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The Power of Simple Interactions

The ingredients of high-quality early education are rooted in the practices teachers use every day
Preschool Paints

It’s easy enough to identify a quality preschool by how we react: We feel amazed. We smile. We grow excited. We say “aww.”

But while it is easy to recognize quality education, the challenge for early education leaders and policymakers often lies in prescribing quality education. When we see good practices in education, how do we record what made them great — and how do we replicate them in other contexts?

At the latest convening of the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media shared one model of good practice.

With an initiative called Simple Interactions, the Fred Rogers Center is researching the importance of simple, caring, stimulating interactions between children and caregivers — the so called “active ingredient” to a child’s development.

Junlei Li, a developmental psychologist who has spearheaded this work, discussed the importance of early education centers finding a balance between this “active ingredient” and other “inactive ingredients” like curriculum, facilities, materials, and accountability systems. Over the past decade, he said, the Fred Rogers Center has gone into “settings where low resources and adversity intersect,” such as low-income family childcare providers, schools for the deaf, and youth residential homes, to figure out where, when, and how these simple interactions can help promote positive development despite adversity.

In low-income areas, research-based practice is unlikely to succeed or sustain without "practice-based practices," says Junlei Li of the Fred Rogers Center.

Identifying the ingredients of a high-quality early childhood experience is a key goal of the Zaentz Initiative, which is conducting a large-scale study on early learning environments and hosting a professional learning academy for early education. Li was one of three researchers at October’s convening discussing the landscape of early education today. Renee Boynton-Jarrett of Boston University and Boston Medical Center and Diane Schanzenbach of Northwestern University spoke as well.

What are the "Active Ingredients" in High-Quality Early Ed?

Li identified four practices common to most high-quality early childhood experiences:

  • a sense connection between students and adults;
  • reciprocal reactions between students and adults;
  • a sense of inclusion for every student;
  • and opportunities for each student to grow.

Fostering an environment of connection and inclusion, he said, not only strengthens human relationships in the classroom but also enhances the overall experience in the classroom.

In low-income areas, Li explained, research-based practice is unlikely to succeed or sustain without what he called practice-based practices.

  • Early education leaders should first be asking teachers to look deeply at what they are already doing in the classroom, rather than at new theories or studies.
  • Many early childhood teachers don’t realize that these small moments specifically “matter on a great scale.”
  • When teachers understand their own best practices, they can continue to grow.

"I think it is essential that we are always looking to grow the deep and simple in our field from the level of the practitioners." – Junlei Li

Lessons Learned

Policymakers, researchers, and teacher-leaders need to emphasize classroom interactions between practitioners and students. 

  • Teachers tend to underestimate the value of their encounters with students in class, Li said, when even a few minutes of engagement can help students feel included.
  • When designing policy, it is worth including teacher-student interaction as a core criterion in creating quality education.
  • Establishing spaces and systems for practitioners to reflect and analyze the work they do could provide them with opportunities to learn and grow in their profession.

“Innovation is finding something new inside something known,” Li concluded. “I think it is essential that we are always looking to grow the deep and simple in our field from the level of the practitioners, at the level of the very simple, small interactions they have with children, day in and day out.”

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