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Ideal Learning in Today’s ECE Classroom

10 Dec 2020 by Gloria Dedjinou

Trust for Learning is a “philanthropic partnership dedicated to expanding ideal early learning environments for underserved children.” They have worked over the past few years to articulate a set of principles for ideal learning. These set of principles have been gleaned from well-known early childhood approaches including Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Friends Center for Children, Tools of the Mind, Bank Street College of Education, and Waldorf.  

Those Principles of Ideal Learning are:

  • The teacher is a guide, nurturing presence, and co-constructor of knowledge.
  • Instruction is personalized to acknowledge each child’s development and abilities.
  • Play is an essential element of young children’s learning.
  • Children construct knowledge from diverse experiences to make meaning of the world.
  • Decision-making reflects a commitment to equity.
  • Young children and adults learn through relationships.
  • The environment is intentionally designed to facilitate children’s exploration, independence, and interaction.
  • Continuous learning environments support adult development.
  • The time of childhood is valued.

Organizations that are part of the collaborative’s Ideal Learning Roundtable have a shared vision of what good teaching looks like, but they acknowledge there can be quite a bit of variability in how they implement that vision. 

Our recent webinar brought together three organizations from the Ideal Learning Roundtable — AVANCE, Tools of the Mind, and HighScope — to talk about implementing these principles in their program. In this moment of uncertainty for teachers and families, the principle that resonated the most with these programs was the importance of play. As Alejandra Barraza, president of HighScope, acknowledged, “Play is the highest form of research.” 

Read below to hear a bit about each program and a few other ideas they shared in the webinar.

Tell us about your organization and the ways it embodies ideal learning principles? 


“AVANCE is a nonprofit organization that represents a locally-driven, community-based, two-generation learning approach centered in equity,” says Sonia Dominguez, chief program officer. Based in San Antonio, Texas, AVANCE seeks to break intergenerational poverty among Latino and Hispanic families. Serving 7,000 families in both Texas and California each year with a focus on school readiness, social capital, and family well-being, it works to empower families to develop responsive parenting skills so that they can promote healthy brain architecture, reduce stress, and build resilience in their children.

AVANCE believes that play is essential and that all instruction should be personalized to acknowledge each child’s unique development. One distinctive program is that families are encouraged to make toys with household items, which can be used to support play and brain building. When the organization brings parents together for toy-making classes, family members not only learn skills (such as sewing), but also build social capital.

“They get to make friends and socialize with other people,” says Dominguez. “For a lot of our families, this may be the first time that they make friends [here]. They may be new to the U.S. and maybe don’t speak the language [English], and so these are opportunities to converse with other people that are like them.” 

Tools of the Mind

Tools of the Mind offers a combination of early childhood curriculum and professional development for teachers. It understands that relationships and interactions affect the architecture of children’s growing brains, particularly their emotional and social well-being and their cognitive and social-emotional language capacity.

Elena Bodrova, co-founder of Tools of the Mind, says that play is the leading activity for children in preschool and kindergarten when it comes to social-emotional learning: “If children don’t reach the stage of highly developed or mature play, then it deprives them of many benefits that play would give them otherwise.”


HighScope, based in San Antonio, Texas, creates research-based curriculum for teachers, along with offering the professional development teachers need to deliver that curriculum effectively. “I’ve had instances when teachers are just given a box with curriculum and that’s it. And really we need to make sure that we’re developing together,” says Barraza. The San Antonio Hub of Excellence—two charter schools where HighScope puts its curriculum into practice—is a point of pride for her. 


How have you adapted to meet the needs of children, families, and educators right now?


AVANCE faced the challenge of finding ways to stay connected with the families in its program. For example, many of the families it serves live in areas without broadband access. AVANCE quickly realized that it needed to shift to using platforms that families could access. To stay connected, AVANCE staff regularly checks in with families by conducting virtual home visits and using WhatsApp, a free texting app that is often used among Latino families to communicate internationally. 

Tools of the Mind

Tools of the Mind has shifted the types of tools that it uses to connect families and teachers. Digital means, such as text messaging, is one way teachers interact with families to keep them engaged with their children’s learning. Teachers can also watch videos of families and children doing activities and schooling at home and then give families advice on ways to support their children’s learning and keep them engaged. 


HighScope believes that families and schools have to work together: they are both responsible for raising and teaching children. HighScope has put an emphasis on the needs of families, who have become largely responsible for their children’s education. HighScope now creates videos for families that teach them how to create lessons using materials found at home. It also creates videos for teachers to show them how to use the necessary technologies needed to support virtual, socially distanced, and hybrid learning. 


What is one piece of practical advice you’d give teachers—one thing they might do tomorrow to best support the children in their classroom?


“Provide targeted feedback to your families and the child,” advises Dominguez. 

Tools of the Mind

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” Bodrova says. “It is not a sign of weakness. No one is perfect. Don’t be afraid to redo a lesson or make mistakes.” 


“Be okay with doing co-teaching. It is beneficial to leverage the strengths of your colleagues. Share resources with each other,” encourages Barraza. “And lean on your administrators. Make sure they are staying informed. Come with concerns but also with suggestions.” 

To hear the entire conversation, you can watch the webinar by clicking the link below. 

What Does it Take to Create "Ideal Learning" for All Children Today?