Supporting Early Childhood Professionals to Develop Evidence-Based Inclusive Practice
What were the main aims of the initiative?
CONNECT Modules and Courses have been developed to support early childhood teachers to include all children, specifically those with additional needs. These web-based modules and courses are practice-focused and are designed using a 5-Step Learning Cycle, an approach for making evidence-based decisions about practice dilemmas. Each module / course starts with a real-life dilemma and includes video demonstrations of the practice, research brief, activities and practice checklists. The modules are free instructional resources for faculty and professional development providers to use and the courses are low-cost, self-paced, self-guided and designed for early childhood teachers, directors and other early childhood professionals.
The CONNECT project based at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute was funded from 2008–2014 by the United States Department of Education. Its mission was to work with the early childhood community to create and make available a series of seven free web-based multimedia modules for early childhood faculty and instructors / trainers. The modules aim to support early childhood professionals in learning about, and implementing specific evidence-based practices associated with the inclusion of children at risk and with disabilities in regular education settings. In 2015, the project released eight low-cost, self-paced and self-guided certificate-granting courses that are based on the rich module content to reach early childhood professionals directly.
Each module / course focuses on a specific research-based practice in early childhood practice:
The modules have provided the faculty, the instructors and trainers with free access to the best available research on effective practices in key content areas, as well as definitions, multimedia examples and demonstrations of practices, related laws and policies, consensus documents and activities. These have all been organised to scaffold and support learners’ abilities to apply the knowledge to practice dilemmas related to inclusion. In addition, CONNECT has provided a template (the 5-Step Learning Cycle) for organising content into a learning sequence that faculty, instructors and trainers can apply to any topic they teach. This framework helps early childhood practitioners make evidence-based decisions when they are faced with daily practice dilemmas.
All video clips in the modules also include closed captioning and transcripts. Each CONNECT module /course begins with a short real life dilemma video clip presented from the practitioner’s perspective. A family’s perspective is also often included to convey the importance of considering family values and experiences as part of an evidence-based decision making process. This very first step in the module arouses learners’ interest and often helps them to make connections to their own experiences. In order to help learners see exemplars of the practices, each module includes a 2-minute video demonstration of practices related to inclusion. There are also suggested activities and activity guides to go along with the videos and hand-outs, as well as checklists and implementation plans to help learners put their knowledge into practice. There is flexibility in how the modules can be used in professional development opportunities – i.e., online, face-to-face opportunities with or without Internet connection.
Location, setting, Scope, key events etc.
CONNECT modules were developed for the early childhood field and have been used in all 50 states of the U.S.A. All the modules are available in English and Spanish. Even though they had been developed for the American context, they have also been accessed in 180 countries. Module 1 has also been translated to Chinese Mandarin and Portuguese and Module 4 has been translated into Portuguese. The website has had over 3 million pageviews and over 430,000 visitors since Fall 2010 (Google Analytics, Aug 1, 2010 – October 12, 2015). The modules are targeted at faculty and professional development providers to use in personnel preparation or professional development opportunities such as coursework, workshops and coaching. The courses are low-cost, self-paced and self-guided and designed for early childhood teachers, directors, and other professionals who work with or support young children and their families in a variety of learning environments and inclusive settings.
What issues/challenges does the example address?
Early childhood personnel preparation programmes (2-year and 4-year courses) in colleges and universities in the United States were providing limited coursework and practical experiences related to working with young children with disabilities (Early & Winton, 2001; Maxwell, Lim & Early, 2006), even when their primary stated mission is to prepare early interventionists or early childhood special educators (Chang, Early, & Winton, 2005; Early & Winton). Early childhood faculty also reported a limited knowledge of evidence-based practices associated with inclusion and having a lack of comfort on inclusion (Lim, Dinnebeil, Blasco, West, Catlett, & McInerney, 2015). It is therefore not surprising that evidence has shown that early childhood practitioners do not feel supported to develop confidence and competence in implementing inclusion (Buysse, Wesley, Keyes, & Bailey, 1996).
How was the Initiative implemented?
CONNECT was funded by the Office of Special Education Programs within the U.S. Department of Education between 2008–2014 to address the above challenges by developing free web-based, multimedia modules. The project was led by Pam Winton and Virginia Buysse at FPG Child Development Institute, Beth Rous at the University of Kentucky and Ann Turnbull at the University of Kansas (part of the project from 2008–2010). Chih-Ing Lim was the project coordinator throughout the course of the project, Maggie Connolly was the module coordinator between 2008–2010 and Dale Epstein was the module coordinator between 2010–2013.
CONNECT staff collaborated with the diverse stakeholders in the field throughout the project. At every step of the way, families of children with disabilities guided the project. More than a third of the members of the steering committee (i.e., advisory board) had a child with disabilities. The committee helped provide guidance throughout the course of the project. Additionally, 30 families of children with disabilities (24%) also participated in the needs assessment that was conducted with the diverse stakeholders at the beginning of the project to determine module topics and features. The project also recruited a key staff member who had a young child with disabilities and worked closely with other families of children with disabilities to develop the content of many of the dilemma video clips.
