships

All children, regardless of ability, benefit from warm, supportive relationships. Providing emotional support for children continues to say to them, “you are safe here and you can trust me.” We know from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that children need that important foundation in order to learn. Teachers build that foundation each day by:

  • demonstrating respect to children,
  • getting on eye level,
  • listening attentively and
  • facilitating children’s engagement in conversations.

Again, we know that regardless of ability, children benefit from warm and supportive relationships. In the CLASS® tool, this is known as Positive Climate and it sets the stage for all interactions that happen throughout the day.

Positive Climate

#2 Assume Competence and Be Aware of Each Child’s Learning Needs

When children enter our classrooms, we may be quick to discover what their weaknesses are. Sometimes we may be too quick in assuming what they cannot do – instead of looking at what they can do.

We can only build upon children’s strengths, not their deficits.

Being aware of and responsive to children’s individualized learning needs are key components of Teacher Sensitivity in the CLASS® tool.

Teacher Sensitivity

Do we observe first and then use verbal and visual prompts before we assist a child?

Do we honor the time that is needed for each child to complete a task (instead of adopting a one-size fits all approach)?

In the world of special education, teachers routinely monitor children’s progress and adjust their instruction accordingly. This is good practice for all children! For example, that may mean:

  • breaking down instructions into smaller components,
  • providing a visual, (model the action and/or show an illustration of handwashing), or
  • finding a puzzle with less pieces if the child is frustrated with the one he or she has.

Teachers can make these kinds of adaptations as part of their ongoing planning.

#3 Give Children Choices

Every time we do something for children, we are taking away the opportunity for them to display their competencies and problem-solve on their own. Do we give children opportunities to be independent?

Teachers may often offer the same choices for all children in the classroom, but consider that

  • Some children may need limited choices to be more successful.
  • Some children need time to process what the choices are.
  • They may also need to point or touch what their choices are if they are non-verbal. A child may also express himself or herself by using visual pictures or a communication device.

When we follow the interests of individual children, this helps increase their engagement. Teachers can build activities around children’s preferences and also provide materials that are “open-ended” (playdough, blocks, sand, water, or art). These materials allow children who are at different levels of ability to pursue their interests at different rates and experience a variety of complexity– without having to usethe materials in a particular way.

Freedom of movement is also important for young children. Children need to move and touch things every day in the classroom. When teachers allow flexibility and movement within the daily schedule, this follows the natural path of young children. Referred to as Regard For Child Perspectives in the CLASS tool, this allows a teacher to continuously be mindful of what the child may be thinking and feeling throughout the day.

Regard for Child PerspectivesStay tuned ‘til next month for the remaining 3 strategies that are good for ALL children, including children with disabilities!

Instructional Support Part II: What Can We Do to Grow?

Just before the new year, we shared the work of an incredible early childhood team in Norfolk who grew in their instructionally supportive interactions over the past few years. Norfolk’s team has been sharing their lessons learned through interactive Showcase PreKinVA visits (read to the end to register!).

The point of these visits is less about THEM (showing what they did)… it’s about YOU (and what you can take back to YOUR programs!)

Block pyramid

In this month’s blog, we’ll break down 4 time-tested steps you can follow to grow.

4 Steps to Improving Instructionally Supportive Interactions

Step 1: Build Readiness for Change

Before leaders can support teachers’ growth, everyone needs a shared vision for the WHAT and the WHY.

What are we trying to improve (and what will success look like)?

And why are we putting our efforts and resources into making this change?

Norfolk accomplished this by having teachers and leaders come together as a team (including shared Professional Development). They developed a vision of what quality interactions– including instructionally supportive interactions– look like and why they matter (see below for a summary).

WHAT are instructionally supportive interactions? Instructionally supportive interactions involve teachers: promoting children’s thinking and problem-solving skills, using feedback to deepen understanding and promote persistence, and helping children develop more complex language skills.
WHY do they matter? Studies have shown, time and time again, that instructionally supportive interactions benefit children both in terms of their social-emotional development as well as academic learning in the areas of language, literacy, and math.

