School Success Starts at Home

Researchers followed 2,200 children from ethnically diverse, low-income families. They found that children who had a positive early learning environment—one that focuses on reading and storytelling, involves learning materials in the home, and includes parental interaction—performed better in the fifth grade than children from middle-income households.

High-quality Child Care: A two-generation solution for a productive American workforce

A study of NC’s Smart Start & More At Four programs found that children in counties that spent more per child were two months ahead in reading and 1.5 months ahead in math by the fifth grade when compared with children in counties that sent less. High quality matters! And it has an impact on children’s academic and workforce success.

Read the latest & greatest policy brief by Ready Nation

The Arts as Therapy

A new study from Child Trends explains that involving children from low-income families in preschool programs that include music, dance and visual arts may reduce their stress levels.

Children from low-income families are more likely to experience stressful family interactions that result from parents’ anxiety about trying to make ends meet, explained Eleanor Brown, PhD, a child psychologist and head of the Early Childhood Cognition and Emotions Lab at West Chester University.

Professor Brown said parents tend to focus on learning letters and numbers when selecting a preschool. She recommended finding programs that also emphasize play and creative activities, like art, music, and dance.

Watch the video below to hear from young children who have participated in these programs and to learn more from the researchers behind the study.

Making the Case for Kindergarten Readiness Data in Virginia

This fall marks the 3rd year of the voluntary statewide roll out of the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program (VKRP)—an initiative to expand our understanding of the early learning skills that young children display at the beginning of kindergarten.  Almost half of all school divisions are now participating, and almost 20,000 students.

That’s a lot of data! So, what’s next? Let’s make sure we use it wisely!

A recent Ounce of Prevention Fund report, “Uses and Misuses of Kindergarten Readiness Assessments”, provides helpful information about the Dos and Don’ts for using kindergarten readiness assessment (KRA) data.

Aligned with these recommendations, VKRP is designed to use data in ways that will help Virginia ensure that every young child has the supports they need to be successful in school and life.

Teachers can use the data to:

  • Meet a student where they are and help them learn the next set of skills
  • Refer a student for additional assessment or services
  • Have a conversation with a family member to support a child’s learning at home

Principals and school leaders can use the data to answer questions to better understand each incoming cohort of students, informing  decisions for deploying existing resources, and procuring additional supports by answering questions such as:

  • How much variability is evident in readiness for incoming students?
  • Is this variability similar or different across readiness skills (e.g., literacy vs. math)?
  • Is the pattern of readiness similar or different across classrooms?
  • How does our school’s data compare to similar schools within our division, or across Virginia?

Division leaders can use the data to:

  • Look for variability within and across divisions
  • Individualize professional development to teachers
  • Align preschool, kindergarten, and elementary programming
  • Create better transition practices
  • Highlight the importance of developing students self-regulation and social skills

State leaders, advocates, and policy makers can use the data to:

  • Identify statewide readiness gaps
  • Understand variability from community to community to get a better picture of statewide needs
  • Examine whether services prior to kindergarten contribute to improved readiness
  • Examine data over time to identify patterns and trends across the state

It is appropriate and prudent to use VKRP data (and other sources of early childhood education information) to identify readiness gaps track system-level trends, and inform effective allocation of education resources. Statewide representative data tell us that on average, 34% of young children arrive to kindergarten in Virginia lacking foundational skills in the areas of reading, math, self-regulation, or social skills.  But, it would also be easy to misuse VKRP data. Important to note is that VKRP was not designed to be reliable within a high stakes accountability environment, and therefore is not well suited for use as a specific consequence to students, teachers or programs!  Rather, these data are primed to help key players in classrooms, schools, divisions, and government make data-informed decisions about how to best meet the needs of Virginia’s youngest students and invest strategically in early childhood initiatives.

Widespread participation in VKRP presents a valuable opportunity to use data to inform conversations among Virginia stakeholders when designing early learning programs, aligning educational practices from birth through third grade, and leveraging resources for maximum impact. When used in this way we should run toward data and not away from it.

Amanda Williford, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning within the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. She leads the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program.

Kindergarten Assessments Begin to Shape Instruction

Kindergarten entry assessments, which some states call “kindergarten readiness assessments” or “kindergarten entry inventories,” are intended to guide a teacher’s instructional practice. They may include direct assessment of children’s skills, teacher observations, or both. They’re intended to give teachers a well-rounded picture of the whole child, including his or her academic, social, and physical development.

While these assessments are becoming more widespread—boosted by federal support during the Obama administration—they’re offering mixed results for teachers and for school districts.

Supporters say they’re useful in supporting all elements of a child’s development during their important early school days.

Others have criticized the assessments as an additional burden that doesn’t let teachers know what they should do with all the data they’re expected to collect. And the assessments also raise concerns for some that they’ll be used for high-stakes purposes, like evaluating teachers or sorting children into educational tracks.

In Virginia, about half of the state’s school divisions are piloting a program called the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program. The state already requires incoming kindergartners to be measured on preliteracy skills. The kindergarten-readiness program adds evaluations of children’s math, social, and self-regulation skills.

It also provides tools for teachers if children show that they are lagging in those areas, said Amanda Williford, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, who developed the measure and is working with districts in implementing it.

“Self-regulation and social skills are just as important, and it’s the same kind of skill as reading and math,” Williford said. “It’s learned in school, just like reading and math are. If a kid was struggling to read, we would never say they don’t belong in our classroom.”

Melita Ring, a kindergarten teacher at Amelon Elementary in Madison Heights, Va., said she likes having the one-on-one time with her students, and having resources to help students right at her fingertips.

“They’re giving you that opportunity to not only teach the children who are struggling, but to learn other ways of doing so,” Ring said.

Read more of the article from Education Week here.

The Foundations of Reading: Talking is Teaching

I was recently on an airplane watching a Dad traveling with his baby daughter, who was probably just about a year old. The plane we were on was having mechanical difficulty that caused it to remain on the tarmac for nearly an hour before take-off, no short amount of time for such a young child. Although this Dad certainly had his hands full, he did a great job of keeping his daughter entertained. And though there were a book and a few toys on hand, at the center of the entertainment was a conversation. When Daddy was face to face with baby – singing a song or reading a book or just commenting on what a pretty girl he had, all was well. When Daddy stopped talking, baby’s attention began to drift. The conversation was the engagement.

Over the hour that we waited on the tarmac, I took the opportunity to do a bit of reading myself and stumbled upon a blog, A Little More Conversation: Language and Communication Skills That Make All of the Difference for Kindergarten ( The author, Devin Walsh, is a kindergarten teacher in Mississippi and she opined on the importance of conversing with children to develop the language skills that serve as the foundations for literacy as kids enter school. The truth of Ms. Walsh’s thinking was being aptly demonstrated in the row immediately in front of me.

The importance of regular conversations in developing language is abundantly clear in the research. Kids who are regularly engaged in meaningful conversations have larger vocabularies, as well as better social skills. It’s language that provides the links that connect us. For those who lack that early exposure, the consequences are deep and lasting and are inextricably tied to the ability to learn to read.

As I continued on my journey, my next flight was also populated with a fair number of children. A Mom with 2 young boys, probably about 2 and 3 years old, next came to my attention. They boarded the plane fairly late, apparently as the result of a connecting flight that had been delayed. The exasperation on the part of Mom was palpable and as the rambunctious little boys began debating who would get the window seat, out came the electronics. Mom’s phone and her iPad came out of her purse and the boys quickly settled in to their games. I could see the games that involved colorful letters and shapes jumping off the screens at the kids. They were certainly happily engaged, being exposed to educational content, and pretty much speechless for the duration of the hour-long flight.

There are many ways that we can teach our kids and technology is certainly a valuable tool. That said, I believe Devin Walsh got it right when she pointed to the need for “a little more conversation.” As parents, we all need a break some times and technology can fill a void but it cannot replace a conversation with the most important person in your life. So, the next time you have some time with your children, please sing them a song, or read them a book or tell them how lucky you are to have them. Not only will you be better connected for it, they’ll be better readers.

Judy Jankowski, Ed. D.

Nurse-Family Partnership: Parental education and early health result in better child outcomes.

Professor Heckman’s latest research, An Analysis of the Memphis Nurse-Family Partnership Program (NFP), puts a widely-known voluntary home visiting program through its most rigorous analysis to date and finds important short- and long-term impacts for mothers and their children.

This study evaluates a randomized controlled trial of the NFP program conducted in Memphis, Tennessee in 1990. NFP aims to improve the long-term success of at-risk children by promoting healthy maternal behaviors and fostering strong parenting skills. It offers voluntary prenatal, parenting and early childhood supports to low-income, first-time mothers. The program consists of home visits starting during pregnancy and lasting until two years after birth. NFP home visitors are registered professional nurses with at least a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree. They have formal training and follow a detailed curriculum of activities specific to the different stages of pregnancy and child development.

Researchers found that the home visiting program improved birth weights for infant boys, who tend to be more vulnerable during pregnancy. Low birth weights are associated with developmental problems early in life that can persist if left untreated. By the time children reached age two, researchers found the home visiting program had created healthier home environments, more positive parenting attitudes and better maternal mental health. At age six—four years after the program ended—the home visiting program led to improved cognitive skills for both boys and girls, and better socio-emotional skills for girls. Researchers found the positive effects at age six were largely attributable to the program’s impact on maternal health and early-life investments.

