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Making Professional Development Work for Early Educators

Djokovic Fellowship brings rigorous analysis to the work of expanding access to meaningful professional growth — to make a difference for children.
Emily Hanno

Despite the critical importance of early education in laying the foundation for cognitive and social-emotional development, preschool teachers and daycare professionals are among the lowest paid educators in the field, often receiving few resources for professional development.

Ph.D. student Emily Hanno knows this reality firsthand. She began her career in education as a Head Start teacher, then as an instructional coach working with preschool and elementary public and charter school teachers in Houston. Hanno could see that there was little to no support and very little funding for teachers’ professional growth. The opportunities that did exist often weren’t developmentally appropriate for the students those teachers were working with.

“I was aware of the research that says how important early education is, but we’re not capitalizing on that promise by supporting those at the helm of the classroom,” says Hanno, who came to HGSE in part to explore unanswered questions about how early childhood educators are trained. “From my time in the field, I wanted to see how we could develop systems to help these early childhood teachers.”

Current professional development approaches can often be an added burden for teachers, with workshops or coaching sessions eating into planning time or occurring outside of normal work hours. As part of her research, Hanno is developing a professional development program for teachers that is more accessible, including looking at the use of methods like text messaging to deliver practice-relevant information.

“It’s easy for researchers removed from the day-to-day stresses to feel like if we only gave teachers more professional development, their behavior would change,” Hanno says. But more isn’t always better, she says; factors like relevance, flexibility, and mode of delivery are important to consider. “One of the things my work is thinking about is alternative methods of professional development that can be incorporated more naturally in teachers’ day-to-day lives.”

This year, Hanno will have a chance to dive even deeper into her research as one of four doctoral candidates — and the only from HGSE — chosen as a 2019–2020 Djokovic Fellow. The fellowship was launched by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University and the Novak Djokovic Foundation in 2016 to support Harvard doctoral candidates whose independent research aims for breakthroughs for children facing adversity.

“The Djokovic Fellows program has such a great reputation in both the research and the policy world that I’m really excited to get feedback on my research, both to make it as rigorous as possible but also to make sure it is applicable to policymakers and can make a difference for kids,” Hanno says.
One area that Hanno’s research seeks to better understand is how teacher behaviors change during professional development. Studies exist that compare teaching practices before and after interventions, but Hanno says few have considered how teacher practices change throughout coaching. As part of her research, Hanno is using unique data to determine whether teachers immediately implement practices discussed in coaching, as is believed.   

The fellowship award helps to reinforce the importance of rigorous research that integrates long-standing theories of human development with cutting-edge statistical analysis, says Hanno’s adviser, Assistant Professor Dana Charles McCoy. “The Djokovic Fellowship will help Emily to amplify both the impact and the relevance of her work and will provide Emily with an amazing opportunity to learn from a highly diverse group of peers and mentors, all of whom come to the table with the same goal: to improve the lives of young children,” McCoy says.  

A large body of research suggests that children facing adversity or experiencing toxic stress benefit from strong relationships with adult caregivers. Looking at early education programs in low-income and under-resourced communities across the United States, Hanno has already found evidence of the positive impact that professional development can have not just for educators but for their students as well.

In a paper written with fellow Ph.D. candidate Katie Gonzalez that will be appearing in the Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, Hanno’s analysis of data from the National Center for Research on Early Childhood Education found that students attend school more regularly in classrooms with teachers who were assigned to professional development.

“What’s neat about the findings is that attendance is often thought of as a parent or a family issue, but if we support teachers in making classrooms a more emotionally vibrant and stable environment through professional development, it can have real impact on kids on how often they are coming to school,” Hanno says.