Unpacking the Pyramid Model… as It Heads to College (Guest bloggers: Dr. Michaelene M. Ostrovsky and Dr. Tweety Yates)

Have you heard the exciting news? Illinois has recently joined more than 30 other states in becoming a “Pyramid Model state” with collaborators from child care, Head Start, state-funded preschool, early intervention, home visiting, and higher education working together to infuse a strong focus on promoting social emotional competence in every aspect of our work with young children. The Pyramid Modelis a conceptual framework of evidence-based early childhood practices that promotes young children’s social emotional competence and addresses challenging behavior (https://video.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?fr=yhs-itm-001&hsimp=yhs001&hspart=itm&p=you+tube+pyramid+model#id=1&vid=294fbd416f386a7c5646ab9243ed5043&action=click). The Pyramid Model was initially developed by two federally funded centers: The Center for the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) and Technical Assistance Center on Social Emotional Intervention for Youth Children (TACSEI). Higher Education faculty and staff can take advantage of the many resources available about the Pyramid Model to strengthen coursework and the preparation of future early childhood professionals. In this blog we briefly describe the Pyramid Model and point readers to several free resources they might consider using in their courses. These materials are but a small sample of those available on the following websites that focus on the Pyramid Model (http://www.pyramidmodel.org/; https://challengingbehavior.cbcs.usf.edu/; http://csefel.vanderbilt.edu/).

The Pyramid Model framework is organized as three tiers of practices (Hemmeter, Ostrosky & Corso, 2012; Hemmeter, Ostrosky & Fox, 2006). The first tier (the blue layers) focuses onuniversal strategies for establishing responsive and nurturing relationships and designing high quality early childhood environments. It includes strategies such as responding to children’s conversations, building relationships with families, and helping children understand expectations. The second tier (the green layer) focuses on the promotion of skills for children with social emotional delays and the prevention of challenging behavior. It includes strategies such as supporting peer relationships, handling conflicts, and regulating emotions. The third tier (the top layer) focuses on intensive individualized interventions for a small percent of children who continue to engage in persistent challenging behavior, even when the practices highlighted in the other tiers of the Pyramid Model are in place. This top tier includes the development, implementation, and monitoring of a behavior support plan.

For each of the tiers we have described two free resources below that might be useful in higher education courses, and we have provided the link for finding these materials.

Tier One:

1) https://challengingbehavior.cbcs.usf.edu/docs/Communicating-with-Families.pdf This resource provides helpful suggestions for communicating with families and for offering opportunities for families to share information about themselves and their child. Many suggestions are given for communicating with families about program happenings, relationship building, progress reports, developmental supports as well as including family input into each of these areas.

2)https://challengingbehavior.cbcs.usf.edu/docs/backpack/BackpackConnection_routines_visual-schedules.pdf  The Backpack Connection Series was created to provide a way for teachers and parents/caregivers to work together to help children develop social emotional skills and reduce challenging behavior. The Backpack Connection resource shared in the link above describes how to use visual schedules to help children understand expectations. Topics covered include: why visual schedules are important, how they can help reduce power struggles and give children confidence and a sense of control, ideas for parents/caregivers to try at home as well as how visual schedules can be used at school.

Tier Two:

1) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVqjF7BDsnw&feature=youtu.be This 28-minute video highlights strategies and approaches that can be used to systematically target social emotional supports that build children’s skills in a variety of areas including making friends, problem solving, asking an adult for help, talking about feelings, and managing emotions. The strategies rely on a 3-stage approach to supporting children’s social emotional development by (1) introducing and practicing a skill, (2) building fluency and competency with a skill, and (3) ensuring there is maintenance of a skill. The video demonstrates how to introduce a skill using a variety of tools, practice a skill through planned and unscripted activities, and maintain the skill by recognizing children for using the skill independently.

2) https://csefel.vanderbilt.edu  Book Nooks provide ideas for linking social emotional development and literacy. Each Book Nook focuses on one children’s book and provides examples of activities that can be embedded across everyday routines and schedules. For example, activities might include using rhymes to talk about being friends or making emotion masks to help children learn to identify and talk about different feelings. A great assignment is to have students create their own Book Nooks using their favorite children’s books(Book Nooks can be found under Practical Strategies on the website listed above).

