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Building a Solid Foundation

Tuesday - December 1, 2015

Building a Solid Foundation

Building a Solid Foundation

Approaches common in early childhood education can also benefit those in grades K-3


By Sara Mead 


In debates about education, early childhood often comes across as K-12’s overlooked little sibling. With no guaranteed access for children and families, lower resource levels and lower quality standards for many programs, the early childhood field lacks many things that the K-12 system takes for granted. It can be tempting to think the solution is to make early childhood – or at least pre-K – look more like the K-12 system. But that would be wrong. Young children have unique early learning needs, and the educational approaches – to instruction, curriculum and assessment – that work best for young children are different from those commonly used in K-12 schools.

In fact, not only do good early childhood programs look different from K-12 schools, the K-12 system – particularly the early elementary grades – could learn some things from early childhood. Although our public education system arbitrarily starts at age 5, child development experts define early childhood as the period from birth through age 8. This means that roughly a quarter of the children in our public education system – those in grades K-3 – are still in early childhood and could benefit from educational approaches that are common in pre-K, but rare in K-12 schools. 

Focus on executive function and social-emotional development.  Research suggests that non-academic cognitive skills, such as self-regulation, perseverance and attention, may be as important to children’s success in school and life as academic skills. Quality early childhood programs emphasize developing children’s executive function and social-emotional skills, but this emphasis often disappears once children enter elementary school. K-12 schools, in contrast, tend to assume that children come to school with executive function and social-emotional skills already in place. But this assumption may be wrong for many children, including those who did not attend quality early childhood programs, who have been exposed to trauma and stress in early childhood or who simply develop these skills more slowly than their peers. To enable children to succeed in school and life, schools need to continue to support their development of executive function and social-emotional skills at least through the elementary grades.

Family engagement. Early childhood programs view parents as key partners in promoting children’s learning and development and make concerted efforts to engage families. While many elementary schools also seek to engage parents, expectations around parent engagement and communication can change radically when families transition from preschool to elementary schools, and some school practices and policies are far less welcoming or culturally sensitive than those of early childhood programs.

Personalizing learning to children’s development and needs. Paying attention to individual children’s strengths, needs and interests and developing learning experiences that respond to them are core tenets of developmentally appropriate early childhood practice. Effective early childhood teachers constantly observe and monitor children’s progress, use those observations to inform lesson plans and activities for children and use a variety of instructional formats – whole group, small group and one-on-one – to differentiate learning opportunities for the needs of individuals or groups of children. Most elementary schools seek to differentiate learning but have less flexibility to customize learning to students’ needs than early childhood programs do.


Unfortunately, many of the features that support children’s success in quality early childhood settings disappear when they get to the “big school.” The loss of these supports can be particularly problematic for the most at-risk children and their families.  The PreK-3rd movement, which seeks to create aligned, developmentally appropriate educational experiences for children from preschool through third grade, has had some success in promoting systemic reforms – such as aligned early childhood and K-3 standards and new PreK-3rd teacher credentials – as well as in building linkages between pre-K programs and elementary schools. These linkages help early childhood educators understand schools’ expectations for kindergartners and support their transition to kindergarten. But there’s been less progress in changing instructional practices in K-3 classrooms or bringing effective early childhood practices up into the K-12 system.  Although these practices have failed to gain traction in public elementary schools, other developments in education may help change that. Research highlighting the importance of executive function and self-regulatory skills in children’s later school and life success has seized public and policy attention, encouraging education leaders to focus on these skills.

The move to expand access to personalized learning may also help. Many early childhood educators are skeptical about personalized learning models that use technology to deliver learning experiences for students. But the core premise of personalized learning – that educators should customize instruction to students’ current strengths, needs and interests – is very much aligned with the tenets of effective early childhood practice. Computers in personalized learning classrooms often play a role very similar to that of centers in early childhood classrooms: providing opportunities for students to explore their interests, while allowing teachers time to provide customized small group and one-on-one learning experiences. And efforts to reshape schools in ways that focus on matching education to where children currently are and supporting children to progress through content at their own pace, rather than in lockstep, would help promote more developmentally appropriate practices in K-3 classrooms.

To maximize children’s chances of success in school and life, we need to ensure that they can read by third grade and also have the math, self-regulatory and interpersonal skills that predict later success in both school and life. Achieving this goal will require expanding access to high-quality early childhood experiences. But it also requires changing practices in grades K-3 to better support young children’s learning and development as well as building linkages between pre-K and elementary schools. While we should be concerned about the millions of children that lack access to pre-K, we should pay equal attention to improving the quality of education for the millions more who are currently enrolled in our nation’s elementary schools – and may not be getting what they need to succeed.



Source: http://www.usnews.com/opinion/knowledge-bank/2015/04/09/what-early-childhood-education-programs-can-teach-k-12-schools 


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