Read more about the study from the here.


Amanda P. Williford, Ph. D., Research Associate Professor, UVA CASTL (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Amanda Williford, a research associate professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, is leading the way in helping Virginia roll out the Kindergarten Readiness Program, a readiness assessment for incoming kindergartners.

The Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program (VKRP) expands the assessment of children kindergarten beyond literacy (PALS), to include the school readiness domains of math, social skills, and self-regulation. The data provides school divisions with a more comprehensive understanding of how kindergarten students are entering elementary schools in terms of key readiness skills. Piloted in 2014, the program is now headed into its third year in partnership with the Virginia Department of Education and will be implemented at scale across the commonwealth this fall.

Williford recently sat down with UVA Today to discuss the need for such a program.

Q. What is Virginia’s Kindergarten Readiness Program about?

A. Virginia’s Kindergarten Readiness Program is an assessment system designed to help schools have a good understanding of where children are in their learning as they enter kindergarten. It measures a child’s readiness across four areas: math, literacy, social skills and self-regulation. What support will a child need to be successful in school? We can’t know that if we don’t have a good understanding of where they currently are.

Q. On a national level, where does Virginia stand in terms of assessing children’s kindergarten readiness?

A. Right now, Virginia is a little behind because the only consistent measure used by all school divisions, the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening, focuses solely on children’s literacy skills. In essence, Virginia has good information about children’s literacy skills as they enter kindergarten, but there is clear consensus that children need foundational skills across a wider range of early learning domains, like math, social skills and self-regulation.

Across the U.S., many states have kindergarten entry assessments that measure these multiple facets of learning. The Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program is working to follow suit.

Read more of the interview with Williford from UVA Today here.

Cultivating Social-Emotional Development in Children

Too Small to Fail recently released a white paper on the importance of cultivating a child’s social-emotional development from birth. Too Small to Fail defines social-emotional development as a combination of the relationships we share with others, emotional awareness, and the ability to recognize, understand, express, and respond to feelings in socially appropriate ways.

  • Social-emotional development plays several key roles in early childhood, from understanding feelings, to taking turns, to building healthy relationships with others. It is the foundation upon which much other learning takes place,
  • Children with strong social-emotional skills do better in school because they are more focused, can cooperate with and learn from others, and exhibit fewer behavioral problems,
  • Healthy social-emotional development in early childhood leads to better outcomes in adulthood, such as improved health, better jobs, and more stable relationships,
  • Positive parent-child (or caregiver-child) interactions offer benefits to parents and caregivers, in addition to better social-emotional development in children, and
  • There is a gap in understanding about social-emotional development, but if we improve intervention programs that support parents and caregivers, and undertake broad-based awareness efforts, we can help all children grow into healthy, successful adults.

Read more of the report from Too Small to Fail here.

Devan Maloney Consultant

Is Your School Division Part of the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program (VKRP)?


The VKRP, based at The University of Virginia expands the assessment of children entering kindergarten beyond literacy (PALS), to include school readiness domains of math, social skills and self-regulation. This data provides school divisions with a more comprehensive understanding of how kindergarten students are entering elementary schools (at the fourth to sixth week of school) in terms of key readiness skills.

What are the Results?

In 2016, 40% of students in participating divisions entered kindergarten unprepared in at least one of the critical domains: literacy, math, self-regulation and social skills. One-third of all Virginia school divisions participated in 2016.

How Can Teachers, Division Leaders, Policy Makers and Stakeholders Use the Data?

Teachers- will have a comprehensive understanding of students’ skills upon kindergarten entry. This data can help differentiate and individualize instruction.  There are online instructional strategies to support students’ learning across all domains.

Parents- will have information about how children are doing in literacy, math, self-regulation and social skills. This will provide easy to read information and tips on how to strengthen these skills at home.

Division Leaders- will have benchmark data to target interventions and improve student outcomes.

Policy Makers– will have data to make strategic investments, align funding and interventions to improve student outcomes.

What’s New for 2017?

UVA CASTL heard you! Division leaders and teachers provided constructive feedback on ways to make VKRP an even more useful tool at the classroom, district and state level.  Find out more by visiting

Do You Want to Learn More?  

  •  Call UVA CASTL @ 866-301-8278, extension 1
  • Email
  • Visit

There are only a few slots left until UVA CASTL reaches the goal of 50% of all school divisions in Virginia participating.

Won’t you join this innovative group of school divisions leading the way with VKRP today?

President & CEO

Lisa Howard, President & CEO