Embedding Course Assignments into Practicum (Guest blogger: Dr. Bernadette Laumann)

Last semester I had the pleasure of teaching the Early Childhood Assessment Course to a class of early childhood undergraduate teacher candidates and master’s students. The course content covers the assessment of young children with disabilities ages birth to five years. A variety of assessment related topics are discussed throughout the semester. All of the teacher candidates and masters students were concurrently placed in practicum settings where they could directly communicate with families of young children with disabilities and conduct a variety of assessments. We also conducted two “labs” where the teacher candidates participated on an assessment team to plan and implement play-based assessment activities for a parent and child dyad. We are fortunate to have some wonderful parents and young children in our community who participate in the labs.

As a course instructor I have learned that embedding course assignments within practicum and even within a “lab” setting can be difficult and just plain messy. For example, young children get sick often, they might move away, families are busy and may not have time to respond to a teacher candidate’s carefully crafted questions, parent permission forms have to be translated into the appropriate home language and returned before assessment activities may begin, etc. Yet, as difficult as the logistics of completing “embedded” assignments can be, I strongly believe that the more course assignments can be completed within practicum settings the more teacher candidates directly experience the complexity of the assessment process with young children with disabilities.

When using real activity based assessment tools with young children with disabilities the teacher candidates were surprised at the amount of planning they needed to do in order to complete a curriculum-based assessment on a child they had been working with all semester. Conversations with parents and cooperating professionals also provided the teacher candidates and masters students with the understanding that assessment is done in collaboration with other significant adults who can provide critical developmental information about the child in different contexts and settings.

As a teacher educator I have learned to be much more flexible with assignment due dates. This was important in order to ensure that a teacher candidate does not panic when the child she is assessing misses two days of preschool in a row. I believe the extra effort involved in arranging assessment labs and embedding course assignments in practicum is worth it when teacher candidates describe their understanding about the assessment process and feel more confident collaborating with parents of young children with disabilities.


Bernadette Laumann, PhD is the Co-Principal Investigator for the Illinois Early Learning Project and the Illinois Families and School Success Project. She has been a teacher educator, principal of an inclusive pre-k program, and an early childhood special educator.


Literacy…It Takes a Village (Guest blogger: Dr. Janaya Shaw)

Have you ever seen or heard these statements?

“They learn to read at school.”

“The teacher is responsible for teaching reading.”

Well, I disagree. For children to excel in all of the literacy skills, it takes a village. Literacy skills include awareness of sounds of language, awareness of print, the relationship between letters and sounds, decoding, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. Educators and parents must work together to make sure that children are getting the tools necessary to be successful readers. Literacy skills are not just “school skills,” they are life skills.

So, how do we, as educators, get the parents on board to help? We educate them, while we educate their children. There is nothing wrong with hosting monthly parent workshops on literacy topics. Discuss what is being done to enhance literacy in the classroom and what can be done to enhance literacy at home. Don’t do too much at one workshop. We don’t want our parents to feel overwhelmed and stop attending the workshops. Take baby steps.

I’ve found that some of the best ways to get parents to buy-in to the parent workshops are: (1) explicitly say that their child needs their help to reach their full literacy potential, (2) explain the importance of practicing these literacy skills in the home, (3) ask their opinions, (4) ask for their availability, (5) have another classroom or gym open where their children can be entertained and supervised, and (6) have food. You may ask, “why food?” Many parents will be attending these workshops after a long day of work. They come straight from work and it’s nice if they can get something to eat at the workshop. A full meal is not necessary, but something that will give them a boost to be able to sit through your workshop for about one hour. Potlucks are an excellent idea.

In summary, students need multiple opportunities to practice literacy skills. Classroom practice is not enough. We need our students working on these skills with their parents at home. This can be successful if we let the parents know of the need, ask for their help, and educate them on what activities they can be doing at home with their child.


Dr. Janaya Shaw is an Assistant Professor in the Curriculum and Instruction Department of Western Illinois University. Her research interests include literacy development, performance assessment, trends in middle level education, and technology.


STEAM in Early Childhood Education (Guest blogger: Bridget Meis, M.S. Ed)

STEAM is a concept that has become increasingly popular lately and has even become a ‘buzzword’ in early childhood. It started as STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. STEAM embeds the Arts into these concepts. Adding the Arts into the STEM process is a natural process in early childhood. The purpose of STEAM is how these skills are integrated with one another instead of looking at each skill in isolation from the others. When children are young, they have not developed the habit of separating subjects into categories; they naturally blend these concepts as they explore their everyday environments. When we look at early childhood, this is an optimal time to capitalize on helping children to build these skills.

Science: Science includes observing and experimenting with materials; asking questions and working to find the answers; making predictions about what might happen and then seeing what really happens; sharing what you have learned with others; and figuring out how things work.

Technology: Looks at using tools to help get things done. Often when we hear the term technology, we think of computers, phones, or tablets. Technology is just a fancy term for tools. In early childhood, we see children use technology all the time, such as: scissors to cut; pencils to write; rulers to measure; and magnifying glasses to look closely at an object.

Engineering: Engineering is how we solve problems by using a variety of materials; designing and creating solutions; and building things that work.

Arts: The Arts are a way of expressing and representing what we know. Children may draw, sing, dance, or even act out what they have learned about a concept or represent what they are trying to figure out.

Math: Math includes many concepts such as counting, measuring, comparing, sorting, working with patterns, and sequencing. Children naturally engage in math concepts every day! When we look at math, there is a wonderful opportunity to engage in mathematical language which helps children to express what they know and have learned.

What might this look like in an early childhood classroom?

When children build in the block area, they are working on their engineering skills. They are planning and trying different strategies to make a creation, which uses trial and error which is a science concept. Even when children are just exploring the blocks by piling them up, putting them in a line, they are figuring out how to make the blocks work. Children also explore to see which blocks fit together, a math concept when we explore how shapes work. We can embed The arts, by encouraging the children to plan and sketch what they would like their structure to look like before building or after building their creations. And, of course, the blocks are the tools/technology that the children are using to create their structure.

This is just one example that integrates all areas of STEAM. Often, when children are engaging in activities, when we leave the activities open ended, they engage in 2-3 of the STEAM concepts at a time.

The children in our care right now, need to develop skills for jobs that are not even created yet. By providing opportunities for children to develop their creative thinking and reasoning skills now, we are providing them with skills that they will need for the future.


Bridget Meis, M.S. Ed, is an Early Childhood Resource Specialist for STARnet Regions I & III. During her time with STARnet, she has presented on a variety of topics including: Apps and Assistive Technology, Social/Emotional development, Creative Curriculum, Teaching Strategies GOLD, Portfolios, Lesson Planning, Mathematics in Early Childhood, Science and Mathematics, STEAM and Family Engagement. Bridget has worked in the field of Early Childhood Education since 2003.


Managing Behavior in the Preschool Classroom (Guest blogger: Dr. Emily Sartini)

Preschool teachers in Illinois are often expected to accommodate students with a range of problem behaviors, including aggressive behaviors such as hitting and kicking. What can we do to ensure young children with problem behaviors can remain in preschool settings? How can we meet the needs of children with significant problem behaviors while ensuring other students remain safe in the classroom?

Positive behavior supports (PBS) have a growing amount of support in the early childhood literature and have led to success in preschool classrooms (Stanton-Chapman, Walker, Vorhees, & Snell, 2016). PBS involves the use of assessment, individualized behavior plans, and instruction in pro-social behaviors, as well as the establishment a structured environment, clear expectations, and positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior (Carter & Van Norman, 2010).

For preschool children with severe problem behaviors, such as aggression, Functional Behavioral Assessment can be conducted that includes assessment to determine the function of the problem behavior. Behavioral function refers to the reasons why behaviors occur, such as to obtain attention, access to a desired item, or escape from an undesired activity (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). Once the team has identified the function, they can design an intervention that teaches the child to achieve that function more appropriately (e.g., asking for a break from an undesired activity, saying a peer’s name to receive attention). The team then implements and takes data on the effectiveness of the plan (Stanton-Chapman et al., 2016).

There are some general techniques that can benefit all preschool students in the classroom. Carter and Van Norman (2010) investigated a variety of strategies that can be implemented class-wide to facilitate success for all students. They found that these strategies resulted in high rates of academic engagement in preschool classrooms. The following techniques can be implemented with entire classes in the preschool setting to increase academic engagement and minimize problem behavior:

  • Posting 3-5 positively phrased rules with picture cues
  • A picture schedule
  • Development of behavioral expectations across multiple classroom routines (e.g., washing hands, walking in the hallway)
  • Using a transition signal with visual as well as a verbal cue
  • Provide notice of transitions before they occur
  • Reminding students of appropriate behaviors before the transition
  • Praising appropriate behaviors with specific, positive praise at a ratio of 4 positive statements to 1 corrective statement
  • Preschool teachers should plan to implement the above strategies for the entire class to create a positive learning environment that minimizes the occurrence of behavioral issues (Carter & Van Norman, 2010). While children with more extreme behavioral needs will require individualize behavioral intervention, most children can benefit from class-wide strategies that increase positivity and clarify expectations.


Carter, D.R., & Van Norman, R.K. (2010). Class-wide positive behavior support in preschool: Improving teacher implementation through consultation. Early Childhood Education Journal, 38, 279-288.

Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W.L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NI: Pearson.