Tier Three:

1) https://www.pyramidmodel.org Module 3 in the Infant Toddler and Preschool Training Modules focuses on Tier Three content. The training modules provide scripts, powerpoint slides, videos, activities, handouts and resources that can be used in building student’s knowledge and skills(Training modules can be found under materials for Trainers and Coaches on the website listed above).

2) https://csefel.vanderbilt.edu The What Works Training Kits are based on the What Works Briefs topics. These short training packages on focused topics include powerpoint slides with accompanying note pages, activities, and handouts. There are several training kits that relate to Tier Three. For example, What Works Training Kit No. 10provides a short training on Positive Behavior Support: An Individualized Approach for Addressing Challenging Behavior

(What Works Training Kits can be found under Training Kits on the website listed above).

 If you have any trouble locating these resources as you make plans to embed the content in your higher education courses, send us an email and we will help you!

Michaelene M. Ostrosky, PhD is Grayce Wicall Gauthier Professor of Education and Head of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Throughout her career, Dr. Ostrosky has been involved in research and dissemination on the inclusion of young children with disabilities, social emotional competence, and challenging behavior.

Tweety Yates, PhD is retired from the Special Education Department at the University of Illinois. She has continued to work on grant-funded projects at the University of Illinois and Vanderbilt University. Dr. Yates’ primary focus has been on parent-child interaction, social emotional development and early literacy.

Difficult conversation (Guest blogger: Dr. Anna Reinking)

A few years ago I realized that the teacher candidates in my courses were receiving applicable information and having great classroom experiences. However, upon further reflection, I realized the teacher candidates were missing out on one beneficial experience: interacting with individuals in a professional environment when there is a conflict. After realizing this deficit in their education, I began to brainstorm and implement coursework.

First, I implemented email communication with a pseudo parent discussing topics that often come up in early childhood classrooms. All of the emails were direct, to the point, and angry or dissatisfied. The teacher candidates were instructed to respond within 24 hours, which was the professionally agreed upon appropriate amount of time. After the first round of emails, we discussed how difficult the process was, how tone of voice can be conveyed and perceived in written contexts, and the importance of basing knowledge in best practices. After this first reflection process, the teacher candidates were emailed another difficult conversation from a pseudo parent and responded utilizing the knowledge gained from the first round. This project resulted in teacher candidates developing a higher level of comfort when difficult conversations arise in their placements and when they enter the workforce.

Another activity I implemented was engaging in more difficult conversations during parent teacher conferences. While some of our teacher candidates have the opportunity to observe parent teacher conferences, the parent teacher conferences are generally straight forward. In order to better prepare our teacher candidates I wanted to ensure they were ready for difficult conversations. Therefore, we used our virtual lab to implement parent teacher conferences with more difficult conversation topics and parents who were unwilling to negotiate or compromise. Again, this created an atmosphere of learning and developing a higher level of confidence among the teacher candidates.

After taking all of this information and the results from these experiences “on the road” to several conferences, I was approached by a publisher to write a textbook focused on difficult conversations in education. Through our research, we discovered there are few to no books focused on difficult conversations, specifically in the field of education. So, a book titled, Difficult Conversations: A Toolkit for Educators in Handling Real-Life Situations, was created and will be released in June/July of 2019.

The book covers several communication topics, along with applicable toolkits. As part of the writing process I reached out to several professionals to read a draft. One professional I reached out to said this:

‘Difficult Conversations’ is a great resource for teachers and administrators to communicate more effectively. I really appreciate that this book brings these ideas directly to an educator context. The toolkits are great—they are organized around the different types of relationships that educators might encounter, especially as they progress in their career. The real-life scenarios are a great way of explaining the concepts and ideas that you’re developing, and they’re authentic and relatable. Communication is such a challenge for educators who are promoted to administrative roles but don’t receive much training or guidance on effective and respectful communication approaches to use with parents and teachers. This is going to truly help people in the field examine their own practices and reflect on the ways in which they communicate with those around them and the impact that has on the outcomes they get.

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.

