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Why You Need High-Quality Head Start Preschools for Early Learning

Do high-quality preschools exist? Yes, but mostly for the affluent. According to Emily Griffey, Policy Director of Voices for Virginia’s Children, there is a 19 point difference between percentages of high-income families and low-income families who can afford preschools for their children. 

There are many initiatives to expand accessibility to public Head Start preschools, but such accessibility has to be matched with quality, or there is a risk of falling back into the cycle of inequity.

In her essay for the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, Taryn Morrissey narrows down the major reasons that warrant greater policy attention to early education.

To summarize, high-quality education:

  • promotes child development and learning, and reduces inequities for those in disadvantaged communities. 
  • helps parental employment by providing a safe and quality environment for learning for their kids. 
  • forms the necessary backbone of the economic infrastructure.

Thus, high-quality preschools have both a short-term and long-term impact on school children and their communities. The community is able to thrive knowing that the child has a safe and quality environment in which to develop that is conducive to learning. As the child grows older, there is a net spillover effect, where they contribute to the larger economy.

A study of 22 longitudinal studies, conducted between 1960 and 2016, showed that the attendees of early childhood education programs were:

  • less likely to be placed in special education
  • less likely to be held back a grade
  • more likely to graduate from high school 

These positive outcomes demonstrate that, when available, high-quality preschools do make a difference in early learning and future outcomes.

Are There Enough High-Quality Preschools?

It’s tough to say if there is a shortage of preschools. Invariably, every preschool classroom does not fill the capacity of the maximum of 20 children per two trained adults, as recommended by the Office of Child Care in the US. However, even when this happens, quality can be impacted as more children require increased teacher attention. 

In the US, state-funded preschool and Head Start programs serve less than 1 in 3 eligible early learners. 

The National Institute of Early Education Research (NIEER) says that the quality standards remain “far too low” for these programs, and were only exacerbated by the pandemic. As low-income families weigh their options, homeschooling or daycare may seem like better alternatives if the quality of preschools garners a bad reputation. 

Which prompts the question….

What Does High-Quality Early Childhood Education Look Like?

High-quality preschools are both academic and play-based. A high-quality curriculum is specifically designed to present skills and concepts to schoolchildren in an order that matches their level of development.

In the process, formative assessments are used to address achievement gaps in underperforming students. It increases student engagement and leads to greater teacher satisfaction.

Hence, high-quality preschools do not merely focus on providing the best early childhood education experience, but also have innate differentiated instruction to cater to the needs of every child in the classroom. 

There are scales available to measure the quality of preschools such as the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS).

The ECERS contains 35 items organized into 6 categories of Space and Furnishings, Personal Care Routines, Language and Literacy, Learning Activities, Interaction and Program Structure. One can appreciate the breadth of factors that go into determining the quality of a preschool!

It’s interesting to note that the Language and Literacy category encourages “becoming familiar with print” and “children’s use of books”, so the focus is definitely to build on oral language as foundational literacy concepts and move to reading when appropriate. 

Also, under Learning Activities, the promotion of diversity and the appropriate use of technology are suggested. Tools like Sprig Library combine these recommendations. The app offers interactive story books that support oral language development, while introducing Indigenous themes, illuminating diversity.

An equal mix of self-learning and group learning is ideal for high-quality preschool programs. As seen in the ECERS scale: to address self-learning, “space for privacy” appears under the Space and Furnishings category, and “individualized teaching and learning” appears under Interaction. To address group-learning, peer learning is recommended under Interaction, and “whole-group activities” is listed under Program Structure.

The High-Quality Checklist

The NIEER recommends the following considerations when building a high-quality preschool program. A high-quality preschool Head Start program must:

  • cultivate positive relationships between teachers and children.
  • adequately equip the classroom with sufficient materials and toys. 
  • ensure regular communication that involves mutual listening, responding and encouragement to use reasoning and problem solving.
  • offer opportunities for multiple kinds of play.
  • provide materials and activities to promote understanding of diversity.
  • nurture parental involvement in the program.

Additionally, there are structural recommendations published by The National Association for the Education of Young Children. For preschool, a staff to child ratio of 1:10 is suggested, with a maximum class size of 20 students. 

Furthermore, the fair compensation and professional development for all teachers and staff are very important components of administering and maintaining a high-quality preschool program. Wherever they are not compensated adequately and on equal terms with K-12 educators, there is a higher risk of turnover.

Need for Consistency and Assurance

Literacy assessment data from the US show that almost half of kindergartners were falling below grade-level benchmarks partway through the 2020-2021 year. The setbacks were more pronounced in marginalized communities. 

This is a case where the quality of preschools fell short of expectations. The data shows that preschoolers need consistent in-person interaction with educators.

Whenever this consistent learning environment is uprooted (due to any natural calamities or a global pandemic), it’s important to have a contingency plan in place that uses hybrid or remote learning, depending on how soon it’s safe to go back to school. 

The rate of return on human capital investment is at its highest from birth to age 5. When children attend any sort of structural school system for the first time, it’s important that they receive the best education and are assured of continuing in the program.

There can be a trade-off sometimes between targeting skills and the whole child. While it’s true that targeting specific skills such as literacy and numeracy increases achievement in those areas, a whole child curriculum is often better at ensuring quality of classroom processes.

It doesn’t have to be either-or. With holistic learning, you tend to the whole child by involving their teachers, parents and the community to support their needs and safety. But you also focus on particular academic skills by offering leveled activities that are fun to do.

Looking Ahead

It has been a tumultuous year as we continue to battle through the pandemic. It was not easy for early learners as many of them entered the school system for the first time this fall.  The Learning Policy Institute recommends creating a culture of affirmation and belonging, and building from students’ interests and taking a whole-child approach to their development.  A holistic approach seems to be best suited for achieving this purpose. 

There is help available to build high-quality Head Start preschools or transform existing preschools into a high-quality Head Start program. However, while there is more funding to increase accessibility, it must be matched with increased quality.

Early Learning Funding Sources That You Must Follow in the US

Every preschool, pre-kindergarten and similar early learning institutions such as child care or daycare centers aspire to provide a top-notch learning experience to young learners and their families. But it can be a costly ambition. 

  • There are logistics costs that include furnishings, equipment, technology, utility bills, food and beverages, transportation, etc.
  • Costs for learning materials, which include classroom resources for teachers and school supplies for students.
  • Payroll accounts for the majority of costs. Salaries for teachers, early childhood educators, teaching assistants, and substitute teachers (as needed). 

After accounting for all these costs, there are often limited funds remaining to invest in new early learning program resources and tools. This is where grants are best used. Often, school and program directors look to apply for these funds so they can improve early learning experience for their young students. 

The United Nations declares that education is a basic human right in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. With the increasing demand for early childhood education, there is pressure to create high-quality programs that are also affordable. In fact, the UN states in the same declaration that “Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages.”

Meeting demand and ensuring that every child gets a quality education is challenging enough, but with the pressure of making it affordable, and even free, the need for government funding is truly palpable. 

In the planning stages, it helps to know what funding options are available to develop and implement high-quality preschool programs that are inclusive and accessible. This article focuses on the US. We will cover the same topic, but for Canada in a future follow-up article.

Early Learning Funding Is Complex

Funding is a complex subject, and it’s easy to get lost in the weeds about who the funding is meant to support. Especially when discussing early childhood education. There are so many stakeholders involved, and each has its own separate funding stream.

This article covers funding intended for high-quality preschool and kindergarten programs that accelerate the developmental learning of those kids who need it most. 

Only 54% of 3 and 4-year-olds in the US participate in any preschool at all, and only 35% of eligible children enroll in Head Start- the nation’s go-to program for public early childhood education. 

While there are many reasons for low participation, the lack of perceived quality and the difficulty of implementation are two very valid reasons. This article discusses the major nationwide funding sources that can be used to strengthen early learning programs by increasing both quality and accessibility.

What Isn’t Covered by Early Learning Funds

Grants and programs mentioned in this article are not for:

  • any specific regions, or cities
  • educational television/internet programming or other entertainment options
  • after-school activities
  • parents or caregivers 
  • tax breaks or credits

When researching grants, It’s easy to get into streams of funding that are overly specific and:

  • do not focus on the overall improvement of an early learning program
  • are non-school related
  • are meant to indirectly help early learning through parents.

Main Sources of Early Learning Funding in the US

Below are the major nationwide sources of funding for early childhood education that every education leader must have on their radar.

Keep in mind these are not acts. These are grants. Acts inform policy that changes the availability, scope and promise of the grants. Acts may come up during the course of this article, but we will be taking a grant-driven approach to explore early learning funding in the US.

Preschool Development Grants

The Office of Innovation and Early Learning offers the Preschool Development Grants. It is jointly administered by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the US Department of Education.

What It Allows You to Do: The Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five (PDG B-5) is a $275 million federal grant that allows states to coordinate early learning programs and services that already exist in the state.

It is meant to “enable the delivery of high-quality preschool services to children” and “expand high-quality preschool programs in targeted communities” that would serve as models for future expansion. 

It was established in 2015 through the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA gives states more power to use PDG B-5 funds and to use high-quality early learning strategies to promote school improvement. K-12 is included as well, to cover school children from 5 to 8 years of age, which are also crucial developmental years.

Race to the Top — Early Childhood Challenge

The Office of Early Childhood Development, under the  US Department of Education, offers the Race to the Top — Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC)

What It Allows You to Do: RTT-ELC is focused on improving the quality of early learning and development, and bridging the achievement gap for low-income or disadvantaged children. 

Its objective is to enact reform in many areas, but particularly developing better assessments to measure child outcomes, helping failing schools with resources, and developing better methods for tracking the progress of young students. 

There are 20 states that have participated in the program as of last year, with funding totaling over $1 billion dollars.

Title 1 Part A Program

The Office of State Support, under the  US Department of Education, offers the Title I Part A Program.

What It Allows You to Do: The Title 1 Program is also known as Education for the Disadvantaged, Grants to Local Educational Agencies, and Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantages. 

This program is for preschools with a high percentage of children from low-income families. The fund supports additional instruction in reading and mathematics and other services that would help children meet academic standards. 

The Biden Administration has proposed doubling the funds for the Title I program from $16.5 billion to 36.5 billion.

The Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy Program

The Office of  Academic Improvement, under the US Department of Education, offers The Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy Program (SRCL).

What It Allows You to Do: A striving reader refers to a student who only has rudimentary reading skills. The SRCL program’s focus is to “create a comprehensive literacy program to advance literacy skills.” It mentions the inclusion of pre-literacy skills, reading and writing. 

In developing early learning programs, the effect of pre-literacy skills cannot be overstated. It’s important to recognize the importance of oral language in the path to advanced literacy.

Some of the SRCL funds are earmarked for geographically remote schools or schools operated by Indigenous communities. 

Latest funding figurbut the program is definitely still intact, with Ohio and Michigan receiving $35 million and $16 million respectively in the last year.

Demonstration Grants for Indian Children

The Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, under the  US Department of Education, offers the Demonstration Grants for Indian Children (DEMO). 

What It Allows You to Do: DEMO is focused on improving the education and achievement of Indigenous school children, which includes preschool. 

There are various types of projects within the program. For 2020, the main priority was to select Indigenous partners to develop learning programs that would best suit the educational needs of that particular partner. Indigenous people have long inhabited their communities and express the desire for their customs, culture and language to be reflected in the school curriculum. 

Last year, $15 million was made available in the form of 20 awards, averaging about $1 million.

Head Start Programs

The Office of Head Start, under the Administration for Children & Families offers Head Start Programs.

What It Allows You to Do: Head Start focuses on school readiness for the 3 to 5 age bracket, whereas Early Head Start focuses on those below 3 years of age. There is also the American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) Head Start Program that is designed for the Indigenous communities of the US. The Migrant and Seasonal Head Start that is meant for the children of families engaged in agricultural labor. 

Head Start Programs are often what first comes to mind when thinking about early childhood development. Apart from shining a light on health and family well-being, it is the early learning component of the Programs that Head Start has become famous for. These programs seek to foster a positive environment for the child where they can learn language and math skills, as well as other concepts such as social skills and emotional well-being. 

The American Rescue Plan pledges $1 billion for Head Start Programs. In light of the pandemic, the Head Start Programs received another $1 billion in funding previously, bringing the total to $2 billion. The Office of Head Start has called on early learning institutions to prioritize recruitment, enrollment and extension of Head Start Programming with this fund. 

Only two-thirds of kids are now participating in Head Start Programs. Restoring accessibility to high-quality early education is a top priority.

More Sources of Early Learning Funding in the US

In an attempt to cover nationwide programs that best address the improvement of pre-school education, there are many regional or city-specific grants that were not included in this article. However, such grants can be gems if they align to a particular area of need.

At the time this article was written, Grantwatch.com lists 965 grants for preschools and other early childhood programs like childcare and daycare programs. You can sort by the type of funding source, such as: federal government, foundations & corporations, local government and state government. Each featured grant includes a deadline ,which is helpful.

