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Early Childhood Environment
The Nebraska Department of Education and the Iowa Department of Education (1994) describe an appropriate learning environment for the young child:
"The primary learning environment provides time and opportunities for children to experience and respond creatively to their world. The learning environment is social in nature, providing a secure and stimulating climate for all children. It provides time and opportunities for children to take appropriate risks and to explore and investigate their world. Children have experiences which encourage them to interact with others, to develop interpersonal skills, and to work and learn cooperatively." (p. 3)
Lombardi (1992) notes that the early childhood environment should be based on developmentally appropriate practice:
"Programs for young children should not be seen as either play-oriented or academic. Rather, developmentally appropriate practice, whether in a preschool or a primary classroom, should respond to the natural curiosity of young children, reaffirm a sense of self, promote positive disppositions towards learning, and help build increasingly complex skills in the use of language, problem solving, and cooperation."

Effective Grouping Practices

An important organizational issue in early childhood education is the grouping of children. Traditionally, children have been grouped by grade-level designations according to age and ability. Many effective early childhood programs do not follow this graded grouping pattern, however, and instead are using a nongraded approach. According to Gaustad (1992), "Nongraded education is the practice of teaching children of different ages and ability levels together, without dividing them (or the curriculum) into steps labeled by grade designations." She adds that "nongrading can be used with all ages but is particularly appropriate during the primary years" because it is consistent with developmentally appropriate practices.
Besides nongraded grouping, other terms used for this type of grouping include the following: ungraded, continuous progress, mixed age, multiage, family, and vertical grouping. Katz (1992) cautions that in order to realize the benefits of nongraded grouping, the curriculum must be modified to provide a variety of activities in which children work together on projects--preferably in small, multiage groups in which each individual can contribute in different ways to the total effort.
To be effective, early childhood programs also must attend to grouping patterns within the classroom. Such grouping patterns can range from whole class, to small group, to pairs, to individual work. Grouping for learningallows the teacher to choose a grouping strategy that facilitates learning for each individual child. Although standard long-term ability grouping is not beneficial to young children, short-term grouping focusing on the needs of the individual learner may be practical.
Practices such as grade retention (student repetition of a grade level because of insufficient achievement), tracking (the process of assigning students to different classes or programs based on measures of intelligence, achievement, or aptitude), and extra-year programs are not considered acceptable for early childhood programs because they may have negative consequences for the children they are intended to help (Bredekamp & Shepard, 1989).
For more information on nongraded grouping, refer to the following sources: • Nongraded Primary Education (Gaustad, 1992) • Nongraded and Mixed-Age Grouping in Early Childhood Programs (Katz, 1992)

How Young Children Learn

Bredekamp (1990) describes how young children learn and indicates effective ways of teaching them:

"How Young Children Learn
Young children learn by doing. The work of Piaget (1950, 1972), Montessori (1964), Erikson (1950), and other child development theorists and researchers (Elkind, 1986; Kamii, 1985) has demonstrated that learning is a complex process that results from the interaction of children's own thinking and their experiences in the external world. Maturation is an important contributor to learning because it provides a framework from which children's learning proceeds. As children get older, they acquire new skills and experiences that facilitate the learning process. For example, as children grow physically, they are more able to manipulate and explore their own environment. Also, as children mature, they are more able to understand the point of view of other people.
Knowledge is not something that is given to children as though they were empty vessels to be filled. Children acquire knowledge about the physical and social worlds in which they live through playful interaction with objects and people. Children do not need to be forced to learn; they are motivated by their own desire to make sense of their world.
How to Teach Young Children
How young children learn should determine how teachers of young children teach. The word teach tends to imply telling or giving information. But the correct way to teach young children is not to lecture or verbally instruct them. Teachers of young children are more like guides or facilitators (Forman & Kuschner, 1983; Lay-Dropyera & Dropyera, 1986; Piaget, 1972). They prepare the environment so that it provides stimulating, challenging materials and activities for children. Then, teachers closely observe to see what children understand and pose additional challenges to push their thinking further.
It is possible to drill children until they can correctly recite pieces of information, such as the alphabet or the numerals from 1 to 20. However, children's reposes to rote tasks do not reflect real understanding of the information. For children to understand fully and remember what they have learned--whether it is related to reading, mathematics, or other subject matter areas--the information must be meaningful to the child in context of the child's experience and development. Learning information in meaningful context is not only essential for children's understanding and development of concepts, but is also important for stimulating motivation in children. If learning is relevant for children, they are more likely to persist with a task and to be motivated to learn more." (pp. 51-53)

Continuity

Continuity in the classroom can be defined as the uninterrupted flow of learning. This definition can be broadened to include the consistent allocation of staff who teach one group of children, the provision of additional services (such as speech therapy or before- and after-school care) within the classroom, and the carefully orchestrated transition of the child into the next program or school level. Continuity is important in providing a sense of stability for young children. When a child's psychological needs are met, good psychological development and high achievement are most likely to occur.

Sense of Community

Schools need to develop a sense of community for children and families. Children learn best when they feel comfortable in the school environment. A classroom that encourages community also encourages caring and trust among all the members of that community. Teachers' interactions with the children help set the tone for a classroom community.
When children believe that they are part of a community, they have an interest in making it function well. They encourage each other 's learning, cooperate, and use other children and adults as resources for their own learning. Children learn to take responsibility for their own actions and to contribute to the group. Learning occurs more readily because the children have fewer concerns about their place within the group. Discipline problems are less likely to occur as children are able to be successful and occupied in interesting activities.
Promoting a sense of community also is important for parents. The whole school must participate in establishing an environment that is welcoming and accepting of parents and other members of the community. To increase parent involvement, the school can verbally invite parents into the school, have an open-door policy that encourages parents to come, and provide support systems such as care for younger siblings. Organizing a parent advisory group or selecting parent representatives for each room will provide a voice for parents in organizational decisions. Such parent groups draw parents into the school community, especially if they feel that their input is valued. Parent involvement is most effective if there is a frequent exchange of information between parents and the school. Making the school a center for family services also builds the concept of a community of learners. Parent education classes, childbirth classes, community services, and college classes offered at the school increase the sense that the school is a vital part of the community.

Developmentally Appropriate

According to the Southern Regional Education Board (1994), a developmentally appropriate program or practice is "based on knowledge of the stages of child development, and an understanding that each child is unique and that each child's experiences should match his or her development abilities." In particular, a developmentally appropriate early childhood program emphasizes: • Active exploration of the environment. • Self-directed, hands-on learning activities. • Balance between individual and group activities. • Regular and supportive interaction with teachers and peers. • Balance between active movement and quiet activities.

Teacher-Child Ratio

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (1991) lists the criteria devised by the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs for determining adequate numbers of staff in early childhood programs:
"F-2. Sufficient staff with primary responsibility for children are available to provide frequent personal contact; meaningful learning activities; supervision; and to offer immediate care as needed. The ratio of staff to children will vary depending on the age of the children, the type of program activity, the inclusion of children with special needs, the time of day, and other factors. Staffing patterns should provide for adult supervision of children at all times and the availability of an additional adult to assume responsibility if one adult takes a break or must respond to an emergency. Staff-child ratios are maintained in relation to size of group (see Table 1). Multi-age grouping is both permissable and desirable. When no infants are included, the staff-child ratio and group size requirements shall be based on the age of the majority of the children in the group. When infants are included, ratios and group size for infants must be maintained. Staff-child ratios are maintained through provision of substitutes when regular staff members are absent. Substitutes for infants and toddlers are familiar with the children and oriented to children's schedules and individual differences in a systematic way before assignment. When volunteers are used to meet the staff-child ratios, they must also meet the appropriate staff qualifications unless they are parents (or guardians) of the children. Volunteers who work with children complete a pre-assignment orientation and participate in ongoing training.
Both group size and staff-child ratio are determined on the basis of number and ages of children enrolled." (p. 40)

Physical Environment

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (1991) lists the criteria devised by the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs for evaluating an appropriate physical environment for early childhood programs:
"Goal: The indoor and outdoor physical environment fosters optimal growth and development through opportunities for exploration and learning.
Rationale: The physical environment affects the behavior and development of the people, both children and adults, who live and work in it. The quality of the physical space and materials provided affects the level of involvement of the children and the quality of interaction between adults and children. The amount, arrangement, and use of space, both indoors and outdoors, are to be evaluated.
G-1. The indoor and outdoor environments are safe, clean, attractive, and spacious.…...

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