Q&A: How Do You Educate Top Early Childhood Educators? By Constantly Learning.

Illustration of a line chart with orange blocks with a dinosaur on top and a marble and orange crayon

Illustration by Tobias Wilbur, University Communications

February 25, 2022

Early childhood development is a demanding field – especially during the pandemic, as parents seek well-trained, compassionate educators and caregivers who can set their young children up for success.

To better train those who work with young children, the University of Virginia’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies works with education researchers to make sure the school’s concentration in early childhood evolves with the latest research in the field, giving students tested and proven tools for success.

UVA Today asked Jennifer LoCasale-Crouch, a research associate professor in UVA’s School of Education and Human Development and the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning, to give a glimpse behind the scenes of the program’s development. The center, referred to as CASTL, was founded by School of Education Dean Robert Pianta as a research center focused on effective teaching and learning.

Thanks to a grant from the Stranahan Foundation, CASTL partnered with the School of Continuing and Professional Studies to develop six courses as part of the early childhood concentration in the school’s Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies degree program, designed for adults seeking a flexible way to complete their undergraduate degree while balancing the demands of work and life.

LoCasale-Crouch and her colleagues are constantly seeking out the latest early childhood development research, while also employing evidence-based strategies for online learning – ensuring the UVA students are getting as much out of the courses as possible and making their own contributions to the field.

Jennifer LoCasale-Crouch headshot

Jennifer LoCasale-Crouch is a research associate professor in UVA’s School of Education and Human Development. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications).

“We use the things we are learning in the field to inform our courses, and we also take things from our courses into the field,” LoCasale-Crouch said.

She answered seven questions about the BIS early childhood program and the importance of research in supporting current and future early childhood educators.

Q. Can you identify some of the gaps that this project is working to fill?

A. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a shortage in high-quality early childhood care, and we were really limited by our ability to strengthen the workforce and also bring new people into the workforce in ways that worked with their schedules.

That was one of the main goals of this particular grant, and why it is a perfect pairing with SCPS. We can bring high-quality, research-based practices to aspiring early childhood educators in engaging ways while working around their schedules through asynchronous online classes. That means we can meet them where they are and provide high-quality instruction to them on their terms. It increases both the reach of our research and our students’ completion rates – meaning that we can enhance the practice of those in the field while also bringing additional qualified educators into a field that desperately needs them.

Q. Can you give a few examples of how the courses integrate the latest research on early childhood development and education?

A. One of the key threads that runs through the six early childhood courses is bringing in the latest of what we know about child development in accessible ways, using a range of different types of resources that can help students see the ideas in action for themselves. We teach the guiding theory, but we also make sure it is grounded in the everyday interactions and experiences that young children have.

Here is an example from our most attended course, “Poverty & the Young Child: Understanding and Changing Impacts in the U.S.” It uses the best available research to show how poverty affects young children and, equally important, has a service component that allows our students to serve their communities in ways that align with COVID guidelines and with their interests. The course brings together service with current policy decisions and research, giving students a really holistic picture grounded in their experience of what is happening for young children right now.

Q. You also use research to inform how you deliver course material, not just its content. Can you explain how research has influenced the methods you use?

A. We built and continue to enhance these courses with research-based principles around the best formats for online learning, using the latest strategies shown to be effective. We are always learning and aiming to innovate – changing things up and switching things out as we learn more. We also use reviews and metrics from the field to make sure that our courses are meeting the highest standards set for best practices.

A major principle that has guided us is using multiple types of ways to deliver content and engage the students. Lectures are short, and then we build on them with different resources – classroom videos, testimonials, etc. All assignments and activities promote application and reflection, asking students to use what they are learning and assess how it works.

Every course also has some kind of applied component. Our early language course, for example, teaches students key language facilitation strategies, then asks them to implement the strategies with young children and then to assess their practice and response. This really helps ground the learning of the content they are covering in the class.

That philosophy is captured by our guiding design principle – “Know, See, Do/Enact, Reflect.” The basic idea is that you do need to know the key content, but, for that knowledge to take hold, you need multiple ways to see it in action, know what it looks like, try it out and assess how it is going. We build this learning process into our courses.

Q. How do you go about gathering the research used to develop the courses?

A. Our team of content and design experts has been working in this space for about 20 years, so we have learned a lot about what does and does not work and how we can push the boundaries of an online platform.

We gather research a little differently for each course, depending on the focus. Obviously, we pull from math and language experts for those courses. We also use a lot of freely available research content from established leaders in the child development field, like Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, where they do a great job of integrating neuroscience and academic research from the national academies into user-friendly formats.

There is so much great work out there already, but it is sometimes located in different places and hard for new learners to put together to build their knowledge. Part of what we do is try to go through that, cultivate it and tie each piece together for our students, scaffolding them so that they are able to make the same connections we are making between different areas of research and what you can concretely do to enhance children’s development. We then make sure they have opportunities to reflect on the new connections they are making.

Q. What are some ways that new research has helped us “course correct” or adapt in the way we train early childhood educators? Are there any misconceptions that have been corrected?

A. We have gained more clarity about the role moment-to-moment interactions play in childhood development, and the kinds of things teachers need to do to make those interactions the highest quality that they can be. Well-designed and developmentally appropriate curriculum plays a key role in helping teachers know what to do, but they also need support in how to facilitate interactions –with students themselves and between students – to maximize healthy development.

Early childhood education is a very challenging job, and yet only recently have we begun to understand and invest in the kinds of support these educators need. In Virginia, for example, we now have an Office of School Readiness, bringing preschool education under the Department of Education. The shift means the commonwealth recognizes how children do later is linked to how they do when they are young. Through our research-practice-partnership with the Virginia Department of Education, we are better understanding how to support the field in ways that ensure all of our children have a future filled with hope and possibilities.

Q. What kind of student feedback have you received and how has that shaped the courses?

A. CASTL has spent many years working with teachers already serving in the field, but this was our first major turn in pre-service education, for those who had not gotten their degree yet. We piloted with students in-person first and got such an overwhelming positive response about our approach. They felt like what we were teaching them was interesting, and they loved all of the opportunities to try out what they were learning.

We were able to maintain that as we integrated their feedback into the online courses, making the courses responsive and supportive of them doing the most practice in the field that they could, while also giving them opportunities to reflect.

Q. What’s next?

A. We will continue to build our courses with SCPS, and we are also piloting “micro-credentials” or “micro-courses” that break the content down into even smaller portions so that teachers currently working in the field can find new ways to integrate continued education into their schedules.