Grants and Funds from the Private Sector

It helps to be on the lookout for funds made available in the private sector as well. These funds tend to be for specific purposes however, such as buying books, creating playgrounds, or funding classroom projects. It doesn’t have the same systematic intention of improving multiple preschool programs at once. 

Nevertheless,there are sometimes particular areas that require improvement for the overall quality and accessibility of early learning programs. 

The Early Childhood Funders Collaborative publishes some amazing maps that list over a thousand private funders of pre-k education in the US. You can filter by state and support strategy. For example, you can see if the funding is for professional development, family engagement, or program support. 

In its research, it has found that from 2006 to now, private foundations in the US have funded over $6 billion dollars towards the improvement of early childhood care and education. So it’s definitely a wise move to diversify your funding portfolio with a mix of public and private donors.

The Importance of Early Learning — Keeping Track

In the US, early childhood education is said to contribute to 1.1 % of GDP, while costing .75% of the GDP. In monetary terms, it has a surplus effect of $23 billion after a cost-benefit analysis. There is a greater push than ever before to better support early learning nationwide. 

In order for public agencies to coordinate the delivery of pre-school programs, they need the cooperation of numerous community programs for families and children, including both private and public schools. There is the desire for greater funding, but it’s up to early learning program leaders to keep track of what is being done in their state.

Our team at Sprig Learning hopes you found this content useful in understanding the importance of early learning and the availability of funds to improve the quality and accessibility of schools catering to pre-k to grade three. In the near future, we will be publishing a complementary article on the funding available in Canada.

15 Characteristics of Holistic Learning

Holistic Learning in Early Childhood Education

UNESCO defines holistic learning as a learning approach that activates the learner’s intellect, emotions, imagination and body for more effective and comprehensive learning.

When a holistic approach is applied to early childhood learning, those same components are applied to the whole child’s development: intellectually, emotionally, socially and physically.

It’s said that the first 5 years of a child’s life are the most formative years, which shape the trajectory for the rest of their lives. There are many cognitive and physical milestones to be achieved during the course of these first 5 years, such as naming colors, hopping on one foot and singing a song.

Holistic learning aims to support all of the pivotal early years milestones, while supporting the environment in which the child is learning. In an OECD report, the quality and duration of pre-school, mother’s education, and home learning environment were identified as the most effective factors in determining a child’s literacy proficiency at age 5.

Characteristics and Examples of Holistic Learning

Sprig Learning works with Indigenous communities in the development of unique learning programs. Inspired by the holistic approach that First Nations have used for generations, Sprig developed a program that couples this holistic method with artificial intelligence. This combination helps to reduce unconscious human bias when collecting data points from multiple sources for initially assessing an early learner.

There are multiple use cases for holistic learning, but what does it look like in early childhood education? Here are 15 characteristics, with an example for each, of holistic learning in the school, home and community.

1) Holistic Learning Is Experiential

Holistic learning involves an experience when absorbing information or being introduced to new concepts. Instead of learning through rote memorization or forced readings, the young learner comes to the solution by themselves.

Example: Sprig Language Activity: Let’s Collect. The act of seeking out and physically collecting items deepens the learning experience.

2) Holistic Learning Is Personalized

Learning in a large classroom constitutes a real challenge for some students. Children learn at different paces, have their own strengths, challenges and interests, and often use learning styles that reflect their unique personalities. Holistic learning supports personalized learning for every young student and, when properly supported by teachers, it can help students learn independently and work at their own pace.

Example: Sprig Library offers leveled readers to accommodate different reading abilities.

3) Holistic Learning Is Both Teacher-guided and Self-guided

Pre-kindergarten and elementary teachers have developed pedagogical approaches to best teach young learners over the years. Therefore, not all holistic learning is self-guided. However, self-directed or self-guided learning is encouraged, as it builds curiosity in the child to learn. It gives them self-confidence in their ability to do something on their own.

Example: Sprig Language Activity: It’s in the Clouds. Parents start out the activity by pointing at clouds, but the child may take lead as well as curiosity takes over.

4) Holistic Learning Considers the Community

Holistic learning is not constrained within the four walls of the classroom. It recognizes the important role that parents, caregivers, and community members have in providing a safe and nurturing environment for children to learn.

Example: Sprig Language Activity: “Talking About Antle’s Forest”. In this exercise, young learners are encouraged to think about the forest environment and all the animals that live there.

