The author Nan Menon is currently the Chief Education Officer of Cedar Hill Prep School located in Somerset, NJ.  For more information on Ms. Menon or Cedar Hill Prep School please contact 732.356.5400 ext 32 or visit our website at www.cedarhillprep.com

SOMERSET, NJ - Type and Quality of Instructional Design in Early Childhood Education is Important for Success in School.

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Neuroscience has allowed us to truly understand brain development as it pertains to learning and school readiness.  In order to foster cognitive development in children, it is important for caregivers to provide stimulating activities from birth. 

Additionally, the kinds of activities that children are exposed to early in their lives help to predict their success in school.  Researchers have shown a positive relationship between program quality and the cognitive, language, and social development of preschool children (Dunn, 1993; Hestenes, Kontos & Bryan, 1993; Howes, Phillips & Whitebook, 1992).

Unfortunately, research on the quality of preschool programs in general has also found that many preschool programs do not meet standards for high quality (Bryant, Clifford & Peisner, 1991; Burchinal, Roberts, Nabors & Bryant, 1996; Howes et al., 1992).

Classroom Environments

Elements of quality preschool programs include qualified personnel, following developmentally appropriate practices, and having an adequate staff–student ratio (Odom et al., 2004).  Contributors to high quality were teacher training, program philosophy, administrative support, and dedicated, open-minded teachers.  

However, Buysse et al. (1999) reported that teachers who had higher levels of education tended to have classrooms that rated significantly higher on the Early Childhood Environmental Ratings Scales (ECERS), and that teachers with more early childhood experiences had higher ECERS scores. 

Teachers who had classrooms with higher quality ratings reported having more knowledge about typical child development than did teachers in classrooms with lower quality ratings.  Overall, children benefit from being around trained educators.

Student Engagement

Engagement is defined as children’s active participation in classroom activities and has been proposed as one measure of the quality of an early childhood program (McWilliam, Trivette & Dunst, 1985).  In contrast, several studies have found differences in engagement for children when the maturity or complexity of engagement was assessed. 

McWilliam and Bailey (1995) assessed the attentional and interactive forms of three types of engagement (i.e., with adults, with peers, and with materials) for children enrolled in both mixed-age and same-age inclusive groups.

Typically, developing children were more actively engaged with materials at a mastery level than children with developmental delays, and children with developmental delays spent more time in adult interaction. 

Many preschools are based on play-based philosophies or student initiated activities.  To assess the level of object-play in preschools, Kontos, Moore, and Giorgetti (1998) observed children enrolled in 33 classrooms. 

Typically, developing children engaged in a significantly greater proportion of high-level peer play.  The authors also found that in high-implementation classrooms, children made significantly greater gains on a standardized measure of language development. 

Another study by Schwartz et al. (1996) suggests that higher quality curricula will produce higher levels of engagement. 

Another interesting research observation was that mixed-age grouping had only moderate effects on attentional engagement with peers (e.g., observing nearby peers playing with materials) which is a common feature of Montessori schools and had no effect on other forms of engagement (e.g., interactional engagement with adults or peers, engagement with materials) (McWilliam & Bailey, 1995). 

Instructional Approaches – Teacher Led or Naturalistic Child Directed?

Instructional approaches in preschools are very important for cognitive and language development.  Alig-Cybriwsky, Wolery, and Gast (1990) examined the use of a constant time delay strategy (i.e., the teacher delivers instruction and waits a specified time for a response before giving a prompt) and two attentional techniques on picture-word matching and spelling performance.

They found that: (a) teachers could implement these techniques effectively in an inclusive classroom with students of multiple abilities; (b) the constant time delay procedure did promote learning for most children; (c) specific attentional procedures resulted in greater performance; and (d) some children spontaneously learned words that were being taught to other children in the group. 

Also, adult-directed intervention strategies were more effective for higher performing children, perhaps because the children with some level of language competence were better able to respond to adults’ conversational leads.  The more ‘naturalistic’ child-directed approaches were more effective for lower performing children, perhaps because they allowed the child to follow their own interests and respond at a level upon which the adults could expand and elaborate.  This was again noticed by another research study by Yoder, Kaiser and Alpert (1991) who compared a teacher directed instruction and naturalistic training model. 

Researchers note that the children having less mature language skills benefit more from the naturalistic, student-initiated approach, prevalent in many Montessori schools.  In a second study, Yoder et al. (1995) compared the effects of two naturalistic procedures: student-initiated teaching and responsive teaching.  Again, an aptitude by treatment interaction revealed that naturalistic procedures were more effective for children with relatively low receptive and expressive language levels.

The researchers found that adult-directed intervention strategies were more effective for higher performing children, perhaps because the children with some level of language competence were better able to respond to adults’ conversational leads.  The more ‘naturalistic’ child-directed approaches prevalent in Montessori based schools were more effective for lower performing children, perhaps because they allowed the child to follow their own interests and respond at a level upon which the adults could expand and elaborate.

Social Interaction Among Children

To examine the social integration patterns, social competence, and friendship formation of children in inclusive settings, Guralnick, Connor, Hammond, Gottman & Kinnish (1996a) randomly assigned children to six inclusive play groups consisting of typically developing children, children with developmental delays, and children with communication disorders (i.e., four typically developing children and two children with disabilities in each group). 

Children with communication disorders did not differ greatly from their typically developing peers on measures of social competence or on peer sociometric ratings. They did, however, engage in fewer conversations and had less successful social bids than typically developing peers. For both groups of children with disabilities, reciprocal friendships were rare, although most children did establish unilateral friendships.

Typically, developing children also established friendships more frequently with other typically developing children than would be expected by chance (Guralnick, Gottman & Hammond, 1996).  Adult-directed strategies were more effective for higher performing children, perhaps because the children with some level of language competence were better able to respond to adults’ conversational leads.

End Goal of Early Childhood Education

The primary goal of early childhood education is to prepare children for kindergarten.  To obtain information about skills needed in kindergarten settings, Johnson, Gallagher, Cook, and Wong (1995) had 176 kindergarten teachers rank skills children needed to be successful in their classes. Their subsequent factor analysis found these skills to be grouped into academic readiness, language, social, motor, and self-help domains. 

The ideal educational environment must have a balanced approach that includes teacher directed and student initiated activities.  Teacher directed activities promote academic readiness, language, self-help domains, and motor skills while student-initiated activities support and build the social skills in preschoolers. 

Over the last 15 years, neuroscience has enabled researchers and educators to understand more about learning and the activities that stimulate optimal student engagement.  Early childhood institutions that incorporate some of the findings facilitate better readiness skills in children than schools engaged in age-old practices.

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