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Transcript from an interview with Robert Pianta

Learning happens well before kindergarten

Well, it's important to pay attention to children's education even before they arrive in kindergarten because all sorts of learning occurs before they start school that first day. We know language development is almost complete by the time children go to school.

We know they learn how to get along with other kids, they learn how to line up and be able to find the bathroom in a school and we know that they learn things about the world, about math and shapes and letters and numbers, all of which roll into the skills that they walk into on that first day of kindergarten that make a big difference when they start school.

Some people think that being three or four is too young for starting school and, really, what we know is that almost every child receives some kind of schooling in the years before they really go to school when they turn five and go to kindergarten.

So, the kind of time a child spends when they're sitting on their mom's lap having a book read to them and the moms pointing out the letters and the words in the book, that's a lot like school and a lot of learning goes on there. When they are playing with a group of kids and somebody's helping them learn how to share, that's a lot of learning.

So I think that the question is not so much whether children should be exposed to experiences that are intended to help them learn skills that help them when they get to school, but whether that kind of learning is done in a place where it's friendly, it's kid friendly, it's adult friendly, it fosters all the other kinds of aspects of children's development- their social development and their emotional development - that's appropriate at that age.

So, again, it's not so much whether we talk about these three and four year old experiences as school or as education, but we talk about them as experiences that foster development in ways that are encouraging and appropriate for kids at that age. So I don't think it's too young for kids when they're three and four to go to what might be called school as long as it's a good place for them to be.

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Benefits of preschool

Formal settings can be a little more beneficial for a lot of children at three and four because the learning that they can acquire in those settings can be a little more concentrated and can be a little more tailored to the kinds of skills that are going to be better aligned with what they need to perform in kindergarten.

For some children that's extraordinarily important. So most kids are going to be learning no matter what they're doing or where they are, whether they're, you know, playing at home or whether they're working with a teacher at a sand table or learning letters at a preschool.

Again, the question is how can we appropriately foster that and perhaps accelerate it for some children so that they don't start school already behind the eight ball. And so I think a lot of the kind of effort that we've seen toward fostering children's preschool experiences is organized around trying to give a lot of kids a bit of a leg up when they enter school.

However, what we know is that every child who goes to preschool tends to benefit from it in one way or another. So the social benefits of preschool are there for all kids regardless of income and the kind of skills they bring into preschool and the learning benefits.

So, again, the question is not so much whether it's beneficial or not beneficial. It is beneficial. It's how to best and most appropriately deliver that to kids so that it's enjoyable.

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Adults are a child's first teacher

Adults are the key to kids' early literacy development. So literacy is not something that sits in a book and it's not something that sits in a curriculum; it sits in the space between an adult and the book and the child or the adult and the curriculum and the child.

And what I mean by that is that it's really the interactions with adults that activate the potential that's in books and that's in a curriculum for learning, for helping a child learn how to read. So adults are the vehicle, if you will, by which children get engaged in literacy.

Adults promote the kind of interests in language and interest in deriving meaning from language and meaning from print that children need in order to be able to successfully learn how to read. And adults are the people who are engaged in some of the painstakingly difficult and challenging ways to help children learn what is a tough code.

You know, when you're trying to match 26 letters to an awful lot of sounds and figuring out how to apply that code to print, that's a hard job and somebody needs to teach a child how to do that.

Adults in many ways provide the motivation for children to learn how to read, they provide the basic language skills for children to understand the importance of language and meaning, and then they provide those very specific skills about decoding. So it's all about those interactions between adults and kids.

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Reading must be taught

One of the misconceptions about how children learn how to read is that it really doesn't have to be taught, that it just happens automatically. And for many children it almost looks as if it does happen automatically. But what we don't often see is what goes on behind the scenes with those children where there is an adult sitting with that child and pointing out the letters in the book and calling attention to pictures and words.

And what we've learned over the course of the last decade is particularly these skills that involve decoding words, that mapping sound to print, those particular skills have to be taught. And it's largely through the kinds of interactions that kids have in preschools with adults, teachers in those settings, that that happens for a lot of children.

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Good parent/school communication

Positive relationships between parents and teachers in the preschool years are really characterized by communication. A good relationship between a parent and their school is- you can see it when you would ask a parent, "How does your child spend the day" and they'd be able to describe to you the kind of routines that the child would be engaged in.

And you'd also know if you asked a parent the question, you know, "If you had a question about your child, could you go ask your child's teacher" and the parent might say, "Of course I could because she helps me understand my child's development and is a good support for me even when I'm trying to figure out something to do with my child at home".

So it really is characterized by this sense of communication that's open, back and forth between the parent and the teacher, and a sense of mutual support, that these are two adults that are trying to support one another in the interests of the child.

Schools can promote positive relationships with parents and families by reaching out to them, and for the most part that involves initiating this kind of conversation that's about the child. That can happen when the child gets registered and start that early

It can happen- a lot of schools use newsletters. But a lot of times for some parents that may involve a reaching out that involves visiting the parent in the home and talking about the child. We always encourage teachers and preschool providers to make a contact with parents about the child that conveys something positive about that child, something positive that teacher or the school has learned about that child.

And we find that that really is a terrific starting point for that kind of conversation about the child that can be supportive.

It's not infrequent that the language spoken at home is different from the language spoken in school or the language spoken by the teachers or the early childhood educators. And in those cases it's really important, again, for the preschools to try to identify people in the community…

And this is where a lot of times we talk about the importance of a whole community in helping educate young kids. And, actually, you know, we know now that early childhood education is really the great melting pot in American right now because so many different language backgrounds and cultural backgrounds and ethnic backgrounds are represented in our programs for young children.

And so when a community has available people can help make those-build those bridges from the school-based programs or the early education programs to homes, it's extraordinarily important for beginning this relationship between the educational program and the parents and family.

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What to look for in a good preschool

If a parent is looking for an ideal preschool environment for their child, one of the first things they really ought to do is visit those environments and actually look in the classrooms and the places where children will spend time.

And when they visit those classrooms, what they should see first are a whole assortment of activities and materials that are enjoyable for children to engage with. But that's just the beginning, the foundation of what would be an ideal environment. In that environment they ought to see adults, you know, a teacher or a teacher's aid.

But the adults in that environment ought to be participating in activities with children. And when the adults are participating in those activities with children, the parent ought to see the children enjoying that participation and enjoying the activity.

So we would look for things that indicate the teacher's involvement with kids, conversations with children, extended conversations with children where the teacher is using the children's words and the children are responding back. They should see children comfortable with being close to that teacher.

They should see lots of smiles when the child's in the teacher's presence. That the teacher matters to the children is important. And this happens all the time when you've got, you know, 15 kids in a room with a couple of adults, adults can't be everywhere.

And so you would want to see the adults moving around to different groups of children. And if there was some distress or signal that there were children in a part of the room that needed some help, we'd want to see either those children being comfortable with going to the teacher or the teacher noticing that very early and going over to the kids and being able to effectively help that situation.

So a lot of engagement, a lot of involvement, a lot of warmth, those would be the kinds of things you'd look for in a preschool environment.

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Emotional and instructional support

When we look at classrooms and visit classrooms and essentially trying to identify the kinds of preschool settings that we've been able to show contribute to kids' social and academic learning, we look for really two kinds of dimensions of interactions between teachers and children or the adults and children.

We look for the emotional support that's provided by teachers. So is this a teacher that conveys a sense of warmth in her interactions with kids? Is this a teacher where we notice if a child is in some kind of distress on the edge of the group that the teacher's able to sensitively notice that and move that child maybe a little closer to her so that they're a little bit calmed down or can pay attention or engage the activity?

We also look for ways in which, under the emotional support of the classroom, we look for ways in which the teacher's interactions convey an respect for children's own responsibility and autonomy. Even at three and four children can be given appropriate choices for things to do and teachers can interact with them in a way that conveys an understanding of their child's motivation and interest.

All those kind of features of a classroom fall under this broad domain that we call emotional support that we've been able to show in our studies, and others have as well, conveys a level of resource to children that helps them learn.

The other part of a classroom environment- and, again, we're talking about classrooms not like they're fourth and fifth grade classrooms; we're talking about settings for three and four year olds here that-where there are sand tables and block corners and housekeeping areas and things like that.