5) Holistic Learning Includes Social-emotional Learning

Social and emotional growth are closely related in early childhood development. By interacting with others and navigating through their emotions, a child learns what is set out for them. As such, holistic learning understands that, beyond academic achievement, there is a need to support the social and emotional needs of all children.

Example: Meditation exercises can be useful in refocusing a child and making them more aware of the present moment.

6) Holistic Learning Strengthens Relationships

As important as curriculum and learning materials are, it’s the educator and the student who must work in partnership during the learning process. As such, a strong relationship and a sense of trust between teachers and students are critical. Similarly, the home learning environment is a big part of holistic learning. Caregivers, teachers and children all require strong bonds that support early learning in the school, home and community.

Example: Allowing students to participate in the development of classroom rules.

7) Holistic Learning Is Culturally Sensitive

Culture and language are very influential in any learning approach. Given that there is such a diverse population in North America consisting of so many different cultures, it’s important to be mindful, respectful and accommodating when teaching. It’s important that young children from different cultures see their language and customs in the material that is being used in the classroom.

Example: Incorporate a diverse curriculum that is reflective of the student body. Such as this exercise from Sprig Language “Tea Party with Nukumij”, which uses Indigenous characters to meet the learning outcome, “Listening and Speaking.”

8) Holistic Learning Is Interdisciplinary

Future learning success depends on a solid foundation of early literacy and numeracy skills. Math and literacy concepts are interwoven with all subject matters. Whether it be teaching through historical stories, counting by 2s while doing jumping jacks, or learning about fractions through cooking and baking – there are countless opportunities to customize learning to individual kids’ interests.

Example: Developing language skills while learning about various cultures through animated stories.

9) Holistic Learning Is Focused on Formative Assessments

As opposed to summative assessments, which happen only after the end of the school year, or a couple of times a year, formative assessments can happen every day. Assessment for learning provides ongoing feedback to the student that quickly addresses any challenges as they occur during the school year.

Example: Weekly quizzes that gamify learning and make assessments more routine.

10) Holistic Learning Is Strengths-Based

Holistic learning believes that there are no deficits in early learning, just differences. It strives to achieve equity by providing the best learning atmosphere, resources, and activities that are appropriate for that child to succeed in life.

Example: Sprig Language progress tree. Seeing how many activities are completed for Listening and Speaking versus Reading and Viewing outcomes for each student. Addresses the child’s learning challenges by focusing on their learning strengths and interests.

11) Holistic Learning Is Reverent of The World

Holistic learning emphasizes respect for all, which includes the land and other natural elements of life. Students learn essential language and math concepts and life skills, but also develop a sense of gratitude for everyone and everything around them.

Example: Sprig Language Activity: Gratitude Circle. Children engage in speaking about and listening to what makes them grateful.

12) Holistic Learning Includes Play-based Learning

Experiential learning is the first characteristic on this list. The act of playing is experiential as well. However, play-based learning has a special emphasis on motion. Holistic learning fully embraces the value of play-based learning where the young learner has to engage the mind and the body. It’s through play that young learners grasp motor skills and also develop their creative and imaginative capabilities.

Example: Sprig Math Activity: Running Games. Focusing on the breath while counting heartbeats engages both the mind and the body.

13) Holistic Learning Is Equal Parts Indoors and Outdoors

Holistic learning offers a healthy mix of indoor and outdoor activities and lessons to promote learning in the child. The change of scenery helps to negate boredom and keep young students receptive to learning new concepts.

Example: Control the size of the splash by using varying force. Indoors in the bath/sink or outdoors by jumping in puddles.

14) Holistic Learning is Safe

The world as we know it is very dynamic. Data privacy and security are important in any industry, especially education where minors are involved. To safeguard the interests of childhood learning, holistic learning relies on its community of teachers, parents and others in the community to protect young learners. While it’s important to keep up with the times, holistic learning discourages unsupervised use of technology.

Example: It takes a whole village to be as secure as possible. While there are many things done on the backend to ensure cybersecurity, here are some tips recommended to parents for protecting their child’s data.

15) Holistic Learning is Resource-Based Education

Just because holistic education emphasizes play, environmental elements, reliance on community and other forms of growth alongside intellectual growth, it is easy to dismiss it as not having a curricular structure. It’s by doing all of these other things that the young learner is best able to follow the curriculum that is set out in front of them. Holistic learning serves to enhance any learning outcome that is to be gained by a particular curriculum.

Example: Using leveled readers and benchmarks to match a child’s reading level to books and resources that are challenging enough for them to make progress.

Holistic Learning’s Evolution

Holistic learning has always existed, but only attracted more attention in recent times as alternative modes of education are explored. At Sprig, we hope these 15 characteristics provide you a better understanding of what holistic learning is all about.

At its core, holistic learning involves personalized and equitable instruction that considers all aspects of a child’s development. The values of holistic learning can be transferred into any education system to improve learning outcomes and experiences. Let us know if you are interested in a demo of holistic learning in action.

Learning Loss and the Road to Recovery for School Children

September is here.  More than 5.5 million Canadian students have returned to school in the last few weeks.  For most schools in Canada, classrooms continue to look different with a focus on safety measures and anticipated interruptions due to COVID outbreaks.

The past two years had a significant impact on many students.  Teachers are welcoming many students who thrived during the hybrid and remote-learning environments, but they are also re-engaging with a considerable number of students who struggled, in part due to learning loss.

Many students experienced difficulty with internet connections, accessing computers, finding support at home, and in some cases, simply accessing adequate food and shelter. Many students struggled socially and emotionally, which impacted their mental health, as well as their academics.

The Extent of Learning Loss

Early learning researchers around the world estimate the negative impact of academic achievement from school closures due to COVID-19 and termed the phenomenon  the ‘COVID Slide’.  Illuminate Education found that the COVID slide has led to between two and four months of learning loss.  Specific to young or early learners, the research predicts significant gaps in both reading and math skills, with an approximate reading loss of two months across the K-2 grades, most acutely felt in kindergarten.

NWEA research predicts a 30% loss of academic progress in reading skills compared to a typical school year.  It’s worse for math skills acquisition, with a predicted 50% loss. It’s suggested that early learners may fall behind a whole year because of this learning loss.

Behind the Learning Loss: School Closures

In Canada, this has been a difficult year for many students. Parts of Canada endured school closures for more than 31 weeks which, according to UNESCO, compares to countries such as Italy, Romania, Ethiopia, Cambodia and Afghanistan. How and if kids learned depended partly on where they were living. The school experience varied widely from province to province.

For example, students attending school in British Columbia and Nova Scotia had a relatively normal year as school largely stayed open after September 2020.   Whereas students in Ontario had the largest disruption—many schools, in Toronto and surrounding areas in particular, were closed for more than 20 weeks, plus an indefinite shutdown for the last 3 months of the school year.

The Impact on Marginalized Students

According to UNESCO, COVID-19 affected approximately 1.5 billion children across 195 countries due to school closures. But some were more affected than others.  Researchers have recognized that recent school closures widened existing gaps in learning needs for many marginalized students, when compared to their peers.

Those students who were struggling before the pandemic, have been set back even further.  The shift toward remote learning at home during the pandemic exposed long-standing inequities throughout our education system—highlighting divides between socioeconomic, geographic, and racial cohorts.

Early in the pandemic, researchers used data from summer learning loss to predict potential learning gaps caused by closures.  As recent studies that use data from the 2020-21 school year have shown, the actual impact is much greater.

A recent study out of the Netherlands indicates that students in remote schools “made little to no progress” while learning from home due to COVID-19. The study further suggests that longer school closures will lead to bigger learning gaps.  Students that are most impacted with the shift to virtual and hybrid learning are those from marginalized communities and lower-income households.

The Impact on Kindergarten

COVID-19 and school closures are having a significant impact on young learners. Across North America, there is a noticeable number of kindergarten students who did not enroll or attend school during the pandemic.  As students were forced online, many families decided to defer their attendance in formal schooling and chose to homeschool their child.

Schools and education leaders are preparing for an increase in kindergarten and grade 1 enrolment this school year and planning how they will meet the increasingly diverse needs of these young learners.

Some education experts are predicting a “kindergarten bubble” of four-, five- and six-year-olds who may be more unprepared for formal schooling compared to cohorts from previous years.  Typically, preschool and kindergarten focus on play-based, experiential activities that not only develop early reading and math skills, but also introduce pivotal social and emotional skills such as conflict resolution and sharing.

According to the Canadian Children’s Literacy Foundation, even before the pandemic more than 25% of students started Grade 1 without the necessary reading skills —which puts them at risk for falling behind in school. There is a strong correlation between early literacy and numeracy with high-school graduation rates and overall success in education.  The coming years will determine the impact of those students who deferred their kindergarten years on the overall education system.

What Can Schools and Educators Do?

This school year will bring a lot of exceptional challenges for educators. Many students who find themselves behind their peers now require extra support from their teachers as well as their families at home.

In a class full of 20 to 30 students with an increased gap in learning needs and abilities, it’s going to be more challenging than ever for teachers to support each and every student – especially those who require extra support.  Schools should look to address the following:

Holistic Assessment

Identify early and often the learning needs and abilities through the use of formative assessment in the classroom. Take the opportunity at the beginning of the school year to conduct assessments, while students are in-class:

  • Be mindful of direct and indirect cultural biases that arise from the existing assessment tools you may use in your classroom.
  • Look to adopt holistic assessment approaches (like Sprig Language) that take a more comprehensive approach to understanding learning beyond the classroom, and that also supports learning in the home and community.

Personalized Learning

Schools and school districts will need to support teachers with innovative tools that will support the delivery of personalized learning for each and every student. Going back to school will require more differentiation than ever before—we need to look at technologies to support this:

  • Use data gleaned from early assessments to help inform differentiated instruction to ensure individual learning gaps and needs are addressed immediately;
  • Our Sprig Learning AI helps teachers to do this at scale to ensure no student is left behind.

Support Parents at Home

In the early years, parents are pivotal to a child’s educational success, and this has never been more true than it is today. Given the reliance of at-home learning leading up to this school year –  and increased dependence as the pandemic continues – schools and teachers need to dedicate time and resources to provide the necessary support for all parents, but especially those who need it most:

  • Educational apps, tools and resources should include simple, easy to follow instructions for all parents.
  • Parents need help navigating curriculums and in understanding their child’s learning needs, which requires consistent communication between teachers and parents.
  • Look to Sprig Home as a tool that can provide parents of young learners with access to simple, easy-to-implement learning activities turning everyday moments into learning opportunities.

Learn and Reflect on the Road to Recovery

The 2020-21 school year was one that should have provided educators and researchers with an enormous amount of information and data about the efficacy of new approaches to learning (i.e. hybrid instruction and virtual learning).

  • Educators must look to analyze the information collected from the past two years to support crucial decision making and improve the quality of education in Canada, especially for our most vulnerable students.
  • Within the focus on ‘learning loss’ and ‘learning recovery’, recognize and identify that there were many ‘learning gains’.  Teachers must look to embrace and integrate the importance of the new technology skills acquired, as well as build up and foster the newly developed aptitudes and attitudes (i.e. independence, persistence and adaptability).

It’s a new school year, and as schools reopen everyone must be prepared to support students, especially those who may be behind academically. Every early learner is truly unique. In order to adequately support them, we need to understand their individual strengths, challenges and interests across a multitude of learning environments.

Support is essential in all areas: their school, their home and in their community.  We need to work collaboratively to determine the best way to assess and utilize data to help us mitigate the potential impacts of this pandemic.  This new school year also brings an opportunity to learn from the past and improve our classrooms, schools and broader education systems to support every young students’ ability to learn and succeed.

About Sprig Learning

Sprig Learning is a Canadian-based, purpose-built education technology company that believes all children should have what matters most: a fair shot at success. Sprig Learning provides early learners, educators and parents with the tools and resources needed to build a foundation for lifelong learning—both at home and in school.

Sprig Learning’s unique approach to assessment and learning considers each child’s entire learning environment—their home, school, and community. Our early years programs uncover new insights into students’ strengths, challenges, and interests which personalize a learning pathway for each and every learner. Winner of best Language Learning App, Sprig Learning is becoming known as a leader in early years programming.

Defining Parent Engagement in 2019

Elise Twyford

Elise Twyford


Elise Twyford is an early-years educator and lifelong learner. She is currently running the Sprig Learning Oral Language Learning Program in her classroom in Toronto, Ontario.

What does parent engagement look like in 2019?

Parents spend countless hours caring for their child — they are the experts on the little person that you meet in your classroom. They send their hopes and dreams into school with their child, and every parent wants to see their child succeed. As educators, we get the privilege to spend a few hours a day helping their little learners build the skills they need along their path toward academic success.

