Each morning in early childhood classrooms across the country, young children gather on a brightly colored rug. There, the teacher likely welcomes each student and begins the day with a story, asking the children to make predictions of what the main character in the book will do next.
But this is not the experience for all children. Some children may come in hungry or tired and not be able to fully participate as a result. Others may not have access to early childhood classrooms at all, while others may only have access to programs that lack in quality or resources.
When confronted with the powerful forces of childhood poverty, it may be difficult to see how something like story time can have a far-reaching positive impact for children. However, according to Research Associate Professor Jennifer LoCasale-Crouch, connections happening between the teacher and their students during those moments can have as immediate of an impact on child development as poverty can.
“Of the many elements that impact child development, resources and relationships are the two most immediate,” said LoCasale-Crouch, who conducts research at the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development.
A new course was created to explore the ways poverty impacts child development. LoCasale-Crouch designed the online course, “Poverty and the Young Child,” with Sarah Lydic, instructional designer, and School of Education and Human Development doctoral candidate Mayaris Cubides, which is being offered for only the fourth time this semester. Undergraduate students and current early childhood educators earning their bachelor’s degree through the UVA School of Continuing and Professional Studies take the course alongside each other.
“Poverty can seem like an enormously complex issue that can often make individuals who want to make a difference in the world feel overwhelmed,” LoCasale-Crouch said. “Our course is designed to break down the impacts of policy, resources and relationships on children. In doing so, our students often discover there is more in their immediate control to enact positive change than they thought.”
Learning From Each Other
Tackling two topics as complex as poverty and child development in one course is a challenge. And that challenge begins with a task as seemingly simple as defining poverty.
“Poverty seems to be a word most of us understand and know; but it can be a challenge to define,” said Cubides. “We begin with an understanding of existing poverty measures and their implications on the design of and access to federal programs.”
Early childhood, in turn, is a period of tremendously rapid development. According to LoCasale-Crouch, the brains of young children are producing more than a million neural connections each second. During this complex season of life, a child’s development is dependent on the environment that surrounds them, and that environment is directly impacted by policies. The course sits at the intersection of all of these elements: child development, environment, and policy.
Potentially adding to the complexities of this course is the combination of full-time undergraduates and professional learners. But for LoCasale-Crouch, the combination of working adults and undergraduate students is one element that makes this course so special.
“It is a powerful experience for all of our students to experience the presence of different perspectives and see how they are valued,” LoCasale-Crouch said. “It is also inspiring to see the teachers realize the impact of the work they’re doing. The traditional undergraduate students are captivated with the teachers in the field because they have so much richness to bring to the conversation. Together, these different perspectives and experiences help to deepen the whole group’s understanding of a complex topic and the role they play in it.”
Beyond the Classroom
Rooted in the science of child development, the course examines the impact policies and programs across disciplines have on children, including ones relevant to education, health, law, and family and communities. As a result, the content extends beyond early childhood classrooms and students’ engagement with the content extends beyond the virtual UVA classroom.
“This course works to facilitate a 13- to 14-weeklong conversation about poverty in all of its complexities: In global was, like how countries measure poverty, to the seemingly small, like nurturing interactions with children that can transform development,” Lydic said. “Poverty intersects with pretty much everything, not just education.”
Undergraduate students who have taken the course have pursued a variety of professional paths, including medical school, nursing school, law school, education and social work.
“As a result of this course, those students now put children at the center of the discussion in whatever field they enter as they think about the wellbeing of our future,” LoCasale-Crouch said.
During the semester, students engage in a service project. For many of the professional learners, their project often takes place in the classrooms where they currently teach. For others, they happen across the community. Students self-select their service, choosing to make a difference in the community in a way that aligns with their interests. Current students are doing everything from working to distribute food through local food pantries to coaching soccer to mentoring students in the community.
With both course content and the service project, LoCasale-Crouch, Lydic and Cubides are asking their students a series of questions: what is the challenge being addressed, what policies are in place to try to make an impact, how are local organizations attempting to address it, and what can you do about it?
“The complexities of poverty can potentially render us hopeless,” LoCasale-Crouch. “And sometimes when we learn more about it, we can get stuck in the understanding and are unable to move to the doing. What we hope our students learn from this course is that they have agency when it comes to addressing some of these issues. They can play a role in shaping the policy and programs to be better, and they can also use their everyday interactions for good. They walk away knowing, we all can be agents of change.”