Creating Environments for Early Learner Success

In order for children to fully benefit from pre-K, they must be enrolled in a program that provides an appropriate, enriching learning environment. We know pre-K has the potential to considerably improve student outcomes, but how can we ensure that existing programs are as effective as possible?

Source: Lead Early Educators for Success 

Education professor Nonie Lesaux and her team at Harvard University’s Language Diversity and Literacy Development Research Group recently released a series of 10 one-pagers entitled Lead Early Educators for Success that explain how educators can cultivate a Rigorous and Regulated—what they’ve coined R2—learning environment. Countless factors contribute to a program’s environment, but it is clear that quality educators are essential to achieving the R2 criteria laid out in this Venn diagram. In K-12 education, highly effective teachers are essential to student’s success. The same is true for children’s early years; a highly skilled workforce is essential for their learning and development.  Unfortunately, evidence suggests that most teaching at the pre-K level is not highly effective, and accordingly, quality programs can be hard to come by.

The briefs explain how common practices and reforms can inhibit the cultivation of an R2 environment and offer strategies to overcome these barriers. Drastic changes to programs are not necessarily a prerequisite for drastic improvements; educators can create R2 environments by slightly altering existing actions suggests Lesaux and her co-authors. These concise briefs provide relatively comprehensive professional development recommendations that equip educators with effective strategies for enhancing early learning. Here are my five key takeaways from the series:

1. How educators teach matters just as much as what they teach. The briefs identify four areas of competency for educators to master: executive function, emotion regulation, relational/interpersonal, and talk for learning. Mindful educators can foster social-emotional learning by changing their actions in small ways, as illustrated in this useful case example. For instance, asking children open-ended questions and encouraging discussion and dialogue during activities promotes talk for learning. The research on the importance of these adult-child interactions is clear.  Educators can support an R2 environment simply by being aware of and managing their own emotions effectively in front of their students.

2. Reforms don’t always produce the intended results. Even the most promising and well-designed education reforms sometimes do not yield the exact outcomes we are looking for. It is important to revisit assumptions about what works and what doesn’t, as unexpected barriers to implementation often hinder educators’ ability to turn their classrooms into an R2 environment. Take lower staff-to-child ratios for example, which research suggests allow for better interactions between educators and children. Yet a common response to meet required ratios is to move children and adults around throughout the day, which can create an unpredictable or unstable environment for children and prioritize the educator’s role as a care provider over that of a teacher. As a result, staff-to-child ratio policies can end up inhibiting the creation of an R2 environment and impeding meaningful adult-child interactions.

Source: Lead Early Educators for Success

3. The appropriate structures and processes must be in place for reforms to be effective.  Many existing reforms would be successful if early educators had the necessary structures and processes in place to support them. The authors explain which structures are necessary for effective implementation of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) and individualized coaching. They note that once structures are in place, following the five-part “cycle of effective improvement processes” depicted here can help ensure lasting change.  Taking the time to examine information gathered from professional development opportunities and deliberately apply it to daily practice is critical to improving the educational environment.

4. Data are not utilized to their full potential.  Data have powerful uses beyond compliance, but are seldom utilized for other purposes. For instance, assessments are intended to measure and subsequently improve child outcomes, yet most of the policies around assessments emphasize “the collection rather than the use of assessment data and information.” Educators often collect and review data, but rarely incorporate the findings into their daily practice. The authors encourage leaders to “create the time and structures needed to make data-driven decisions.” As illustrated in this brief’s case example, data taken from something as simple as daily incident reports can be used to inform classroom routines by revealing patterns in children’s behavior.

5. Professional development must be tied to real changes in practice. Professional development is all too often removed from educators’ day-to-day work and consequently is not connected to their practice. The authors recommend a combination of two strategies for comprehensive professional development: PLCs and Connected Coaching. PLCs are characterized by small group, on-site, collaborative, and interactive experiences. Individual coaching builds on group-based PLCs by transforming knowledge into practice. In order for coaching to be effective it needs to include “(1) ongoing observations and hands-on participation in the classroom; and (2) individualized, reflective discussion and feedback.”

Research continues to reveal that high-quality adult-child interactions significantly impact student learning and development in the pre-K years and beyond. Many states and school districts have promising reforms in place, such as lower staff-to-child ratios and valuable data collection, but better implementation is needed to cultivate the R2 learning environments put forth in these briefs that can help prepare the next generation of students to succeed.


Abbie Lieberman is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She is a member of the Early & Elementary Education Policy team, where she provides research and analysis on policies that impact children from birth through third grade