Stanton-Chapman, T.L., Walker, V.L., Vorhees, M.D., & Snell, M.E. (2016). The evaluation of a three-tier model of positive behavior interventions and supports for preschoolers in Head Start. Remedial and Special Education, 37, 333-344.

Dr. Emily Sartini is Assistant Professor of Special Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Western Illinois University. Her research interests include Applied Behavior Analysis, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and access to core content for students with Intellectual Disability.

Novice Teachers and Applications of Learnings from Reggio Emilia (Guest blogger: Dr. Stephanie Sanders-Smith)

Figure 1: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign study group to Reggio Emilia, November 2016.

Last November (2016), a colleague and I took fourteen of our early childhood preservice teachers to Reggio Emilia. We spent a week at Centro Internazionale Loris Malaguzzi listening to lectures and exploring community ateliers. The students were able to visit four schools, one nido, two scuole dell’infanzia, and the primary school, la scuola Malaguzzi. The experience consisted of an almost exhausting amount of information for the students. I was informed on Friday that they had been tracking just how long they had been in lecture over the course of the week. It had been over twenty hours! And that was not including the atelier work or the school visits.

Figure 2: Students exploring methods of working with paper Remida Atelier at Centro Internazionale Loris Malaguzzi.

Because of the deep connections between the Reggio Emilia Approach and Italian culture, we stayed a second week in Italy. The goal for this part of the trip was to try to make sense of what we had seen in the schools in Reggio Emilia and what we had learned from teachers and pedagogistas, and how to make sense of these experience when applied to the context of our own work in American schools. To this end, we visited Venice for two days and then spent another four exploring art and architecture in Florence.

Figure 3: Viewing Botticelli’s La Primavera a the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

At the end of two weeks, we were all exhausted and ready to head home. The students’ travel journals (submitted for course credit!) revealed how much they enjoyed the trip and how much knowledge and understanding they gained – but also just how overwhelmed and tired they were. We all agreed that it had been a great experience. But, I wondered just how well they would be able to make connections between their experiences in Italy and their classroom practice. I was not expecting to find answers easily, as most of the students on the trip began student teaching in local elementary schools the following January and then graduated in the Spring. However, three of the students on the trip were juniors. This past semester, we had the opportunity to find out how these three were making sense of their experiences in Reggio Emilia during their fall semester placements in preschool classrooms.

The pedagogies we teach in our early childhood program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, unsurprisingly, are heavily influenced by Professor Emerita Lilian Katz. We teach students values from Reggio Emilia, such as learning to recognize children as current citizens and the subjects of rights, to provide multiple languages through which children can express knowledge, collaboration with parents, collaboration with children, etc. The inquiry-based teaching and learning present in the Reggio Approach, for us, is structured with Dr. Katz’s Project Approach. Thus, students in a preschool placement must find a topic of shared interest with the children and investigate together using the Project Approach. On the last day of class, all students share with their classmates (colleagues) their investigations with children.

Our three Reggio alumnae each presented interesting projects, each demonstrating deep thinking about children’s learning. Their thinking was not more complex than all of their colleagues projects, but it for nearly all. The first project built on a traditional fall visit to the pumpkin patch. The student recognized that there were things that children wished to do at the pumpkin patch that were not permitted and experiences that they wanted to revisit. Together with the children, she recreated parts of the pumpkin patch within her classroom (e.g., the shop, the pumpkin washing station) so that children could spend several weeks re-experiencing, testing hypotheses, and considering what they had (in Dr. Katz’s words) “found out” on their visit.

In the second project, the student recognized that the children were very interested in their own clothing. This launched an investigation of clothes, during which, the children were shocked to realize that they could make clothes themselves! Children spent a great deal of time designing and showcasing their work. The student expressed later that the project did not go at all as she was expecting it to, but it did go exactly as the children expected.

Figure 4: Making and designing clothing.

The student final project was about rainbows. The student and I had several conversations before the project began about how rainbows could be something that children could experience and re-experience during the course of the project. She was confident that it could be done, so I gave my blessing. The project began with children’s hypothesis that rainbows could be played upon and children could “slide down”. Children tested the hyothesis by using a CD to project a rainbow on the carpet. After some discussion with their student teacher, the realized that it is not possible to touch a rainbow. The project evolved to working with projections of light and colored lights. The student asked to borrow an old overhead projector from the university and she and the children spent the next few weeks contemplating projections of light, shadow, and color.

Figures 5 & 6: Experimentation with light and shadow.

These projects were still projects facilitated by novice teachers. They did not have the complexity indicative of project facilitated by more experienced teachers. But within the program, we noticed a deeper understanding of children born and more intentionality in observations, interactions, and presentation of possibilities for investigation than from projects in previous years and nearly all projects by other students. This was only our first trip to Reggio Emilia and only our first time seeing students continue to grapple with teachings from Reggio Children in their own practice. For us, this is a source of ongoing investigation into how novice teachers make sense of the Reggio Emilia Approach and how we can best support their abilities to take as much from learning experiences in Italy as possible.


Stephanie C. Sanders-Smith is an Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction and the Yew Chung – Bernard Spodek Scholar of Early Childhood Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research considers early childhood pedagogies within a range of racial, cultural, and socioeconomic contexts.

Changing Times Call for Difficult Conversations (Guest blogger: Dr. Ty Jiles)

As a young child I used to think that shootings, killings, and other violent acts were related to gangs, drugs, and robberies. At the very least guns were used by perpetrators and others that were involved in unlawful acts. After all, they were the “bad guys, ” and that is the life that they choose “you do wrong, and it will follow you.” Sounds like a novel concept but it was my reality. If you don’t break the rules, you won’t be penalized!

Well, the times have changed! There is not a day that goes by where you will not read or hear about a person who has become a victim of gun violence or some other random hatred act. Young children are not exempt from these horrific incidents as the TV, Internet, and radio provide play-by-play coverage of shootings both locally and nationally. The shootings and killings that occur now are not like those of twenty years ago. Today’s acts of gun violence often involve innocent victims, implying that no one in our society is exempt from gun violence and or completely safe. This is the message that is being sent to young children all over the United States.

During early October immediately after the Las Vegas shootings, I held class, and at the start of the session, we sat in a circle and verbally touched on how this horrific and violent act made us feel like as adults. Then I posed the question to my class what would they do if they were already teachers and had their classrooms full of students? Classes filled with curious students with questions and concerns. Most of the students did not have much to say and admitted that speaking about this would be something that they were not comfortable with doing so. That moment of silence made me realize even more that our future teachers will need a set of simple core skills that will assist them in dealing with tragic situations like this.

How did we get to a place where gun violence is so prevalent? Who is responsible for controlling gun violence? Has the government or political powers that be lost control? These and many more questions linger in my mind. As I grapple with these issues, I further struggle with thoughts about our nation’s children and their future teachers. How do I as a teacher educator equip my students to take their next roles and not address this significant concern regarding safeness? I feel very strongly about ensuring that teachers are prepared and are equipped with skills that they can readily assist them in providing a warm and positive classroom climate.

While it is imperative that we do not emphasize sharing disastrous events with young students, they will often talk about the different things that they have heard. At this moment we can listen to our students and promote a feeling of safety in the classroom. Then we as teachers can provide options for students to find ways that they can help and make a difference. On a final note, it is essential that as teacher educators we discuss with our student’s ways to handle questions arising from the various tragedies that our society continues to encounter.

Dr. Ty Jiles is an Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Western Illinois University. Her research interests are effective professional development methods, parental involvement and teacher motivation


Illinois Prohibits Early Childhood Expulsion with Landmark Legislation (Guest Blogger: Allison Lowe-Fotos)

On August 14, Governor Bruce Rauner signed into law HB2663, legislation aimed at ending the practice of expelling infants, toddlers, and preschoolers from their early childhood programs. The new law, Public Act 100-105, represents the culmination of a multi-year effort to address a serious problem facing children, their families, and early care and education providers across the state.

The Goal of HB2663

Research suggests that the expulsion of toddlers and preschoolers from early childhood settings is occurring at alarmingly high rates. While it may seem counterintuitive, a nationwide study in 2005 indicated that Illinois preschoolers were kicked out of their programs at a rate nearly three times that of their grade school and high school peers[1]. More recent national data from the Office for Civil Rights show that African American and Latino preschool boys are subjected to higher rates of disciplinary action, and increasingly African-American girls are experiencing similar problems[2], with other studies suggesting that implicit bias plays a role[3].

The problem extends down into the early years as well, with a study conducted in 2002 in Chicago, showing a high rate of expulsion in childcare programs, particularly with infants and toddlers. Over 40% of child care programs asked a child to leave because of social-emotional and behavioral problems, with the most challenging behaviors being biting, hitting, and aggressive behavior[4].

And parents are often left out of the picture. In a recent study within child care programs in Chicago, programs often undertook changes without first engaging the parents around the issue. In 48% of the most recently requested removals of a child from a classroom, directors/programs did not communicate with parents[5].

Expulsion in the earliest years leads to higher expulsion and suspension rates in later grades, and there is ample evidence showing that school expulsion practices are associated with negative educational, health, and developmental outcomes for all children[6].

Over two years ago, a group of early childhood advocates in Illinois began brainstorming possible solutions to the problem. The group recognized that there is no single reason why early childhood expulsion rates are high and there is no one culprit to blame. It is often a combination of a child’s behavior, the programs’ interpretation of and response to that behavior, a family’s situation, and the state’s provision of guidance and resources to programs and families.

So it is two years later and we’ve passed landmark legislation, which begs the question “What is Public Act 100-105?” and “How did we get here?”

