TIPS: The Program Improvement Process: Creating a Program Improvement Plan

The Program Improvement Plan (PIP) is a tool that can help you determine and achieve specific, measurable goals for program improvement. The PIP also allows you to design and track the steps needed for any desired improvement, including who is responsible, the timing involved, and available resources. The PIP also provides programs with an individualized guide for continuous quality improvement. By gathering and analyzing assessment data from internal and external ratings, programs take a tremendous step toward ongoing improvement that leads to high-quality service.

When developing your Program Improvement Plan, include goals that address:

  • Self Assessments – The Maryland EXCELS Self-Assessment, School-Age Care Environment Rating Scale® (SACERS)  and the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) are assessment tools designed for evaluating the environment and interactions children experience within the program.
  • School Readiness – School readiness goals and objectives are designed to improve children’s skills in the domains of personal and social development, language and literacy, mathematical thinking, scientific thinking, social studies, the arts, and physical development and health to help them succeed in kindergarten and subsequent schooling. To assist in determining your program’s kindergarten readiness goals for the coming year, be sure to review the Kindergarten School Readiness data for your county. (School Readiness results are not required for School-age Only programs.)
  • Accreditation Standards – (ACR 3.4, ACR 3.5, and AVR 3.5 only) Are you accredited or in the process of becoming accredited by MSDE or an MSDE-recognized organization? Meeting accreditation standards is another sign of commitment to continuous quality improvement that benefits children, families, and staff. Visit Recognized Accrediting Organizations for additional information.

Optional Categories:

  • Maryland EXCELS Standards – Choose areas within the Standards [Licensing and Compliance (LIC), Staff Qualifications and Professional Development (STF), Accreditation and Rating Scales (ACR), Developmentally Appropriate Learning and Practice (DAP), Administrative Policies and Practices (ADM)] on which your program wants to focus.
  • Additional Achievements – Maryland EXCELS recognizes child care and early education programs that provide services over and above those outlined in the Standards. These include Accredited Programs, Asthma & Allergy Friendly Child Care, Health and Wellness, Quality Business Practices, Cultural and Linguistic Competency, and Eco-Friendly Program Achievement. For more information, visit Maryland EXCELS Additional Achievements.
  • Other Program Priorities – Maryland EXCELS encourages programs to further individualize the PIP by addressing other issues specific to the program. Plan for physical improvements to your center or home, special events, or specialized professional development opportunities. Solicit input from staff, families, and board members. Be creative and dream big! A Program Improvement Plan template and guidance are available as a resource on the Program Improvement Plan (PIP) page.

TIPS:  Transitioning from an Early Childhood Program to Kindergarten

Transitioning from an early childhood program to kindergarten is a significant time for children and families. Providers, families, and schools can work together to help make this important transition a smooth one.

Each program should have transition plans in place throughout the year that help prepare a child both developmentally and academically for kindergarten. Check out the list of ideas below that can ease the transition for all involved.


  • A few months before children leave your program, it’s important to talk to them about what to expect. An easy and comfortable way to start that discussion is through books and stories. Explore your local library for these books:
    • Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten, by Joseph Slate
    • Welcome to Kindergarten, by Anne Rockwell
    • The Night Before Kindergarten, by Natasha Wing
    • Pete the Cat: Rocking in My School Shoes, by Eric Litwin
    • Mom, It’s My First Day of Kindergarten, by Hyewon Yum
  • Make a list of children’s thoughts about kindergarten.
  • Remind families to register for kindergarten, and have registration information available from local schools.
  • Invite a kindergarten teacher to visit your program. Or, if you offer a kindergarten program, take the time to visit the kindergarten classroom.
  • Hold an end-of-the-year conference with a kindergarten focus.  Provide parents with a progress report and/or portfolio.
  • Encourage families to engage in activities at home that will foster lifelong learning. Here are activities you can suggest:
    • Read to their child every day.
    • Give their child opportunities to problem-solve and make decisions.
    • Offer crayons, scissors, and small manipulatives to support their child’s fine-motor coordination.
    • Create a consistent bedtime schedule to encourage quality resting and waking habits.
    • Provide healthy, well-balanced meals to support their growing bodies.

Creating many opportunities throughout the year to help your prekindergarten children and their families transition through this change in their lives will have a positive impact for years to come.

For more information about how to help children transition between programs successfully, the Maryland EXCELS Toolkit offers tips, knowledge, and resources to support your work with children and families.

Making Transitions Work

Transitions are a part of daily life that can be challenging, particularly for children.  Given the multitude of transitions children experience, this can be very stressful for them. As early education professionals, you have an opportunity to help reduce the stress around transitions.  Whether children are leaving the care of their families for the first time, entering a new age group, or going to a different program, children need to know what to expect. Transition plans can help children and parents adjust successfully.

Transitioning from home to a program begins with open communication between your program and families. Here are some strategies you can implement:

  • Suggest parents visit your program with their children before their first day.
  • Offer abbreviated days in the beginning that gradually lengthen to a full day of care.
  • Allow children to bring a special book or other item from home.
  • Have a family photo wall or an “all about me” wall so children feel connected to their family while away from home.
  • Build times for transition into the daily schedule.

two young children play togetherYour Daily Schedule
All children benefit when you help them prepare for what’s to come. And since most young children can’t tell time, they rely on the order of activities throughout the day to be their clock. Having a predictable schedule brings children a sense of security. Too many stops and starts can frustrate children, but seamless transitions can become part of the routine and create extended learning opportunities. Consider how you can include transitions in your written daily schedule. For example, use a simple verbal countdown for cleanup time. When preparing to wash hands, sing a fun song about germs. Including transitions in the daily routine can help children understand your expectations as well as encourage positive behaviors. Using transitions in your program also demonstrates the effective use of teaching strategies, which is part of the Developmentally Appropriate Learning and Practice content area within the Maryland EXCELS Standards.

New Age Groups
Transitioning into an older age group is another important time for a child. Children will likely be changing classrooms and teachers, and helping them feel comfortable in their new environment is critical. Talk with families about their expectations and goals for their children. Provide the opportunity for the children to meet with their new teachers and spend time in their new classrooms. Give teachers a chance to discuss learning strategies for the children who are aging up. With everyone involved in the transition to a new age group, children will feel supported and confident in their new environment.

Helping children and parents through transitions is an important part of having a quality program. Developing transition plans will not just help families adjust to the necessary changes in their child’s life but will also give children valuable skills they can apply throughout their lives.

TIPS: Utilizing Observation Practices in Your Program – Tools and Techniques for Observing Children


As a child care provider, one of the ways you gain knowledge about the interests, strengths, and challenges of the children in your care is through observation. Observing can give insight about how each child thinks, hears, and learns. Observations can also help you plan lessons and activities or select materials that will encourage each child’s development and growth.

What practices does your program use to observe the children in your care?

Here are several useful tools and techniques:

Anecdotal Records:

Anecdotal records are detailed notes about the children in your program. You only need a pen, paper, sticky notes, or an electronic device to record the information. These notes should include the child’s name, date/time/setting, what the child said, what the child did, and how they interacted with materials or other people. Simply record what you see and hear while the child is involved in different activities. It’s important to keep personal feelings and opinions out of your notes—focus on being objective.


Developmental checklists focus on specific skills or behaviors and are a good tool to record development and growth. Checklists offer insight into which skills a child can or cannot complete. Checklists are also a great resource to help providers plan lessons, choose appropriate materials, and set goals for each child. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers a free Developmental Milestone Checklist for providers.

Work Sampling/Portfolios:

Work sampling involves collecting examples of children’s writing, drawing, artwork, dictated stories, and language samples. Photographs or videos of children creating work and audio recordings of children talking and discussing what they are creating can also be part of work sampling.

These examples can then be organized into a binder, electronic file, or other collection as a portfolio of the child’s progress. Portfolios offer providers and families a physical timeline of a child’s work and can be used in determining strengths and challenges for each child.

More information on work sampling can be found at the Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center website.

Conversations and Interviews:

Showing interest, listening, asking open-ended questions, and putting the focus on the child and their thinking helps you can gain valuable information and insight.

To make the most of observations, combine being a participating observer and an observer who stands back. Conduct ongoing observations to gain the most insight. The more you watch, listen and talk to children, the more you learn about them.  Use the information gained from observation to create a nurturing environment that encourages learning and development. By using observation tools and techniques and sharing information with families, you are supporting children’s success, learning, and development.

Opening Doors to Inclusion

inclusion written on chalkboardHow do you recognize the various cultures and experience of the children in your program?

Inclusion in child care and early education is an important topic. As you work to ensure inclusivity in your program, here are some practical ideas from Quality Assurance Specialist Petrea Hicks. She has dedicated much of her career in early childhood to inclusivity and the importance of all children being represented equally in their programs and classrooms.

Hicks suggests providers help children see themselves in a positive light by ensuring the books and materials in the learning environment are diverse and help to avoid or combat stereotypes. Fostering an environment that is reflective of a child’s culture and background will help that child to make social-emotional gains from an early age, Hicks said.

