Reimagining Early Childhood Education

Topics: Early Childhood, Pre-K–3, Principal Leadership

As you explore the best avenues for academic recovery while the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, a key area of focus should be student success in early childhood education (ECE) programs. This will impact their future performance on academic measures in later grades and adulthood, and you now have opportunities to revisit how your school helps its youngest students succeed.

Organizations such as NAESP continue to put forth essential guidelines to support principals in learning how to implement developmentally appropriate instructional leadership practices in schools. We offer five suggestions for recovery to guide school leaders in revisiting, reimagining, and reengaging with ECE.

1. Ditch Deficit Language

COVID-19 and the “schoolification” of the early years have led many to adopt deficit-based perspectives of children from particular socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds and children in general. The focus on gaps and deficits has led many early childhood programs and teachers to concentrate on “readiness in the now”—evaluating every child as soon as they enter classrooms and using a standardized vision of schooling to evaluate a child’s worth as a learner.

Framing what it means to be a successful student in this way discourages children and families from seeing schooling as a positive influence in their lives and reinforces a belief system that sees children as problems to be fixed. Ditch the deficit language; instead:

  • Reframe children as human beings rather than as human becomings. Follow Jens Qvortrup’s advice to help you and your teachers refocus instruction on learning opportunities rather than academic performance. “District administrators are just looking at the performance data,” one kindergarten teacher told us. “They’re not seeing the process of learning. I want to celebrate that, and the students deserve that [because] they’re human beings.”

Viewing children as human beings positions them and their families as valued contributors with funds of knowledge that are often ignored by content standards and achievement tests. This is a good time for you, your staff, and policymakers to rethink how you frame students and families in your school and how you define success.

2. Distinguish the Unique Needs of Early Childhood Classrooms

As a result of the pandemic’s challenges, school leaders are experiencing increased pressure from policymakers, parents, and the public to address missed learning opportunities and help children leave third grade ready to read. This sprint produces short-term gains in reading scores but often leads to poorer results across a range of developmental outcomes. Instead, we suggest that you:

  • Recognize the distinct needs of lower elementary students and their teachers. Rather than expecting ECE classrooms to look like fifth-grade classrooms, promote learning experiences that reflect how children learn and develop in the early years.
  • Continue conversations with ECE teachers. This will ensure that they are meeting the needs of the children in their classrooms while working toward reasonable and achievable outcomes in students’ academic, social, emotional, and physical development.

3. Empower Teachers to Teach the Children in Their Classrooms

In addition to discussing students’ needs with ECE teachers, have a conversation about how to teach children through developmentally appropriate practices. Emma García and her colleagues at the Economic Policy Institute say that prior to and during the pandemic, limited autonomy over instruction and a lack of support from school leaders pushed many teachers out of the classroom.

Student-centered practices should not reflect adult-driven priorities. “Administrators from the district often walk into my classroom with a checklist, and they are not looking for all your great things,” a kindergarten teacher told us. “They are looking for what you lack in your teaching.”

School leaders must reevaluate classroom techniques that disempower rather than support the development of children. To empower teachers and move past inappropriate practices for the early years, we suggest that instructional leaders:

  • Support early childhood educators in planning and implementing high-quality, student-driven learning experiences. Children are more interested in reading and mathematics and perform at the same or higher level in classrooms where teachers provide access to academic content through student-driven learning experiences.
  • Allow early childhood teachers the opportunity to plan, prepare, and collaborate during school hours. Consider reducing the demands placed on early educators such as limiting the number of standardized assessments, and put supports in place to allow teachers to work with their students directly in their classrooms.
  • Differentiate professional learning. Differentiation is often viewed as a best practice in teaching young children, and this applies to teachers’ professional learning, too. Work with district administrators to create multiple pathways for professional development and support for novice and experienced early educators. Peer mentoring, classroom and schoolwide observations, supportive coaching, and collaborative planning among colleagues can help teachers feel supported in their practice.

4. Reengage With Families

Families are children’s first teachers, and their routines affect children’s preparation for, and success in, school. While our research has shown that all families want their children to succeed in school, principals should recognize that not all families will have access to the same information, networks, or resources. The pandemic has created an opportunity for you to reenvision, support, and plan for a broad array of family involvement activities. Consider the following tactics:

  • Redefine familial involvement. Think through issues such as the unanticipated challenges COVID-19 continues to create for families, the times and days conferences and parent events are scheduled and whether child care is available, what involvement looks like in your school, and how particular structures might limit parental participation.
  • Revisit how your school communicates with families. What kinds of messages are you sending to families about being a part of your school community? Is the school reaching out only when there is a problem?
  • Reexamine the image your school projects. Work with groups such as the parent-teacher association for your school and other community members to ensure that the varied communities in your school feel that they can access and participate in the full range of activities you facilitate.
  • Advocate for early childhood educators. Just as it is the job of teachers to advocate for students and families, principals and district stakeholders should advocate for the changes outlined in this article.
  • Include the voices of early educators in your decision-making process. Teachers are deeply invested in their students’ outcomes, but they often feel left out and disregarded in policy discussions and schoolwide decisions. “I am OK with high expectations, but policymakers have not been in the classroom,” another kindergarten teacher told us. “They don’t have a clue about what they’re asking us to do.”

Take a moment to think through how you can revisit, reimagine, and reengage with your early childhood classrooms. How they function will affect your instructional leadership and the academic trajectory of every student entering your school.

Christopher P. Brown is a professor with the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Resisting the Kinder-Race: Restoring Joy to Early Learning.

Lauren C. McKenzie is a doctoral student in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Texas at Austin.