Connect the Dots for Early Ed
Topics: Early Childhood, Pre-K–3
Many administrators who supervise early childhood education programs don’t, unfortunately, have credentials or a lot of knowledge in the area. Therefore, they might lack an understanding of a number of critical areas, including early childhood development; curriculum, instruction, and assessment; and brain development and developmentally appropriate practices.
Principals are a fulcrum of early learning—they have the ability to build up a program or tear it down. Principals are also integral to student success—a key component in establishing a culture that values student learning and builds relationships with all stakeholders. As such, they need to pursue advanced training in early childhood development to help ensure that every student has the foundation they need to excel in the elementary grades.
For me as an educator/administrator with multiple degrees, early childhood education and development was an area of limited knowledge even when I became a supervisor and pre-K director for my district. I realized that I didn’t understand some of the most vital components in ensuring that the individual needs of our youngest learners were met.
Seeking to supplement my knowledge, I participated in NAESP’s Pre-K–3 Leadership Academy. After completing it, I had a new appreciation and understanding of early childhood development. The leadership academy is a yearlong commitment that focuses on six competencies of early childhood development and learning that leaders need to embrace and practice:
Competency 1: Understand Child Development and Its Implications for High-Quality Instruction and Interactions, Pre-K–3
Competency 2: Develop and Foster Partnerships With Families and
Competency 3: Embrace and Enact a Pre-K–3 Vision
Competency 4: Ensure Equitable Opportunities
Competency 5: Share Leadership and Build Professional Capacity
Competency 6: Promote a Culture of Continuous Improvement
In equipping administrators with a better understanding of pre-K–3 education, the Leadership Academy gives principals the confidence they need to provide meaningful feedback to students, teachers, and families; plan professional learning to support early childhood practices; and serve as advocates for pre-K–3 policies and procedures at the district level.
Areas Ripe for “Aha” Moments
In facilitating Pre-K–3 Leadership Academy activities for Alabama educators and mentoring participants, I found that many other educators had missed out on fundamental concepts of early childhood behavior, intentional play, and assessment in spite of their having advanced degrees.
Participants often say they have “aha” moments when we discuss strategies for regulating behavior. A lot of kids—especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds—haven’t had the opportunity to be exposed to appropriate behaviors or a literacy-rich environment, and educators learn that redirecting and shaping more positive behaviors typically take more than a timeout.
Kids aren’t born with the skills to problem-solve, make good decisions, or self-regulate, and educators often assume that the children in their classrooms have the same ability to exercise the “executive” functions that they or their own children have.
Many kids have never seen executive function and self-regulation modeled, however, and as a result, they might not know how to express anger or behave appropriately in a classroom. They can develop these skills through a positive relationship with an adult, such as a teacher who regulates their own behavior appropriately.
Play as a Learning Strategy
One of the most misunderstood areas among educational leaders is the importance of learning through play in the early years. Young children are not going to sit at their desks and listen—or at least not for long. They need to construct their own knowledge through intentional learning opportunities. It takes more planning than what you might consider a traditional curriculum, but the outcomes are far better.
We often attempt to draw a divide between play and traditional academics, when they should go hand-in-hand. For example, one of our second-grade classrooms built a make-believe bakery where one student would create a menu, another would take an order, and another would measure out ingredients to bake a mock cake. It was a hands-on learning opportunity that imparted a variety of problem-solving skills effectively in a familiar and engaging setting.
Intentional play allows students to learn new concepts. Make-believe play helps students acquire all-important self-regulation skills. Dramatic play builds students’ language skills, social skills, and capacity for empathy. Principals who familiarize themselves with learning through play can champion developmentally appropriate practices, and that knowledge will help them support early childhood programs effectively.
Assessment is another area in which Leadership Academy participants needed supplemental knowledge. When educators discuss formative assessments, it’s often a question of having students do something on a piece of paper. That doesn’t provide authentic documentation in an early childhood classroom, however. Instead, try using a hands-on manipulative while you watch and guide the conversation—that’s what an authentic assessment looks like.
So many times, we just supply children with a set of facts and don’t give them an opportunity to construct the conceptual knowledge they can use in different situations. You can get only so far with procedural knowledge, and gaps like these can last throughout life.
Schools tend to teach to the masses, and that’s not good practice; each child has to be taught to mastery. The big thing for leaders is knowing where each of your children is and helping them move forward. They need to know that every kid doesn’t learn the same, and every kid doesn’t need to be doing the same thing.
Tanya Guin is district administrator, K–8 curriculum and instruction supervisor, federal programs supervisor, and pre-K director of the Walker County Board of Education in Jasper, Alabama.