Check out these additional three tips for how to be more racially and culturally inclusive in your early childhood program.

  1. Be educated and knowledgeable, with the help of associated training, to ensure your program is being inclusive.
  2. Focus on a child’s strengths. The expectations you have for a child are what fuels them, so be sure to focus on their strengths to build confidence.
  3. Recognize all children at all times. Always celebrate diversity, not just during months honoring history. For example, in addition to recognizing Black History month in February, make a point to have books and materials in your program about African-American culture available throughout the year. Programs should look for books and materials about people who have been influencers in the community and stories about unique experiences specific to various, diverse audiences. Stories should also include diverse characters so children can see themselves in the stories they read.

Maryland EXCELS: Helping Families Search for Quality Child Care

Families have a lot to consider when they’re looking for the right child care and early education program for their family. Cost, location, and availability are important factors—but quality is the most important factor of all.

Maryland EXCELS helps families choose quality child care and early education programs that meet their needs. By searching for a Maryland EXCELS quality-rated program, families are choosing from programs that place particular emphasis on achieving high standards and implementing practices that support children’s development and learning.

Families can easily search for programs and providers in the Find a Program tool on the Maryland EXCELS website. Search categories include location, Quality Rating, and other achievements. Criteria for each Quality Rating are also viewable.

“Fundamentally, quality matters … licensing is a component of quality, but it’s not the only aspect,” said Christopher Swanson, Executive Director of the IDEALS Institute at Johns Hopkins University School of Education, a partner in the development and operation of Maryland EXCELS.

As participants of Maryland EXCELS, child care centers, school-age child care programs, family child care homes, and public prekindergarten programs earn ratings on a progressive scale from 1 to 5. A Quality Rating of “1” means a program has met initial quality requirements. A rating of “5” means a provider has demonstrated the highest Quality Rating.

“With each level of quality, the program is meeting more stringent requirements in areas such as curriculum, teacher training and qualifications, degrees, and other staff development activities that make teachers better teachers, and family child care providers more adept at their jobs,” said Lindi Budd, Maryland EXCELS Branch Chief with the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE).

Families can naturally have anxiety about leaving their children under another person’s care and guidance. It’s important to seek a provider who has the right skills and qualifications as well as the personality and environment to suit their children’s needs.

Interviewing programs is a great place to start. MSDE’s Division of Early Childhood provides guidance on how to start these conversations, as well as other valuable information to help in the search for finding the best fit.

Here are some additional questions families can ask to give a clearer picture of how a program or provider operates:

  • What curriculum do you follow?
  • How much time do the children spend working with the curriculum?
  • What are some examples of culturally-inspired activities you do with the children?
  • If a special education teacher, speech or occupational therapist works with your child, where in your house or center can this person conduct sessions with my child?
  • How are disagreements between children handled?
  • What do you do if a child is having a rough day or seems out of sorts?
  • What do you do if a child doesn’t want to participate in an activity?
  • What are your child care center or house rules?
  • How do you enforce the rules and what are the consequences for not following the rules?

The more a family knows–the more informed they will be.

Does your family need help with child care costs? You may be eligible for the Child Care Scholarship Program, which provides financial assistance to working families in Maryland. The Maryland Family Network’s LOCATE: Child Care Service enables families to find child care either via telephone or online.

Maryland Accreditation: Meet Nicole!

The Maryland EXCELS Team would like you to meet Nicole Johnson, the new Accreditation Specialist at the Maryland State Department of Education. Check out Nicole’s message below:

“I am excited to join the Maryland State Department of Education as the new Accreditation Specialist for the Division of Early Childhood in the Maryland EXCELS Branch. I launched my career as an educator within the Baltimore City Public School System teaching second grade for seven years. After that, I worked for Y Head Start Baltimore City at the Y of Central Maryland as the Director of Early Childhood Education and Health Services for 10 years. I have had a passion for working in the early childhood education field since my first day walking into my empty classroom and preparing it to meet the needs of the children in the community where I was teaching.

My love for teaching young children pushed me to become an education coordinator where I treasured being able to mentor and train teachers in developmentally appropriate practices. Being able to see children and teachers excel has been the highlight of my career!

Furthermore, being able to help families become more engaged and excited about their children’s preschool experience has been extremely rewarding. I have been committed for the last 18 years to ensure that children and families receive the highest quality of child care and education. Now, I am especially committed and excited to help Maryland programs use the Maryland Accreditation process as a tool for continued self-improvement. I look forward to meeting programs at the upcoming Maryland Accreditation Orientation sessions.”

