Learning trajectories help educators understand the developmental processes that children go through to master a skill or concept. These trajectories have three components: the goal (such as mastery of a new concept); the developmental progressions that children proceed through as they get closer to that goal; and the sequenced activities that teachers can employ to help students reach the goal.
Sometimes early childhood professionals get caught up in false dichotomies—seemingly opposing ideas that can often be either reconciled or used in tandem. Some false dichotomies in the realm of instruction include student centered vs. teacher directed; conceptual vs. practice-based; order of skills vs. understanding.
For work with infants and toddlers, educators can use strategies, such as verbally responding to children’s communication with talk and encouragement, to foster strong early language environments and support language development.
Mathematics and science are generally not taught well to young children and are not typically emphasized in teacher preparation programs.
Research on the impact of technology and media on young children’s growth and development is still in its infancy, but most studies point to the positive power of joint media engagement, which occurs when children and caregivers use media and technology to learn together.
In order to support the early learning of dual language learners, it is essential to provide comprehensive early screening of skills related to literacy development to prevent vulnerabilities from becoming difficulties.
Assessment can be used in early education settings to support continuous quality improvement, but educators must be trained in the different types and proper roles of assessments.
When applied consistently, certain educational practices can best support the learning and development of young children. In order to foster high-quality learning, B–8 educators must have knowledge of the subject-matter content, the developmental progress of how children learn specific topics, and the instructional strategies that best promote learning. While some early educators are well-versed in teaching language and literacy, the teaching of science and math is often overlooked in preparation programs. Teachers of infants and toddlers typically have less access to research-based curricula and tools to help support the development of their students.
There are a variety of techniques early educators can use to support language and literacy development. Giving children opportunities to engage in frequent and elaborated conversation is an important strategy.
See this video clip on how to ensure teacher-child interactions are effective at helping children learn (adapted from video by Teachstone):
Through “serve and return” interactions during activities such as interactive book reading, parents and educators can help to build vocabulary skills beginning at birth. Interactive readings of a variety of texts help to spur content-rich classroom discussions that build reading comprehension and vocabulary skills.
See how a professional learning program in Texas is supporting children's language development:
While achievement gaps in math have roots in the earliest years, many early educators are not trained to provide high-quality mathematics instruction. As a result, little to no time is dedicated to talk about math in many early education classrooms. When math instruction does occur, it often only lasts for a short period of time and focuses on basic concepts such as number and shape identification. This absence of explicit math instruction might be due to a lack of knowledge and confidence among early educators in teaching mathematical content. Therefore, increasing the mathematics knowledge of early educators and their understanding of how to teach young children early math concepts should be a top priority for teacher preparation programs.
While young children are naturally curious about the natural world, they arrive in kindergarten with lower readiness scores in science than in any other subject area. Many children lack exposure to high-quality science instruction in early education settings due to a lack of time, materials, and space, and a lack of content knowledge among some educators. While work still needs to be done to identify core concepts of early science instruction, the use of research-based curricula and learning trajectories that emphasize a few core ideas over many disconnected topics can help educators gain confidence in science instruction.
This video from the University of Northern Iowa offers an example of how science and engineering can be taught in pre-K and the early grades:
New research offers clues about how children develop cognitive skills through the use of technology. Much is still unknown about technology use in early childhood, including whether any positive impact is evident when educational videos are watched prior to two years of age. Any potential benefits of educational technology will only be realized if the new technology is well implemented by parents and educators. Educators should use technology intentionally, and often need training in how to best integrate it into subject-matter-specific activities and explorations in the classroom. Early research makes clear that the most important aspect of a beneficial use of technology is ensuring joint media engagement: the presence of a knowledgeable adult who is able to engage with the media content alongside the child.
Another important task of early educators is working to foster the social and emotional development of young children. Learning environments that are organized and predictable and which offer warm relationships with educators help support the development of self-regulatory skills. In settings with very young children especially, relationships between children and educators can be strengthened by prioritizing a continuity of care model in which they are kept together over several years so that a secure caregiver-child attachment can form. Educators can benefit from consultation with mental health experts to understand how to work with children who need extra support in building their social and emotional skills.
There are a number of techniques early educators can use to help support the learning of young dual language learners as well as children with disabilities. For dual language learners, comprehensive early screening of the skills related to literacy development and follow-up in response to screening results are key to preventing future difficulties in literacy. For students with special needs, strategies aimed at individual learning objectives should be embedded into ongoing classroom activities and routines. Tiered intervention approaches can help educators identify which children might benefit from additional instruction and support.
Finally, in order to understand the progress being made by their students and programs, early educators and administrators must have a solid grasp of the different types of assessment and the purpose each assessment serves. When selected appropriately, assessments can be essential for ensuring continuous improvement in both individual teaching practices and education systems. As part of their professional preparation, early educators should be trained not only in how to conduct assessments but in all aspects of assessment literacy, including how to interpret assessment results and make appropriate changes to instruction in light of those results.
“Children learn in a developmental sequence. Well-designed curricula are therefore based on developmentally sequenced activities, and quality instructional practice requires educators who understand those sequences and can assess progress and remediate accordingly.” (pg. 242)
“Given how young children develop, it is unrealistic to expect the effects of early interventions to last indefinitely, without continual, progressive support in later schooling of children’s nascent learning trajectories.” (pg. 250)
Questions for Policymakers, Higher Education, and Workforce
What can states do to encourage early science instruction and strengthen the quality of preparation that lead educators and other B–8 professionals receive?
How is the state incorporating best practices for the use of technology with young children into early learning guidelines and teacher training?
What can be done at the state level to better connect the fields of early care and education and child mental health?
How can teacher preparation programs effectively increase the math and science knowledge of early educators so they are more confident when teaching these subjects?
What coursework and field experiences are provided by teacher preparation programs to effectively prepare educators for teaching dual language learners?
How are teacher preparation programs training teachers to effectively conduct assessments and use their results to improve teaching and student learning?
How are you using assessment in your classroom to inform lessons and improve child learning and development?
How are teachers supported in figuring out how to adjust instruction in response to assessment results?
This is a multimedia guidebook inspired by and drawn from the Transforming the Workforce for Children From Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation(National Academies Press, 2015). This guidebook adds to that volume with key takeaways, videos, interactive tools, a glossary, and more. We have designed it with three doorways for three different but overlapping audiences: educators who work directly with children, educators in higher education who prepare those educators, and policymakers interested in improving early learning settings for children from B–8.