Early childhood education is a broad term used to describe any type of educational program that serves children in their preschool years, before they are old enough to enter kindergarten. Early childhood education may consist of any number of activities and experiences designed to aid in the cognitive and social development of preschoolers before they enter elementary school.
How and where early childhood education is provided can be very different from one state to the next – or even from one school to the next within the same state. Preschool education programs may be designed specifically for either three-, four-, or five-year olds, and they may be provided in childcare and daycare or nursery school settings, as well as more conventional preschool or pre-kindergarten classrooms. These programs may be housed in center-based, home-based, or public school settings, and they may be offered part-day, full-day or even on a year-round schedule to include summers.
Early childhood education programs also differ in terms of funding and sponsorship, and can be privately run, operated by a local school system, or operated through a federally funded program like Head Start.
Federal, State and Privately Funded Early Childhood Education Programs
One of the first early childhood education initiatives in the U.S. was the Head Start program, which was created in 1965. This federally funded education initiative, which is funded by the Department of Health and Human Services, provides children from families with a lower-socioeconomic status or those who qualify under a specific at-risk category with free access to early childhood education programs.
Many early childhood education programs in the U.S. now operate under the auspices of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Act. Local educational agencies may apply to state agencies through Title I; those that are approved through the state are then funded with federal money. The No Child Left Behind Act encourages the use of Title I funds for preschool programs.
The National Institute for Early Education Research reported that 28 percent of America’s four-year-olds (or 1.4 million) were enrolled in a state-funded preschool program during the 2012-13 school year, with 40 states and Washington D.C. all offering state-funded preschool programs. State pre-k programs continue to be the primary program for four-year-olds in the majority of states, with recent statistics showing that 85 percent of all four-year-olds enrolled in preschool were enrolled in a program that receives state funds.
Georgia was the first state in the nation to introduce a statewide universal pre-k program, which provides early childhood education to all four-year-olds in the state. Since then, New York, Oklahoma, and Florida have followed suit.
Finally, early childhood education programs may be run by private for-profit companies, by churches, or as part of a private school curriculum. It is common for these types of early childhood education programs to be tuition-based.
The Elements of an Early Childhood Education Program
There has been much debate over the years about what type of program qualifies as simply care and what type of program qualifies as education. Another concern of today’s early childhood education programs is ensuring that they are of high quality.
The Early Education for All Campaign (www.strategiesforchildren.org), a coalition of leaders who work to ensure that children in Massachusetts have access to high-quality early education, recognizes early childhood education as “…warm, nurturing care and enriched learning experiences designed to simulate a child’s development in all key developmental areas.”
The National Education Association recognizes that a high-quality early childhood program includes five, critical components:
- Provides a well-rounded curriculum that supports all areas of development
- Addresses child health, nutrition, and family needs as part of a comprehensive service network
- Assesses children to enhance student learning and identify concerns
- Employs well-educated, adequately paid teachers
- Provides small class sizes and low teacher-child ratios
The U.S. Department of Education recognizes that the effectiveness of an early childhood program is dependent upon a number of factors:
- A quality staff
- An appropriate environment
- Consistent scheduling
- Parental involvement
- Proper grouping practices
This federal agency also recognizes additional characteristics of a high-quality early education program:
- A balance between individual, small group, and large group activities
- A balanced schedule that does not result in rushed or fatigued children
- A clear statement of goals and a comprehensive philosophy that addresses all areas of child development
- A strong foundation in language development, early literacy, and early math
- Access to a safe, nurturing, and stimulating environment, along with the supervision and guidance of competent, caring adults
- Engages children in purposeful learning activities and play, which is instructed by teachers who work from lesson and activity plans
- Nutritious meals and snacks
- Teachers and staff who regularly communicate with parents and caregivers
- Teachers who frequently check children’s progress
The Early Education for All Campaign outlines the quality characteristics of high-quality early childhood education curriculum and activities:
- Balanced: The curriculum should provide a balance of play and structured activities, including teacher- and child-initiated exploration.
- Based on a child’s developmental needs: Activities, materials, and schedules should be appropriate to a child’s age and support all developmental domains.
- Well-planned: The curriculum should reflect current research on child development and should include specific learning goals for children.
Preschool Teachers and their Role in a High-Quality Preschool Program
According to the Early Childhood-Head Start Task Force (a joint effort between the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), preschool teachers teach and nurture our youngest children. These early childhood educators help these young learners become successful learners, readers, and writers.
As such, preschool teachers play an important role in the lives of preschoolers, some of whom may lack adequate experiences at home. These professionals help children:
- Become familiar with books and other printed materials
- Develop language abilities
- Increase their knowledge
- Learn letters and sounds
- Learn to count
- Recognize numbers
Preschool teachers may use a number of strategies for teaching the above skills while they nurture their students’ natural curiosity and their zest for learning. Preschool teachers can accomplish their teaching goals by:
- Building children’s background knowledge and thinking skills
- Checking children’s progress
- Communicating with parents and caregivers
- Creating a learning environment for young children
- Helping children develop listening and speaking skills
- Reading aloud to children
- Teaching children about books
- Teaching children about letters
- Teaching children about numbers and counting
- Teaching children about print
- Teaching children about the sounds of spoken language