Redesigning Early Ed

Children learn in unexpected ways: across domain and throughout the day. Here's how preschool classrooms can support that.

December 21, 2017
Preschool boy with art project, with another boy playing in the background

The science of early learning and development is yielding new insights for early childhood educators, offering a promising blueprint for innovation in standards, regulation, curricula, and classroom design.

At the latest convening of the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, developmental psychologists Stephanie Jones and Nonie Lesaux shared two of the most crucial of these new insights.  

  1. The development of a child’s skills in one domain (cognitive, social-emotional, interpersonal) can profoundly inform the development of her skills in other domains; the interrelatedness of these domains demands more attention than previously understood.
  2. A child’s learning environment can have a deep, lasting impact on her core non-academic skills.
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Early childhood teachers should weave opportunities for nonacademic skill-building and predictable routines throughout the day. They can show their students that the ability to follow a schedule or to talk to an upset friend are integral to learning literacy and math.

According to these new observations, teachers should explicitly emphasize the interrelatedness of children’s skills in multiple domains and should focus on moments that bridge those domains, and they should prioritize creating a predictable, structured learning experience. A classroom rooted in these ideas can help set students up for success long after they move into kindergarten.

Finding One: A New Lens on the “Whole Child”

Educators have long known the importance of educating the “whole child” — of teaching her not just literacy and numeracy skills, but also social-emotional competencies and executive function skills. It’s hard to focus on every area at once, though, so teachers may “kick cans down the road,” choosing to prioritize certain skills now and waiting until those are solidified before teaching others.

But scientists are increasing seeing that the development of one skill can affect other skills in vastly different domains. For example, a focus on literacy, language, and mathematics predictably leads to stronger vocabulary skills and stronger geometry knowledge — but it has also been found to lead to a stronger working memory and greater flexible thinking. The reverse is true also; a child with weaker literacy skills, for example, may have less developed self-control, too.

Finding Two: Learning Environments Affect Outcomes

We’re increasingly seeing how nonacademic skills can be predictive of life outcomes. Strong impulse control, executive function, and social skills can lead to greater labor market and higher education success, better physical wellbeing and personal finance, and lower substance abuse.

Now researchers are realizing that those core nonacademic skills are a direct reflection of children’s everyday environments. Learning environments that are predictable and stable, and filled with routines, can yield substantial benefits for child’s future. One study found that a child in a high-quality early learning setting who is poorly regulated will perform better than expected, whereas a child in a low-quality setting who is poorly regulated will do worse than expected — and continue to struggle over time.

An Effective Learning Environment

To act on these findings, say Jones and Lesaux, early childhood teachers should weave opportunities for nonacademic skill-building and predictable routines throughout the day. They can show their students that the ability to follow a schedule, to remember yesterday’s story, or to talk to an upset friend are integral to accomplishing their main goals of learning literacy and math.

For example, an effective learning environment can:

  • Provide direct instruction in meaning-based and code-based skills and in emotional management, social skills, and attention.
    This means that teachers should be explicit about how to recognize emotions or how to keep your body still in the same way they are explicit about what a word means or what a shape looks like.
  • Use rich texts as a platform for discussing academic concepts and questions and for promoting emotional language development, self-reflection, and empathy.
    This means that teachers can use books to teach about topics such as outer space and to have discussions about characters’ feelings.
  • Cultivate consciousness of words and how they work and of our own feelings and the feelings of others.
    This means that teachers can intentionally use words that help students better understand both their surroundings and their emotions. 
  • Increase classroom talk to build language and reading skills and to build cooperation and conflict resolution skills.
    This means teachers can encourage conversation between students both about academic subjects and about their friendships and disagreements.
  • Use consistent routines and language to support instructional cohesion across classroom and grades and to reduce chaos, minimize anxiety, and create common social norms.
    This means that teachers can stick to a schedule both to help students understand different content areas and to help students feel safe and secure at school.

The ideal result is a curriculum that privileges process over mastery, say Jones and Lesaux. For young children, the road to learning how to read, write, and count should be just as important as the destination — because that process is an opportunity to gain critical social-emotional and executive function skills, too.

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Early Childhood Learning and Teaching