The IFSP and IEP: Two different but similarly required documents in Special Education (Guest blogger: Dr. Barry Birnbaum)

Most people know about the Individual Education Plan (IEP).  This is a document that outlines exactly what the child in school with a disability will achieve during the academic year.  The IEP lists the goals, objectives, and other pertinent material that is relevant to learning.  It is a contract between the school and the student and a great deal of work goes into it. This is a legal agreement that needs to be followed and any changes or modifications have to be made with the parents, the school team, and the student, where appropriate.  These changes need to address any of the problems that the child encountered while in the classroom.

For younger children (aged 0-5), an Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP) takes the place of the IEP.  This document involves the family and the school and requires that a plan for early intervention is developed.  The IFSP details the home environment and what can be done before the child is of school age.  The parents play a very big part in what happens.  The IFSP outlines the strengths and needs of the child and most of this comes from information provided by family members.

The community and the school have an obligation to refer children with potential learning problems to the school for services before the child is old enough to attend.  The child’s home school is responsible for providing services and developing a plan of intervention that is early and appropriate.  This is known as Child Find and can be started by anyone who identifies that a child has a potential disability that may interfere with school success.  The school must reach out to the community to make sure that parents and pre-schools know who to contact.  The main goal of child find is to make sure that all children are identified regardless of age or ability.

Services in special education help all children learn. If the child is diagnosed with a disability, the opportunities for accommodations or modifications are developed. This involves input from the teachers and all school personnel who might work with the child.  This process supports individualized learning styles and helps the student be successful in school.  Today, education is created truly for all, giving all children the opportunity to learn and be engaged.

Barry W Birnbaum is Associate Professor of Special Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Western Illinois University.  He has been a classroom teacher and school principal.  He is the author of six books and numerous articles in the field of special education.  Additionally, Dr. Birnbaum has presented his research at conferences and schools around the world.

Not just Black and White (Guest blogger: Dr. Anni Reinking)


As an early childhood professor, one of the courses I teach focuses on families, collaboration, and community engagement. As I go through the process of teaching and preparing, I also bring in my personal experience. As a mother of a biracial son, I understand the importance of conversations in early childhood classrooms focused on multicultural topics.

Conversations with children are important, especially when considering implicit bias, which refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. It is important to recognize that everyone has implicit biases and that implicit biases often result in individuals favoring their own “group” (i.e. race, gender, religion, ability, etc.) and conversely having negative perceptions about other groups. While biases are often seen as an internal negative characteristic, implicit biases are malleable through interactions and conversations.

The importance reflecting on personal implicit biases became evident in a research study conducted by Gilliam, et al. (2016), who published a study with the Yale Child Study Center.  “What we found was exactly what we expected based on the rates at which children are expelled from preschool programs,” the lead research Gilliam stated to NPR in an interview (Turner, 2016). “Teachers looked more at the black children than the white children, and they looked specifically more at the African-American boy.” This was evident with both black and white teachers. Therefore, reflection, conversations, and acknowledgement of implicit and explicit biases are concepts that will continue to grow as more research is conducted and presented.

But now, stepping out of my researcher and professor position and into my position as a mother, I also understand the importance of conversations focused on many topics that impact children in the diversifying nation. As stated several times in research, our nation is becoming a majority minority in the next few decades. As a mother of a biracial son and educator, I know that some voices are not yet in the conversation. Therefore I wrote a book depicting my vulnerable reflections as an educator and mother.

Not Just Black and White, (www.notjustblackandwhitebook.com) is a book that discusses my own journey through the process of racial discussions in my life and the wider conversation. It is a book that is meant to spark conversation, influence reflection, and maybe add one more voice to the dialogue.

While I have written many pieces about the book, I think this review is a better summary than I could ever provide:

This is a different kind of memoir. Many memoirs are glossy overviews of the author’s life, with the high points highlighted, glory days re-lived, and the low points touched on only when they have a greater message or meaning. People generally do not write a memoir that blatantly exposes their own weaknesses, failings, or ignorance, but Dr. Reinking does just that in this book. She makes no excuses for her actions, and uses her experience to educate the reader about interracial relations in and out of the family setting.