Step 2: Use Data as a Flashlight

You can’t change everything, and data can help you focus on what matters most.

Data on classroom interactions allows you to “shine a flashlight” on what is working as well as areas for improvement (what we like to call “glows and grows”). The CLASS-PreK-TM observation tool has provided valuable data on interactions for VPI+ classrooms and will be used across VPI classrooms as well. When thinking about improving, it is helpful to look at CLASS data both across your program as well as at the classroom level.

CLASS-PreK-TM Tool Summary

CLASS domains and dimensions
source: UVA-CASTL 2018

For instance, maybe your program has 10 classrooms. Program-level data might show you that classrooms, overall, show strong language supports (Language Modeling) whereas feedback to children about their learning (Quality of Feedback) is weaker. But as you dig in further to the classroom-level data, you might also notice that a couple classrooms have strengths in these areas, and a few classrooms have additional needs in these and other areas of interactions (like Behavior Management). Once you’ve really understood the data, what’s next?

Step 3: Plan for Quality PD (for Teachers– and You Too!)

Program-level data can help you to plan targeted PD for all teachers that incorporates a focus on delivering feedback—and perhaps the teachers with great strengths can serve as leaders among their peers?

Classroom-level data helps you plan individualized PD for teachers to address unique or additional areas of practice, like proactive behavioral management, especially for classrooms with more intensive needs.

When planning PD, keep in mind that quality is key. Single-shot workshops are not sufficient to change teaching practices (especially interactions). Teachers need ongoing PD that provides multiple opportunities to learn about and see quality interactions, reflect on their practices, plan improvements, and then try new strategies out in the classroom– with feedback!

Video review
source: UVA-CASTL 2018
Quality PD Tip: VPI+ teachers, including Norfolk’s, have shared that watching video clips of themselves and each other has been especially helpful! If that’s too intimidating, teachers can start by watching video clips on the VPI+ site together and then move on to reviewing their own videos as comfort and trust is built.

Think SHARED PD—grow alongside your teachers. As an administrator, building your expertise around instructionally supportive interactions enables you to provide the kind of specific feedback that helps teachers grow!

Step 4: Get Connected 

How often are we siloed as professionals , working in isolation?

We all have better ideas when we collaborate.

Connect Teachers in Learning Communities. Norfolk intentionally held regular meetings where teachers networked and shared what strategies and resources that were working in their classrooms. For instance, teachers shared how they found it helpful to post visual prompts around their classrooms with questions to promote children’s thinking and language skills (see an example below!)

Visual with science center questions
Source: Showcase PreKinVA

Connect with other Leaders. VPI+ is offering more Showcase PreK in VA events where you and your team can connect with teams around the state. All classrooms have been identified as models for instructionally supportive interactions as well as other practices. Explore topics, dates, locations, and register here with your team to see high-quality in action around the Commonwealth and kickstart your community of learning!

P.S. Promoting connections will be a big focus of the Virginia’s early childhood initiatives going forward –and we’ll be applying lessons learned from what worked in VPI+. Stay tuned for upcoming connection-making opportunities, starting at this spring’s regional VPI coordinator meetings!



Showcasing Instructional Support in Norfolk: How They Grew (and You Can Too)

Introducing Showcase PreK in VA

As a part of the last year of the VPI+ grant, we wanted to share our lessons learned from the investments made and networking across partnering divisions in a way that was accessible—that didn’t just convey information in a one-sided way, but really connected leaders and educators and planted seeds of change around the Commonwealth.

Listen to Laura Kassner, VPI+ State Coordinator, share the “why” of the Showcase PreK in VA pilot.  

And so Showcase PreK in VA was born, an adaptation of a model from The Office of Interschool Collaboration in New York City’s Department of Education.

The concept of Showcase? A day of experiential professional development on a specific learning focus area, including storytelling and shared meals that connects hosts and visitors with each other, hosts openly communicating both their successes and obstacles, and visitors getting to see high-quality PreK in action through classroom visits. To support the carryover of practices, visitors receive implementation resources and planning opportunities to take home what will work in their own contexts.

Consider this our official invitation for you to come to one of our hosts’ 16 events scheduled around the Commonwealth for the 2018-19 school year! (Each division met high benchmarks for Quality Rating scores and inclusions percentages, and has chosen their focus on a specific learning area.)

For this month’s blog, we’re going to profile one of our first Showcase hosting teams—Norfolk Public Schools—who chose Instructional Support as their learning focus area. We’ll tell you the story of Norfolk’s journey, including some specific ways in which they positively impacted Instructional Support interactions through PD and structural changes to their daily schedule.

Norfolk Showcase PreK in VA team

How did “team Norfolk” get started?

Since all VPI+ classrooms participated in the Virginia Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS), which includes ratings with both the CLASS and ECERS instruments, the Norfolk VPI+ team received summary reports after ratings in the fall of 2015.  First, they reflected on why their scores were below the threshold on Instructional Support in the CLASS tool, a place of surprise since they thought their teaching was effective (and it was—many strengths were identified, there were just specific places to grow!). They took a holistic look at the report, reflecting also on the information that was captured in the Environment scale (ECERS) and made an interesting discovery…

The baseline report indicated very limited time during learning centers, a time when children were free to follow their interests and have sustained engagement while manipulating meaningful and relevant materials. Teachers were limited in opportunities to have quality, sustained interactions with the children when the daily schedule and activities included teacher-directed and small group time with lots of transitions where time was lost.  This choppiness of the day and the related routines were hampering instructionally supportive conversations (promoting children’s thinking and language skills through open-ended questions, repeating and extending language, etc.).

How did they grow?

So it was clear that Norfolk wanted to see growth in instructionally supportive classroom interactions.  And it was clear that the schedule, which they could control, was limiting their opportunities. Cue changes…

#1 First order of business, they made structural changes to their daily schedule.

While teacher-structured activities had historically been seen as the “teaching” times, transitions, learning centers, and routines provided many more minutes of valuable learning opportunities—especially when teachers were intentionally focused on supporting children’s cognition and language through their interactions.  Norfolk’s leadership made the bold move to change how students spent a significant portion of the day – in rigorous and purposeful centers where the teachers could rotate and interact intentionally.

#2 Second order: they learned what good instructional support interactions looked like and planned for how they could/should look across the day. Teachers had introductory professional development that included exemplar videos that helped them clarify that they wanted to:

  • Have more extended conversations to learn about children’s interests and prior knowledge (Wow, Anthony!  You already know so much about trains and what makes them move.)
  • Ask more thought-provoking questions (Why don’t these two train car magnets stick together?),
  • Embed and explicitly teach vocabulary into their conversations (Did you know that these magnets make the train cars attract—or stick together?),
  • Provide quality feedback to extend children’s ideas/actions (What would happen if we turned that train car around?),
  • Facilitate children’s experiences to plan, create, and evaluate (How would you design a way to connect train cars?  Try building it! How did it work?)

#3 Third: they engaged in ongoing, quality Professional Development including analysis and feedback loops that promoted improvement.

It’s important to note that some (even most) teachers were doing elements of this already, perhaps in limited ways. Maybe more questions were closed-ended. Or the questions didn’t prompt rich, extended conversations. Or the 4-year-old brain wasn’t being stretched in new ways. It was time to dig in deeper into the look-fors for instructionally supportive conversations (through video exemplars, e.g. found on the VPI+ video clip directory). And then it was critical to have teachers analyze their own practices through reviewing their CLASS data and watching themselves on video, supported through individualized coaching. Another key element was a learning community of VPI+ teachers dissecting their practice around a potluck meal once a month. This built connections and helped leveraged each others’ existing and growing strengths.

What was the Payoff?

Classrooms observed in 2015 were observed for a second time in the fall of 2017.  The data showed impressive improvements in Instructional Support (exceeding the 3.25 threshold set for VPI+!). The teachers reported pride in the improvements in their classroom observation data, but were quick to list the other (most important) outcome — effects on children that were possible because of their improved interactions. For example:

  • Relationships were solidified as the teachers felt they knew more about the children from the extended conversations they were now practicing and embedding during learning center time.
  • Children were talking more, were more actively engaged, and thinking more deeply.
  • Teachers observed children displaying fewer behavior problems!

This work wasn’t quick.  This work wasn’t always easy.  But this work produced powerful change in the Instructional Support domain scores of class.

What does success look like?

Want to see a beautiful example of what instructionally supportive conversations embedded in rigorous play-based centers look in practice in a Norfolk classroom now?  Buckle your seatbelts. Prepare to have your mind blown by innovation, simplicity, and quality.

Shantee received professional development through coaching and even benefited from a supportive learning community of other VPI+ teachers wanting to make the same improvements to their classroom quality.  She altered her daily schedule to permit significant time for students to have “worktime” in centers, and intentionally planned for instructionally supportive conversation with her students during that time. Take a look!

[Video: 2:55]


Instead of having traditional “calendar time” as a whole-group activity on the rug, stretching 20 minutes with only one child contributing at a time while the others sit-and-wait, look at how this teacher turned “calendar time” into an engaging, personalized center where every participant could be engaged simultaneously!

Feeling inspired?

Stay tuned for Part II- “What Can I Do to improve Instructional Support” in next month’s blog!


Supporting Early Writing in Centers: The Why and The How

If you are an elementary school administrator, you likely have the goal for your students to be reading at grade 3. And, if you have a PreK classroom in your school (or feeding into your school) you want these children getting ample exposure to reading—including book reading at home and school!

But, how intently are you focused on your PreK students doing early writing at age 4?

girl writing
Source: iStock/Liderina

Research tells us that it’s critical for children not to just get exposure to reading in PreK, but to start to learn writing as well.

“It’s really essential to teach early writing in preschool because it’s one of the top predictors of children’s later reading ability,” says literacy expert Dr. Sonia Cabell. (You may remember her from our October 2017 blog: Literacy: Fact or Fiction!)

How can this be?

Writing integrates children’s knowledge of both print and sound. Having children engaged in early writing facilitates literacy learning in print knowledge and phonological awareness. The more opportunities children have to write, the more they learn about print and sound and how to use those together to form words! This, in turn, also helps children read.

How children’s writing develops: The early writing framework

Just as children progress through stages of learning with math and reading, early writing follows a trajectory. When teachers can accurately assess where children are (overall, and child-specifically), they can meet children where they are and take them to the next level.

The Supporting Early Writing During Centers suite (full of free resources you’ll access at the end of this post!) delves into this trajectory, but essentially, there are 4 stages of writing in what is called the “Early Writing Framework.”

Early Writing Framework
Source: UVA-CASTL 2018

At stage 1, children are drawing and scribbling

At stage 2, children can write letters and letter-like forms. Letters don’t yet represent the sounds, but letters can be used to write words and even sentences.

Stage 3, salient and beginning sounds, is a critical milestone because children are putting together their knowledge of print and sound (representing sounds in words that are prominent).

At stage 4, beginning and ending sounds, children use multiple related letters to represent a word (but often miss the middle vowel sound) and their writing starts to look more conventional (as K/1 writing might).

Teachers of young children often see children at stages 1 and 2. The Supporting Early Writing During Centers suite goes into more detail about helping them move to the next level.

4 practices to support children’s writing in centers

A benefit of learning through play in centers (and games, like the math games shared last month) is that they draw on children’s natural interest in play.

A critical ingredient in rigorous center-based learning is the teacher.

It takes a teacher assessing where children’s writing skills lie and using the appropriate, content-specific instructional skills to make the learning fun, meaningful, and challenging.

Let’s watch a teacher promoting children’s writing during centers [0:47] (one of the video clips embedded in the suite presentation.)

As you watch, notice:

  • What practices do you see the teacher doing?
  • Why are children writing?
  • What might be the benefits of instructing through play in this manner?


Four practices to look for when you observe teachers supporting early writing:

#1) Teachers writing what children say

When teachers talk with children about their work, teachers can ask children permission to write about their work, either on or near it. Then teachers should say the words out loud as they write them. Teachers can encourage children to point to the words and read them aloud after or with, if ready.

#2) Teachers modeling writing

As teachers write, they say things like, “I am writing,” or “I am writing a word” and say each letter as they write it. This helps children begin to recognize that print carries meaning and that you can represent the words you say and hear with written symbols.

#3) Teachers encouraging writing for varied purposes like: making lists, signing in, writing stories or letters, and taking an order.

#4) Teachers pointing out print & sounds in children’s writing

This strategy works best for those children who are at the end of stage 2 as they’re transitioning into stage 3.

What Can I Do? Supporting Teachers to Use these Strategies

The professional development resources sampled above and shared below can help you support teachers to build children’s early writing and literacy skills. Go to our Supporting Early Writing During Centers suite to view and download our complete set of free teacher training and support resources (developed by UVA-CASTL and VDOE using early childhood research), including:

  • PowerPoint presentation with embedded videos (including those shared above)
  • Action planning form for teachers to use during planning (with coach/supervisor support)
  • Fidelity checklist of key practices for use during planning and follow-up observations by administrators/coaches
  • Handout on early writing, that includes information on the 4 stages of writing and 4 key practices
  • Other key resource from literacy experts: How Do I Write? Scaffolding Preschoolers’ Early Writing Skills, by (Cabell, Tortorelli, & Gerde, 2013)

In the coming months, we will share more resources (including one more PD suite) to continue our theme of teaching rigorous content to young children (including PreK-3rd graders) in a playful, developmentally appropriate way.

PreK Math: Rigorous Instruction through Games

You may have heard that the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program (VKRP) is going statewide in all public Kindergarten classes by 2020. One likely outcome is that people will be paying more attention to children’s math skills at K entry – and before.

We think that’s a good thing!

Setting a solid foundation of math skills in early childhood education is important, not just for Kindergarten readiness, but for 3rd grade achievement, as measured by Virginia SOL’s. Research shows that a foundation in math by K entry is a strong predictor of later success in math and academic success in general.

So let’s talk a bit about PreK math.

First, what should 4-year-olds be learning?

Just like children in grades K-5, PreK kids are developing skills across five key math areas: Numeracy, Operations, Classification and Patterning, Measurement, and Geometry

This video [2:44] shares some of the important math skills that preschoolers are learning in the first two areas: numeracy and operations.

What does good math instruction in PreK look like?

Just like our literacy experts shared in the October 2017 blog: Literacy: Fact or Fiction, math instruction for young children isn’t a matter of “rigorous OR developmentally appropriate” – it can – and should be – BOTH.

What does this look like? What should administrators be observing in PreK classrooms?

LOOK FOR: Playful, explicit and meaningful activities embedded across the day*

LOOK OUT FOR (approaches that are NOT recommended): Rote, de-contextualized activities (worksheets, flashcards) in only teacher-led group activities.

*It begs noting that math instruction should occur throughout the day – including transitions and routines – through guided play in centers AND in activities.

For this blog – and the accompanying Professional Development Suite – the type of activity we’ll focus in on is teaching math through games.

Promoting children’s math learning through games

A major benefit of math games (and any other instructional game) is that they draw on children’s natural interest in play. When kids are having fun playing, they are likely to be actively engaged, a necessary ingredient for learning (as we highlighted in the July 2017 blog on fostering active engagement).

Now, simply giving children a math-related game to play is probably not enough to take active engagement to the next level into math learning (where children practice the skills and come to deeper understanding of math concepts).

It takes a teacher targeting content intentionally and using the content-specific instructional skills in addition to keeping learning fun.

Kids playing a math game

Three things to look for when teachers implement math games:

#1 Teachers being intentional and explicit about the 1 or 2 math skill(s) being taught.

Intentional teachers can tell someone what specific skill(s) they plan to focus on and then reflect afterward on how they met learning objectives related to the skill(s).

How do we know the skill is explicit?  The focus should be clear to the teacher, an observer, and even (to some extent) the kids!

An observer and the teacher should be able to identify the focus (within numeracy, operations, classification and patterning, measurement or geometry) based on the steps and words used. Teachers can make learning goals explicit to children before and after games. For instance, a teacher can forecast the skill when introducing the game by saying, “We’re going to stack cups and count one by one to see who has more.” Then, after the game, they can review with children what math skills they demonstrated, for instance, “You worked hard counting. You pointed to each object as you said a number word for it.”

#2 Teachers setting the stage by selecting groups thoughtfully and gathering needed materials.

Formative math assessment can help teachers design groups of children with mixed or similar levels for a particular skill. When children are called to the group activity, the teacher is ready with all the materials and instructions to minimize wait time and maximize engagement.

#3 Teachers using foundational math practices during their instruction, including:

  • Using math language related to the skill, such as, “How many all together?,” “red-blue-red-blue, that’s a pattern!,” numbers being “greater/less than,” objects being “bigger/smaller,” objects being located “over/under”
  • Asking open-ended questions to have children explain their thinking
  • Modeling math skills, like touching objects while counting aloud, and speaking aloud their own thoughts.

Let’s watch a teacher playing a math game in her classroom from our Teaching Math Through Games Professional Development Suite [3:52]

As you watch, look for examples of her setting the stage, using math language, and asking questions that encourage children to explain their thinking.

What Can I Do? Supporting Teachers to Use these Strategies

The professional development resources sampled above and shared below can help you support teachers to build children’s math skills through games. Go to our Teaching Math Through Games Professional Development Suite to view and download our complete set of resources for training and supporting teachers, including:

  • PowerPoint presentation with embedded videos (including those shared above)
  • Action planning form for teachers to use during planning (with coach/supervisor support)
  • Fidelity checklist of key practices for use during planning and follow-up observations by coaches/supervisors
  • Handout on math games, which includes lesson plans for 3 math games
  • Other key resources from VKRP

Over the next two months, we’ll share more PD suites that continue our theme of teaching rigorous content to young children in a playful, developmentally appropriate way.

Virginia Believes in High-Quality PreK: Be a Part of Virginia’s Developing Story

In the first blog post (back in May 2017), we shared this image – communicating the importance of PreK during a critical developmental period in kids’ lives.

Data source: Harvard Center for the Developing Child

We then talked about how quality PreK matters: not only for getting kids Kindergarten-ready, but also setting them on a positive trajectory into adulthood.

Over more than the past year, we’ve been sharing what quality in PreK looks like, look through the lenses of:

Heading into the 2018-2019 school year, Virginia is at an exciting moment in early childhood education. We have a new Governor and First Lady who are big supporters, and they have brought in new leadership to bring more attention to the ECE world. The general assembly just earmarked funds for broadening assessment in interactions, use of evidence-based curricula, and Professional Development in VPI (public preschool) classrooms, as well as kindergarten readiness assessment around the state. We’re entering the 4th and final year of the VPI+ program, which sought to improve access to high-quality PreK slots while also raising quality through improvements to state funded classrooms. Through the process, we have learned a great deal about what quality practices look like and how to build these practices. The goal now is to sustain the great work of VPI+ and help others around the state looking to make similar impacts for young children.

There are important stories to tell about the importance of PreK and the difference it can make in the lives of PreK students, PreK graduates as they embark on elementary school, for instructional staff and leadership, and for entire schools and communities. See for yourself.

Angel: A PreK Success Story

Listen to the story of one child in a VPI+ classroom in Chesterfield County.

Meet Angel, a 4-year-old boy who’s grown in his confidence, his literacy and social-emotional skills, and his love of learning. Hear his engaged and loving mother, Olinda, and his skillful PreK teacher, Crystal, talk about their partnership in supporting Angel’s development. Meet a kindergarten teacher, Sarah, and the school’s principal, Brian, explain how high-quality PreK classrooms matter so much for children like Angel.

What resonates with you about why PreK matters?

Are you a vocal champion for PreK, like Brian?

What features of PreK quality do you notice in Crystal’s classroom (that you may already see or want to see in your own program)?

Showcasing Quality PreK in VA

Do you want to see more quality PreK, I.R.L. (in real life)?

VPI+ is creating a pilot program to facilitate the sharing of high-quality PreK practices in person—by visiting sites for an immersive professional development experience!

This pilot program, known as Showcase PreK in VA, is a unique opportunity for selected VPI+ programs to share promising practices and to foster collaborative learning networks across the Commonwealth.

This is not about “perfection,” it’s about reflection – and creating the opportunity for educators and leaders to engage meaningfully around a promising practice in the same time and space – a logistical challenge that is a real rarity – especially in early childhood. It’s about acknowledging that often, in getting educators together, “the answer is in the room.

Visitors to a Showcase day can expect:

  • A day of interactive professional development experiences (including guided tours and hands-on activities) so they can know, see, do, and reflect on promising practices
  • To hear from program leaders and early childhood teachers about steps they’ve taken to implement and refine practices and conditions that help at risk students thrive
  • Time to plan for implementing relevant elements in their own home programs
  • Access to curated artifacts and resources that clarify practices and provide support for implementation

What Can I Do?

Are you ready to see more, expand your knowledge base, and access more quality PreK resources?

  1. Sign up for Showcase PreK in VA & share with staff and partners!

Consider attending with your team to see promising practices in action. Intended audiences include not only administrators (elementary principals, program leaders, center and elementary, directors, superintendents) but teachers as well. And share with your community partners in private settings. (Good practice is good practice, regardless of the setting!) To learn more and sign up, keep on the lookout for the upcoming Superintendent’s memo. We hope to see you there!

  1. Keep reading (and sharing) our blog posts this fall, which will include rolling out the next, new Professional Development Modules – with embedded video clips of real VPI+ teachers implementing:
  • Math games
  • Early writing activities
  • Self-regulation games

We hope these will help you and teachers have a shared vision about specific teaching practices, what they look like in PreK, and implementation supports to help your teaching teams do the practices more/better.

  1. Join the conversation on Twitter

By using the hashtag #PreKinVA, we can begin to connect and create networks for sharing and learning collectively. We have the opportunity to share our individual professional stories and innovations that move us towards higher-quality PreK practices.

Here’s to a great year: reaching more children like Angel and his family on the quest for school readiness and life skills – and more collaboration across Early Childhood in VA to make that goal a reality!

Tier 3 – When Nothing Else Works

We’ve talked about preventing/reducing challenging behaviors by implementing classroom-wide environment and relationship strategies (Tier 1) and teaching children social-emotional skills (Tier 2).

But what about children who continue to display persistent, even severe, challenging behaviors?

Tier 3 is an individualized positive behavior support process that helps us address the behaviors in a proactive, targeted, and systematic way.

Why talk about this in June? Think about a child who comes in next year showing out-of-control behaviors…


Now’s the perfect time to reflect on what parts of the process you might need to put in place or improve upon to be prepared for the fall.

What is Tier 3? (Plus 5 Tips to Do it Well)

Tier 3 is a process that leads to planning and implementing an individualized plan (sometimes called a Behavior Intervention Plan, or Behavior Support Plan). Tier 3 involves:

  • Teaming
  • Goal-setting around a behavior
  • Determining the function of a behavior
  • Making an individualized plan, and
  • Collecting data on the fidelity of the plan and the child’s behaviors

Let’s break down the parts with some key tips/reminders.

#1 Teaming and Goal-setting: More heads are better than 1!

It takes a team to problem-solve the tough behaviors—and answer the tough questions such as, “What’s going on here? What else can we do to help this child be more successful—and what will success look like?” When we are the teachers ‘in the trenches’ it’s tough to see all of what’s happening or what a better outcome might look like. Have you ever heard the saying, “you can’t read the label from inside the jar?”


The more people who are objectively observing the child-in-context (looking from the ‘outside the jar’) the more insights and creative solutions will emerge.

#2 Determining the Function: Be a Behavior Detective

All behavior serves a function: to GET something or AVOID something. That ‘thing’ serving as the trigger for the challenging behavior could be: an activity, interaction with teachers/peers, material, or sensory stimuli.

If a challenging behavior is persisting, it’s working for the child in some way. Be a behavior detective and find out why. Observe closely what happening BEFORE and AFTER the behavior. Over time, patterns emerge. Functional Behavior Assessment (or FBA) [see resources below] allows the team to make a hypothesis about why a behavior is happening in order to make a more targeted plan.


#3 Planning: Don’t forget to PREVENT!

How to prevent a particular challenging behavior isn’t immediately apparent, but prevention pays dividends—so it’s always worth the investment to explore what you might change before the challenging behavior happens. Sometimes preventing misbehavior is a matter of changing triggers in the environment and/or making the environment more positive and predictable. For instance, if you see a pattern that a child always struggles in the transition from clean-up—because he doesn’t want to stop a preferred center activity like building blocks— the plan might include: (1) allowing child to save special center material to finish later; and (2) individualized transition reminders, like using a visual timer.


#4 Planning:  What are the Replacement Behaviors to TEACH and REINFORCE?

What do you want the child to be able to do, instead of the exhibiting challenging behaviors?


Those are replacement behaviors. (For instance, instead of hitting or biting, you may want to teach a child to communicate his wants/needs, ask a peer to play, or go to a calm down space.)

As shared in this Tips for Responding to Challenging Behaviors in Young Children handout (by Strain, Joseph, Hemmeter, Barton, and Fox):

“Put 95% of your time and attention into the teaching of replacement behaviors and do this when the child is not engaging in the challenging behavior.”

Remember, the challenging behavior works 100% of the time – so if you want a replacement behavior to stick, reinforce that new behavior a lot!

#5 Collecting data: Give the plan TIME, with FIDELITY

We want to make sure we’ve given the intervention as intended and for long enough time for the benefits to show. If a child has strep throat, but we forget to give antibiotics as prescribed, do we blame the medicine—or the child—when he/she doesn’t get better? Of course not. Yet, it’s easy to quickly dismiss a behavior plan as ineffective—even if we’re in the initial stages of trying it out!

Planning paves the way for fidelity. No one is perfect—we all forget to do things, especially when we’re busy (and stressed)! Remembering to do the plan is much easier when all team members have (1) a copy of the plan with clear steps and (2) have a simple form or tool to track when they’ve done them.

Don’t forget to track the child’s behaviors, negative AND positive. Unlike symptoms like a painful sore throat that eventually goes away—improving behaviors are sometimes harder to notice. Tracking the child’s challenging behavior and replacement behavior allows us to see positive trends over the course of weeks. Expect “good” days and “bad” along the path to improvement! Even the most serious of behaviors can improve—see an example below!

Screen shot from PTR:YC webinar 12-14-2018:

A Tier 3 Success Story

A coach in a VPI+ division shared this story:

“One of my teachers had a really rough year with one student in particular. This boy was expelled or suspended from several childcare centers prior to enrolling in our program. His behaviors included violent attacks on teachers and students, hitting, spitting, escaping the classroom, threatening adults, and even threatening to take his own life. Along with a behavior specialist, and team we collected data and completed a Functional Behavior Analysis using tools from the book Prevent Teach Reinforce for Young Children (PTR:YC). We focused on replacing the undesired behaviors and providing Social Emotional supports—including trauma-informed care strategies. We have monitored and used many interventions throughout the year, including teaching him emotion skills. Since then, he has decreased some more aggressive behaviors and no longer elopes. His behavior was so extreme, he has a ways to go but we have seen tremendous progress and he’s successfully stayed in the classroom. What’s helped? Relationships! We’re working as a family. Our school team has a great partnership with the community center and this child has great parents! The Prevent Teach Reinforce for Young Children guide was a great resource, too, for following the steps of the Tier 3 process.” [see below]

What Can I Do?

The resources below can help your team support teachers and children to be successful.