Contact Information for Nicole Johnson:


Improving the Lives of Children Who Are At Risk

group-of-childrenResearch shows that children who experience safe, nurturing, and trusting relationships with the adults in their lives have a greater chance of success–emotionally, economically, and intellectually. For children who spend a significant amount of time in child care homes or centers, these adults include their caregivers and education providers.

In a recent presentation, Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child addressed the positive impact early child care and education providers can have on children who are at risk. For those children who experience increased stress, quality early childhood programs can make long-term differences. Additionally, having dependable and nurturing relationships with adults can “reverse the damaging effects of early life stress, with lifelong benefits for learning behavior and health,” according to The Impact of Early Adversity on Children’s Development, an article on the Center’s website.

The Maryland State Department of Education supports this research by requiring child care programs that accept Child Care Scholarship to participate in Maryland EXCELS. This ensures that children have access to child care programs that are committed to continuous quality improvement.

TIPS:  Effective Staff Meetings

Staff meetings are critical to ensuring the success of quality early childhood programs that have multiple staff members. Effective staff meetings allow your team to support one another, share information, and communicate ideas. In addition, staff meetings can provide the opportunity to receive necessary training and discuss how children are responding to the program.  A few key components of effective staff meetings include:


Finding a suitable time and space for staff meetings is the first step.  By having regular meetings held throughout the year and a meeting schedule planned, you can establish routines, allow staff to be prepared, avoid scheduling conflicts, and convey your program’s expectations.

Sheet:

A Sign-in sheet provides accountability for meeting attendance and allows you to disseminate information to appropriate people following the meeting.


Agendas allow you to create a record of the topics discussed for future reference and support good business practice. Agendas also provide staff with a list of topics to be discussed during your staff meetings.  It may be helpful to include how long the group has to discuss each agenda item to keep staff focused and keep the meeting moving in an efficient manner.  You may also want to incorporate opportunities for staff to provide input to the agenda and time in the agenda for staff to work together and share ideas.

A few agenda topics you may want to consider for the beginning of a new school year include:

  • Performance review schedules and why they are conducted
  • Specific child needs and how to help children adjust to the program
  • New updates to your program handbook/policy book and signatures from staff
  • Your Program Improvement Plan for the year, and the role of staff
  • Lesson planning process, curriculum and questions staff may have

Effective staff meetings can create a productive learning environment for your team members.   While it’s important to share information at staff meetings, allowing time for staff to learn from one another and share ideas will convey the importance and respect you place on their time, growth, and professional knowledge.

What are some strategies that have worked well in staff meetings for your program? Share your stories with us at for a chance to win some Maryland EXCELS swag!

TIPS:  Add a Splash of Summer to Your Lesson Planning Process!

There are many factors to consider as part of the lesson planning process. One thing to consider is Developmentally Appropriate Practices (DAP). The Developmentally Appropriate Learning and Practices content area of the Maryland EXCELS Standards addresses the following:

  • Children’s ages
  • Learning domains
  • Children’s individual interests and skills
  • Ongoing observations and assessments
  • Information offered from families
  • Cultural competency
  • Information from an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or an Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP), when provided
  • Selection and use of materials

Another factor to take into consideration when lesson planning is the time of year. Take a look at the fun outdoor activity below, perfect for this time of year! This is geared toward children three through five years of age, but can easily be modified for younger or older ages. It supports learning domains such as mathematical and scientific thinking and social studies. Be sure to adapt this activity to include your children’s individual interests and skills, and include information from any IEPs or IFSPs that has been shared with you.

Consider a “Rain Dance Roundup.” Observe the ground, plants, and other outside objects on the first day of the week (whether rainy or dry). Record the children’s observations. Incorporate music and movement into a “rain dance” to either encourage or discourage the rain to fall. Read about customs of other cultures concerning rain and its frequency. Ask each child what their families do on rainy days.  As the week progresses, make further outdoor observations of puddle size and depth, soil moisture, grass/plant growth, air humidity, and even cloud cover. At the end of the week, review what the children have discovered and how rain affects the world (plant growth, fresh water supply, air quality, etc.).

There are many fun summer activities you can enjoy outside as part of your future lesson plans. Take time to consider all the aspects that make a learning experience both valuable and fun for the children in your care.  Reference the above factors when lesson planning to incorporate criteria required in the Developmentally Appropriate Learning and Practices (DAP) content area of the Maryland EXCELS Standards.

Additional Summer Learning Ideas: