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Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy

Marsico Institute


While improving the quality of early learning experiences is a worthy investment in the future, real world practices have only recently begun to catch up with this idea. MIELL works to increase the connection between research and practice through:

  • our partnership with Colorado's early childhood system-building efforts.
  • our original research on innovative classroom- and home-based interventions
  • our work integrating and translating the best research in the early childhood field around the country and the world

Broadly speaking, MIELL's research agenda is focused on the contribution that adults make in creating stimulating and nurturing environments for young children, thereby establishing a foundation for lifelong learning. Our projects are described below:

Evaluation of the Northeast Denver Babies Ready for College (BRFC) Program

The Babies Ready for College (BRFC) Program officially launched in Northeast Denver as part of an effort to equip parents and family, friend, and neighbor (FFN) caregivers with the knowledge and expertise to prepare their children academically and socially before they even enter preschool. The BRFC does this by (1) improving children’s long-term educational outcomes through parent and caregiver education and (2) developing civic leadership among parents and caregivers. The program includes a series of ten weekly workshops, home visits and/or phone calls, a resource fair, and a weekly parent-child class. Participation in the BRFC Program has increased since its inaugural cohort in 2010, yet no formal evaluation of the program and its outcomes has been conducted to date. Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy staff will work closely with BRFC staff (1) to assess parents’ and family, friend, and neighbor (FFN) caregivers’ perceptions of BRFC participation and (2) to assess children’s developmental skills as a result of parents’ BRFC participation. Findings will be used to make program improvements.

North Dakota Early Care and Education Study

North Dakota’s legislature recently passed Senate Bill 2229 which requires the state to study the development, delivery, and administration of comprehensive early childhood care and early childhood education. The study must include an examination of the availability, quality, and cost of service offered by existing public and private sector providers, the projected need for services during the coming ten to twenty years, and the ability of public and private sector providers to address the expansion of facilities or the creation of additional facilities. Numerous state departments and local agencies statewide have voiced their support of early care and education programs, projects, and initiatives. A committee representing child care, Head Start, higher education, public and private education, special education, advocacy groups, and North Dakota state departments has been developed to carry out this work. The Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy (MIELL) will support the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction (NDDPI) in conducting this state-mandated study on the development, delivery and administration of Comprehensive Early Childhood Care and Early Childhood Education in North Dakota. MIELL will work closely with a State Advisory Committee (AC) to provide insight on early childhood needs; obtain data required in conjunction with this study; review, analyze and synthesize data, and prepare a report for the legislature’s review.

Professionalizing Infant-Toddler Care

Gone are the days when "infant-toddler education" was something that was only needed for children with disabilities or family risk factors.  Most children in the U.S. are in the regular care of a non-parent prior to the age of three.  So, although we don't support any efforts to "push down" traditional education on all infants and toddlers, we strongly believe that those who are in the care of non-parents should have the highest quality experiences possible. Unfortunately, the quality of educaring at the infant-toddler level is even lower, on average, than it is for preschoolers.   A "perfect storm" exists considering  the cost of infant-toddler care, the need for additional support, better training, and better working conditions, and the particularly rapid and vulnerable state of brain development in the first three years of life.  MIELL is working toward innovative solutions to this complex problem on multiple fronts. Click here for Dr. Moreno's testimony to the Federal Departments of Education and Health and Human Services on this issue.  Click here for a summary View the summary page on " Learning through Relating" (LTR), a comprehensive curriculum, assessment, and professional development system co-developed by Dr. Moreno and colleagues at Clayton Early Learning.  Evidence suggests that the authentic LTR assessment can be validly employed by infant-toddler caregivers with or without college degrees.  Finally, we are conducting a study of the effects of community-delivered coaching on the quality of teacher-child interactions in infant-toddler settings, both center- and home-based.

Executive Function and Self-Regulation

It is now well-understood that the cognitive and emotional functions of the brain are not separate, and indeed, cannot do well without one another.  This is most clear in early childhood, when development progresses in a global, "non-compartmentalized" manner.  Thus, setting a foundation for lifelong learning occurs not by teaching young children specific content, but by providing them with supportive experiences and practice in the development of executive functions, including self-regulation (EF/SR).  In short, EF/SR allows children to find and use relevant information (both cognitive and emotional), make decisions, and carry out actions based on those decisions.  These skills are best developed through good old-fashioned play, with periodic support from an adult when necessary or to facilitate expansion.

Human beings cannot "decide to learn", or make a conscious decision to absorb content until certain brain reorganizations have taken place.  Since this transition can occur in normal children anywhere between preschool and third grade (not to mention the gradual and episodic development that will occur all throughout this period), it is appropriate to treat learning as primarily experiential during the early grades.  At the Marsico Institute, we strongly believe that all teachers need more training and support in the application of these principles of child development.  Moreover, teachers and families need relief from the pressures of the "accountability movement", which has had the unintended consequence of creating classroom practices in direct contrast to what we know about brain development, such as increasing compartmentalized content and "drill and kill" strategies, and decreasing play and experiential learning.  (See above our policy page for our white paper on the relationship between standardized testing and this issue.)  Currently, we are observing preschool teachers' support (or lack thereof) of children's developing EF/SR and devising an intervention program that will enhance these skills in a developmentally appropriate manner. We are also working with master kindergarten teachers to determine the best skills to target to ready children for successful functioning in an academic setting.


Parenting and Children's Well-Being, Learning, and Development

While it is true that most young children find themselves in increasing amounts of professional care, parents are still the largest influence on all children's lives. Research has shown that even for children in full-time child care, parental influence is still two to three times greater than that which can be attributed to child care experiences. Staring in the early elementary years, the amount of influence that can be attributed to teachers decreases even more. Thus, we also concern ourselves with the quality of parent-child interactions, and want to ensure that parents have the skills and support they need to engage with their children in ways that will nurture them and maximize their potential. Furthermore, we also want to make sure that the institutions and communities with which families intersect value parental engagement and know how to foster it. Currently, we are one of the investigators on the "Buffering Toxic Stress" project, in which we seek to determine whether enhancing parent-child interactions will serve as a buffer for children, even in the most stressful of circumstances, such as chronic poverty. Expected outcomes are children's learning and development, and also their well-being at a physiological level, i.e., their patterns of the stress hormone cortisol. In another project in which we are supporting community organizations providing early literacy interventions (birth through third grade), we are examining ways in which parental engagement can be maximized to complement and increase the programs' benefits.