Although kindergarten is widely recognized as the beginning of a child’s formal academic journey, preparation for that journey is crucial. Research shows that solid early childhood experiences provide substantial benefits for children’s success.
High-quality, early mathematical instruction is particularly important. Children’s early mathematical knowledge also predicts reading achievement even beyond kindergarten.
However, persistent teacher turnover in early childhood settings can negatively impact children’s learning opportunities. When teachers with strong math expertise leave a school or learning center, their content knowledge and instructional practices go with them.
To help overcome such challenges, Husker researchers Kelley Buchheister, Holly Hatton-Bowers and Rachel Schachter — assistant professors of child, youth and family studies, and research affiliates of the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools — have designed an innovative professional learning model to enhance teachers’ mathematical knowledge and practice.
Because directors and coaches are more likely to remain in their positions, Buchheister said, preparing them as leaders is essential to retaining their knowledge and skills in a school or program.
The “Coach Approach” project focuses on building early childhood leaders’ capacity to support teachers’ practices and build effective strategies to promote children’s mathematical learning. The professional learning experience for on-site coaches includes workshops, regular planning meetings and follow-up sessions, and a content video series design to expand their mathematical content knowledge.
“Teachers in preschool and early childhood settings need to understand and think about mathematics, and about how they approach mathematics — not just in instructional activities, but also informal activities and settings, during play and time outside class,” said Buchheister, the project’s principal investigator.
Program participants include leaders and teachers from Omaha’s Indian Hill Elementary Educare program, a research-based organization that provides education and support to financially disadvantaged families and their children.
The coaching strategies are rooted in a growth mindset model, then aligned to the teachers’ and children’s needs in specific classrooms. When learners believe they can become better at something — such as math — they understand their actions can lead to higher achievement.
“In general, it’s a good practice to make sure people know they can always learn more,” said Hatton-Bowers, project consultant.
As coaches participate in the professional learning experience, data are gathered from coaching sessions, classroom instruction and surveys. The data help identify opportunities to expand teachers’ knowledge and instructional practices.
“One of the great things about partnering with Educare is that they already collect a lot of child data,” said Schachter, co-principal investigator. “So this is an opportunity to capitalize on data they already have, as well as gather new data.”
Coaching workshops began in December 2018. Once professional development was completed, Buchheister, Hatton-Bowers and Schachter transitioned into a support role. They check in with coaches bi-weekly, in person or via video conferencing, to discuss the coaches’ progress with classroom teachers and continue offering guidance and support.
“We want to better understand the leaders’ role and get any suggestions they might have on how to best approach teachers,” Buchheister said. “Together, we have a broad goal, but there are many milestones to acknowledge along the way.”
The research team believes the “Coach Approach” can develop early childhood teachers’ practices in other content areas.
“This is a very specific coaching context, so we want to be sure this model can be used in other contexts, such as literacy,” Schachter said.
This pilot project was funded by a Layman Award through the Office of Research and Economic Development.