This year will be a watershed moment for young children and their families as states begin to address early childhood education as part of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
Under ESSA, states and local school districts have the opportunity to expand access to early education, coordinate those efforts and hold themselves accountable for boosting children’s early learning and development through high-quality early education.
On its face, this is very promising. Some might even say a “one of its kind” opportunity. And yet, doing this well means grappling with a tension in early education policy: to offer both rigorous academic instruction and a learning environment that fosters social-emotional skills.
Often, in the field, these two goals are viewed as in opposition to each other, and frequently one is chosen over the other. To move beyond this false dichotomy, and ensure the long-term success of these encouraging plans and policies, there is an opportunity and a necessity to refine — even redefine — what is meant by high-quality early education.
In a high-quality early learning environment, children are building their social-emotional and academic competencies simultaneously. Educators are supporting them with instructional practices that are deliberately integrated to do so. Imagine a preschool classroom where there is direct instruction and intensive support to build both language and literacy skills and social-emotional competencies, such as self-control and sharing.
"Simply put, it’s not enough to just make time for academics and social-emotional learning."
Let’s play this out. To support language and literacy development, an educator might have a curriculum with units that are organized around a big idea (e.g., “the world around us”), include detailed plans for the unit and lessons, and sets of books to go with every unit. These materials and lessons become a platform for promoting language development, self-reflection, and empathy.
That educator comes prepared with open-ended questions to ask the children so that they explore the book’s world, consider alternative perspectives of the characters, and reflect on their own feelings. In doing this, she is cultivating children’s awareness of words and how words work and, at the same time, of children’s feelings and the feelings of others.
This concept of an integrated approach to educating young children is not necessarily new to leaders and early educators, at least in theory. But while many early education settings have long-espoused the need to develop the whole child, implementation often falls short.
The typical classroom tends to have solid lessons and activities throughout the day that aim to build key skills in order to accomplish the objectives. The goal of each lesson or activity is most often linked to a single developmental domain, such as language, literacy, or social-emotional competencies, rather than intertwined. But research demonstrates that this is how children learn best.
Unlike the scenario we describe above, activities and lessons are independent of one another in the typical early education classroom.For example, an educator might focus for 20 minutes on counting and then “switch” to a play-based activity, like the drama center, and, later, story time on the carpet. Each of these activities is important in and of itself, but without bridging the activities so that they connect and build on one another, there is a missed opportunity.
Simply put, it’s not enough to just make time for academics and social-emotional learning. Understanding the core ways children learn means embedding elements of these developmental domains within all learning.
It’s encouraging that policies like ESSA are helping us build a national discussion around high-quality early education. And as states and communities think through and implement their plans in response, it is crucial that they consider not just which skills children need, but how those skills are best developed so that they support continued learning and success in this 21 st -century society and economy.
By intentionally weaving together learning opportunities that will build both academic and social-emotional competencies, we have the opportunity to design engaging and stimulating learning environments that meet children where they’re at — while supporting them along the path of healthy development.
Nonie Lesaux is the Juliana W. and William Foss Thompson professor of education and society at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Stephanie Jones is the Marie and Max Kargman associate professor in human development and urban education advancement faculty, prevention science and practice. Both co-lead the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative.