Saturday, February 3, 2018

Early Childhood Education: A Plea From The Field

Eighty percent of a child's brain development takes place by age three.  Early childhood, which is defined as birth through age eight, is the optimal time of life for building cognitive and social skills.  Teachers and parents can deliberately influence their children's intellectual and social development by creating rich learning environments.  When we combine an understanding of general child development with what we know about the particular temperaments and character traits of individual children, we can manipulate the physical, social, emotional and mental environments and capitalize on children’s readiness to learn.  Clearly, the most important element in this formidable task is the human one; the adults who interact with the child on a daily basis. So to a large extent, the present and future success of young children depends on the knowledge and commitment of their parents and teachers.

Why then are early childhood teachers the lowest paid and least respected in the field of education?  Unfortunately, few people  understand what early childhood education is all about.  Some consider it glorified babysitting that practically any warm body can do well.  Upsetting to me personally are the schools that do not hire professional teachers for their young students. These schools feed into and encourage this misconception.  At this most vulnerable time of life, children deserve well-educated and highly qualified teachers.  I know from experience that teaching preschool is just as complex, demanding, and important as teaching high school. 

What makes a quality early childhood teacher?  Someone with both good instincts and a good educational background.  Someone who grew up with a knack for interacting with young children, maybe working as a babysitter or camp counselor.  Someone who majored in education in college and took courses in developmental psychology, educational philosophy, and pedagogy.  A qualified early childhood educator would have completed a practicum or semester of student teaching.  She would be committed to ongoing professional development throughout her career.  She is someone who understands the range of child development.   She adapts the curriculum to each new class, as well as differentiates instruction according to the needs of individual students.  She identifies at-risk children and children with special needs and she advocates for best practice for all of her students.  ( I purposely used the feminine pronoun because the majority of early childhood teachers are female.  There is a real need for men to join this profession.)

A college background in education gives teachers a rich vocabulary and a grounding in academic subject areas.  Well qualified early childhood teachers tap into children's curiosity and current developmental levels to maximize and extend learning.  They know how children learn and see to it that lessons are active, hands-on, and primarily directed by the children themselves. Their classrooms are lively laboratories of  child exploration and experimentation, where learning is visible and expressed in multiple ways. Interestingly, the older grades are beginning to catch on to the value of early childhood practices.  Elementary and secondary school teachers are learning the benefits of active learning, project based learning, differentiated instruction, and teaching the whole child.  These educational approaches work for every age, and have been employed by early childhood teachers for decades.

Long term studies have demonstrated the lasting effects of quality early childhood education on adults, with higher rates of graduation and income.  Psychologically, we know that our adult behaviors have their roots in our early childhood experiences.  Young children are susceptible to the environments that we create.  They deserve the best teachers:  teachers who are well trained, well paid, and respected for the awesome work that they do.

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