The Children’s Learning Institute at McGovern Medical School has received a $3 million grant to teach the latest child development strategies to more than 850 infant and toddler specialists and teachers working in at-risk communities in the Lone Star State.

Infant and toddler teachers play a critical role in the intellectual development of young children because a large amount of brain development occurs in the first three years of life. Children begin learning and developing a sense of curiosity very early in life.

April Crawford, PhD, the grant’s principal investigator and an associate professor of pediatrics at the Children’s Learning Institute at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, said that healthy and stimulating experiences help infant and toddler brains operate at their full capacity.

“The brain’s ability to adapt declines with age,” Crawford said. “That is why it is so important for children to get off to a strong start, because a weak foundation can have damaging effects on further brain development.”

Professional development services are being provided to specialists and teachers caring for infants and toddlers with the support of $3 million from the Texas Workforce Commission and $300,000 from The Elkins Foundation. The project began earlier this month.

As part of the grant, the Children’s Learning Institute will establish and coordinate a new statewide Infant and Toddler Specialist Network comprised of specialists who support teachers of young children, the first of its kind in Texas. The network is designed to reach teachers working in underserved communities across the state.

Children at Risk reports that there are about 15,000 total child care providers in Texas and that about half of these programs participate in the state’s child care assistance program that provides subsidies for working families to help pay for child care costs.

The Children’s Learning Institute will focus recruitment efforts on child care providers participating in the child care assistance program, which targets families in at-risk communities.

Designed to improve interactions between teachers and children, the training includes lessons on the signals babies use to communicate, the best ways to facilitate their understanding and practice of language, family engagement strategies, best practices for developmental screening and referral, and strategies to build strong emotional and social skills in infants and toddlers.

To help the teachers implement these strategies, Children’s Learning Institute officials will conduct an initial on-site assessment to gauge the level of training and resources needed. The Children’s Learning Institute will align the state’s guidelines for infant, toddler, and 3-year-old learning to all professional development for teachers and specialists.

The network of specialists will receive specialized training to engage families in their children’s learning, and help support infants and toddlers not just at school, but also at home. That training includes self-study courses, collaborative professional learning communities for specialists, meetings of small groups of teachers, and individualized coaching – all designed to positively impact young children’s experiences in the classroom.

Designated the Texas State Center for Early Childhood Development in 2003, the Children’s Learning Institute develops and implements large-scale, research-proven school and family interventions. Learn more about the Children’s Learning Institute at www.childrenslearninginstitute.org.