Her details the first 30-odd years of her life, focusing mostly on the years between 15 and 30-something, and her interactions with people outside her own racial background, in the United States and in Kenya, where she served as a missionary. After returning to the US, Dr. Reinking, a white woman, married a black man and gave birth to a biracial child. While married, she had to navigate as a dual-minority (a white person and a woman) in a mostly African-American community in Chicago. When her marriage ended, she found herself a single mother, trying to raise a child of color without access to any of the cultural heritage found within the African-American community. Her struggles to recognize and respect her son’s racial heritage, while raising him as the only member of color in a supportive extended family, are touching and poignant. She makes no excuses for her ignorance and begs forgiveness for any unintended offenses in her quest to educate herself and her son.

In relating her experiences, Dr. Reinking exposes her own vulnerability. She has no direct cultural knowledge to impart to her son regarding how to be a person of color in the racially-charged dynamic that pervades the United States today. She reaches out to friends and acquaintances within the African-American community for answers, praying that even the act of questioning does not cause offense. She shares the choices that she makes, the victories and the defeats, the three-steps-forward-two-steps-back dance that she does while trying to straddle a racial divide that some still feel should be enforced. Her overwhelming desire to be a “good” parent – to raise a child prepared for the world, armed to defend themselves against any challenges the world may present – is palpable within her volume. The fact that she must do all of this AND deal with any racial onslaughts her son may face, as well, makes her learning curve as a parent that much greater.

The dilemmas posed within these pages are ones that should be discerned and contemplated, as no one is immune to how they interact and react to people outside their own racial circle. Dr. Reinking’s experiences can be taken to heart by the reader, and the lessons she has learned can easily be incorporated into one’s own zeitgeist.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who has interaction with a multicultural person, whether that person is a friend, relative, loved one, co-worker, neighbor, or cashier at the store. How we recognize and respect our differences while celebrating our greater, global community is more important now than ever. Dr. Reinking’s book establishes a discussion platform for just this in a racially-charged, divided atmosphere.

Overall, as early childhood educators, it is important to keep the conversation going in our classrooms, in our organizations, and with our children. Race is a difficult topic to talk about for many people, but it is also a reality that needs to be acknowledged.

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.

The Power of Our Mind’s Eye (Guest blogger: Anna Owen, M.S. Ed)

As I was scrolling through my social media feed late one evening, I came across a quote that someone had shared by a gentleman named Wayne Dyer that said, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

This quote made me stop scrolling and I began to think about the many ways that it spoke it to me.  If you know me personally, you probably know that in addition to my passion for early childhood, I also have a great passion for photography.  From the moment that I began to look at life through the lens of my camera, I began to see things differently.   Suddenly, that old tree in our front yard that I had probably looked at a million times before was more beautiful to me.  My camera helped me to slow down and to observe this world more closely. I began to notice the tree’s textures, it’s lines, it’s colors, the way the sunlight illuminated it’s leaves at different times of day.  I noticed how the tree’s beauty changed through the various seasons.  My camera forced me to slow down and to truly “see” things.  Now I find myself appreciating the beauty around me even when my camera is not near. My family will often hear me make comments when we are out such as “Wow, look at how the light and shadows are hitting the side of that building, isn’t that pretty?”  It’s just how I see the world now.   I am so thankful for photography as it has given me the gift to slow down and to notice details that I might not otherwise have seen.

As I reflected on the impact of photography in my own life, I began thinking about how our mind’s eye really shapes everything that we experience in this life, both personal and professional, including our work in the field of early childhood.

The way in which we, as adults, “see” children certainly shapes our interactions with them.  Do we slow down to notice and appreciate what is unique and beautiful about every child that we work with?  Do we approach each day with a fresh curiosity that allows us to be more “in the moment” and to observe children more closely?  This can be extremely difficult to do during the hustle and bustle of the typical preschool classroom.  If we did this more intentionally, what might we see?  What might we learn?  How might this practice affect our relationships with the children?  How would the climate of our classroom change if we made seeing in this way a priority?

How do we “see” the children that might have more difficult temperaments or children that exhibit ongoing challenging behaviors? Do we view those children negatively and/or respond out of stress?  Or do we choose to “see” a beautiful young soul that needs some help getting through a difficult moment?  The way that we “see” shapes the way that we act.

