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Early Childhood Education

The Importance of Relationships and Child Engagement

Photo: Courtesy of the John Hopkins University School of Education

Alan Guttman

Program Manager Early Childhood & Special Education Initiatives, Center for Technology in Education (CTE) John Hopkins University School of Education

Before planning each child’s path towards a MacArthur Genius Award, parents and preschool teachers all want to know how best to prepare young children for kindergarten. Cost and location continue to be the most important factors influencing a parent’s decision on which preschool or family child care home their child will attend. Yet, numerous national research studies continue to conclude that for children to be prepared for kindergarten, the early care and education experiences they have in programs or at home must be high quality. Simply attending a program without regard for quality, or watching television and playing videos at home, does not ensure that children will be ready for kindergarten.

Initiating QRIS

States across the nation have launched initiatives to not only improve pre-K program quality, but to give parents valuable tools for assessing programs so that the early care and education program decisions they make for their children are informed by quality factors. These state initiatives, generically known as Quality Rating and Improvement System or QRIS, focus primarily on the learning environment and teacher/caregiver qualifications.

Quality elements to look for in the classroom, family child care, or personal home environment include: healthy and safe facilities (e.g. licensed by the state); age-appropriate tables and chairs; adequate “open-ended” toys materials (e.g. blocks, playdough, paints, brushes, and markers); ample opportunities for dramatic (i.e. pretend) play (e.g. “house area,” puppets and puppet theater); and cognitive play areas (e.g. writing area, science table, water table, sandbox, book corner). While education background, certificates, licenses and permits are key components of teacher/caregiver qualifications, experience including proven early care and education competency are often just as important, if not more valuable, in the attainment of a skill set that translates to “highly qualified.”

Focus on relationships​​​​​​​

And while the environment and teacher/caregiver qualifications are essential to quality early care and education, more and more high-quality learning opportunities depend on two key elements: the relationships and interactions that children have with their teachers, parents, caregivers, and peers; and the level of children’s engagement in play and learning. Teacher, caregiver, and parent relationships that are highly interactive and characterized by: extended conversations including open-ended questioning; imaginative play activities that require some degree of problem solving; shared book reading including creative reenactment of stories; and opportunities for children to demonstrate confidence and independence. All of these possibilities promote healthy social-emotional development and positive attitudes and approaches toward learning. Such healthy relationships prepare children to be kindergarten-ready, as well as lifelong learners

We all learn more, engage for longer periods of time and sustain our focus when we do things that interest us. Children are no different when it comes to early care and learning experiences. While the relationships and interactions with adults described above are vital, sometimes teachers, caregivers, and parents need to focus on what our children are genuinely interested in, provide the materials that interest them, ensure that children have ample time to engage with the materials and peers that interest them and step back and allow children to create, imagine, explore and problem-solve independently or with peers.

Yes, maybe your child will be the next Van Gogh (with both ears) or Condoleezza Rice (of course, you can be Secretary of State and play piano), but the best way to prepare children for kindergarten is by developing strong, lasting, positive relationships and by promoting genuine, prolonged engagement in the play, activities and interactions that interest them most.

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