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April 1, 2003
Vol. 60
No. 7

Putting Early Academics in Their Place

The most effective early childhood classrooms nurture both children's academic skills and their social and emotional development.

Putting Early Academics in Their Place - thumbnail
About 15 years ago, I helped conduct a research project called “Academic Environments in Early Childhood: Challenge or Pressure?” My colleagues and I studied almost 100 children for several years, examining whether children were better or worse off when they attended preschools that emphasized adult- directed instruction and the basics of reading and math rather than preschools that focused on play and exploration. As a former preschool and kindergarten teacher and child care center director, I was concerned—as many of us were—about the “hurried child” phenomenon and its effects on young children.
Our results supported some of those concerns, at least for the middle-class families participating in our research. Children whose families enrolled them in highly academic preschools and emphasized academic skills at home gained no advantage in overall cognitive abilities. Yes, they knew a few more letters and numbers when they started kindergarten, but those differences disappeared by the end of 1st grade. What's more, the children in the academic environments thought less creatively and had less positive attitudes toward school at the end of kindergarten (Rescorla, Hyson, & Hirsh-Pasek, 1991).
I have been thinking about the questions that we asked and the answers that we found in light of the many changes that we have seen in early childhood education research, policy, and practice since the late 1980s. Public schools have enormously increased their involvement in programs for 3- to 5-year-olds. More than 40 states now invest in prekindergarten initiatives. States and school districts have reconsidered the structure and goals of kindergarten, implementing more full-day kindergartens and emphasizing standards-based academic content focused on early literacy skills (Miller, 2002; Vecchiotti, 2001). More than 25 states and other groups have developed standards for the prekindergarten years, placing strong emphasis on academic outcomes.
In addition to these policy changes, new research has expanded public understanding of the extraordinary capacities of young minds and the significance of the early years for later development and learning (Bowman, Donovan, & Burns, 2000; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2001). Children can learn more than we thought, and what they learn before 1st grade makes a big difference in their later success.

Beyond Either/Or

Do these changes call for a new kind of early childhood classroom, focused solely on academic skills to prepare children for the rigors of later schooling? Many early childhood educators don't see it that way— but we don't want to turn back the clock, either. Instead, we are replacing the either/or thinking of 15 years ago—academics or play; adult-directed instruction orfree exploration—with a more complex and realistic picture of appropriate, effective early childhood education.
Excellent prekindergarten, kindergarten, Head Start, and child care programs put academics in their place as essential but not isolated components of an effective early education system. Consider the following examples from classrooms in New Jersey's state-funded preschool program.
At the Frances C. Smith Early Childhood Center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Amanda Worth holds a morning class meeting with her 3- and 4-year-olds. They carefully examine the graph that they have just created. Each child has placed an individual symbol beneath one of three columns: sneakers, boots, and shoes. Now they talk about what footwear most of them are wearing today. A complication arises: Rechecking what she is wearing on her feet, Elisa decides that she has made a mistake and must move her symbol(a term the children comfortably use) from the sneakers column to the boots column. With Amanda's help, the children share ideas about how to fix the columns and how moving Elisa's symbol changes the totals.
Selina Lawson's prekindergartners at Passaic New Jersey's School No. 16 are about to begin an extended free-choice time. Each child makes a “play plan” on a sheet of paper that includes the child's name, a picture of what he or she intends to do, and a sentence describing the plan (“I am going to build towers with José.”). Differences abound. Some children scribble their names and dictate to Selina. Others create their own sentences using phonetic spelling, assisted by a pictorial “sound map.” The children's drawings range from simple to elaborate.
Laura Giorgio, a teacher at the Charles C. Hudson School, has gathered a small group of children on the rug. She holds up a copy of The Three Little Pigs, a favorite story of this group. She reminds the children of their interest in the wolf blowing down the pigs' houses. Alejandro remembers that the wolf couldn't blow down the brick house because it “was stuck with glue.” Laura gives each child a bag of feathers, stones, yarn balls, wooden blocks, and other objects. She challenges the children to figure out which objects will move when they are blown and which will not. Flinging themselves onto the carpet, the children begin their investigations.

Finding the Right Place for Academics

Administrators, curriculum developers, supervisors, and professional development specialists can effectively include academic content in their early childhood programs if they keep a few important guidelines in mind.
Select important, appropriate academic content. Early childhood educators should choose intellectually challenging academic content that connects with young children's abilities and interests, such as the footwear graph that so engaged Amanda Worth's class.
A position statement from the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (2002) warns against simply “dumbing down” K–12 standards and curriculum. Instead, programs can draw upon research-based resources from national professional organizations and from some state preK standards to identify those concepts and skills that are the most significant for later learning—and that create the most enjoyment right now (Neuman, Copple, & Bredekamp, 2001).
Promote social and emotional competence, teacher-child-family relationships, and positive approaches to learning. Both an academic emphasis and a social-emotional focus are essential to high-quality early education (Hyson, in press; Kauffman Early Education Exchange, 2002). Children who enter kindergarten with curiosity, delighted engagement, and persistence at learning tasks leave 2nd grade with better skills in reading and mathematics (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002). Good early childhood teachers actively assess and promote social and emotional competence through classroom routines and activities—including academic and cognitive activities.
In Laura Giorgio's class, two boys have been constructing long chains of plastic pegs, laying them side by side from the wall all the way to the bookcase. Laura's earlier question of which chain is longer becomes emotionally charged when the “loser” tearfully protests the outcome. Laura notices and supports the two friends as they figure out how to make the chains exactly the same length—a mathematically and emotionally satisfying solution.
Insist on well-prepared teachers. The National Research Council recommends that every teacher of 3- to 5- year-old children should hold a bachelor's degree with a specialization in child development and early childhood education (Bowman et al., 2000). New Jersey's preschool initiative and a number of other state prekindergarten programs follow this recommendation despite the funding challenges. Teachers who know the “big ideas” in such academic domains as mathematics, literacy, and science, and who also know about early development, teaching, and learning are well prepared to implement challenging yet child-friendly academic content.
Effective early childhood teachers must fine-tune a balance between adult direction and child-initiated activities, from moment to moment and from child to child (Bodrova & Leong, 1995). They must be able to celebrate and guide young children's energy, fantasies, and intense curiosity about sneakers and boots, block towers and dancing, pegs and pigs (Andrews & Trafton, 2002; Davidson, 1996). They must create experiences that build the concepts, vocabulary, and engagement that make academic competence possible (Neuman et al., 2001). And they must know how to build the warm, nurturing, secure relationships from which young children can launch into academic challenges (Howes & Ritchie, 2002).
Amanda Worth sits at a table with children who are playing with small plastic bears of different sizes and colors. All sorts of language, fantasy play, and mathematical thinking are going on. While chatting with the children, Amanda uses her own bears to make an alternating color pattern. Maria notices. “I want one like you,” Maria says plaintively, wanting to be like her teacher in this as in other ways.
Effective teaching does not happen automatically, and degrees alone aren't enough. Ensuring high-quality early childhood teachers requires ongoing, job-embedded professional development and supervision (Koralek, Colker, & Dodge, 1995).
Use appropriate instructional strategies. Much of the concern about early academics has resulted from confusing whatwith how. It's important for young children to develop an understanding of geometric shapes, but it's unnecessary and ineffective to teach these concepts through drill-and-practice lessons (National Association for the Education of Young Children [NAEYC] & National Council of Teachers of Mathematics [NCTM], 2002). Practices that effectively support early academic competence build on young children's natural interests and learning styles, including play, drawing, and talk (Project Zero & Reggio Children, 2001).
Within such well-designed projects as the Three Little Pigs investigation, academic content becomes developmentally and culturally meaningful (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Helm & Beneke, 2003; Lynch & Hansen, 1998).
Use appropriate assessment methods. Young children don't test well. And narrow academic assessments, standardized or not, don't help identify the underlying reasons for a child's lack of progress. A variety of causes may interfere with early acquisition of academic skills—such factors as broader cognitive development, health, unidentified disabilities, family concerns, or social and emotional difficulties (Meisels & Atkins-Burnett, 2002).
Skilled early childhood teachers embed systematic observations and other assessments in children's everyday activities and interactions (McAfee & Leong, 2002; Meisels, Liaw, Dorfman, & Nelson, 1995). In the 30 districts served by New Jersey's preschool initiative, these assessments align with both the specific curriculum used in the classroom and the state early childhood standards or expectations. With the knowledge derived from these assessments, teachers and others can make sure that young children receive essential services and supports, including further assessment and intervention when necessary.

Challenge or Pressure?

The question we asked in our 1980s study remains important, but our understanding of the place of academic content in the early childhood classroom has changed. In 2003, many early childhood educators see no contradiction between a focus on academic competence and a focus on social-emotional learning.
Without a nurturing, playful, responsive environment, an academic focus may diminish children's engagement and motivation. But a “child-centered” environment that lacks intellectual challenges also falls short of what curious young learners deserve. By putting academics in their rightful place, early education programs can enhance children's experiences now and build the foundation for their later success.

Andrews, A., & Trafton, P. R. (2002). Little kids—powerful problem solvers: Math stories from a kindergarten classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Bodrova, E., & Leong, D. J. (1995). Tools of the mind: A Vygotskian approach to early childhood education. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Bowman, B., Donovan, M. S., & Burns, M. S. (Eds.). (2000). Eager to learn: Educating our preschoolers. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Bredekamp, S., & Copple, C. (Eds.). (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs (Rev. ed.). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Davidson, J. I. (1996). Emergent literacy and dramatic play in early education. Albany, NY: Delmar Publishers.

Helm, J., & Beneke, S. (2003). The power of projects: Meeting contemporary challenges in early childhood education classrooms. New York & Washington, DC: Teachers College Press & National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Howes, C., & Ritchie, S. (2002). A matter of trust: Connecting teachers and learners in the early childhood classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hyson, M. (in press). The emotional development of young children: Building an emotion-centered curriculum (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

Kauffman Early Education Exchange. (2002). Set for success: Building a strong foundation for school readiness based on the social-emotional development of young children. Kansas City, MO: Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Koralek, D. G., Colker, L. J., & Dodge, D. T. (1995). The what, why, and how of high-quality early childhood education: A guide for on-site supervision (Rev. ed.). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Lynch, E. W., & Hansen, M. J. (1998). Developing cross-cultural competence. Baltimore: Brookes.

McAfee, O., & Leong, D. (2002). Assessing and guiding young children's development and learning (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Meisels, S. J., & Atkins-Burnett, S. (2002). The elements of early childhood assessment. In J. P. Shonkoff & S. J. Meisels (Eds.), Handbook of early childhood intervention(pp. 231–257). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Meisels, S. J., Liaw, F., Dorfman, A., & Nelson, R. F. (1995). The work sampling system: Reliability and validity of a performance assessment for young children. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 10(3), 277–296.

Miller, A. (2002). Full-day kindergarten. ERIC/EECE Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education. [Online]. Available:http://ericeece.org/faq/fullday.html

National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) & National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education. (2002). Early learning standards: Creating the conditions for success. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

National Association for the Education of Young Children & National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (2002). Early childhood mathematics: Promoting good beginnings. Available:www.naeyc.org/resources/position_statement/psmath.htm

National Center for Education Statistics. (2002). Children's reading and mathematics achievement in kindergarten and 1st grade. Washington, DC: Author.

Neuman, S., Copple, C., & Bredekamp, S. (2001). Learning to read and write: Developmentally appropriate practices for young children. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Project Zero & Reggio Children. (2001). Making learning visible: Children as individual and group learners. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children.

Rescorla, L. A., Hyson, M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (Eds.). (1991). Academic instruction in early childhood: Challenge or pressure? (New Directions for Child Development, No. 53). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Shonkoff, J. P., & Phillips, D. (Eds.). (2001). Neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, Board on Children, Youth, and Families, and Commission on Behavioral Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Vecchiotti, S. (2001). Kindergarten: The overlooked school year (The Foundation for Child Development Working Paper Series). New York: Foundation for Child Development.

End Notes

1 New Jersey's supreme court mandated that children in New Jersey's Abbott districts (the 30 highest-poverty districts) receive a high-quality preschool education beginning at age 3. Currently, 36,000 children attend Abbott preschools funded by the New Jersey Department of Education.

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