It can be difficult to train our mind’s eye to see differently.  It’s a journey and it takes time, reflection and intentionality.  In my own photography practice, I have committed to doing a “365 project” in which I take one photo daily.  This commitment forces me to look at my life more creatively and I have to be intentional about seeking the beauty in my everyday moments that might otherwise seem mundane.  When I’m not intentional about challenging my mind to see differently then I’m just not growing.

In addition to preparing teachers with the skills and knowledge that they will need to implement developmentally appropriate practices and teaching methods, I’m wondering how we might also help them to nurture their mind’s eye as they grow professionally?   What tools can we give educators to continue to reflect on how they choose to “see” as they go to work with children each day?

Our mind’s eye will shape our methods.  Our methods will impact children.  We need to always ask ourselves, “Am I modeling the dispositions (habits of mind) that I want to strengthen in the children that I work with?”  The way that we “see” will certainly impact how the children “see,” as well.   Just the other day, my five-year-old daughter said to me, “Mom, isn’t the golden light that is shining on my wall just so beautiful?”  I loved that she paused to notice that detail as she was playing in her room.  As we continue to take the time to notice and appreciate the beauty in each of our children, it is more likely that they will also notice and appreciate others in the same way.  Don’t we need more of that in the world that we live in today?


Anna Owen, M.S. Ed., is an Early Childhood Resource Specialist with STARnet Regions I & III. Anna has been involved in the field of early childhood since 2003.  She received her Master’s degree from Western Illinois University in 2013.  Her previous job titles include training coordinator, parent educator and preschool teacher.  In her role as an Early Childhood Resource Specialist, she provides technical assistance and training to early childhood professionals and families. She is passionate about the arts and serves as the co-chair for the Creative Expressions Art Gallery that takes place biannually at the statewide Sharing A Vision conference.  She provides professional development on a variety of topics related to curriculum, assessment, lesson planning, intentional interactions and much more.  In her spare time, she enjoys photography and spending time with her husband and two young children.

Guiding Pre-Service Teachers to Build Relationships with Families (Guest blogger: Dr. Bernadette Laumann)

One of the most difficult relationships that beginning early childhood teachers encounter is creating trust with their students’ families. I have seen this in settings where pre-service teachers are nervous about greeting and engaging in conversations with students’ parents. Often the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of pre-service teachers may be quite different from their students’ families. This is true in many communities across Illinois, where families from a wide range of cultural and linguistic backgrounds live and work. Teacher educators must consciously prepare new teachers to be ready to engage with families from many different backgrounds.

Course assignments that include home visits, conversations with parents, and parent/teacher conferences help prepare new teachers for their future work with families. The more practice pre-service teachers can have meeting with families the better. When we talk about differentiating instruction for young children, we also talk about differentiating communication with families. Each family is unique and brings their own dreams and hopes for their child. Using technology helps facilitate ongoing communication with families about their child’s learning.

As teacher educators it is our responsibility to model open communication for pre-service teachers. Our communication with them and willingness to listen to their hopes and fears with an open heart demonstrates how they can approach the families of their students. Communicating with families can be embedded into pre-service teacher education programs in a variety of courses and practica. Our work is to prepare future early childhood teachers to be partners with the families of their students and to be open to learning from them.


* Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center (ECTA), Engaging Culturally Diverse Families, a resource list with links to a variety of materials addressing cultural competence and promoting partnerships with diverse families

*The Illinois Families and School Success Project provides resources for school staff (PreK through 12th grade) and families to promote best practices in family engagement.

*The Illinois Early Learning Project focuses on resources that support educators of young children birth to age five years old and their families. Resources for families are available in diverse languages.

* IRIS Center Module: Collaborating with Families highlights information teachers need to understand when working with the families of children with disabilities.

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

Smartphones, Tablets, and Screen Time – Oh, My! (Guest Blogger: Bridget Meis, M.S.Ed.)

Technology is around us from the moment we wake up until the moment we go to bed.  With the increase in the amount of exposure that children have with technology, there are many questions and ideas about what is appropriate. How much screen time is too much? What apps will help my child’s development?  Children get enough technology at home, should I even have it in the classroom? These are just a few questions that come to mind.

There are millions of apps available for download to smartphones and tablets.  When we look at these apps, we must consider several different features in order to choose quality apps that will enhance children’s development rather than just passively exposing them to screen time.