Also in those kind of environments we can see elements of what we call instructional support. And what we look for there in the qualities of teacher's interactions with kids are ways in which teachers extend children's conversations, that they use words that children are using, that…

Or they may pick up on a child's word and give the child a synonym for that word so that the child builds an understanding of vocabulary or an interest in talking to the teacher. We look at the quality of feedback that teachers provide the children when the children are learning.

So we're looking in contrast to a teacher who might be working with a child with a set of colored blocks and helping the child count or learn the blocks rather than-the colors of the blocks. Rather than say, "Nice job" and move onto the other child, the teacher would take the child's performance and extend it somehow in some way and give them some feedback about how they're doing on a little more difficult way in which the child could perform that task.

And then we also look for ways in which the teacher extends the child's thinking so that rather than maybe show a picture of something and have the child just name it, the teacher would take the child's naming of an object and extend it a little bit further.

"Yes, that's a cow. We also know that that's an animal. And look that it has four legs. And what else has four legs?" "Oh, dogs have four legs." "Do you have a dog?" Those kinds of interactions are ways that just expand children's understanding. And we can-we can observe those in classrooms.

We group them under this rubric of instructional support, and we've been able to show in studies we've done and that others have done that those kind of interactions also are very important to contributing to kids learning as well.

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The interaction between teacher and child is key

Everyone is interested in the quality of preschool. They're interested in the quality of K-12 education too. But when we talk about preschool, we often talk about quality. And there are a lot of different features of programs that people talk about when they talk about quality.

Sometimes they're talking about what the stuff is in the classroom, sometimes they're talking about the credentials of the teacher, sometimes they're talking about the size of the group or the numbers of adults and the numbers of kids.

When we talk about quality, we're talking about the interactions that happen between teachers and children because in many ways when all of us are talking about quality, what we're really interested in are those features of the programs that actually contribute to children's learning and development in a positive way.

And aside from all the kinds of stuff that might be in a classroom or the credentials of a teacher, it's really what goes on between the teacher and the child that matter for learning. And for us and for many others, that's the key ingredient of quality.

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The importance of play

One of the key features about preschool education and really childhood education more generally is that we often talk about the importance of play in those learning environments and the role that play actually does play in helping promote learning.

And it's important that people know that when early childhood educators are talking about the importance of play, they're not just talking about kids engaging in sort of random activities in the classroom that are not really intended to contribute to learning. In fact, play, when it's used in an early childhood education context, is an important vehicle for learning because it engages the children in activities they enjoy and are motivated to do naturally.

And then teachers enter that play in ways that then extend the children's skills while they're engaging in the play. So that a group of kids who are playing at a sand table and dumping sand in and out of shapes, if a teacher enters that interaction with children, that's an opportunity to learn all shorts of things about shape and number and geometry and quantity and change in ways that the children are going to enjoy.

And they're going to be kind of rooted in the children's experience in ways they're going to remember. And play is an essential feature. It's the things kids do naturally and kids are going to learn naturally from play what early childhood education does when it's really operating best, is that it takes the value of play and even adds more value to it for learning because of what the teacher's doing while she's playing with the kids.

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Testing in pre-K?

There's some controversies in early childhood education and one of them is whether children should be tested and assessed according to their growth and learning some of the skills that I think we know are so important at this age. And this is probably, in part, a consequence of the accountability movement in K-12 education.

It's partly a consequence of the fact that many states are being asked to spend a lot more money to expand early childhood education. And to some degree I think the people making those investments, the politicians and the public want to know that those investments are producing the outcomes that we're hoping they produce. And so testing plays a role in understanding whether early childhood education is having the desired affects that the public would like.

The controversy really is about how hard it is to test kids. What are the skills? Is a child going to demonstrate the skill one day and not the next day, which is really what preschool is all about- you don't have all these skills put together in a real nice package in the ways that you might at an older age.

We do know that there are ways to assess children appropriately at this age and for the most part those ways involve interactions with the teachers where there's somebody who is comfortable with the child can perform the assessment.

And that there's certain appropriate skills and, if you will, test items that you can ask children to perform that if you gave them to a lot of children, you would understand something about the nature of learning at this age and whether those children's skills are developing appropriately.

So testing is-it's not all together a bad thing for children at this age, and it can be useful even for teachers in their instruction with children and their interactions with children to know something about where the children are in terms of language development and numeracy and things like that.

So it's not all together a bad thing but it's something that has to be done very wisely, very carefully and very appropriately given what we know about three and four year old children.

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Are the kids on track?

One of the most important features of early childhood education and I think one of the things that we hope we do well when we train early childhood educators, we train teachers, is a deep knowledge of child development and when you have a deep knowledge of child development so that you know how language development tracks through from kids who are two to kids who are six, and you know how cognitive development tracks and social development tracks.

It allows you as a teacher the opportunity to almost informally assess children on a continual basis so that you can make even more of those interactions that you have with children on a day-to-day basis.

And there are a variety of less formal and more formal ways of doing informal assessment that range from really knowledge of what the teacher knows about child development all the way to questionnaires and kind of interview techniques that teachers can use with children that are comfortable for the children and that will tell the teacher something about that children's developmental status.

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The value of early screening

One of the important features of assessment that can be conducted with children that are three and four years old is a feature we call screening. And, again, if you have a lot of children moving into preschool programs and on into school, one of the functions that those preschool programs can do is kind of screen for children who need more intensive help or might have a disability in a certain particular area and need some support, or even families who might need some support around that disability.

So most of what we look for in these kind of screening devices are ways in which children can be kind of identified on the basis of some key indicators or red flags, if you will, and follow it up with more individual, in-depth assessments. And there are a number of language development markers that you would be looking for in children.

Are they interacting or not interacting at three and four? Do they have very low levels of language usage? Are they remembering words appropriately, so that we look for sort of language and cognitive problems. Social problems are often things that pop up where children are afraid of interacting with other kids, if you will, or show very low levels of interest in interacting with other kids.

All of these are warning signs in the sense that they should be followed up a little bit more professionally by someone who can understand whether they're typical and just a part of a normal, typical progression of development or a situational factor, or whether they're something that warrant more attention.

It's important to spot some of these red flags early because we also know that if provided the right kind of supports and help, that some children who are struggling in certain developmental areas can be provided supports that can get them back on track a little bit faster than they would have otherwise.

Left alone sometimes- not all the time-, but left alone some of these concerns can get bigger as children move into more complicated environments like kindergartens and first grades.

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Homes that promote learning

A home environment that promotes learning and development in the preschool years is one where you would see qualities of emotional engagement between the adults and the children in that environment.

You'd see the parents enjoying being with the child and conveying that enjoyment in their facial expressions, in hugging and holding the child. You'd see the child almost soaking that emotion up and enjoying it themselves. So the emotional qualities would be rich and warm and engaging.

You would see the child, if distressed, seek those parents for support and get support. You'd also see things in the environment that are things that children like to do. You'd see maybe games and puzzles or balls- the kind of stuff of the preschool years that everybody's got scattered all over the place.

And, in fact, one of the nice signs of an environment that's kind of a home environment, is kind of kids friendly, is that it's not all neat and put away. That the stuff is accessible and there's evidence that it's uses a lot. You'd also see the adults in that environment promoting the children's learning in cognitive development.

So you would see evidence of children being read to and talked to, and talked with even more importantly than talked to. That you'd see when conversations occur sometimes the parents would drop down to the child's level and talk face to face with a child. So you'd see all sorts of evidence that this child was getting lots of feedback about what it is that they're doing with the world and what they're learning and engaging in.

And it wouldn't feel like school for any reason but it would feel like a place where a lot of learning was going on. The other thing that would be pretty evident in an ideal home environment or one at least that's supporting kids learning at this age would be a real sense of rhythm and predictability.

Not rigid so that there's a very inflexible, kind of military schedule on the wall, but there would be a rhythm to children's time and life in the home. So there'd be a regular bedtime. There might be rituals around bedtime and around meals and around getting up in the morning that were predictable and that helped anchor and organize that child's experience in the home.

So these kind of predictable elements and then the real human elements that occur in the interactions between parents and children would really be what you'd walk away from a visit to a home environment and you'd say, "Wow, there's a lot going on there that's promoting this kid's development".

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Early childhood teaching requires expertise

The qualifications of an early childhood educator are really important for a couple different reasons. First we know that one of the key ingredients of those qualifications involve a deep knowledge of child development.

That this is a person who's an expert in two year olds and three year olds and four year olds, that knows things about two year olds and three year olds and four year olds that you may not know as a parent or as a teacher of older kids or as a member of the public.

And there's a lot to know that goes on in this age range that makes it a pretty complicated set of knowledge to know. So they're experts in the age range. And they're also experts in kind of unlocking the learning that goes on in that age range.

And that's a complicated task. It's not sitting kids down in rows and delivering them a lecture and having them fill out some worksheet that might occur in some other kind of context, but it's really finding ways that you can manage 16 kids who are moving around and need to move around in a very informal way and enter into their worlds in ways that help them move their understanding along and their skill sets along.

It's a very complicated set of skills. And we know that training programs for early childhood educators that might occur in the context of a university kind of program or might occur in a community college or even might occur in training that can go on in a community, but that training that's about interacting with children and knowledge of children form what we call a highly qualified early childhood educator and that those qualifications make a difference.

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A classroom of your own

In the training of early childhood educators and, actually, teachers more generally, it's critical that the training programs offer them opportunities to go in there and practice executing their knowledge of child development with real children to get support about that and feedback about that from somebody who's experienced and knowledgeable, usually another classroom teacher.

So many of us think of this as kind of student teaching and those kind of experiences have been shown in a lot of research about the training of teachers to be probably one of the most critical features in predicting those teacher's skills when they have a classroom of their own.

So these kind of on-the-job training but it's not quite on the job yet, it's with a very qualified supervisor where the stakes are not quite as high are critical for the formation of effective teachers when they go off and have their own classroom.

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Reading the cues

When teachers go into an early childhood classroom as the teacher who's responsible for that classroom, I think one of the most important skills they have is the skill of attending to children's cues and being able to think on their feet quickly enough to read those cues in ways that reflect an understanding why the child's communicating that cue and respond quickly.

So it's really a kind of signal reading and think on your feet skill that's very, very important because it's that kind of skill that then allows that teacher to effectively manage a group of 16 kids. It allows that teacher to effectively promote development of those children in the classroom.

But without that skill most of the book knowledge that teachers have is gonna stay in their heads. And it's really this skill that unlocks that knowledge and helps extend it into these lives that they have in their classroom.

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Preschool is not babysitting

It's a misconception that early childhood education is babysitting. In fact, if you were to visit an early childhood education setting, a preschool setting, and you'd walk away thinking most of what was going on there was babysitting, you would probably not be seeing a very high quality setting because the- and not to demean babysitting- but I think the key quality that differentiates in sort of the usual understanding between babysitting and early childhood education is this intentional involvement of adults in promoting the learning of children.

And that is an extraordinary skill that involves an understanding of children, it involves a capacity to interact effectively with 16 different kids or 20 different kids in a classroom. It's a very, very difficult set of skills that I think we need to understand as different than babysitting.

And it's also important to remember that these are environments that in most cases are intended to be contributing to children's development. And so it's not a case that early childhood education is just a passive place where we put kids for-between 8:00 and 5:00, but these are places that really are intentionally contributing to kids' positive development during this period. And I think that's different than babysitting. It's harder.

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Building social skills for life

Ther's a whole assortment of social factors and competencies, if you will, that affect children's learning in a classroom. And these are really some of the things that early childhood education really help.

So it's the kind of skills like being able to sit for a little while and work on a puzzle that's difficult for-and tolerate the frustration of not getting it right the first time. Or knowing that if you're having a tough time, that there's an adult in the classroom that you can call on to help that will come over and help you out and that'll have resolve your difficulty. That's a social skill. There's the social skill of being able to share a set of materials with a couple of other kids that you're playing with.

There's the social skill of lining up and letting somebody stand in front of you or taking turns. It's almost as if there's a whole set of social competencies that develop in these interactions with peers and adults in a classroom that provide- one way of thinking of it- is provides kids with an infrastructure that they carry with them into school and into learning environments that enable them to sit in a classroom and now focus on the instruction that's going on in a particular lesson.

And if you can't manage those social skills and those social situations well, they get in the way of your ability to take advantage of this as a learning opportunity.

In preschool it's critical that early childhood education settings, the classroom settings or preschool settings, if you will, provide children with a set of emotional supports because at this age developmentally children are just beginning to master the skills of their own emotional lives.

So helping children begin to label emotions, helping children to understand the effects that their behaviors have on other kids, helping children know how to ask effectively for help and how to receive help, these are very bedrock kind of social interaction skills that form ultimately a set of competencies that kids carry with them. And it's at this age that kids learn these skills, so consequently, it's important that early childhood environments help children with these skills.

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Support for parents

One important function that early childhood programs often play in a community is to help pair parents with resources that can help the parents with some of the stresses that may be going on at home. So, for example, sometimes for any number of reasons parents can be struggling with the demands of parenting.

They can be struggling with the demands of life. And sometimes that shows up in children's behavior. And so when teachers see those signs or understand that there are difficulties at home for other reasons, early childhood educators- and early childhood educators do this terrifically well- are very good often times at building bridges between parents and other resources in the community that can help the parents with the kind-some of the struggles that are going on at home.

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Narrowing the 'opportunity gap'

We talk a lot in American right now about the achievement gap. We see very wide disparities between individual kids, between kids from different backgrounds. And we see these disparities from kindergarten all the way to 12th grade.

We're worried about test score gaps, we're worried about drop outs, we're worried about kids becoming disengaged for all sorts of reasons all the way up and down the grade levels. And I think those gaps that we've identified so well are really opportunity gaps that, in very real terms, the differences in performance that we measure so well between children and groups of children are truly differences in opportunity.

They reflect and mirror differences and opportunities that exist in our society all the way back sometimes when these children were born and are reflected in family opportunities as well as community and societal opportunities. So in some ways it's an achievement gap but a better way to name it would be an opportunity gap.

Early childhood education is one of the hottest topics on almost every political agenda across the country right now because it seems to be such an effective means at closing the achievement gaps that we see in children's performance at the beginning of school.

We see governor after governor expanding preschool education. States are spending lots of money on this and parents are spending lots of time and money. Society in many ways cares about this. I think over the last two decades we've seen two big questions resolved.

We've seen the question of whether early childhood education has real educational benefits to children resolved. We know that closing an achievement gap that starts appearing when a child's in kindergarten has long-term consequences for that child's life in the future. So getting that gap closed early makes a big difference developmentally going forward.

And we know that it's economically wise to invest in preschool education not only for the consequences that early education has for that child, but the consequences that that experience also has for the family and for the community. So that we've settled this issue of whether, you know, whether it's worth the investment and whether the investment has a return for children.

Regardless of the income background of the children, the family background of the children, the cultural background of the children, all children benefit in very measurable ways from being exposed to high quality, early childhood education.

However, we do see that those benefits accrue more to children coming in from circumstances that are more likely to be challenging for them and for the schools that they go to. So children from high poverty backgrounds, children from different cultural and language backgrounds tend to actually show greater gains from being exposed to high quality early childhood education even over and above the gains that everybody seems to accrue on average.

So in some ways these programs become an important investment for these children and families and a more important investment for communities because these are children who are much more likely to struggle when they hit school and have to face some of the challenges that go along with those struggles, both in terms of their achievement and in terms of their social development.

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Preschool for children with disabilities

Parents who have a child with a disability may also be looking for a preschool for their child, and rightly so, because we have a lot of good evidence again that children who are developing atypically benefit a lot from the kinds of experiences that are offered when they're two and three and four in group settings.

And parents of those children should be looking for many of the same kinds of things that parents of typically developing children would look for in a preschool. Is this a place that seems safe and comfortable for my child? Is this a place where the teacher has knowledge of my child and my child's needs?

Now in this case that might be a little bit more specialized knowledge, so the parent should ask the teacher about their experience working with a child who may have needs similar to their child's or their knowledge about the disability more generally.

The parents should spend time watching how the teacher deals with differences in the classroom more generally around children. And one of the important things that happens for children with disabilities, particularly in the preschool years, is it's often the first time that they get included in group settings in social situations with other kids.

And you would like to see a teacher who is skillful at encouraging interaction between a child with special needs and other kids, and also helping the other kids understand the needs of that child and beginning to build bridges towards that child. And this can happen very, very effectively in lots of different settings.

And the best settings do very well at including all sorts of kids and all sorts of needs in those-in those environments.

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Transition to kindergarten

Because there are a lot of differences between the kind of environment a child can experience in an early childhood setting and the K-12 setting, particularly kindergarten/first grade in terms of numbers of children and numbers of adults and kind of the learning agenda and having to manage a big school and a bus and things like that.

We often think of this as a period of transition. And one of the hallmarks really of a friendly or ready school, if you will, and a positive early childhood education program in relation to transition are the ways in which the early childhood program and the school collaborate to make this transition as less bumpy as possible so that parents get adequate information about the kind of skills that are going to be required when the children go to kindergarten.

Early childhood education programs and kindergartens often collaborate on what we call transition programs for children and for families. And one of the things that you look for often times in a community with schools that are ready for kids and early childhood programs that are good at fostering kids moving up into school are these transition programs that help children and parents navigate the territory between being four and being five and going to school.

And that often involves lots of communications to parents about expectations, it involves visits that go back and forth. And I like to think of effective transition programs as really a conversation among the early childhood providers, the kindergarten teachers and the elementary school and the parents.

And at the middle of that conversation is a child and that they're communicating about this child's needs under a set of circumstances that reflect the home environment and the early childhood program and the kindergarten all coming together to a common understanding of this child's readiness to attack what's going to be available to them in kindergarten.

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From research to practice

We know an awful lot about how to build and offer effective, high quality early education programs for young kids. The research is very much in agreement, really, on what constitutes high quality programs in a classroom and what constitutes a high quality program in terms of the larger program infrastructure and elements.

It's not easy to put all those principles into play. So I think what we lack a little bit of in terms of research knowledge is how best to take what we can do in a model program and translate those features into hundreds and thousands of programs in classrooms across the country, each of which has a different set of economic circumstances, family stresses, cultural circumstances, even geographic circumstances that make that program unique.

We're just beginning to learn the kind of supports that are needed for teachers, the kind of supports that are needed for program directors in order to implement what we know so that ultimately children and teachers get the kind of resources that they need.

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Controversies in early childhood education

Well, like almost every other form of education or programs for kids, there's a lot of controversies in early childhood education. There are controversies over whether children should be taught or allowed to play, and whether learning occurs as a function of teaching or just allowing children to play.

There's controversies about how direct to be in one's instruction with children and how focused and intentional to be. There are controversies to some degree about whether teachers should have a Bachelors Degree like teachers in K-12 have or whether teachers can be effective early childhood educators with a community college or Associate's Degree as many of them have.

There are controversies about, although it's a little more settled now, about what the best way to teach reading is to young children.

And I think there's a little bit of a controversy about whether, you know, curriculum is the answer or whether it's really about how teachers implement curriculum that's more the answer. I think a lot of controversies generally boil down to some assumption that there's a single answer.

Do you want the answer on this side of controversy or the answer on this side of controversy? And most of the time what we know is that the answer is a little bit of both, that controversies reflect different approaches, differences of opinion, different knowledge bases that when integrated are usually the approach that makes the difference.

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Kindergarten-ready

When a child goes to kindergarten, what you hope they bring with them is a set of skills or a little, if you will, toolbox that has some skills in it. And those-you know, those skills involve being interested in interacting with other people. They involve being able to convey your needs for help effectively to the adult that's in the room.

They involve being curious and wanting to be engaged in interesting stuff in the classroom. The kind of materials that afforded kids, you want children to be curious about learning about those materials and learning about the world. You want them to essentially kind of enjoy the opportunity to engage in learning and to be challenged a little bit.

So you'd like children to be able to be tolerant of being challenged a little bit. I think it's very important that they are able to communicate orally about their needs and goals and desires so that they…

All of these other kinds of tools sometimes hinge on being able to communicate effectively. So having words for your feelings and words for your thoughts and words for your intentions in a social situation are really important too.

So it's really language, social development and interest in the world and curiosity in the world that you'd really like to see children going to school with.

"Fill your house with stacks of books, in all the crannies and all the nooks." — Dr. Seuss