As the school year wraps up, teachers, families, and children are ready to soak up some sunny summer days and break from the stress of this wild, unpredictable academic year. Despite everyone’s excitement, though, for many educators, educational leaders, and parents, the concept of “learning loss” is a thundercloud in the middle of that clear blue sky.
On the bright side, many, many young children have survived a pandemic. They have built new skills, developed close relationships with their families, built their self-care skills, and continued along in their developmental progression, among other wins. However, through no fault of their one, many of those children are now behind their anticipated academic growth.
Children of Color Were Largely Disadvantaged
Yes, children learned valuable skills. Yes, they made academic progress. But it’s already hard to help all students make one year’s worth of growth in an academic year, let alone try to compensate for an additional 18 pandemic-addled months. What’s more, early data show that, at least in Virginia, 2020s cohort of students entered kindergarten with lower early literacy skills than usual. This increase in the share of students at high risk for reading failure was “largest among students who are Black, Hispanic, economically disadvantaged, and English learners” — the same groups of students who are more likely to experience lower-quality teaching. Without intervention, these gaps are likely to widen.
So, how should teachers, leaders, and families think about learning loss? How can we make sure that every child and every educator gets the support they need to thrive in the coming year? Our experts to the rescue. We asked Teachstone Senior Research & Evaluation Specialist Dr. Vicki Kintner-Duffy and CASTL Early Childhood Education Coach Dr. Tara Scott, from the University of Virginia, to discuss the critical role interactions play in supporting academic success, explore new research on interactions, define some opportunities to support teachers, and discuss strategies to use instructional support interactions to drive academic outcomes.
As Vicki explained, “responsive interactions that are grounded in relationships and high expectations for students pave the way for individualized education that helps students achieve.” This foundation - of intentional, high-quality interactions - is the basis of the CLASS. Over the last decade and a half, nearly 200 studies have shown associations between CLASS domains and child outcomes.
On the other hand, a deficit-based lens, one that focuses on rote remediation and what children can’t do, can push a wedge between educators and students and become a self-fulfilling prophecy of ongoing academic or social struggle. Research shows that the quality of teacher-child interactions may be even more important for children in poverty, with challenging behaviors, and for multi-language learners than for their peers.
Across the pre-K to third grade years, the research has shown that interaction quality is a crucial partner for literacy instruction. (We talk more about this in our Literacy Outcomes Paper.) Two recent studies give great examples of this. In a 2020 paper, researchers examined the relationship between challenging behaviors, the quality of interactions, and children’s literacy outcomes in Head Start classrooms. While challenging behaviors can negatively affect literacy learning (for example, because of time taken away from classroom activities), teachers who provided strong Emotional Support mitigated those negative effects. Also, it positively associated Classroom Organization with letter-word recognition, and it linked higher Instructional Support to both higher vocabulary and letter-word recognition.
Another study showed the importance of having these high-quality interactions repeated year after year. At the end of third grade, children who were exposed to high-quality interactions had grown each year, and those with multiple years of this great instruction unsurprisingly scored higher on reading comprehension. But, importantly, the amount of improvement varied for different students. All students benefited from high-quality interactions, but those who were below average on early literacy skills before school entry showed the largest gains. Great teaching helped close the early literacy gaps.
3. To help students, leaders must meet teachers where they are.
So far, we’ve focused on the challenges faced by children this year. But they’re not the only ones that the pandemic have affected. It has challenged teachers in ways that make it hard to provide the high-quality interactions that they may already know are important. Leaders, too, have shared that they are struggling. (We have some tips to overcome common challenges shared by leaders in our recent e-book!)
So what do teachers need? As Tara said, it bears repeating: support, support, support. Leaders need to consider how they might shift their expectations. Think about the trauma that adults, as well as the children they care for, may have experienced in the last year - or are still experiencing. If you’re not sure what teachers need, ask them directly. All the adults in a center or school are there because they are invested in their students, but without a strong, healthy, supported workforce, children won’t get what they need to succeed.
4. Support children through Instructional Support.
When teachers’ needs are met, they can do their best for children. That starts by getting to know children’s interests, backgrounds, families, and cultural and linguistic backgrounds. This will help teachers build relationships, create warmth and safety, and show respect for their students as learners. Provide a “flexible structure” for students, knowing that they come from a wide range of backgrounds and early life experiences. Then, with a base of supportive relationships and engaging settings, dig into content.
The three dimensions within Instructional Support provide an exemplary model for what high-quality content instruction can look like. When done well, instructionally supportive interactions are the opposite of the remote remediation that limits children’s potential. Instead, teachers use Concept Development strategies such as “how” and “why” questions to promote higher order thinking and cognition. With Quality of Feedback, they provide feedback that expands learning and understanding, based on their ongoing assessment and knowledge of each child. And with Language Modeling, they stimulate and facilitate language use in ways that research shows are meaningful for their language and literacy development. When brought together, the dimensions of Instructional Support set the high expectations for children’s learning that support their academic success. There are great ideas for how to do this across the Teachstone website, including this recent blog post “3 Effective Strategies to Maximize Children’s Learning” and Story Time Live.
With these takeaways from our expert panelists, let’s choose not to panic about learning loss. Instead, let’s take this opportunity to build up stronger systems so that every child, and every educator, can succeed.
Overcoming Learning Loss with Effective Interactions
Watch Effective, Literacy-Boosting Interactions Modeled in our Story Time Live