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The Virtual Lab School: An Introduction for Coaches

You’ve likely heard the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” As a professional caregiver working in an early-childhood or school-age program, you not only play a role in the “village” but are often of second-most importance after a child’s family. Child care programming is central to children’s care and education, and it is essential that all child care staff are knowledgeable about child development and caregiving practices, prepared to work with a diverse group of children, families, and coworkers, and able to access ongoing and research-based professional development. Child care programs must have intentional, systematic support to meet these demands. This course will primarily focus on supporting coaches in the implementation of a professional development system. In this lesson, you will learn about the importance of supporting direct care staff and about the core components of the Virtual Lab School.

  • Understand why child care professionals need ongoing and research-based professional development.
  • Define some of the reasons why coaches must be patient and flexible when supporting adult learners.
  • Explain the basic structure of the Virtual Lab School content.



Though you likely became an early-childhood or school-age care professional because you enjoy caring for children, as a coach you spend most of your time helping your adult coworkers meet professional goals and provide high-quality care. Research has shown that when you attend to and support adult caregivers, you directly invest in children’s development and help them grow to become healthy adults who give back to society. While the influence of children’s families cannot be undervalued, some of the children in your program may spend as much time in out-of-home care as they do with their families at home. For this reason, as a coach and program leader, you have the important responsibility of making sure that direct care staff in your program fulfill their duty to support all parts of children’s development and well-being.

The Importance of Professional Development for Child Care Staff

Child care staff have varying degrees of experience, education, and skills. Whether the staff members you are working with have a degree or credential related to teaching or child development or are new to the child care and education field, they will need to maintain and grow their professional practice and knowledge over the course of their career. Important reasons for continual professional development include:

Advances in Child Development Research

Through child development research, we learn new things every day about what children need to reach their full potential. Despite this, myths persist about how children learn and develop. Consider these recent changes in our understanding of the learning process brought about by child development research.

Myth / Fact
  1. Myth: “Children aren’t ready to learn until they go to school.”
    Fact: Learning is a lifelong process that begins at birth. Children are always learning from their environments and from those around them.
  2. Myth: “There’s no point in talking to babies until they can talk back.”
    Fact: Language – and the rules of speech – can be demonstrated to children from a very early age. The more exposure to language we provide to children, including infants, the better.
  3. Myth: “Children will learn everything they need to know from their teachers.”
    Fact: Formal education in a classroom setting is valuable, but experiences and interactions outside of the classroom reinforce these concepts. Early experiences build the foundation for later learning.
  4. Myth: “Play time is separate from when children learn.”
    Fact: Play helps children learn valuable social emotional and cognitive skills.

Unfortunately, many parents and even some of the staff working in your program may not be aware that these myths have been supassed by new research. Lack of information and limited opportunities to learn affect the beliefs and practices of program staff. As child development research has expanded, we no longer believe children are sponges who learn by passively receiving information, and we expect caregivers to do more than they did in the past. We now know that meeting children’s basic needs is much more than making sure they are clean, fed, and supervised. Children must also have responsive caregivers who have the knowledge and skills to provide enriching learning experiences that support all parts of child development, including emotional and physical safety. Without this support, some children who are biologically more vulnerable to the effects of stress and adverse experiences are more likely to have poor health and learning outcomes. Fortunately, supportive relationships and high-quality learning experiences can act as protective factors to help counteract this vulnerability and benefit all children.

Diverse Children and Families

While teachers play an important role, families are the most influential people in children’s lives. To provide the highest quality of care, child care programs must collaborate and co-care with children’s families. Your program should be more than a place that children are dropped off at while their parents go to work. Instead, think of the role of your program and your relationships with families as a shared partnership in caring for their children. In this partnership, you will work with families to more fully understand how their children learn best and how you can help all children feel a sense of belonging. As the United States population grows more diverse and the dynamics of families change, child care staff need to be culturally competent—able to work cross-culturally with those who have different languages, sexual orientations, religions, racial and ethnic backgrounds, disabilities, and beliefs. For both individual staff members and program-wide, cultural competence develops over time with support and a defined set of values, practices, and policies. Awareness and reflection, both components of coaching, are essential to evolve the cultural competence of a community of learners.

Increased Standards of Care

As we have learned more about the importance of investing in high-quality child care, states and systems have created minimum standards of care collectively referred to as a quality rating and improvement system (QRIS). QRIS standards allow early-childhood and school-age programs to receive ratings based on their program quality. Ratings provide feedback to child care programs so they can target areas of needed improvement and provide families with reliable information to help them choose a program. Licensing regulations, which aim to protect the health and safety of children, often work in combination with a QRIS. In many quality rating and improvement systems, licensing regulations mandate a baseline with additional practices that support children’s learning and development built into higher rating levels. Though increased standards for out-of-home care provide greater assurance for children and families, some direct care staff and programs may not be prepared to meet all the standards.

Varied Levels of Knowledge and Skill

As a coach, trainer, or administrator, it is your role to support staff in carrying out the increasing, complex demands placed on professional caregivers. This is challenging because direct care staff members have a wide range of job experiences, formal education, and skills. Some staff members may have an associate or bachelor’s degree but limited on-the-job experience. Others may have a high school diploma but have worked in child care programs for many years. Some staff are quick learners who easily pick up on practices and procedures, while others may need repeated and targeted support. There may be more seasoned staff in your program who, despite their proven high-quality caregiving practices, need a lot of support in collaborating with families with diverse beliefs on child-rearing. For some, especially those who have not spent most of their lives using computers, using the internet to access information and complete professional development tasks may be a challenge. Because the needs of program staff vary, you will need to be flexible and patient and have the ability to cater your support to adults with a wide range of learning needs.

An Introduction to the Virtual Lab School

An Accessible System to Support Adult Learners

You may remember when most people went to the library to research a topic. And you may have had the frustrating experience of needing the newest edition of a costly textbook that reprints every year. Difficulty accessing information, whether due to location, cost, or some other barrier, can affect the quality of an individual’s caregiving practices and entire child care programs. Because of tight budgets, most administrators are unable to invest significant program funds into books or other professional development resources for all staff or to send their entire staff to in-person workshops every year. Despite these challenges, child care programs must have ways to ensure that staff members have access to ongoing professional development so they can meet the expectations of licensing bodies, professional standards, and families.

The Virtual Lab School (VLS) is an online professional development system initially created to provide the U.S. military child care system with a unified framework of information, resources, and tools. Accessibility was at the forefront when the original creators began to think about what a comprehensive system should look like. The VLS is available to anyone with a computer or device and the internet, and it is continually updated to reflect new research and practice guidelines. The VLS is not meant to be a stand-alone textbook of information; rather, VLS website content is complemented and strengthened by on-the-ground coaching provided by coaches, trainers, and administrators. You will learn more about using the VLS website to support coaching implementation in Lesson Two.

Reliably Sourced and Centralized Information

Advances in technology have made it easier to access information, but with these advances comes the challenge of making sure program staff use factual resources guided by standards in the field of child and youth development. It can be difficult, especially when searching internet resources, to find reliably sourced information versus a personal opinion or anecdote, and most child care staff have limited on-the-job time to search and discern such information. Also, there are differences in care and educational practices for different age groups, and national organizations such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), ZERO TO THREE, the National Association for Family Child Care (NAFCC), and the National Afterschool Association (NAA) cater their information to specific audiences. It is most efficient for all program staff, regardless of role, to have a centralized platform with a consistent structure. The VLS team reviews relevant organizational recommendations, peer-reviewed journals, policy briefs, and user feedback and interprets this information, integrating it into the VLS system so that it most effectively, and efficiently, speaks to child care professionals’ specific roles.

Streamlining Staff Mobility

Given the need for staff in the child care industry to shift between age groups, some staff members may need to familiarize themselves with multiple sources of information to support children from birth to age 12. The VLS Crosswalk, which you will learn more about in later lessons, is a reference guide to support staff members who change age-based program placements, helping them build on existing knowledge and gain relevant new information based on all the children they care for. A centralized system of professional development allows for this shift to be a more seamless transition.

Consistent Structure

Familiarity with the structure of the VLS helps you maximize its helpfulness. The VLS broadly serves child care professionals working with children ages birth to 12 in early-childhood, school-age, and family child care programs. It offers six tracks, including three for center-based professionals caring for infants and toddlers, preschoolers, and school-age children. Coaches and program administrators each have a track, and there is also a track for family child care providers who typically care for mixed-age groups.

Within each track are 15 Foundational Courses that include the 13 functional areas of the Child Development Associate competency standards and two additional courses on Child Abuse Prevention and Child Abuse Identification and Reporting. There are also several Focused Topics courses that are not track-specific and are meant for a variety of audiences—center-based, family child care, support staff, and program leadership. Focused Topics courses complement the information in the Foundational Courses and provide knowledge and strategies relevant to specialized content areas.

Just like with children, adults learn best when there are consistent expectations and routine. Within each course, VLS lessons follow the LEAD framework: Learn, Explore, Apply, and Demonstrate.

  1. Learn

    The main lesson content exists within this section and provides information about child development, caregiving and teaching strategies, and other practical knowledge. The Learn section contains Know, See, and Do subheadings within the direct care and family child care tracks. In the Training & Curriculum Specialist track, these subheadings are titled: Teach, Model, and Observe. Finally, the Management track labels these subheadings Know and Supervise & Support. Most lessons throughout the VLS contain short videos that coincide with the lesson content and include footage from child care programs or interviews of experts, staff, and families. Some lessons have a Learn activity at the end of the section that provides additional information.

  2. Explore

    The Explore section of the lesson provides you with the opportunity to use and reflect on the lesson content by completing an activity that may include reflection on your own experiences relative to the lesson content, case studies, scenarios responses, observation and reflection activities, opportunities to create something relative to the lesson content, or reviewing other sources of information related to the lesson.

  3. Apply

    The Apply section provides tools to support the continued implementation of the key ideas within the lesson content to your work. Apply activities may include key resources to share with families, checklists or program tools that support the continued use of key practices, or essential resources related to essential content or practices within the lesson.

  4. Demonstrate

    Just above the Glossary, you will find the Demonstrate section which contains a short multiple-choice quiz to reinforce your understanding of the lesson’s main concepts.

Some of the Explore and Apply activities will have a star , indicating that they are required to complete the lesson. You must be logged-in to the VLS to see if activities are required. Other nonrequired activities are there for additional support, and some program coaches may request that direct care staff complete nonrequired activities to reinforce certain concepts. At the end of each lesson, there is a References & Resources section where you will find cited sources for lesson content and links to other information related to the topic.

The Virtual Lab School website also contains two other helpful resources that can enhance your success at using the professional development system:

  • Search

    The Search feature can be used to quickly find targeted information on a range of topics. This feature can be especially helpful to coaches as you provided individualized targeted support to staff.

  • Support

    The Support link can be used to access a number of Support articles


Listen as key leaders at Virtual Lab School describe the overarching goals and core principles of the Virtual Lab School professional development system.

Goal of the Virtual Lab School

Listen as VLS leaders discuss the goal of the Virtual Lab School.

Core Principles of the VLS

Listen as VLS leaders describe key principles that guide the Virtual Lab School.


When you first begin to use the Virtual Lab School, it is easy to confuse some of the components mentioned in this lesson, such as track versus course or Foundational Courses versus Focused Topics. Take some time to familiarize yourself with these components on the VLS website by doing the following:

  1. Find the Menu button to discover how to navigate to the six VLS tracks: Infant & Toddler, Preschool, School Age, Family Child Care, Training & Curriculum Specialist, and Management.
  2. Choose any one of the six tracks and navigate to that track’s Foundational Course page. Do you see all 15 Foundational Courses?
  3. Choose a Foundational Course to examine the LEAD framework. Select the first lesson of the course and skim the Learn section. Does this lesson have a Learn activity? If so, it will appear at the end of the Learn section, but not all lessons have a Learn activity.
  4. Continue to examine the lesson to find the Explore and Apply sections next. Notice that they have short introductory paragraphs that orient you to the planned activities. Review a few of the Explore and Apply activities to see how they work. 
  5. Find the Glossary, Demonstrate quiz, and the References & Resources section toward the end of the lesson.
  6. Use the Menu button again and navigate to the Focused Topics page. What course titles do you see there?
  7. Choose any Focused Topics course and navigate to any lesson within it. Find all of the components of the LEAD (Learn, Explore, Apply, Demonstrate) framework in the lesson.
  8. Use the Search feature to find targeted information on various topics.
  9. Find the Support button to access a number of Support articles.

Completing this Course

This introductory course orients you to the structure and use of the Virtual Lab School. The Using the VLS: Coaching to Enhance Practice course primarily supports program coaches; however, it is recommended that you use the materials within this course with direct care staff who are new to your program or have not used the VLS before to introduce them to the VLS structure, professional development expectations, and what to expect from their coach. Please refer to the Using the VLS: Coaching to Enhance Practice Course Guide to preview the rest of the lessons and activities for this Focused Topics course.


Awareness of who works in child care programs and the children and families served may provide insight for ways your program can ensure that staff members are able to provide high-quality care and meet the needs of families. Review the fact sheet, Child Care Programs in the United States and complete the Reflecting on My Program activity.


VLS website users, especially coaches, must be proficient in the technical aspects of using an online system of professional development. Use the Virtual Lab School Technical Checklist for Coaches to assess what you know and tasks you may need to review in the Support section of the website.

As you review this checklist, be sure to search the Support Articles on the website, which you can access at the top right, next to your login status.


Adverse experiences:
Potentially traumatic events that can have negative, lasting effects on health and well-being
In an inherited or innate way
A large group of people who have the same national, racial, or cultural origins, or the state of belonging to such a group
Protective factors:
Attributes that contribute to families’ ability to better face life’s challenges, such as parental resilience
Person’s identification with one or more social or ethnic groups such as White, Black or African American, Asian, American Indian and Alaska Native, native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, or some other designation


Which of the following is not a reason why child care staff need professional development?
True or false? Only lessons in the direct care tracks use the LEAD framework: Learn, Explore, Apply, and Demonstrate.
For a new staff member who previously worked at a program that uses the Virtual Lab School, where would you find information on how to add them to your roster?
References & Resources

Administration for Children & Families, Office of Child Care. (2014). Comparison of State Licensing and QRIS Standards for Infants and Toddlers in Child Care Centers: Learning Environment, Developmental Domains, and Assessment.

Boyce, T.W. (2019). The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive. New York: Penguin Random House.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC. (2015). Cultural Competence.

Heckman, J.J. (n.d.). There’s More to Gain by Taking a Comprehensive Approach to Early Childhood Development.

 Institute of Medicine. (2000). From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Research Council. (2015). Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Ochshorn, S. (2011). Forging a New Framework for Professional Development: A Report on “The Science of Professional Development in Early Childhood Education: A Summit.” Washington, DC: ZERO TO THREE.