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Home Blogs Count Us In! REL Appalachia is Partnering With Educators, Leaders, and Experts to Design Professional Learning in Early Childhood Math

Count Us In! REL Appalachia is Partnering With Educators, Leaders, and Experts to Design Professional Learning in Early Childhood Math

Appalachia | October 30, 2023

Many teachers feel unprepared to teach early math

Decades of research show that many early childhood educators feel unprepared to teach math and limited in their ability to influence children's math learning beyond basic number recognition or counting.1,2 And when they feel unprepared, teachers may avoid teaching math,3 undervalue the importance of math,4 or use ineffective math teaching practices that are not developmentally appropriate.5

We know that math knowledge acquired in early childhood provides a critical foundation for long-term success in math as well as reading.6,7 Yet students may not develop a firm foundation if educators and families shy away from authentic math learning opportunities. So how can we make sure early childhood teachers have the training, resources, and confidence they need to effectively teach math content from preschool through the early elementary grades?

A strategic partnership to support early math teaching

REL Appalachia is addressing this need head-on through an ambitious project. To build early childhood educators' confidence in teaching early math, specifically number and operations, to children in preschool, prekindergarten, and kindergarten, REL Appalachia staff are developing, piloting, and eventually testing a professional learning toolkit. This toolkit is based on the Institute of Education Science's What Works Clearinghouse practice guide Teaching Math to Young Children, which includes evidence-based recommendations for practitioners based on an expert panel's review of rigorous research

Teaching Math to Young Children Toolkit information and cover

The Hechinger Report recently profiled our partners at Erikson Institute for their work in building early childhood educators' confidence in math instruction. Read to learn more about their approach.

This project brings together a group of expert partners to ensure the professional learning and resources are of high quality, are usable, and meet the needs of early childhood educators in the field. REL Appalachia staff from the Early Math Collaborative at Erikson Institute with expertise in developmentally appropriate math instruction are creating the professional learning modules. REL Appalachia researchers from Magnolia Consulting with expertise in measurement of math professional learning are examining how teachers are using the toolkit in practice and developing diagnostic and monitoring tools teachers and leaders can use to track instructional practice. Virginia prekindergarten teachers and instructional leaders in Goochland County and Winchester City Public Schools are implementing and pilot-testing the draft toolkit materials in classrooms with real students and providing feedback that REL Appalachia staff will use to refine and improve the toolkit. And REL Appalachia staff have engaged with math and early childhood specialists at the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) to ensure the toolkit is aligned with its strategic priorities and standards.

What the toolkit will include

The toolkit aligns with what research tells us good professional learning should look like: content-focused, job-embedded, and delivered over multiple weeks of a school year.8 It will include examples of effective practice, in-class activities, as well as offer support and opportunities for self-reflection and feedback from colleagues.

And an important part of building early childhood educators' confidence and skills in teaching math is getting support from their school leaders.9 This toolkit will have resources for both teachers and leaders.

For teachers, the toolkit will include:

  • A self-assessment tool to gauge their use of instructional math practices in classrooms before and after each module.
  • A welcome module and four professional learning modules with math-content videos, recommendations for relevant children's books, and activities to integrate into large- and small-group instruction – as well as demonstration videos that show the math activities coming to life in real classrooms.
  • Progress-monitoring tools to observe and document how students are growing their math skills along a developmental progression.
  • A teacher learning journal to guide them through the math content and activities.
  • Resources for educators who wish to implement the toolkit with their colleagues in a learning community.

For school leaders, the toolkit will include:

  • A self-assessment to gauge what supports are in place to promote teachers' professional learning.
  • A guide to assist leaders in understanding and adopting recommended supports to help teachers complete the modules and adopt and sustain use of effective math practices.
  • An observation instrument, aligned to the teacher self-assessment, to guide classroom walk-throughs and subsequent growth conversations.

What folks are saying so far

REL Appalachia staff and our partners know this toolkit will fill a real need – both in Virginia, where it is being developed, and nationally. Listen to the excitement!

The whole Erikson team is so excited to have this opportunity. Early childhood educators are incredibly dedicated and capable, and the toolkit's focus on how children's number sense develops will help teachers provide their students with an even stronger foundation in math.

– Dr. Jennifer McCray, toolkit development lead, director of the Early Math Collaborative at the Erikson Institute

I know that I need something like this to improve my teaching. I'm really excited!

– Virginia prekindergarten teacher

REL Appalachia has engaged VDOE since the early planning stages of the toolkit. We're so excited to see it take shape and look forward to pointing early childhood educators to this valuable resource!

– Deb Delozier, elementary mathematics specialist at VDOE

As I keep a pulse on professional learning needs in the Commonwealth, math regularly comes up as an area of interest. Given the importance of a strong foundation in early math, I can't wait to get this toolkit into the hands of instructional leaders and early educators!

– Dr. Chris Jones, executive director of Virginia ASCD

Want a sneak peek?

A teacher and students engaged in an activity

While the toolkit is currently undergoing usability testing and revisions based on feedback from our test group of teachers, we want to give you a quick sneak peek! Here's a sample demonstration video of an activity to support subitizing (instantly recognizing the number of objects without counting them). As the video shows, teachers can use this activity to help students develop an understanding of subitizing – even in the small moments of transition in their day.

Next steps

REL Appalachia will be conducting a study of the effectiveness of the toolkit in improving teacher practice and student outcomes in the 2024/25 school year. If you are a Virginia early education leader affiliated with a public prekindergarten program, we would love to talk to you about enrolling your site in the study in exchange for early access to toolkit materials. Contact us!

Other resources to explore now

Until the toolkit is released in summer 2025, consider exploring the following free resources available now from the Institute of Education Sciences:

  • This YouTube playlist curates several videos from across the REL Program designed for families and caregivers to support their children's early math development.
  • Math experts from across the REL Program collaborated to create this infographic highlighting why math matters. It includes an overview of effective math instruction as well as freely available resources for classroom teachers, education leaders, and families to bolster supportive conditions for math learning.
  • The What Works Clearinghouse has published over 25 practice guides, convening expert panels to review research and make recommendations for practitioners. Find out what the evidence says on many instructional topics!

1 Ginsburg, H. P., Lee, J. S., & Boyd, J. S. (2008). Mathematics education for young children: What it is and how to promote it. Social Policy Report, 22(1), 3–23.

2 National Research Council. (2009). Mathematics learning in early childhood: Paths toward excellence and equity. The National Academies Press.

3 Early, D., Barbarin, O., Bryant, D., Burchinal, M., Chang, F., Clifford, R., Crawford, G., Weaver, W., Howes, C., Ritchie, S., Kraft-Sayre, M., Pianta, R., & Barnett, W. S. (2005). Pre-kindergarten in eleven states: NCEDL's multi-state study of pre-kindergarten & study of state-wide early education programs (SWEEP); Preliminary descriptive report [Working paper]. University of North Carolina, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.

4 Sarama, J., & Clements, D. (2009). Early childhood mathematics education research: Learning trajectories for young children. Routledge.

5 McGuire, P. R., Kinzie, M., Thunder, K., & Berry, R. (2016). Methods of analysis and overall mathematics teaching quality in at-risk prekindergarten classrooms. Early Education and Development, 27(1), 89–109.

6 Duncan, G. J., Dowsett, C. J., Claessens, A., Magnuson, K., Huston, A. C., Klebanov, P., Pagani, L. S., Feinstein, L., Engel, M., Brooks-Gunn, J., Sexton, H., Duckworth, K., & Japel, C. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology, 43(6), 1428–1446.

7 Watts, T. W., Duncan, G. J., Siegler, R. S., & Davis-Kean, P. E. (2014). What's past is prologue: Relations between early mathematics knowledge and high school achievement. Educational Researcher, 43(7), 352–360.

8 Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., & Gardner, M. (with Espinoza, D.). (2017). Effective teacher professional development. Learning Policy Institute.

9 Sparks, S. D. (2022, October 7). Principals matter for preschools, but studies show they lack training. Education Week.


Laura Kassner

Laura Kassner

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