Early childhood education

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Early childhood education (ECE) is a branch of educational theory which relates to the teaching of young children up until the age of about eight, with a particular focus on developmental education, most notable before the start of compulsory education. Infant education, a subset of early childhood education, denotes the education of children between the ages of 1 month and 12 months. In recent years, early childhood education has become a prevalent public policy issue, as state and federal lawmakers consider its place in public education. [1]


While the first twenty years of a child's life are spent in the creation of a child's first "sense of self", most children are able to differentiate between themselves and others by their second year. This differentiation is crucial to the child's ability to determine how they should function in relation to other people.[2] Parents can be seen as a child's first teacher and therefore an integral part of the early learning process.[3]

Learning Through Play[edit]

Early childhood education often focuses on learning through play, based on the research and philosophy of Jean Piaget, which posits that play meets the physical, intellectual, language, emotional and social needs (PILES) of children. Children's natural curiosity and imagination naturally evoke learning when unfettered. Thus, children learn more efficiently and gain more knowledge through activities such as dramatic play, art, and social games.[4]

Tassoni suggests that “some play opportunities will develop specific individual areas of development, but many will develop several areas.” [5] Thus, It is important that practitioners promote children’s development through play by using various types of play on a daily basis. Key guidelines for creating a play-based learning environment include providing a safe space, correct supervision, and culturally aware, trained teachers who are knowledgable about the Early Years Foundation.

Davy states that the British Children's Act of 1989 links to play-work as the act works with play workers and sets the standards for the setting such as security, quality and staff ratios.[6] Learning through play has been seen regularly in practice as the most versatile way a child can learn. Margaret McMillan (1860-1931) suggested that children should be given free school meals, fruit and milk, and plenty of exercise to keep them physically and emotionally healthy. Rudolph Steiner (1861-1925) believed play allows children to talk, socially interact, use their imagination and intellectual skills. Marie Montessori (1870-1952) believed that children learn through movement and their senses and after doing an activity using their senses.

In a more contemporary approach, organizations such as the National Association of the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) promote child-guided learning experienced, individualized learning, and developmentally appropriate learning as tenets of early childhood education. [7]

Theory of Child Development[edit]

The Developmental Interaction Approach is based on the theories of Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, John Dewey and Lucy Sprague Mitchell. The approach focuses on learning through discovery.[8] > Jean Jacques Rousseau recommended that teachers should exploit individual children's interests in order to make sure each child obtains the information most essential to his personal and individual development. [9] The five developmental domains of childhood development include:[10]

Vygotsky’s Socio-Cultural Learning Theory[edit]

Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky proposed a "socio-cultural learning theory" that emphasized the impact of social and cultural experiences on individual thinking and the development of mental processes.[16] Vygotsky's theory emerged in the 1930s and is still discussed today as a means of improving and reforming educational practices.

Vygotsky argued that since cognition occurs within a social context, our social experiences shape our ways of thinking about and interpreting the world.[17] Although Vygotsky predated social constructivists, he is commonly classified as one. Social constructivists believe that an individual's cognitive system is a result of interaction in social groups and that learning cannot be separated from social life.[18]

Vygotsky proposed that children learn through their interactions with more knowledgeable peers and adults. His concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD) is the difference between what a learner can do without help and what a learner can do with help.[19] According to Vygotsky, “what is in the zone of proximal development today will be the [child’s] actual developmental level tomorrow”.[16] This theory heavily influenced contemporary early educational practices by increasing focus on material within the ZPD. Vygotsky proposed that children should be taught materials that employ mental processes within the ZPD.

ZPD encourages early childhood educators to adopt “scaffolding”, in which a teacher adjusts support to fit a child’s learning needs.[20] Scaffolding requires specially trained teachers, a differentiated curriculum and additional learning time. Vygotsky advocated that teachers facilitate rather than direct student learning.[21] His approach calls for teachers to incorporate students’ needs and interests when developing curricula. Every student should actively participate in a reciprocal interaction with their classmates and educators.

Vygotsky’s socio-cultural learning theory has also proven especially important for the education of the mentally disabled. According to Vygotsky, “special education was the creation of what he called a ‘positive differential approach’; that is, the identification of a disabled child from a point of strength rather than disability”.[22] Providing the appropriate scaffolding enables students with special needs to develop abstract thinking.

Piaget’s Constructivist Theory[edit]

Piaget gained influence in the 1970s and ‘80s. Although Piaget himself was primarily interested in a descriptive psychology of cognitive development, he also laid the groundwork for a constructivist theory of learning.[23] Piaget believed that learning comes from within as the child constructs their own knowledge. He said that, “If logic itself is created rather than being inborn, it follows that the first task of education is to form reasoning.” Piaget redefined teaching to mean guiding children in acquiring their own knowledge rather than simply transferring knowledge.[24]

According to Piaget’s theory, when young children encounter new information they attempt to accommodate and assimilate it. Accommodation involves adapting mental schemas and representations in order to make them consistent with reality. Assimilation involves fitting new information into their pre-existing schemas. Through these two processes, young children learn by equilibrating their mental representations with reality. They also learn from mistakes. [25]

By applying Piaget’s theories to school programs, experiences become more hands-on and concrete as students explore through trial and error.[26] Thus, crucial components of early childhood education include exploration, manipulating objects and experiencing new environments.

Piaget’s concept of reflective abstraction was particularly influential in mathematical education.[27] Through reflective abstraction, children construct more advanced cognitive structures out of the simpler ones they already possess. This allows children to develop mathematical constructs that cannot be learned through equilibration[clarification needed] alone.[28]

According to Piagetian theory, language and symbolic representation is preceded by the development of corresponding mental representations. Research shows that the level of reflective abstraction achieved by young children was found to limit the degree to which they could represent physical quantities with written numerals. Piaget held that Children can invent their own procedures for the four arithmetical operations, without being taught any conventional rules.[29]

Piaget’s theory implies that computers can be a great educational tool for young children when used to support the design and construction of their projects. McCarrick and Xiaoming found that computer play is consistent with this theory.[30] However, Plowman and Stephen found that the effectiveness of computers is limited in the preschool environment; their results indicate that computers are only effective when directed by the teacher.[31] This suggests that, according to the constructivist theory, the role of preschool teachers is critical in successfully adopting computers.[32]

David Kolb Experimental Learning Theory[edit]

David Kolb's experimental learning theory, which was influenced by John Dewey, Kurt Lewin and Jean Piaget, argues that children need to experience things in order to learn: “The process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combinations of grasping and transforming experience.” The experimental learning theory is distinctive in that children are seen and taught as individuals. As children explore and observe, teachers ask the child probing questions. The children can then adapt prior knowledge to learning new information.

Kolb's three stages of learning are: equilibrium, assimilation and accommodation. Children observe new situations, make meaning of the situation, then test that meaning in the world around them.

The Practical Implications of Early Childhood Education[edit]

In recent decades, studies have shown that early childhood education is critical in preparing children to enter and succeed in the classroom, diminishing their risk of social-emotional mental health problems, and increasing their self-sufficiency as adults down the road. [33] Visual stimulus and response time as early as 3 months is an indicator of verbal and performance IQ at age 4 years. [34]

By nature of providing education in a child's most formative years, ECE also has the capacity to preemptively begin closing the educational achievement gap between low-and-high income students before formal schooling begins. [35] Children of low socioeconomic status (SES) often begin school already behind their higher SES peers; On average, by the time they are three, children with high SES have three times of the number of words in their vocabularies as children with low SES. [36]Participation in ECE, however, has been proven to increase high school graduation rates, improve performance on standardized tests, and reduce both grade repetition and the number of children placed in special education.[37]

Especially since the first wave of results from the Perry Preschool Project were published, there has been widespread consensus that quality early childhood education programs correlate with gains in low-income children’s IQs and test scores, decreased grade retention and lower special education rates.

Several studies have reported that children enrolled in ECE increase their IQ scores by 4-11 points by age five, while a Milwaukee study reported a 25-point gain. [38] In addition, students who had been enrolled in the Abecedarian Project, a famous ECE study, scored significantly higher on reading and math tests by age fifteen than comparable students who had not participated in early childhood programs. [39] In addition, 36% of students in the Abecedarian Preschool Study treatment group would later enroll in four-year colleges compared to 14% of those in the control group. [40]

Beyond benefitting societal good, ECE also significantly impacts the socioeconomic outcomes of individuals. For example, by age 26, students who had been enrolled in Chicago Child-Parent Centers were less likely to be arrested, abuse drugs, and receive food stamps; they were more likely to have high school diplomas, health insurance and full-time employment.[41]

The Perry Preschool Project[edit]

In Ypsilanti, Michigan, 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families were randomly assigned to participate in the Perry Preschool. By age 18, they were five times less likely to have become chronic lawbreakers than those who were not selected to participate in the Preschool.[42]

The Perry Preschool Study also found that low-income individuals who were enrolled in a quality preschool program earned on average, by age 40, $5500 per year more than those who were not.[43] The Perry Preschool Study produced a total benefit/cost ratio of 17:1 (4:1 for participants, 13:1 for the public), with participants on average earning higher incomes, more likely to own their own homes, and less likely to be on welfare. [44]

The authors of the Perry Preschool Project also propose that the return on investment in education declines with the students' age. This study is noteworthy because it advocates for public spending on early childhood programs as an economic investment in a society's future, rather than in the interest of social justice.[45]

Early Childhood Education State and Federal Policy[edit]

In the past decade, there has been a national push for state and federal policy to address the early years as a key component of public education. At the federal level, the Obama administration made the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge a key tenet of their education reform initiative, awarding $500 million to states with comprehensive early childhood education plans. [46] In addition, a largely Democratic contingent sponsored the Strong Start for America’s Children Act this year, which provides free early childhood education for low-income families. [47] Specifically, the Act would generate the impetus and support for states to expand ECE; provide funding through formula grants and Title II (Learning Quality Partnerships), III (Child Care) and IV (Maternal, Infant and Home Visiting) funds; and hold participating states accountable for Head Start early learning standards.[48]

Many states have created new early childhood education agencies. Massachusetts was the first state to create a consolidated department focused on early childhood learning and care. Just in the past fiscal year, state funding for public In Minnesota, the state government created an Early Learning scholarship program, where families with young children meeting free and reduced price lunch requirements for kindergarten can receive scholarships to attend ECE programs. [49] In California, Senator Darrell Steinberg led a coalition to pass the Kindergarten Readiness Act, which creates a state early childhood system supporting children from birth to age five and provides access to ECE for all 4-year-olds in the state. It also created an Early Childhood Office charged with creating an ECE curriculum that would be aligned with the K-12 continuum. [50]

State funding for pre-K increased by $363.6 million to a total of $5.6 billion, a 6.9% increase from 2012 to 2013. 40 states fund pre-K programs. [51]

Currently, one of America's larger challenges regarding ECE is an dearth in workforce, partly due to low compensation for rigorous work. The average early childhood teaching assistant earns an annual salary of $10,500 while the highest paid early childhood educators earn an average $18,000 per year. The turnover of ECE staff averages 31% per year.[52] Another challenge is to ensure the quality of ECE programs. Because ECE is a relatively new field, there is little research and consensus into what makes a good program. However, the National Association of the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) is a national organization that has identified evidence-based ECE standards and accredits quality programs.[53] Continuing the leadership role it established with the Common Core, the federal government could play a key role in establishing ECE standards for states.

The American legal system has also played a hand in public ECE. State adequacy cases can also create a powerful legal impetus for states to provide universal access to ECE, drawing upon the rich research illustrating that by the time they enter school, students from low-income backgrounds are already far behind other students. The New Jersey case Abbott County School District v. Burke and South Carolina case Abbeville County School District v. State have established early but incomplete precedents in looking at “adequate education” as education that addresses needs best identified in early childhood, including immediate and continuous literacy interventions.

In the 1998 case of Abbott v. Burke (Abbott V), the New Jersey Supreme Court required New Jersey’s poorest school districts to implement high-quality ECE programs and full day kindergarten for all three and four-year-olds. Beyond ruling that New Jersey needed to allocate more funds to preschools in low-income communities in order to reach “educational adequacy,” the Supreme court also authorized the state department of education to cooperate “with… existing early childhood and daycare programs in the community” to implement universal access. [54]

In the 2005 case of Abbeville v. State, the South Carolina Supreme Court decided that ECE programs were necessary to break the “debilitating and destructive cycle of poverty for low-income students and poor academic achievement.” Besides mandating that all low-income children have access to ECE by age three, the court also held that early childhood interventions—such as counseling, special needs identification, and socio-emotional supports—continue through grade three (Abbeville, 2005). The court furthermore argued that ECE was not only imperative for educational adequacy but also that “the dollars spent in early childhood intervention are the most effective expenditures in the educational process." [55]

International agreements[edit]

The first World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education took place in Moscow from 27 to 29 September 2010, jointly organized by UNESCO and the city of Moscow. The overarching goals of the are to:

  • Reaffirm ECCE as a right of all children and as the basis for development
  • Take stock of the progress of Member States towards achieving the EFA Goal 1
  • Identify binding constraints toward making the intended equitable expansion of access to quality ECCE services
  • Establish, more concretely, benchmarks and targets for the EFA Goal 1 toward 2015 and beyond
  • Identify key enablers that should facilitate Member States to reach the established targets
  • Promote global exchange of good practices[56]

According to UNESCO a preschool curriculum is one that delivers educational content through daily activities, tuition and furthers a child's physical, cognitive and social development. Generally, preschool curricula are only recognized by governments if they are based on academic research and reviewed by peers.[57]

Preschool for Child Rights have pioneered into preschool curricular areas and is contributing into child rights through their preschool curriculum.[58]

Notable early childhood educators[edit]

See also[edit]


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  45. ^ here Slate article: Waldfogel, Joel. "Teach Your Children Well: The economic case for preschool based on working paper: James J. Heckman, Dimitriy V. Masterov. "The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children." NBER Working Paper No. 13016, Issued in April 2007." Slate Online, Posted Friday, May 25, 2007, accessed May 30, 2007
  46. ^ http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop-earlylearningchallenge/index.html
  47. ^ http://democrats.edworkforce.house.gov/bill/strong-start-americas-children-act-2013
  48. ^ Children’s Defense Fund, 2014
  49. ^ Minnesota Department of Education, 2013
  50. ^ Senate Bill 837: An Act to Expand Transitional Kindergarten. http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201320140SB837
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  52. ^ National Association of the Education of Young Children, 2014
  53. ^ National Association of the Education of Young Children, 2013
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  55. ^ Abbeville County School District v. State, 515 S.C. 535 (1999). Retrieved from http://www.judicial.state.sc.us/whatsnew/displaywhatsnew.cfm?indexID=393
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  57. ^ "UNESCO: Preschool Curricula". UNESCO. Retrieved 2010-02-27. 
  58. ^ http://preschoolforchildrights.com/

Neaum,S. (2013). Child development for early year’s students and practitioners. 2nd Edition. London: Sage Publications.

External links[edit]