Starting Smarter

By: Rachel Robinson

Psychologists and researchers have fairly recently discovered floods of new insight into the inner workings of the brain and its effects on early childhood development.  With this new perspective, educators have begun to place more emphasis on early intervention and education.

According to Dr. Shonkoff, Director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, babies are born with the majority of their lifelong brain cells. Shortly thereafter, the connections which transport information flow between cells begin rapidly. In fact, Dr. Shonkoff elaborates that a child forms “700 new neural connections per second in the first years of life, specifically during ages 0-5.”

Shonkoff calls this firing session the period of time in which the “architecture” of the brain is built. Just a few decades ago, society generally accepted a predominately genetic influence on brain development rate and directly related skills such as language acquisition. Evidence-based research has shown that environmental stimuli or the lack thereof, most directly affects learning differences.

kris camera 497

Program Director of Smart Beginnings Greater Roanoke, Kris Myers, advocates the importance of excellence in early childhood education and intervention.

“It’s now widely accepted that about 85% of a child’s brain develops before the age of five,” Myers acknowledges. “We are more aware of these windows in brain language when the brain is so primed for learning.”

Dr. Shonkoff also states that children whose parents speak to them less often, provide less elaborate descriptions and expose them to smaller vocabularies will likely experience a deficit  and struggle academically, even into adulthood.

It’s no wonder why Smart Beginnings Greater Roanoke is so passionate about empowering and equipping early childhood educators and parents with the knowledge and practical teaching skills needed to help young children thrive.

“Our philosophy is based on the idea of kindergarten readiness,” says Myers. “Our vision is to improve the quality of early childhood programs and to see every child ready when the time comes.” Smart Beginnings Greater Roanoke is not a child care provider in and of themselves. This is an important distinction Myers often makes to parents who inquire about services. Rather, SBGR provides two levels of support to the community. One aspect includes continued free and low cost workshops for parents, educators and the public. These workshops are often themed around kindergarten readiness and other specific instructional sessions, such as how to teach math to young learners. Church staff, daycare providers, parents, and others attend these workshops to glean practical knowledge and learn applicable techniques to use in their own learning venues.


The second level of support involves an intensive and comprehensive system of assessing or rating established education programs and implementing ongoing education to improve these programs.

Interested early childhood education facilities apply to SBGR and if accepted (SBGR takes about six new area programs per year) providers go through an assessment and receive an initial rating based on an extensive rating system called the Star Quality Initiative criteria. After initial assessment, the thorough rating process often takes about two and a half years to complete and includes additional training programs as well as continual mentoring. Myers reports that SBGR has worked with different types of providers including head start and faith-based programs at various levels.

“Some providers come in strong and finish a lot stronger; ninety-percent of programs improve greatly in just six months,” Kris explains. The Star Quality Initiative is used to distinguish the quality of education. The Virginia Star Quality Initiative uses evidence-based research to determine what works. VSQI has concluded that young brains experience more effective learning through a hands-on approach and positive interactions.

Meyers recounts a video she often uses to illustrate VSQI and SBGR’s advocacy for conceptual learning over rote memorization.

“There is a toddler sitting in a high chair with his goldfish crackers and a poster of the US presidents. As his mother puts a cracker on each president, the toddler is remarkably able to match the president’s face and recite the name. “At first you’re like ‘wow that’s pretty cool,’ but he doesn’t actually understand what a president is,” explains Myers.

When teaching children, SBGR educators emphasize the importance of children’s understanding of reason and function. This includes identifying what are called “leader and helper roles in the classroom.”

“We emphasize why we use things. Of course, we want children to know their letters, but we want them to know what letters do and the difference between a letter and a word, for example.”

Highland Park 051

According to VSQI, each participating preschool, child care program, or family child care home is given a star rating, from one to five stars in order to indicate levels of competency. The specific aspects VSQI rates during assessment revolve around four main criteria:

1)      Qualified and trained teachers

  • Is the staff qualified? Do they have a degree in early childhood? Do they go to workshops to continue their training?

2)      Positive teacher-student interactions

  • How do the teachers interact with your child? Do they talk with your child? Do they support your child’s social and emotional growth? How do they discipline children? Do they have a positive attitude towards the children? Do they encourage children to learn and be creative?

3)      Effective adult student ratio

  • How many children are in the classroom or the family child care program? How many teachers or assistant teachers are in the classroom?

4)      Classroom Setup

  • How is the classroom furnished? What kinds of activities are offered? Are there materials for children to do art, read, play dress-up, or play music? Is it clean? Do the children get to play outside?

In addressing teacher-student numbers, the ratio varies with several factors including the number of children and ages of children in the classroom. SQI emphasizes small group interaction and one to one attention when needed in order to keep all children challenged and on track.

The Program Director elaborates that much weight is given to positive interactions between teachers and students. Teachers encourage students to explain answers and reasoning even during play to encourage higher level thinking skills. Teachers give specific encouragement and quality feedback based on student behaviors. For example, rather than simply saying “good job” after a child identifies his letters, the teacher is taught to say “I really like the way you concentrated to figure out what letters are in this word.” This way the child knows exactly what he is being praised for, and is encouraged to exhibit the same critical thinking processes rather than simply repeat the behavior.

Classroom setup may seem minimally important, yet evidence-based research has indicated that the environment which includes fifty percent child related displays and artwork prove more effective than generic posters about vowels or washing hands. This theory explains that individual expression is very impactful in the classroom. Criteria for best practice also include classroom décor being placed lower and more close to child eye-level.

Finally, teachers are encouraged to be lifelong learners and to stay on the forefront of best practices in their field. Rather than sitting on a twenty-year old teaching license, Meyers explains that the field of education is always changing and continuing education is vital for educators.

SBGR partners with The United Way and is supported by several other companies. The program also receives grant funding and conducts resource development events throughout the year to attract sponsors. Local businesses are often interested to learn the effect of early childhood education on the workforce, and are interested in helping SBGR.

Smart Beginnings Greater Roanoke gives parents specific resources to supplement what may or may not be occurring in their child’s classroom and to make sure their child is on the right track. SBGR also sponsors parent education classes through Blue Ridge Parenting. Myers encourages parents to check our to access valuable articles and resources, including the “Ages and Stages” development screening tool. Parents can type in their child’s age and answer questions regarding developmental milestones and age appropriate gains or behaviors. After completing the screening pages, parents can submit scores and the program will outline areas of concern or areas in which the child is on track or advanced. Parents interested in locating a highly-rated Star Quality Initiative child development program can visit the state website and enter their respective zip code to access a map of rated programs in their area.

SBGR encourages readers to check out their Facebook and Pinterest pages as well. Here, parents can find reliable evidence-based articles and creative activities.



Growing Up in the Valley is Roanoke's very first family focused magazine. We are the premier source for family fun in Southwest & Central Virginia!
Share This: