What does quality teaching look like in an early childhood classroom? Twenty-five years ago, it was providing a safe place for children to play, with stimulating materials and books to read. Today, we have provided those basics in most early childhood classrooms, and our focus has shifted to the hows of quality—how teachers interact with children, how they use time and materials to get the most out of every moment, and how they ensure that children are engaged and stimulated.
Let's imagine two classrooms down the hall from each other, both with the same high-quality materials and both with the same supportive leadership.
In the classroom with more effective interactions, the teachers are actively engaged with the children—being a “challenging customer” in the children’s pretend restaurant, encouraging children in the paint area to experiment with mixing colors, and helping a child brainstorm what to do while waiting for his turn on the computer. The children respond with deep engagement and eagerness to contribute their own ideas, and these everyday activities challenge them to engage in social problem solving, create and test hypotheses about the physical world, and learn to regulate their behavior.
In the less effective classroom, the teachers sit close to the children but take a less active role. Children are comfortable involving them in play, but the teachers miss opportunities to take interactions deeper. Some children pull basket after basket off the shelves, playing with each activity for a minute or two before moving on to the next. Others hover at the edges, not sure what to do. In between brief conversations with children, the teachers discuss their plans for the rest of the school day. The children are safe and comfortable but do not stay engaged with activities for long and seem to wander from one thing to the next.
In this example, you can easily see how the interactions in the first classroom lead to better learning opportunities for children. It's true—teachers face enormous distractions with paperwork, routine care, and packed schedules. But, some teachers manage to cut through these distractions to truly connect with children. That's important.
Research shows that these teachers have significant and lasting effects on outcomes. That's why we make teacher-child interactions objective and measurable with the CLASS tool. After all, it's interactions between teachers and children that fundamentally drive learning.
A few years into teaching early childhood, I applied to work at a school that does incredible work in the local community. I was thrilled to get an interview but realized very quickly that, even though the environment was supportive and the students were wonderful young people, I was much too intimidated to work there.
Across the nation, teachers learning about CLASS are asked to narrate their actions and sportscast their children’s experiences in order to support and encourage healthy language development. Hearing this, many teachers may wonder, “Will people think I’m crazy if I start talking to myself in the classroom?”
The answer is no. Self- and parallel talk are beneficial strategies for teachers to engage in because they strengthen language rich environments and enhance vocabulary development, all while supporting effective relationship building between teachers and children.
Decades of evidence indicate that high-quality early childhood education positively affects children. Yet studies reveal that too few programs implement high-quality programming. To date, improvement efforts have primarily focused on what occurs within the classroom. The Ounce of Prevention Fund (Ounce), in partnership with the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (UChicago Consortium), strives to broaden the focus of improvement efforts beyond the classroom to organizational conditions that support teachers and the relationships among staff, children, and families.
We’ve written before about the discipline disparities between children of color and their white peers. (Since that post was published last year, the Department of Education has released updated - but not improved - statistics on the topic.) But discipline is not the only school arena where children from different backgrounds have different experiences. There’s also evidence that racial bias affects teachers’ academic and behavioral expectations, even in early childhood.