Public Act 100-105

The law aims to ensure that young children remain in the most beneficial early childhood setting for their development by:

  1. Providing protections for children in Illinois State Board of Education-funded early childhood programs and licensed child care settings against preventable expulsion, similar to those of K-12 students;
  2. Identifying the trainings and topics needed to address the problem and asks state agencies to make this information available to programs; and
  3. Strengthening data collection and dissemination by agencies funding early childhood services to help inform agencies, lawmakers, and advocates and guide policymaking and practice-planning.

From the beginning, both advocates and lawmakers recognized that of course not every early childhood setting is right for every young child. However, the law protects children from improper removal while improving transition processes for those who may benefit from placement in a different setting. The bill sets forth a process by which the chances of removal of a child from a program due to behavior and/or implicit bias is significantly minimized and ensures that removal is not the first or only option explored. It clarifies that available resources, services, and interventions must be utilized, such as developmental and social emotional screenings, infant/early childhood mental health consultation, referrals to Early Intervention and Early Childhood Special Education, and consultation with a child’s health care provider.

Parents must also be engaged at all points of the process and nothing in the bill precludes a parent’s or legal guardian’s right to voluntarily withdraw his or her child from an early childhood program.

In addition, in the case of the determination of a serious safety threat to a child or others, the temporary removal of a child from attendance in group settings may be used, with the clarification that the child must be returned to the group setting as quickly as safety will allow and that the same resources, services, and interventions must be called upon.

The legislation is groundbreaking in that it encompasses licensed child care programs and state-funded early learning programs, as well as specifically requests that implicit bias and reflection be addressed within professional development of staff.

How the Law Came to Be

When our group of early childhood advocates decided to tackle the early childhood expulsion problem, it became abundantly clear that a statewide policy was important to establish, partly because we wanted to ensure similar protections for children in a range of early learning programs. So the group wrote draft legislative language based on best practices in the field. Once the language was written and a bill was filed, we now had a tangible idea to share with others.

Over the next 18 months, the coalition’s leaders met and workshopped the language with parents, early childhood providers, legislative staff, the state agencies impacted by the legislation, K-12 experts, and leaders of various justice groups, among others. When concerns were raised, changes were made. The bill improved dramatically before it was ever called in committee, and we accumulated a long list of organizational supporters.

And because of the groundwork laid over many months, the lawmakers we approached to champion the bill agreed to join the effort without reservation. In other words, diffusing organizational opposition and collaborating to obtain input, particularly among the state agencies, helped secure strong legislative support from both parties from the beginning. By the end of spring, HB2663 accrued 65 cosponsors, 95 votes in the House, near-unanimous support in the Senate, and a signature from the governor.

What’s Next?

Those of us involved in the passage of HB2663 know the state law is only the first phase of a long-term effort to eliminate expulsions in early childhood settings. This is the point where macro policy work often stops and/or fails, but we in Illinois know that this is where the real and hard work begins.

We hope to learn through implementation what works and what doesn’t work. We also hope to drive more resources to programs, staff, and children and families. And before all of that happens, we need to make sure that good rules are promulgated. Currently, the Illinois State Board of Education, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, and the Illinois Department of Human Services are working collaboratively with the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development to develop rules, guidance, and best practices. These rules will be available for public comment once drafted.

Continuous quality improvement doesn’t just happen in the classroom, but on the policy level as well. While our legislation is based in best practice and has been deliberately thought-out, we understand that any policy will have unintended consequences, impact different groups differently, and present unknown challenges. We are committed to remaining reflective, innovative, and collaborative in the roll-out of this legislation, as well as continuing to advocate for everything that must next be put into place.

For more information and to see a webinar recording about the legislation, visit:


Allison Lowe-Fotos, Policy Manager, Ounce of Prevention FundAllison Lowe-Fotos, MSW, LCSW is a Policy Manager with the Ounce of Prevention Fund. She works on mental health, special education, early childhood expulsion, child welfare and juvenile justice, and workforce development initiatives and issues at the Ounce. She has previously worked in direct practice in early childhood education programs providing case management, family support work, therapy with children and families, infant/early childhood mental health consultation, and supervising a teen parent home visiting program. She also has international experience working in programs and projects in China, Mexico, and Turkey. Allison has a B.S. in Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an M.S.W. from Loyola University Chicago.

Jonathan Doster, Policy Specialist, Ounce of Prevention Fund


[1] Gilliam, W. S. (2005). Prekindergarteners left behind: Expulsion rates in state prekindergarten programs. Foundation for Child Development. Retrieved from: http://challengingbehavior.fmhi.usf.edu/explore/policy_docs/prek_expulsion.pdf

[2] U. S. Department of Education, 2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection. ocrdata.ed.gov

[3] Gilliam, W.S. (2016). Do Early Educators’ Implicit Biases Regarding Sex and Race Relate to Behavior Expectations and Recommendations of Preschool Expulsions and Suspensions? Retrieved from: http://ziglercenter.yale.edu/publications/Preschool%20Implicit%20Bias%20Policy%20Brief_final_9_26_276766_5379.pdf

[4] Cutler, A., & Gilkerson, L. (2002). Unmet needs project: A research, coalition building, and policy initiative on the unmet needs of infants, toddlers, and families. Retrieved from: https://www.illinois.gov/icdd/Documents/Comm/Unmet-Needs-Final-Report.pdf

[5] Zinsser, K. M., Nair Das, V., Zulauf, C. (April 2017) Preschool Expulsion Rates and Social-Emotional Learning Support across Neighborhood Contexts. Paper presented at the American Education Research Association annual meeting in San Antonio TX, April 2017.

[6] J.H. Lamont and others, Out-of-school suspension and expulsion, Pediatrics 131 (3) (2013): 1000-1007; L. Raffaele Mendez, “Predictors of suspension and negative school outcomes: A longitudinal investigation” New Directions for Youth Development 99 (2003): 17-33.

Using Virtual Reality to Prepare Teachers (Guest blogger: Dr. Anni Reinking)

In many teacher training programs, teacher candidates are placed with students in their first semester with minimal prior training. During these first experiences in classrooms, teacher candidates learn in the moment, which at times can be detrimental to students’ learning environment. As Portner (2005) suggests, teachers need added support during their induction year, and classroom management is cited as the primary area in which teacher candidates need support. One way to provide more training before entering a real classroom is through the use of a Virtual Learning Environment in teacher training.

What is a Virtual Learning Environment?

Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) provide experiential opportunities that are often available in other professional training fields, but have only recently entered the field of education. The research on VLEs to approximate teaching situations is emerging as an effective instructional technology that can provide current teachers more practical experiences incorporating evidence-based practices (Andreasen & Haciomeroglu, 2009).

Simulation in VLEs have existed in other disciplines for many years. For example, flight simulators make it possible for trainee pilots to learn how a plane will respond to their actions. However, learning in virtual learning environments is new to the field of education. This work is especially crucial to the early childhood workforce that has minimal availability to immediate feedback through a coaching lens and, in some areas, a lack of access to diverse classroom environments.

Why use a VLE to prepare teachers?

The use of the VLE provides a safe and low-stress environment for learning and refining best practices. It can also address early childhood teachers’ needs, as reported by Dieker, Hynes, Hughes, and Smith (2008), which found that teachers need experiences with students in classroom settings to practice strategies. Furthermore, the use of VLEs in the field of education is a new and innovative way for creating a feedback cycle that promotes adult learning and in the moment feedback, while not interrupting a real school day or classroom environment. Therefore, the literature associated to this research project spreads into three categories:

  1. Increasing the human capital of the early childhood workforce. Human capital refers to the skills, knowledge, and experiences early childhood teachers have, which ultimately influence the overall early childhood workforce. It has been found that teachers, including early childhood teachers, are the most important resource schools can provide students and families (Workman & Ullrich, 2017). However, in the state of Illinois it has been stated that many early childhood educators are not adequately prepared to be effective in adding the development of young children (White, Colaninno, Doll, & Lewandowski, 2017). Therefore, through coaching and VLEs early childhood teachers can be prepared and provided opportunities to expand their knowledge set while also practicing effective classroom strategies.
  2. Adult learning and feedback cycles. The knowledge of how adults learn and feedback cycles are important to the implementation of new skills (Knowles, 1950). Adults learn predominately through experiences that have immediate and applicable results. Additionally, feedback cycles allow adults, specifically early childhood teachers, to reflect on their performance in VLEs applying the After Action Review (ARR) (Parry, Pires, & Sparkes-Guber, 2007). ARR is a structured review for analyzing what happened, why it happened, and how it can be improved, with the goal of improving future performance.
  3. Using Virtual Learning Environments to provide training. There is minimal research focused on VLEs in the field of education and even less focusing on the early childhood workforce. While the research is minimal, there is research data within the last ten years focused on the overall use of VLEs with teachers and teacher candidates, specifically in elementary and higher grades.

Brief Summary of Pilot Research

In spring 2017, early childhood teacher candidates at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville participated in a Virtual Learning Environment. After co-planning and submitting a lesson plan from the teacher candidates, they participated in a VLE. During the lesson in the VLE other teacher candidates observed the simulation in order to provide feedback and to learn from the feedback provided from the professor.

After the entire experience, the teacher candidates were asked to reflect on their experiences in the VLE. On the survey a majority of the teacher candidates stated that the coaching and feedback were the most beneficial portions of the experience. The ability to stop, receive feedback, and implement the strategies immediately prepared the teacher candidates. Additionally, the teacher candidates reflected that the ability for the avatars to respond with correct and incorrect answers, as well as unexpected comments created a real-life situation that the teacher candidates could work through with peers and a faculty member readily available to provide feedback and coaching.

In summary, there have been great advancements in relevant technologies, virtual reality is currently under-utilized in educational training programs in spite of its potential impact (Dodd & Antonenko, 2012).


Andreasen, J. B. & Haciomeroglu, E. S. (2009). Teacher training in virtual environments. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the North American Chapter of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education, Atlanta, GA.

Dieker, L., Hynes, M., Hughes, C.E., & Smith, E. (2008). Implications of mixed reality and simulation technologies on special education and teacher preparation. Focus on Exceptional Children, 40(6), 1-20.

Dodd, B., & Antonenko, P. (2012). Signaling in desktop virtual reality and online learning management systems: A review of recent literature. Computers and Education, 59, 1099-1108.

Knowles, M. S. (1950) Informal Adult Education, New York: Association Press. Guide for educators based on the writer’s experience as a programme organizer in the YMCA.

Parry C., Pires M., & Sparkes-Guber H. (2007, pp. 484-489). Action review cycle (ARC) and the after action review (AAR) meeting. In Holman P., Devane T., Cady S. The change handbook. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Portner, H. (2005). Success for New Teachers: Five reasons your school board should support induction and mentoring programs-plus three decisive actions you can take. American School Board Journal, 192(10), 30.

Richards, D. & Szilas, N. (2012). Challenging reality using techniques from interaction drama to support social simulations in virtual worlds. Proceedings of the 8th Australasian Conference on Interactive Entertainment: Playing the System.

White, B. R., Colaninno, C. E., Doll, M., & Lewandowski, H. (2017). Illinois early childhood innovation zones: A new model for state policy? (IERC 2017-1). Edwardsville, IL: Illinois Education Research Council at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Workman, S., & Ullrich, R. (2017, February 13). Quality 101: Identifying the core components of a high-quality early childhood program. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.


Dr. Anni Reinking is an assistant professor in the early childhood program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Her research focuses on teacher preparation, virtual training, and multicultural education.


Professionalism, Race, and Early Childhood Education (Guest blogger: Leslie Layman)

Recently while teaching a professional development workshop on addressing challenging behaviors in young children, an African American student, tentatively raised her hand and said, “I know this isn’t the “correct” way to say this, but I feel like when I am talking to young children, I have to use my “white lady teacher voice” or I get in trouble.” Nods from other women of color across the room.

A similar sentiment came up in a class I was teaching about a week later, this time the student directly referenced professionalism and voiced that she felt she was being asked to talk and act white and that the children did not respond to her when she acted “professional.” She felt the children saw her behavior as false and did not take her requests seriously.

As a white woman who teaches many students of color and as I am currently teaching my college’s preparation for practicum course, these student experiences are weighing heavily on my heart and on my mind right now.

I feel strongly that I need to prepare my students with not only the knowledge but also the social skills they will need to be successful in the workforce; however, no one should go to work each day feeling that they have to act out an identity that is not their own in order to be accepted or successful. How do we strike a balance between making sure that students understand what is expected of them and respecting the culture that they bring into the classroom and the workplace?

In my practicum preparation course, I’ve been thinking a lot about the hidden curriculum and how to bring it out into the open. We’ve been creating shared definitions of obscure and academic terms from their readings, including a shared definition of what it means to be an excellent teacher, and a critical evaluation of the skills that the textbook says an excellent teacher needs.

I’ve also been trying harder to listen. Not just make eye contact and nod while I think about what we’ll do next or what to write on the whiteboard, but really and truly listen to students describe a shared experience that I cannot share with them. When I’ve finished listening, I work to validate that experience and then untangle what it means to the student. What am I missing? What are they thinking or feeling that might not be obvious to me?

I also have to think hard about myself. What am I bringing to the classroom that might reinforce this idea that professionalism is synonymous with whiteness and how can I change my behavior to better serve all of my students?

It’s not easy work, and it is probably work that all of us teachers of early childhood education students are doing. I think it helps to think about it, talk about it, wallow in the murkiness a bit so that we can try to come out on the other side. I recently reminded my students that my expectations for them are high; high because I believe in them, because they’ve already come this far without me, and high because serving children and families is serious work. I also reminded them that they are right where they should be, finding their voice and themselves in the work that they do.

Leslie Layman is Coordinator and Adjunct Faculty in the Child Development Program at Harry S Truman College. She is interested in all things access, equity, and play related.

Source: picture found at www.statnews.com/2016/02/04/should-geneticists-move-beyond-race/


Nature: It does a body – and brain – good (Guest blogger: Dr. Elizabeth Sherwood)

I teach a course titled Inquiry, Investigation, and Play in the Primary Years. A few weeks ago, we went outside to explore our campus and generate ideas for possible long term, outdoor investigations. I wanted our teacher candidates to consider possibilities for outdoor experiences with children in their placements and in their own classrooms when they graduate. They came up with ideas for mapping the area, creating field guides specific to this location, tracking weather or moisture levels in the soil, and studying everything from the Canada geese to the nearby prairie habitat. They thought of many interesting pathways for inquiry, but what intrigued me most was the conversation we had when we returned to the classroom.

I began talking about evidence researchers have been accumulating for several decades about the benefits of time spent outside on health and well-being. I shared the fact that several studies indicate that time in nature can reduce the symptoms of ADHD (as much as medication in some children) and increase focus and attention. A hand went up. A student shared that she was diagnosed with ADHD as a child and she and her parents discovered that she could reduce her medication when she played outside every day. She commented, “I still take medication, but I can tell when I need to get outside more. When I do, the symptoms settle down.”

I then shared other studies that indicate that time in nature improves the well-being of people experiencing anxiety and depression. Two more hands went up. A student talked about her struggles with depression and anxiety disorder, then said, “My doctor prescribed medication, but he also told me to spend time outside regularly. I can tell when I do and when I don’t. I feel better when I do.” The second student, who is on medication for anxiety disorder, discovered by chance that being outside helped. She moved to a new location that allows her to walk to campus and has been able to reduce her medication dose. She commented, “It works way better than a treadmill.” Other students began to share similar stories. It became apparent that roughly a fourth of the students in this class were on medications of some sort for mental health reasons. The number is likely higher as my estimate is based on those who shared their experiences in class. Obviously, not all students are comfortable with revealing such personal information.

I talked with them about my own experiences with a head injury. Several years ago, I developed post-concussion syndrome after being rear ended by a texting driver. For over a year, I was extremely sensitive to sensory overload. Visual clutter, sounds, bright lights, smells, and too many people were just the beginning of a long list of things that overwhelmed me. I felt, at times, like the cartoon thermometer about to blow. I discovered by chance that going outside made the thermometer immediately start to go down. For me, it didn’t even have to be a “nice outside.” Just standing in a parking lot helped. It’s a strategy I still use to manage residual symptoms.

There’s more!

  • Finnish researchers have discovered that spending just 5 hours a month in nature is enough to sustain benefits such as reduced anxiety and depression.
  • Extensive research in Japan and South Korea show that time in nature reduces high blood pressure and improves sleep.
  • Other research has shown that viewing pictures of nature, being around house plants, or having a “green” view out a window improve mood and focus.
  • Watching a nature video lowers blood pressure and cortisol levels in people who’ve been exposed to distressing photos within 4 – 7 minutes. Watching a video of people walking in a mall or of cars driving by had little effect.

Here is a link to a short article that summarizes some additional research findings:



Now what?

So what to do with this information? One student suggested that instead of just listening to an upset friend, they could listen and take a walk outside. We are fortunate to be on a campus with extensive woodland trails and gardens. They talked about reminding each other to go outside and walk a trail or sit by the pond when the stress of work and school gets to be too much. They came up with a variety of ideas for motivating themselves to get outside more, including Frisbie golf, washer toss, and giant Jenga (who knew?).

We then turned to their role as future teachers.

  • Armed with research to support the importance of time in nature, they can become advocates for green space around schools. In fact, one of the assignments for this class includes mapping their placement school grounds and determining a way to bring in more natural elements. They then write a mock letter to an organization that funds school projects for grant money for the improvement.
  • They can become advocates for adequate recess for children because they are aware of studies that show improved learning outcomes and better health for children who have time to play outside.
  • They can do outdoor projects and investigations throughout the year because they can explain the benefits to both families and administrators.

These teacher candidates now have some additional strategies for taking care of themselves and their friends. They are also more prepared to support the health and well-being of the children they will eventually teach.

And how about you?

Early childhood faculty in Illinois have experienced quite a bit of stress in recent years. You can use connections with nature to your advantage. You don’t have to travel far to experience benefits. Find a tree or a little patch of green and spend some time there. A visit to a park or wooded trail is even better. Remember – it can take just 5 hours a month to reap sustained benefits. Use some nature photos for your screen background. Keep a plant in your office. You will bring a bit of beauty and perhaps some well-deserved serenity into your life.

For current, detailed information on worldwide research about the impact of time in nature, check out The Nature Fix by Florence Williams at http://www.florencewilliams.com/books-1/

Elizabeth Sherwood, Ed. D. is an associate professor in Early Childhood Education, Department of Teaching and Learning, at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Her interests include early childhood history, prekindergarten, nature and the young child, and science education in the early years. She is the co-author of numerous books in science education for early childhood teachers and was a consultant with ISBE for the development of Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards in science.