New Grant Aims to Help Develop Children’s Executive Functions, Math, and Science Skills

The University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education received a grant from the Heising-Simons Foundation to develop and test an intervention that includes an online course and practice-based coaching, designed to enhance early childhood educators’ interactions and instruction that supports children’s executive function (EF), math, and science skills. The ultimate goal is to improve children’s skills in these areas – skills that are critical for children’s later success in school and life. In fact, current research suggests that children who develop EF, math, and science skills in preschool, are much more likely to be kindergarten ready and to succeed in school down the road.

Educators and policymakers are increasingly recognizing the importance of promoting early math and science skills in young children. But, despite increased attention on these areas of learning, children continue to enter kindergarten without foundational math and science skills.

Researchers from the Center of Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) at the University of Virginia, have a plan to change that. With a $750,000, 2-year grant from the Heising-Simons Foundation, the researchers plan to train early childhood educators to understand what EF, math, and science skill development looks like in preschoolers, and to engage in effective in instructional practices that impact that development. In other words, if you train and coach teachers to become better at implementing effective strategies that support children’s EF, math, and science knowledge and skills, success in school will follow.

This intervention, called Supporting Teachers to Enhance their Practice in Executive Function, Math, and Science (STEP-EMS), is one of the first of its kind because it’s designed to better understand whether improving children’s executive functions, like working memory, inhibitory control and mental flexibility, will ultimately support their math and science readiness. 

Participating teachers will not only receive guidance through online learning modules. They will also be paired with a coach who will help support the development of teachers’ knowledge, observational skills, and ability to make in-the-moment connections between children’s skills and teachers’ interactions and instruction. A video-library with high-quality examples of EF, math, and science interactions and instruction will provide opportunities for teachers to see examples of these specific strategies.

Jessica Whitaker, Research Assistant Professor at CASTL and project lead is excited about what the research could do. “This study will give us a better understanding of how EF, math, and science are related. There’s also a real opportunity here to advance improved STEM education for young children through the training and development of early care and education professionals on how best to support these areas through high-quality classroom practices.’’

Through a combination of online learning and practice-based coaching, the project hopes to better understand what professional development methods can enhance teacher instruction, and ultimately, improve children’s skills in EF, math, and science.

Bridget Hamre and Amanda Williford, both senior scientists at CASTL, are also involved in the new project, that officially kicks off next month. The professional development intervention will be piloted in 24 classrooms across Virginia within the next two years.