But while we know that relational trust between schools and parents is linked to higher levels of student achievement, how much time are we as educators dedicating to actively nurturing our relationships with parents and caregivers? How can we create a welcoming and responsive classroom culture, one where engagement is initiated and led by parents, caregivers and community members? And what does parent engagement look like in the culturally responsive classroom, particularly in communities where trust in the education system is lacking, oftentimes because of historical trauma?

What does it even mean to engage parents in early learning?

We tend to evaluate parent engagement by the number of parents who attend parent-teacher interviews, or how regularly we communicate directly with the home. These numbers, although important, are often more representative of a parents’ busy schedule than their meaningful engagement with their child’s education.

Because we lack the framework and tools we need to discuss and describe parental engagement, we as teachers often find ourselves unable to analyze and assess the true fruits of our efforts. We know that we are doing “something” to get parents engaged in our classrooms—but is it enough?

Ken Leithwood argues that we need to shift away from the current model of trying to get parents into the school, and towards a model where parents and caregivers can support learning in the home. After all, this is where half of the learning that we are responsible for as educators happens.

The Ladder of Participation

Roger Hart (1992) developed the Ladder of Youth Participation to describe levels of youth engagement. At the bottom of the ladder, you can see an engagement model that is providing information. At the top of the ladder, you see a model that has ideas initiated by youth and both adults and youth sharing in the decision making.

Could this same framework be used to think about how teachers engage parents in classrooms?


Typically, when we think of parent engagement, we think of the communication that happens through emails and calls to the home. We think of parent representatives on school committees, parent volunteers in school-wide activities, and parent-teacher night. The common thread here is that engagement happens on the school’s terms rather than the parent’s. From Hart’s ladder, this would look like the bottom 1-5 rungs (if we were being generous).

But what if we imagined a more engaging approach, one that supports parents to direct, define and lead the engagement?

This is especially true when looking at the culturally responsive classroom of 2019. For example, in speaking to culturally restorative practices at the First Nations School of Toronto (Parent Discussion Night, January 23, 2018), Estelle Simard described engaging Elders, parents, and community members in how culture should be taught in school, and the importance of creating meaningful engagement that enabled families to both initiate and define how they engage with their child’s school.

Estelle provided an example of a community where the Elders wanted regalia making, the creation of traditional and sometimes sacred clothing and accessories, to be a component of the school’s curriculum. The school then aligned curriculum and opened the door for the community to share their knowledge on the subject, creating a community of sharing and mutual respect.

Building Bridges between the Home and the School

We work hard to build relationships with our students. In order to increase parent engagement, we need to further that hard work by building relationships with parents, caregivers, and the community. So how can we honour this in our own classrooms and begin building bridges between home and school? 

  • – Attend community events – and don’t be shy about engaging with parents. Even a small wave or nod will start you on the path to building trust and a positive relationship with parents.
  • Create a classroom culture that encourages constant dialogue between yourself and your students’ caregivers, and work together to determine how to best support their child. Remember, the dialogue must be reciprocal. At the end of the day, parents are the true experts when it comes to their child.
  • – Most importantly — listen.

One of the benefits of working with the Sprig Learning Platform has been that it provides me with the opportunity to connect my classroom to every one of my students’ home lives, and to provide parents and caregivers with the tools they need to reinforce learning in their own homes.

We started out with a classroom birthday party for a haptic-enabled moose puppet named Antle, who is the star of Sprig’s Learning and MK Education’s Oral Language Learning Program. We invited parents, grandparents, and caregivers into our classroom, and encouraged them to learn more about the literacy learning that happens every day at school.
We interviewed each caregiver on the iOS-based caregiver survey, and parents and caregivers gave us more information about the literacy learning that happens at home and in the community. We all had such a great time at the party, and the small interactions that took place really built trust and strengthened our relationships with the families. Even better, we established a two-way dialogue between the home and school, both in-person and through the Sprig Learning online platform. Our students’ parents can now see activities that we recommend to further learning in the home, and trust that we are both working together to lead their little learner down a path to success.

Parent-Teacher Partnerships Lead to Success

The lasting effect of parents and teachers working together is clear when we see these students grow into healthy, confident, and curious lifelong learners. It’s important to find the approaches and strategies that work best for your classroom, but always remember to listen, be open-minded, and to have fun.


This guest post on the Sprig Learning Blog was contributed by  Elise Twyford, a teacher and lifelong learner based out of Toronto, Ontario. You can follow Elise here.

For more information about a holistic approach to assessment or holistic education, book a demo today or send us an email at letstalk@spriglearning.com.