UVA Researchers Pilot New Early Childhood Education Curriculum in Virginia

The University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development will pilot a new curriculum in 100 early childhood classrooms, half private and faith-based and half state or federally funded, over the next two years.

Rachel Chapdelaine

The first five years of a child’s life is the most critical period for development. But despite the significant opportunity for impact, public investment in early childhood education remains low. A new research-based curriculum from UVA’s Curry School of Education and Human Development, piloting in select schools over the next two years, aims to address that disparity.

In 2017, a study from the Curry School’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning, or CASTL, showed that 40 percent of children entering kindergarten in Virginia were unprepared in at least one critical skill. Unaddressed, children who are unprepared for kindergarten rarely catch up to their peers—and as time goes on, the achievement gap widens.

Most early childhood education programs do not use formal curricula in classrooms, and those that do often fail to create and implement them effectively, said Amanda Williford, an associate professor of education whose research focuses on early childhood. With little guidance or training to create quality interactions with children, teachers are often left unprepared to support children’s development and learning.

As more developmental research explores the importance of early childhood education, one fact has become clear: To improve kindergarten readiness and academic outcomes, early childhood classrooms must provide daily experiences that support the development of critical skills.

A New, Innovative Curriculum for Early Childhood

The Virginia General Assembly recently invested $6 million in early childhood education in Virginia. As part of this funding, the Virginia Department of Social Services awarded CASTL $850,000 to pilot a new curriculum in 50 private and faith-based early childhood classrooms in Virginia over the next two years. Not long after the state invested in these early childhood initiatives, Obici Healthcare Foundation contributed $1 million in private funding that will expand the pilot by 50 state or federally funded early childhood classrooms in Western Tidewater. The Obici funding will help researchers examine the impact of high quality early childhood educational experiences in different preschool settings and across Tidewater classrooms.

Developed by CASTL through funding from Elevate Early Education, a bipartisan, statewide, issue-advocacy organization, the STREAM: Integrated, Intentional, Interactions (STREAMin3) Curriculum Model was designed using the latest developmental and early education research to serve children birth through preschool. It is currently in use at The New E3 School, a demonstration school in Norfolk, Virginia.

“The curriculum is designed to help children connect and communicate with others, regulate their thoughts and actions, move their bodies to achieve their goals, and explore and think deeply about the world around them,” said Williford, who is lead author of the curriculum and principal investigator of the pilot.

The STREAMin3 curriculum helps teachers intentionally focus on five core skills (relate, regulate, think, communicate and move) and six STREAM skills (science, technology, reading, engineering, arts and math) that are critical for children’s success in kindergarten and beyond.

“We have naturally woven support of these skills into all activities and pieces of the curriculum,” said Kate Matthew, lead content developer and project manager of the curriculum. "Through coaching and practice, teachers deepen their understanding of how these skills develop, how to spot them through observation and how to select the best teaching practices to support them.”

A Comprehensive, Supportive Program

STREAMin3 provides a novel approach to early childhood education in three significant areas: a single comprehensive curriculum, integration across all of early childhood and strong teacher supports.

Early childhood teachers often have to piece together separate curricula for math, literacy, science, social skills, etc. Instead, STREAMin3 integrates these learning domains into one comprehensive curriculum that teachers can use without any supplemental curricula. And because it spans infancy through preschool, an entire program—all children, teachers, parents and leaders—can focus on the same skill, like empathy, simultaneously. “This fosters communication and collaboration across the program,” Williford said.

But STREAMin3 is more than just a curriculum—it is a complete package to support teachers. “The model recasts support for teachers by providing ongoing, individualized coaching and professional development that is aligned to what is happening in the classroom,” Matthew said. “This includes workshops and a coaching model so teachers receive the training needed to implement the curriculum effectively.”

In addition to child learning objectives, a critical element of the curriculum model is the intentional interactions between teachers and students. More than 100 studies link teacher-child interactions to children’s learning and development, but few early childhood programs make it a primary focus of their lessons.

“We know the interactions teachers have with children matter more than the activity itself, which is why all STREAMin3 curriculum resources focus on effective ways to interact with children,” Matthew said. “When teachers watch video of their classrooms during coaching sessions, they are able to better observe and reflect on the quality of their interactions and make plans for improvement.”

With practice, teachers begin to intuitively recognize opportunities to use intentional teaching practices, such as encouraging observations, promoting predictions and prompting children to compare and categorize, inside and outside of the classroom.

“Through the curriculum and coaching, we make it explicit to the teacher why they are doing what they are doing in the moment,” Matthew said. “With time, intentional teaching practices become second nature, a shared language with children and something they can do all day.”

The curriculum was designed as a resource that any teacher can pick up and use, but its focus on intentionality enables teachers to make effective modifications to the outlined activities, routines, games and other components.

“One of our goals was to strike a balance between providing a strong structure and promoting teacher autonomy,” Matthew said. “Because teachers are creative and know the needs of their children, we focus on helping them see the purpose of each activity so they are able to make more informed decisions when modifying for their classroom.”

STREAMin3 in the Classroom

Leah Chilson, a teacher at The New E3 School, said she’s had a positive experience using  STREAMin3 with her students. “It’s made me much more conscious of how I speak with, play with and instruct my students, and that has made me more confident in the classroom,” she said.

Other early childhood centers in Virginia are eager to use the curriculum in their classrooms. More than 225 classrooms in Charlottesville, Norfolk, Hampton Roads, Western Tidewater and Alleghany Highlands have expressed interest in the 100-classroom pilot.

Classrooms participating in the pilot will receive a complete curriculum package and relevant materials—plus on-site coaching and professional development sessions to help teachers better understand child development and improve the quality of their interactions and implementation of the curriculum. CASTL will introduce STREAMin3 in stages to ensure teachers and administrators receive the support they need, and all centers will fully implement by fall 2019.

“We are excited to partner with these schools and learn more about supporting teachers in their use of the STREAMin3 curriculum model,” Matthew said.

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Rachel Chapdelaine

Research Center or Department

  • Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning