Over the past six months or so, I’ve heard questions and/or concerns about the role of social emotional learning, play, homework, and assessment in early childhood education. So I decided to find out more, recently meeting with Melrose’s Franklin Early Childhood Center (ECC) Director Donna Rosso.
Social Emotional Learning (SEL)
Social emotional learning is the foundation on which education at the ECC is built. The Massachusetts Standards for Preschool and Kindergarten (http://www.doe.mass.edu/kindergarten/SEL-APL-Standards.pdf) are used as the basis for this teaching and learning, but the actual standards applied at ECC are higher than what the state recommends. The New Second Step Social-Emotional Skills for Early Learning curriculum is employed at the ECC and teachers and paraprofessionals have received training in its implementation throughout the 2015-16 school year. A Social Worker supports the staff and students 1 ½ days/week. All children at the ECC can benefit from SEL learning and practice – whether they have an identified disability or not. (For my other post referencing Second Step, please see 10/21/15.)
Play and Learning
There are different theories about teaching children, and the ECC in part uses a “constructivist” approach, which means that learners “construct” knowledge from their own experiences, applying their own interests. At the ECC, staff uses “intentional play” as a teaching approach. In all classrooms children have opportunities to engage in intentional play experiences throughout the day with many classes beginning their day with a 45 minute to an hour choice time. Among the many thematic play centers constructed each month in classrooms, students brainstorm together and talk about what their center should include. They agree on themes and find ways to explore them. For example, one classroom’s theme is outer space, so the children made a space ship out of a large appliance box, complete with inner workings made from a variety of household items (include everyone’s favorite household item – duct tape). Their art is space-themed and the books in the reading area follow the theme. One class decided to explore a “pet hospital.” Another class tackled a writer’s workshop, with one pair of students authoring and illustrating a book. Ms. Rosso says: “It is in play that children explore and learn about the real world.”
The outdoor playground is also focused on intentional play. Prior to its recent overhaul, staff observed that children were acting out behaviors they had seen in media. (Ms. Rosso commented that in America too much play is dictated by consumer driven media companies that focus on consumption of goods as opposed to productive play experiences, i.e. purchase a meal and receive a toy that already has a story to go with it; then the toy becomes stale because there is no imagination needed and a new toy must be obtained, at a cost, to replace the first). The playground was reimagined and built with each piece of apparatus designed to support the developmental needs of the whole child. There is a mini-theater where children can play at putting on a show, taking tickets or making popcorn. There are developmentally appropriate risk-taking experiences available that allow gross motor skills to be tested and improved (like apparatus that challenges balance in a safe and age-appropriate way).
In her community outreach, Ms. Rosso’s booth at the recent Birth to Five-sponsored New and Expectant Parent Expo provided “Alien Writers” to all children. On a bookmark-sized card attached to green net sparkly streamers, children could pinch the printed “alien” on the card between thumb and forefinger and use large arm motions to depict letters in the air, their movements waving the streamers. An engaging, developmentally appropriate, hands on writing activity like the “Alien Writer” is an example of play and learning together that is meant to avoid introducing young children to writing instruments and worksheets before they are developmentally ready. At the ECC, children are also provided opportunities to write letters in the sand, make them from Play-Doh, or “draw” them on a friend’s back, another way to use gross motor skills to learn until children are developmentally able to hold a pencil. These types of eye-hand coordination activities support the foundational skills of reading.
Unlike the past, many students now come to early childhood education with significant literacy and math knowledge but not all children have the same levels of understanding (and aren’t expected to). Whereas in the past, teachers held the philosophy that waiting until they were “ready” was the best approach to learning, the research shows that a better strategy is to employ “errorless learning,” where teachers help children find answers, then ask them again to assess recall and ensure understanding which reinforces content. Student use of letters and letter sounds is critically important to literacy growth. The phonics curriculum is Lively Letters, which incorporates a multi-sensory approach to letters and letter sounds and allows students to learn and show what they know in different ways. (ECC staff seeks and employs various ways to teach letters and recently parents got into the act. They dressed up as “vowel superstars,” with costumes including capes, star-shaped-sunglasses, etc. Students loved their active and engaging presentation, and eagerly had their programs autographed by the “vowels.”) Separately, when asked about homework assignments at the ECC, Ms. Rosso promptly responded: “reading every day for 20 minutes.”
When students enter the ECC, they experience different kinds of assessments, but not in the traditional way we think about assessments for older children. Ms. Rosso along with her Instructional Leadership Team has developed an Assessment Map, in other words, the baseline from which educators can target growth. In their constant interaction, ECC educators observe things like whether a child recognizes letters, whether they recognize all the upper case letters enough to begin learning about lower case letters and letter sounds, etc. Simultaneously, educators look for patterns in social skills, pretend play, speech, and more. Progress reports (twice per year) reflect student understanding and progress, and ECC staff conducts conferences twice per year, partnering with families to support students in all areas of learning.
In sum, Ms. Rosso states that “the foundation of reading is through the development of oral language which often happens during play and social engagement,” and teachers and paraprofessionals are trained in this theory and practice through professional development funded by tuition and grants. By integrating social emotional learning into children’s days, students are developing routines allowing them to navigate classroom activities skillfully and more independently in order to improve their learning of content, and exercise more control over that learning, resulting in a more positive and productive transition to their next learning adventure: kindergarten.