App Features to Consider

We want to look at apps that offer a divergent path and choice making opportunitiesfor children to be able to actively engagewith the app.  Think of the choose your own adventure books that you may have read as a child; these books gave you the opportunity to make your own choice during the story and then see what happens because of that choice.  When we think of apps that offer a divergent path, they provide that same opportunity for decision making, problem-solving, and exploring what happens next.

Children will go through stages of development when using apps, just like they do with real materials. First, the children will tap and explore cause and effect.  Through exploring, children will develop the confidence and skills to make certain things happen within the app.  Finally, children will be able to use the app as it was intended to be used.

So, with that in mind, we want to offer apps that are open ended and invite the children to explorethe features of the app in a non-threatening environment.  Find apps that children can tap and explore in any way that they choose, and there is not a wrong way to use the app.  Some apps that offer this feature are the Toca Boca apps.  There are several available where children can discover on their own what will happen as the interact with the screen.

Apps will never take the place of real-life experiences, so when you are choosing apps, try to find ones that will enhance hands on experiencesor children’s knowledge about the real world.  Give them a chance to take pictures and edit those pictures with games, such as Toca Hair Salon.  You can also find apps that allow children to take pictures of their artwork – the Keepy App with do this, or even create their own stories and save them as a PDF, such as Storybook.  Find apps that will be relevant to the children’s experiences.

We want to keep in mind that when we are giving children the opportunity to use apps with smartphones or tablets, that choosing a quality app is not enough when we look at the appropriate use of technology with young children.  We want to think about how we are interacting with the children as they use the app.  Are we there with the children as they play, to help facilitate and guide the child on how to use the app?  Are we there to encourage conversations and questions about how the app connects to the real world?

Technology is here to stay. Model appropriate use of technology with children as you use it and children use it.  Children are always watching what we are doing, and they will learn from the example you set.

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. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education from Illinois State University and her Master’s degree in Early Childhood Education from Erikson Institute. Bridget has worked in a variety of early childhood programs with diverse groups of children from as young as six weeks old to children in fifth grade. Bridget has served children and families in private childcare programs and most recently with Head Start.

Removing Systemic Barriers in Education Through Universal Design for Learning (Guest blogger: Jana Nicol, M.Ed.)

“Fair doesn’t always mean equal.”

As an elementary school teacher, sometimes it is necessary to help young students to develop a more sophisticated understanding of fairness. Part of building classroom community is helping students understand that we all have different needs, and that everyone has an equal right to learn. ​This picture usually comes to mind when I think of this topic:

In the first image of this picture, everyone is given the exact same support. They are being treated equally, but they are not being treated fairly. If we are striving to teach all of our students fairly, then some students may be given different supports which gives everyone an equal chance of success. This often results in accommodations, such as providing extra time, or printing worksheets in larger print for those who need it.

The picture above is definitely more widely distributed than this one:

The third image in this picture is an excellent example of Universal Design for Learning. The need for additional supports is eliminated altogether because the systemic barrier has been removed. For teachers who wish to implement UDL in their classrooms, we must think of ways to reduce the need for additional supports.

As teachers, we may not have the ability to completely remove the need for accommodations in our classroom, because we lack control over some of the systemic barriers that make learning challenging for some students. For example, we may lack funding for technology, or we may be obligated to follow a set regulations for the administration of standardized assessments.

But we can at least make the effort to empower ourselves to remove as many barriers as we can in our own classrooms in ways that are affordable and feasible. Here are just a few ways that we can help remove barriers in our own classrooms to benefit all students:

  • We can make classroom materials accessible – we can put materials within everyone’s reach, add labels with words and pictures, keep them in a consistent location so students can remember where they are kept, and make small purchases that increase accessibility in the classroom (e.g. left-handed scissors, magnifying glasses, fidgets).

  • We can offer flexible seating – we can have a variety of seating arrangements in the classroom to maximize comfort for all students (traditional desk and chair, stools, stability balls, yoga mats, standing desk, milk crates, etc). We can allow students to sit on the floor, under tables, anywhere where they feel comfortable, provided that they are following classroom expectations for work. We can also allow movement from one seat to another and provide movement breaks for the whole class throughout the day because some students need more movement than others.

