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February/March 2009

Learning Starts Early
Evaluating Early Childhood Education

A Crème de la Crème student examines seashells.

As a parent, you watch with pride as your children grow and develop. Even at a very young age, they seem to change quickly, picking up skills, revealing their aptitudes and relating to the world around them. This occurs naturally, but for young children whose cognitive, social, physical and emotional skills progressively build, it is important that their learning environment fosters this development. Indeed, your child’s educational success starts with the early learning stages, which begin at birth and extend to age 8. As a parent, it is ultimately 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. 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, with locations in Sandy Springs and Buckhead, 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 schools’ early learning programs. 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.”

This approach to early education is also implemented at Crème de la Crème, an early childhood learning center with six locations in Atlanta. At Crème, children are active learners, particularly in the learning center’s creative movement program. Children may dance using scarves and ribbons, do tumbling exercises, balance on a beam, pretend to be a certain animal (e.g., walk like a lion) or participate in yoga. “Combining thinking and movement maximizes the potential for learning,” says director of education and training Jody Martin. “The more senses involved in an experience for a child, the more likely that child is to learn from that experience.” Parents should be aware of the kinds of activities and instruction their children receive in their early learning classroom or daycare. In addition to movement activities such as dancing, running and jumping, physical development also is bolstered by using crayons, blocks and puzzles to develop motor skills.

Children also 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, two of the most important skills an early learn-ing student can acquire. The ability to listen to directions and complete a task builds an early learner’s confidence and self-esteem, which allows him or her to develop progressively, unafraid to try new tasks and learning experiences. To ensure further development of social and emotional skills, parents should make sure their children are encouraged to interact with peers using appropriate behavior. At Crème de la Crème, students are taught such skills as table manners, sharing, and acknowledging and respecting their classmates’ feelings. 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.

  Students at Trinity School engaged in a chess match.
The Suzuki School, with two north Atlanta locations, 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. In addition to social/emotional skills and academics, Suzuki, like many other Atlanta early learning programs, teaches its students self-help skills. They learn about feeding and dressing themselves (buttoning, zipping, tying), hygiene, cleaning and caring for the classroom, etc. It’s important that early learners master these skills, as knowing how to accomplish these tasks also fosters confidence and self-esteem. “Having confidence and selfesteem with respect to the ability to carry out tasks successfully is indeed vital to an early learner’s growth and development,” says Suzuki head of schools Debra Markham.

When children begin elementary school, they should experience more structure in the classroom as their attention span increases, and the curriculum, of course, should teach basic skills—reading and spelling, writing and penmanship, mathematics, and some social studies and science. Parents should certainly look at how curricula and standards for skills are determined for each age. Preschool and elementary students attend Trinity School in Buckhead, and standards are designed and revised by a team of teachers and academic administrators based on national standards, their student population and their 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. “In addition to having good listening skills, having confidence in ability and a love of learning, a successful early learner is one with a love of books, stories and reading,” says Markham.

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.

   A Suzuki School student cleans her classroom.

Parent Resources

• School Web sites often feature a link to resources for their students’ parents.

• The Parents as Teachers Web site ( offers a free e-Newsletter with tips and activities that foster growth and learning.

• The NAEYC Classroom Observation Tool ( offers checklists for evaluating early learning classrooms and programs.

• The Atlanta School Guide (770-992-0273) is a complimentary, year-round publication that offers a comprehensive, detailed look at Atlanta’s public and private schools and educational resources in the Metro area.

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