Effective Early Childhood Programs & Practices
ISSUE: All programs in early childhood education are not equally effective in promoting the learning and development of young children. The overall effectiveness of an early childhood program is dependent upon several factors: quality staff, suitable environment, appropriate grouping practices, consistent schedules, and parent involvement. Decisions about these factors often are made early in the planning and organizing process for an early childhood program. These decisions have important ramifications because they affect the child, the family, the classroom, the school, and the community. OVERVIEW: The benefits of early childhood education have been established through research and publicized nationally. Yet these benefits do not necessarily occur in every early childhood program. Schweinhart (1988) notes: “Long-term benefits result only from high-quality early childhood development programs–ones characterized by a child development curriculum, trained teaching staff, administrative leadership and curriculum support, small classes with a teacher and a teaching assistant, and systematic efforts to involve parents as partners.” (p. 7) The planning and organization process for an early childhood program exhibiting these characteristics begins with the establishment of a task force of educators, parents, and community members. After identifying best practices in early childhood education, this group can help provide input on decisions regarding the details of curriculum, assessment, staff selection, school climate and environment, and parent involvement. Community collaboration is essential in setting goals and providing focus for an early childhood program. When a community plans a new early childhood program or seeks to improve its current program, a series of questions need to be asked: Who will staff the early childhood program? How will the classroom look? What is the best way to group the children? What will the day be like for the children? What will be the role of parents? The answers to these questions are important in determining the quality of the program. Decisions made about the organization of the early childhood program must have a firm foundation in the growth and development of the young child. These decisions should be based on the following premises:
- Young children learn best through active, engaged, meaningful learning.
- Young children learn best in an early childhood program that is developmentally appropriate.
- Young children learn best in an early childhood environment that is appropriate for their age and stage of development.
- Young children benefit from a consistent routine and a daily schedule in early childhood classrooms.
- Young children learn best when the school develops a sense of community for all participants.
- Young children function best in early childhood programs that value and reinforce continuity.
- Young children benefit from early childhood programs that provide a careful transition from preschool to kindergarten and from kindergarten to the primary grades.
- Young children learn best when they are with teachers who consider them and respond to them as individuals.
Using these premises as a foundation, planning and organizing for an effective early childhood program should emphasize five factors: quality staff, suitable environment, appropriate grouping, consistent schedules, and parent involvement. The first factor in planning for effective early childhood programs is quality staff who have training and experience in teaching young children. The National Association of Elementary School Principals (1990) notes quality indicators in staff selection: “The staff is composed of people who have taken coursework not only in elementary education but in teaching young children” (p. 46). Specifically, teachers and administrators who work with young children should have a background in Early Childhood Education or Child Development; these courses of study emphasize child development, the learning style of the young child, and the need to develop partnerships with parents. In addition to coursework, teachers and administrators should have completed supervised training in working with young children. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (1991) has outlined recommended staff qualifications for various early childhood positions. Early childhood teachers also need adequate time to focus on and interact personally with children and their families. If teachers are unable to spend time interacting with individual children, the benefits of their expertise will be limited. The teacher-child ratio and group size are important planning considerations. The younger the child, the more important it is to have adequate numbers of staff in the classroom. Appropriate staffing patterns will vary according to the age of the children, the type of activity, and the inclusion of children with special needs. Appropriate teacher-child ratios encourage the bonding of children and teachers. The National Association of Elementary School Principals (1990) recommends the following student/adult radios: 20:2 for three- to five-year-olds; 15:1 for six- to eight-year-olds; and no more than 15:1 for at-risk children. A second factor in planning for effective early childhood programs is a suitable environment for the learning styles of young children. The National Association of Elementary School Principals (1990) notes: “Children in the three-to-eight range acquire knowledge in ways that are significantly different from the way older children learn. Younger children learn best through direct sensory encounters with the world and not through formal academic processes.” (p. 2) “Young children acquire knowledge by manipulating, exploring, and experimenting with real objects. They learn almost exclusively by doing, and through movement.” (p. 8) The physical environment–which includes the classroom setting as well as the outdoor setting–should provide opportunities for the children to explore and learn. An appropriate indoor environment can be created by subdividing a large classroom into learning areas or centers. The room arrangement of shelving and furniture clearly designates these centers and also provides a spacious area for group gathering. Furniture is child-sized, sturdy, and comfortable. Manipulatives, puzzles, and other learning materials are displayed on shelves that are easily accessible by small children. Decisions about the classroom design are made in the early stages of planning and should take into consideration traffic patterns, access to sinks and bathrooms, activity areas and quiet areas, a group meeting area, and a message center. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (1991) states, “The quality of the physical space and materials provided affects the level of involvement of the children and the quality of interaction between adults and children” (p. 43). The outdoor setting also is important in early childhood programs. Children need space outdoors for play, exploration, and social interaction. Specific times during the day should be set aside for recess and outdoor activities. This time can be used for physical movement, climbing and playing on playground equipment, digging and planting, and individual play. A third factor in planning for effective early childhood programs is effective grouping practices. Research indicates that nongraded, mixed-age grouping is particularly appropriate for young children (Gaustad, 1992). Within the classroom, teachers can use flexible grouping–ranging from whole class to small groups to individual work–to facilitate learning. A fourth factor in planning for effective early childhood programs is a consistent daily schedule. Dodge and Colker (1992) note the importance of consistency in the daily routine: “Young children feel more secure when they can predict the sequence of events and have some control over their environment. They delight in reminding the teacher that ‘snack time comes next’ or telling a visitor that ‘now we go outside.’ In addition, predictability provides children with a rudimentary sense of time, as they begin to learn what comes first in the day, second, next, and last. A consistent schedule also helps build trust in the environment.” (p. 37) In addition to the daily schedule, plans should include decisions about the school’s yearly calendar. Some early childhood programs operate on a 12-month basis, with vacations spaced evenly throughout the year instead of one long summer vacation. Some programs also have before- and after-school care as well as educational activities for parents and children during the evening. A final factor in planning for effective early childhood programs is parent involvement. Schweinhart (1988) recommends that early childhood staff should form a partnership with parents through home visits, frequent communication, and a welcoming attitude toward volunteering and classroom observation. (Refer to the Critical Issue “Creating the School Climate and Structures to Support Parent and Family Involvement.”) GOALS:
- Teachers in the early childhood program have knowledge of child development as well as skills in teaching young children.
- Teaching staff provide the necessary amount of interaction, monitoring of development, and individualization of planning for each child to learn.
- The program has an early childhood environment that enables children to learn according to their own development.
- The program uses effective grouping practices that enable each child to grow and develop to the best of his or her ability.
- The program has a daily schedule that provides the children with continuity and security.
- The program involves parents and families as partners in the education of young children.
- Study the theoretical principles of child development and learning.
- Develop practices and programs that are developmentally appropriate for young children.
- Establish a daily schedule to foster continuity and provide large blocks of time so children can do complex, integrated, in-depth study.
- Encourage creativity in early childhood classrooms by giving children extended time to work on projects, a pleasant environment in which to work, appropriate materials, and a supportive climate.
- Develop a plan for the transition of children from prekindergarten programs to kindergarten and primary programs.
- Encourage parent and family involvement in the school. (See the Critical Issues “Supporting Ways Parents and Families Can Become Involved in Schools” and “Creating the School Climate and Structures to Support Family Involvement.”)
Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI) 11501 Georgia Ave., Suite 315 Wheaton, MD 20902 (301) 942-2443 or (800) 423-3563; fax (301) 942-3012 Contact: Marilyn Gardner, Director of Conferences and Marketing E-mail: email@example.com WWW: National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) 1509 16th St. N.W. Washington, DC 20036-1426 (202) 232-8777 or (800) 424-2460; fax (202) 328-1846 Contact: Pat Spahr, Information Services Director E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org WWW: http://www.naeyc.org/ National Association of Elementary School Principals 1615 Duke St. Alexandria, VA 22314-3483 (800) 38-NAESP; fax (800) 39-NAESP Contact: Gail Gross E-mail: email@example.com WWW: http://www.naesp.org/ National Early Childhood Technical Assistance System (NECTAS) 500 NationsBank Plaza 137 E. Franklin St. Chapel Hill, NC 27514-3628 (919) 962-2001; fax (919) 966-7463 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org WWW: http://www.nectas.unc.edu/ Valeska Hinton Early Childhood Education Center 800 W. 5th St. Peoria, IL 61605 (309) 672-6810 E-mail: email@example.com References This Critical Issue was researched and written by Judy Harris Helm, president of Best Practices Inc., an educational consulting firm in Brimfield, Illinois, and former coordinator of professional development at Valeska Hinton Early Childhood Education Center in Peoria, Illinois.