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August/September 2007

The Developing Years
Evaluating Early Childhood Education
by Whitney Brennan

Trinity School

Parents are often amazed at how quickly their children grow and develop. Overnight—or so it seems—infants become observant toddlers, picking up skills and relating to all that surrounds them. Although this process occurs naturally, it is vital that a young child’s learning environment fosters development. Truly, a child’s educational success begins at the early learning stages, which begin at birth and extend to age 8. As a parent, it is your responsibility to make sure your child’s developmental needs are being met.

Because children’s brains develop rapidly during the first five years of their lives, these years are said to be the most critical for success in school. Quality Care for Children, an Atlanta organization that has promoted the education of young children for 25 years, refers caregivers to childcare providers that incorporate learning into their programs. Quality Care offers a referral service not only for infant and preschool programs, but also for after-school and summer programs for school-age children.

Similarly, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) educates parents and teachers about early childhood needs to improve the quality of educational and developmental services available. NAEYC offers an accreditation program for daycare, preschool, kindergarten and other programs. To help parents determine whether a school or early learning program offers a quality learning environment, the association offers a checklist that covers the key points relating to a child’s education, health and further development. According to this checklist, parents should take note of whether a program employs qualified staff; maintains a relationship with families and provides ongoing assessments of a child’s progress; implements an effective and appropriate curriculum that fosters all areas of a child’s development—cognitive, emotional, linguistic, physical, and social; and provides a safe and healthy environment.

Young children are very receptive to the world around them, constantly watching, listening and learning. They should be able to move freely in their environment, while being encouraged to use their arms, legs, fingers and hands to explore. In the Epstein School’s Early Childhood Program, exploration plays a major role in the curriculum. Hands-on activities that require children to use senses such as sight, sound, smell and touch define the Atlanta-based school’s early learning program. Principal Cathy Borenstein says, “Discovery and exploration are critical for developing a love of learning. Children learn to observe and explore through their senses. Learning connections are stronger when children are given the opportunity to experience a concept rather than only hear about it.”

College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center / Photo: City Schools of Decatur
This approach to early education is also implemented at Kids’ Stay ‘n Play, a childcare program with three locations in Atlanta. In this program, which is based on the Georgia Early Learning Standards, children in both the after-school and preschool programs are taught to be active participants in learning. “At each Kids’ Stay ‘n Play location, age-appropriate learning centers are designed with opportunities for children to play, discover and learn. Children are encouraged to create and initiate activities, which are supplemented with teacher-directed learning activities,” says owner Robyn Stahn. Parents should be aware of the kinds of activities and instruction their children receive in their early learning classroom or daycare. Children should be involved in daily activities that require counting, sorting, identifying shapes and measuring. Children at Epstein engage in cooking activities as a creative way to incorporate these tasks. Borenstein stresses that cooking with your child not only develops math skills, but it also teaches him or her to follow directions and to understand a process. Physical development is bolstered by using crayons, blocks and puzzles to develop fine motor skills, and children should be encouraged to engage in activities that require movement, such as dancing, running and jumping, to further improve motor skills. To ensure development of social and emotional skills, parents should make sure their children are encouraged to interact with peers using appropriate behavior. According to NAEYC, fostering positive relationships is crucial to early learning and development—teachers should speak in a gentle tone, encourage children to participate and incorporate a balance of both individual and group activities in the classroom.

The College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, like Kids’ Stay ‘n Play, is one of many programs that implement the Georgia Early Learning Standards, which inform teachers, parents and other caregivers about the skills a child should acquire from birth to age 3—ranging from a display of coordination to a display of creativity. College Heights, a public program operating in partnership with the Decatur/DeKalb YMCA, also incorporates an active, hands-on concept of learning that promotes social interaction for its students. According to Suzanne Kennedy, early childhood coordinator, “Children learn how to build relationships with their peers, their teachers and other adults. They learn how to show empathy toward others, how to resolve conflict and how to develop friendships in a safe and caring environment.”


Cathy Borenstein, principal of The Epstein School’s Early Childhood Program, shows the caring attitude she brings to the school every day.

When children begin elementary school, they should experience more structure in the classroom as their attention span increases, and the curriculum, of course, should meet basic standards. Children in the first and second grades should receive instruction in reading and spelling, writing and penmanship, mathematics, and some social studies and science. It is important that parents pay attention to the kinds of work and activities children experience in these primary grades, as they will serve as the foundation for further education. Maryellen Berry, curriculum coordinator and placement counselor at Trinity School in Atlanta, suggests that parents look at how curricula and standards for skills are determined for each age. Preschool and elementary students attend Trinity School, and standards are designed and revised by a team of teachers and academic administrators to ensure that they are age-appropriate. “We identify the point at which a skill begins and the point at which it is mastered,” says Berry. “This is based on national standards, our student population, and what we know through our experience with student learning and development.”

You’ll enjoy watching your child develop different skills as he or she matures, but there is one skill that should be fostered at every age: the ability to read. “Language and literacy is the No. 1 skill parents and teachers need to nurture, starting at birth,” Kennedy says. And in addition to reading, there are other creative ways to improve your child’s literacy skills. For example, Epstein’s Early Childhood Program incorporates drama to enhance language skills. By using puppets to retell a story, children learn to grasp meaning and engage in discussion of stories.

As a parent, your role in your child’s education should involve much more than just making sure he or she gets to school on time. Ask what your child did at school each day. Talk with teachers about questions and concerns you may have. Get involved to ensure that your early learner’s needs are being met, and, ultimately, you’ll feel more confident about the quality of your child’s education—and his or her future.


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