The main activities of the project included 1) identifying needs in the field, 2) designing and developing seven instructional multimedia modules, 3) supporting faculty and professional development (PD) providers to implement the modules, and 4) continuous improvement and evaluation.
What where the key Outcomes? What impact/added value did they prove? What were the biggest challenges?
As indicated earlier, based on Google analytics, the modules have been accessed from 180 countries and have had over 3 million pageviews and over 430,000 visitors since Fall 2010. Many more have downloaded and continued to use the resources offline to prepare early childhood professionals to respond to challenges faced each day when working with young children with disabilities and their families. Module 1 has also been translated into Chinese Mandarin and Portuguese and Module 4 has been translated into Portuguese. The CONNECT team was also invited to Singapore to conduct an intensive face-to-face train-the-trainers workshop in March 2015. We have learned from colleagues in other countries (e.g., Singapore, Portugal, China, etc.) that the modules are relevant and can be adapted in those countries.
Additionally, the modules are socially valid. Based on a pilot study (n=50) of Module 1 and field tests (Range 2–6 field testers per module) conducted on the other 6 modules, the modules have been rated as being high quality, relevant, and useful to our target audience and their learners. Results from two studies also showed learner benefits:
1) Module 6 pilot study with 18 undergraduates showed a growth in learners’ use of dialogic reading and indicated that there was a statistical significance in the observed use of dialogic reading practices from pre-intervention to post-intervention.
2) A study by a faculty (Hollingsworth and Lim, 2014) with 19 undergraduate students showed that Modules 1, 5 and 7 were effective as indicated by learners’ knowledge and competence ratings. As summed up by a 4-year early childhood faculty member, ‘The modules helped with making classes more vibrant and more applicable. It sparked discussions and maintained better attention from the students. I think it really supported learning in the classroom maybe even more than it helped my teaching’ (Nadya Pancsofar, College of New Jersey).
Based on what we have learned from web statistics and from our target audience through field tests and communication at conferences and via the phone or email, and the international application and interest in the modules, we know that our project has been successful in meeting an acute need for quality professional development resources and has made an impact on faculty, PD providers and their learners.
Has the initiative been evaluated or are there plans for this in the future?
CONNECT’s evaluation activities have revolved around the following work areas:
(see section above on outcomes and evidence of impact).
Have any plans been made for future direction of the initiative?
The funding for the project has ended and CONNECT staff have been working hard to devise a plan and develop novel ways to keep the modules and courses available and accessible for the field in the years to come (e.g., by selling CONNECT courses using a revenue-neutral model). However, finding a balance between keeping the courses affordable for our target audience (i.e., early childhood practitioners) and generating enough revenue to upkeep and sustain both the modules and courses has been difficult. Without external funding, there is no guarantee that we will be able to succeed in sustaining both the courses and modules using a revenue-neutral model.
Other ways of ensuring sustainability is by giving permission to others to repurpose the materials within state-funded online courses (e.g., Kentucky, Florida, and Ohio).
What are the main learning points?
1. Collaboration: Our success has been attributed to working in partnership with the diverse stakeholders (early childhood and early childhood special education faculty, families of children with disabilities) from Day 1. This helped us ensure that the modules are usable and useful to both early childhood and early childhood special education faculty and PD providers.
2. Sustainability: Funding is definitely key to reaching out to even more people, especially early childhood professionals who make low wages. We would like to be able to continue offering the modules for free and also offer our credit-granting self-paced courses at no cost in order to better serve early childhood professionals who may have limited access or limited resources to access professional development opportunities. These credit-granting courses are currently offered at a low cost and operated under a revenue-neutral model. But the take-up rate has not been as high as when they were piloted for free (i.e., 9 participants per month vs. 150 participants per month).
Are there further information about supporting materials?
CONNECT Modules and Courses: http://connect.fpg.unc.edu/
Buysse, V., Wesley, P., Keyes, L., & Bailey Jr, D.B. 1996. Assessing the comfort zone of childcare teachers in serving young children with disabilities. Journal of Early Intervention, 20 (3):189-203
Chang, F., Early, D., & Winton, P. 2005. Early childhood teacher preparation in special education at 2- and 4-year institutions of higher education. Journal of Early Intervention, 27(2), 110-124
Early, D., & Winton, P. 2001. Preparing the workforce: Early childhood teacher preparation at 2- and 4-year institutions of higher education. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 16, 285-306
Lim, C.I., Dinnebeil, L., Blasco, P., McInerney, W., West, T., Catlett, C. 2015. Knowledge and comfort of community college early childhood faculty related to ECSE. Presentation at DEC Annual Conference, Atlanta, GA. (October)
Maxwell, K.L., Lim, C.I., & Early, D.M. 2006. Early childhood teacher preparation programs in the United States. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina, FPG Child Development Institute