Mary McLean, Patricia Snyder, James Algina, and Mary Louise Hemmeter

Preschool children with early learning challenges benefit from being a part of the class, but they need extra support through a teaching approach known as embedded instruction. Their teachers also are in need of support to employ the approach as intended.

Patricia Snyder, director of the Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies at the University of Florida, has been examining instructional approaches that support young children’s development and learning in inclusive environments for more than 25 years. Her goal is to ensure that instructional practices used in preschool classrooms are based on scientific data.

Creating meaningful learning opportunities for young children with or at risk for disabilities in the context of inclusive preschool classrooms, according to Snyder, means teachers must purposefully design their instruction and deliver it as intended.

“Providing access to inclusive learning opportunities for young children with learning challenges is not sufficient, said Snyder. “Embedded instruction helps ensure young children’s meaningful participation in the everyday activities, routines, and transitions in the preschool classroom and provides situated learning opportunities for them.”

The research that Snyder and her colleagues have been conducting recently received a significant boost that will allow them to continue their work with preschool teachers and the children in their classrooms. Snyder will lead a four-year randomized controlled efficacy trial focused on an embedded instruction intervention through a $3.5 million grant from the National Center for Special Education Research in the Institute of Education Sciences, the research branch of the U.S. Department of Education.

The innovative intervention, known as Embedded Instruction for Early Learning: Tools for Teachers was developed as part of a previous study funded in 2007 by the Institute of Education Sciences. Findings from that study showed teachers who implemented embedded instruction as intended improved learning opportunities and learning outcomes for preschool children in their classrooms with or at risk for disabilities.

“We now have a fully developed intervention that has demonstrated promise for improving teachers’ embedded instruction implementation and child learning outcomes,” said Snyder. “We are looking forward to conducting a rigorous efficacy trial of the intervention in additional early childhood classrooms in two states.”

Snyder, the David Lawrence Jr. Chair in Early Childhood Studies, is joined by two co-principal investigators in the UF College of Education — also members of the Zucker Center.

The aim of the study, conducted with 324 children in 108 preschool classrooms that include young children with or at risk for disabilities in Florida and Tennessee school districts, is to examine and compare two variations of the Tools for Teachers intervention. A secondary study goal is to find out how well teachers sustain their use of embedded instruction practices. James Algina, an emeritus professor of research and evaluation methodology at UF, and a co-principal investigator, is overseeing design and data analysis activities across both project sites.

Mary McLean, a professor of special education and early childhood studies at UF, also a co-principal investigator, was an early collaborator on the 2007 study. In 2014, she joined Snyder at the Zucker Center through the UF Preeminence initiative funded by the Florida Legislature to attract top national scholars.

A week-long training to support the Tools for Teachers study was held in July at the Anita Zucker Center.

A week-long training to support the Tools for Teachers study was held in July at the Anita Zucker Center.

The UF team is collaborating with Mary Louise Hemmeter, a professor of special education in the Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University, who also contributed to the early study. She is leading the intervention trial at the Tennessee sites.

Practice-based coaching, an approach used in the study, has shown great promise in a series of studies conducted by Snyder and her colleagues for improving preschool teachers’ implementation of embedded instruction and other evidence-based practices, including social-emotional and behavioral teaching practices.

Two-thirds, or 72 teachers, participating in the study will attend a workshop series that will include provision of materials and access to online resources related to embedded instruction. They also will receive follow-up coaching support for practice implementation that will be provided as either on-site coaching, which includes classroom observations and feedback, or a web-based self-coaching variant.

The remaining one-third, or 36 teachers, will continue their typical classroom instruction for the same period and will receive the Tools for Teachers intervention at the end of the study. The two interventions will be compared, not only to each other, but also to the group conducting business-as-usual classroom instruction.

The investigative team will examine the impact of the intervention on the quality of teachers’ embedded instruction practices, including the number of learning opportunities provided to young children during different types of classroom activities. For the children involved in the study, social and adaptive behaviors and pre-academic, language and literacy outcomes will be evaluated.

Demonstrating through this study that quality embedded instruction teaching practices provide learning benefits to young children with or at risk for disabilities is important for further validating the Tools for Teachers intervention.

“Based on findings from the present study, our next step would be taking the intervention to scale for more teachers and children to benefit from our evidence-based early learning approaches,” Snyder said.