Scholastic's early childhood advisors and guests meet to discuss How Children Learn
SCHOLASTIC'S NATIONAL EARLY CHILDHOOD ADVISORY BOARD convened its 13th annual meeting this summer. A diverse panel of early childhood experts integrated current research and practice to present a compelling picture of how children learn. Following are highlights from the meeting.


The Brain From Birth

Addressing the impact of experience on early brain development, Dr. Bruce Perry said, "The brain is a biological organ that allows us to do everything we do: think, walk, talk, move, hate, love, read, not read." Dr. Perry urged that parents and educators take advantage of the early brain's readiness for developing communication skills.

At birth, the not-yet fully developed brain is waiting for patterned, repetitive sensory signals in the environment in order to build the appropriate organization and function. In a continuous dynamic flux, the brain responds to the environment: sensing, perceiving, processing, storing, and acting upon experience, whether good or bad, in order to survive.

To help children become receptive to learning, show them something familiar, then add a twist something new or surprising. This mixture of the familiar with a little bit of novel input allows children to feel some control over their exploration process. Once children learn to modulate their initial alarm response to anything new, the process of learning becomes associated with pleasure.

NAEYC Teams Up With IRA

Dr. Sue Bredekamp is the principal architect of NAEYC's Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs. She stated that, in the recently revised guidelines, "We've defined developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) as ways of teaching children that not only reflect what is known about how young children develop but that also contribute to children's development and learning." She added that "both of these concepts - development and learning - imply some form of . . . a continuum of progress." The teacher needs a knowledge of normative expectations for the whole child's development, including the interacting social, physical, cognitive, and language domains, combined with awareness of children's individual variations.

"When we sat down with the International Reading Association (IRA), they looked at the revisions and felt that they didn't say enough about literacy," said Dr. Bredekamp. "So we worked with the IRA to formulate a position statement on what developmentally appropriate practices are in helping children learn to read and write." Teachers need to understand a developmental continuum in literacy with knowledge of appropriate expectations for preschool and kindergarten. At the same time, teachers have to assess where individual children are in relationship to that developmental continuum and then provide adaptive teaching strategies to help children make progress. Teachers also need to understand a child's social and cultural context to be sure that they are helping the child build on what he or she already knows.

Preventing Reading Problems

Dr. Catherine Snow is chairperson of the National Research Council's recent report on "Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children." She described this report as being different from all others because its focus is on the prevention of reading difficulties. It therefore makes recommendations for the first eight years of life, not simply what happens in first grade. Prevention includes promoting a child's language, social, and cognitive development as well as nurturing motivation and interest in reading and books.

Dr. Snow explained that preventing reading difficulties requires improved teacher preparation. Skilled readers use three principles concurrently: lettersound correspondence, reading for meaning, and reading fluently. "Now, these three principles are not revolutionary. What's revolutionary, I think, is the notion that they've got to be integrated at every stage." She also stated, "I strongly believe kindergarten really belongs with three- and fouryear-old classrooms.... Formal reading should not be pushed into kindergarten.... First grade is really the other side of a big change and approach, I think."

Language Development in Infants to Threes

Dr. Alice Sterling Honig demonstrated the stages in language development from the first sounds children utter. She traced the gradual formation of words, phrases, and sentences into receptive and expressive language.

Dr. Honig shared examples of how we can encourage language development and recognize progress. The richness of the "alphabet soup" that a child is exposed to makes an enormous difference by the time he is school age. "The soup pot has to be filled with very nourishing soup much earlier than we ever thought." Songs and chants, in addition to reading to babies, are important in developing a passion for language.

Teaching and Assessment

Dr. Lilian Katz, author of The Project Approach, emphasized that children need to acquire the disposition to use their skills as they develop them, so they need to have something that interests them to talk or read about. Children can learn to exercise their capacity to hypothesize, predict, and analyze at an early age. They learn naturally through playing, but also by investigating and observing. We should encourage children to prize complexity and to seek in-depth understanding. Illustrating her point, Dr. Katz shared her documentation of an extended project in which the class became engrossed in drawing and describing all they could on the subject of bikes.

Dr. Olivia Saracho, early childhood professor, reminded us about the indispensable role of play in early childhood. Play helps develop a child's cognitive structure in addition to developing social behavior.

Dr. Jacqueline Jones, a research scientist at the Educational Testing Service, outlined these principles for classroom-based assessment:

  • Gather multiple forms of evidence over time. No single measure will always tell you everything that's in a child's head. Documenting children's work using video is a wonderful instructional strategy and assessment opportunity.
  • Highlight what kids know, not what they don't know.
  • Look at a class as a community of learners. One-on-one assessments don't give us a sense of how kids learn together. "Assessment should always inform practice and always help children to grow," Jones said.

Home-School Link

Lisa Lee works with parents and teachers to move the concept of child care to family care. Embracing families, she believes, requires viewing families as people who have a stake in the community of care, not as recipients or customers.

Lee shared a Chinese tradition to illustrate the idea of teachers becoming part of a child's extended family. She described a Red Egg and Ginger Party, given when a child turns one month old, where "ginger root is passed out to friends and family because they are part of that child's root system. And it's an acknowledgment that you'll be part of this child's life, the root that holds this child firmly in the ground."

Lee challenges educators and publishers to think about their impact on that root system by asking "Do we make it stronger? Do we become part of it, or do we weaken it over time?"