  • We can offer accommodations to all students – not everyone will need them, but making them available to everyone takes the stigma away from those who rely on them and can benefit everyone. For example, taking away time limits from a test is not only beneficial for those who need more time, but it can also help alleviate anxiety for those who become anxious when they are being timed.


  • We can establish and follow predictable routines – many students thrive on routine, and they like to know what to expect. We can have well-established routines for passing out and collecting materials, transitioning between activities, getting ready to go outside, etc. We can post a visual schedule in a prominent area of the room and follow it. I use a visual schedule that is changed daily. Each card has text supported by visuals, which makes it more accessible to those who struggle with reading.

  • We can activate background knowledge before discussing a given topic. Students come to school with a diverse range of experiences and some students may benefit from learning a little bit about a topic before jumping into a lesson. For some students, skipping this step can make a learning activity completely inaccessible to them. And for other students, we can improve the quality of their work by refreshing their memory about a given topic. For example, if we are asking students to write out instructions for making a snowman, we cannot assume that every student has experience with this. Maybe their parents do not allow them to play outside, or perhaps they have moved from a warmer climate. Before the writing activity, we can discuss the steps involved in building a snowman, watch a video of children building a snowman, or take the entire class outside to build snowmen (if you live in a snowy climate).


  • Heighten the salience of goals/objectives – Some students need to have a sense of purpose in learning tasks. They need to know why they are doing what they are doing… or what the point of an activity is. Taking time to review a lesson’s objectives in simple language at the beginning of a lesson can help students understand what they need to know and why. Here is a picture of the goal board I use in my classroom, which is written in student-friendly language.

Jana Nicol, B.A., B.Ed., M.Ed., is an elementary school teacher in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. She has researched Universal Design for Learning (UDL) extensively, having written essays on better practices of implementing UDL in elementary school classrooms. She also led a team of teachers through an action research project which sought to increase student engagement through the implementation of UDL practices. She authors the website http://theudlproject.com, where she has shared the findings of this action research, and writes blogs about UDL. She has also facilitated professional development workshops on UDL.

Inequalities and Disparities in Education (guest blogger: Kali Goldberg)

Inequalities and disparities in education have always been painfully obvious to me. I spent the first five years of my teaching career working in a desperately understaffed school. The district was unable to afford a full-time nurse to support students with a G-tube and other medical needs, or multiple assistants for classrooms with severe needs. Supplies were hard to come by as well. When I saw my students using crayons to write on white boards because the district couldn’t afford dry erase markers, I knew I had to do something.

Through my work with Teach Plus, a teacher leadership organization of which I’m an alumna, I was able to illustrate my struggles through an op-ed detailing what lack of funding looked like and what school funding reform would mean to my students and me. One of my local legislators read the piece and reached out for a meeting. I was able to show him my class and point out areas where additional funding would increase educational outcomes for the children in his district. Through this meeting, I was able to educate my legislator and build a relationship with him. The meeting also inspired the newspaper’s editorial board to come out in favor of the school funding bill. As a teacher, I had a deep impact on policy because I used my passion to share my experience with decision makers. They need to hear our stories; teachers need to be part of these conversations.

My impact multiplied exponentially when I partnered with other teachers from other communities who also shared their stories. Several teachers and I advocated with legislators and in communities across the state. We held a rally in Springfield on school funding reform. Together, as teachers, with our communities and legislators, we passed historic school funding reform in Illinois. Teacher voice made a difference for the children of Illinois and will continue to do so as long as teachers are willing to speak up, share their stories, and advocate for what they believe in.

Teaching is inherently political. There are laws and policies that govern who can be a teacher, what education one needs to attain in order to teach, how teachers can discipline their students, how much teachers are paid, and what standards teachers should teach. The list goes on and on. Teacher voice should be an integral part of the conversations where such policies are set. Professors of teacher preparation programs are in a unique position to teach teacher candidates about the pivotal role they can play in policy and how to do so.

The best way to get started in advocacy is to simply find out who your legislators are. Professors should encourage teacher candidates to use websites such as openstates.org to research their legislators. State and federal legislators are there to represent all of their constituents, even those who may not have voted for them. Teachers and teacher candidates should establish a relationship with their legislator, even if there is no issue for which they are currently advocating.

To prepare for a meeting with a legislator:

  1. Have a story to tell – Personal stories have a tremendous power to influence policy. These are the stories that lawmakers need to hear to influence their decisions.
  2. Bring data – It is often beneficial to come with research backing up your position.
  3. Engage in dialogue – Influencing policy is not a one-stop shop. Policy is unlikely to change in a single conversation. Be prepared to build a lasting relationship with the decision maker.
  4. Propose a solution – A solutions-oriented approach is often one of the most influential. Teacher candidates should research the proposed solution and make sure that it is applicable beyond their classroom.
  5. Have an ask – Are you asking your legislator to support or oppose a piece of legislation? The ask should be central to your conversation and supported by your data. It should be in line with the proposed solution.Building consensus:

When meeting with legislators and other decision makers it is beneficial to build a consensus. Find something that you can agree on and build the conversation from there. It can be something as simple as wanting to help the students in your community. Keep in mind that legislators are often not experts in education. They are asked to make decisions in many areas, including education, health care, the environment, and the economy and cannot become an expert in each area. Teachers are the experts in education and should use their expertise to teach and inform legislators just as they do their students.

Policies teacher candidates can focus on:

Professors of teacher preparation programs can engage teacher candidates by engaging them in issues that currently impact them, such as the requirements to becoming a teacher in Illinois, particularly the basic skills assessment or the minimum salary for teacher positions in our state. Teacher candidates may not be ready to engage with decision makers and that’s ok. They can connect with other professionals through teacher’s unions, NAEYC, The Ounce, Teach Plus, and other organizations. Following these groups on social media or signing up for their email lists are effortless ways to stay updated on important issues and advocacy opportunities. Most importantly, this will help teacher candidates to build their advocacy muscle so that when they’re ready to engage, they’ll have the tools and connections to do so.

Kali Goldberg holds a bachelors degree in early childhood education from Elmhurst College as well as a masters degree in curriculum and instruction from Western Governors University. She is in her sixth year teaching, currently in a blended at-risk and special education early childhood classroom in Maywood District 89. Kali is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alumna.

The large impact of smaller groups (Guest blogger: Cecilia Mintz)

I was recently introduced to the concept of taking large groups and breaking them into smaller groups. I thought that sounds like a good idea. However, is it even possible with the limited time that Early Childhood teachers have? The more I began to think about this concept the more I realized what an amazing impact it could make.

Let’s think about your large group, what do you typically do: Calendar? Weather? Read a story? Are all the children actively engaged with these activities? In the 10-15 minutes that you have are you able to respond and engage with all the children that want a chance to speak? My guess would be probably not. After all, there is one of you and usually about 20 children.

Now let’s think about reading a story to six or seven children instead. You could engage and be present for each child in the group, because of this you would be able to scaffold conversations to further their understanding of the content. You might find yourself inspired to be more intentional in the small group activities you plan, and your observations would be more reflective of where each individual actually is. Most importantly it gives you time to get to know and connect with your children. I would even go as far as to say that real learning cannot begin until there is a strong relationship between teacher and child is established.

You may be thinking about logistics of it all. First of all, I want to clarify that this time would not take the place of the academic-focused small groups, but would take place when you typically would do a large group. Get creative with how you break up your groups! One way that you could try is while you work with one group on a story, have the teacher/para work with another group on another circle time activity like the weather or project work. The last group of children can do an independent work group. You will want to make sure that the materials needed are accessible to them and it is an activity they are familiar with.

I am in no way saying to completely rid your classroom of large group. large group is necessary to build the classroom community. To discuss what is coming up and what we have done. We need that time to dance and be silly with children to continue to build those relationships that are vital for children to learn. I’m suggesting spending a little less time in large group, and a little more time with smaller groups of children.

Are you willing to think outside the box and do a little less large group time? Take a chance, you might be surprised by the outcome.

Cecilia Mintz, B.S. Ed, is an Early Childhood Resource Specialist for STARnet Regions I & III. She has worked in Early Childhood since 2007. Cecilia has worked with a diverse population at Head Start. While working with Head Start she guided children with Project Approach. Cecilia worked at engaging families in their child’s education by encouraging their input on family goals involving their child.