How can teachers create an environment that engages even their most challenging children? How can they foster children’s ability to think scientifically as part of their everyday experiences? How can they improve young children’s literacy skills, not only in the book corner, but throughout the day?
These and other questions lie at the heart of Excellence in Teaching (EIT), a series of comprehensive professional development programs designed for early childhood teachers and their supervisors. Topics include children’s challenging behavior and the ecology of the classroom, cognitively—challenging curriculum, science learning, inclusion, and emergent literacy. Unlike other courses, EIT links the content and assignments to teachers’ practice. “Sometimes you go into these kind of courses and people have great ideas but they’ve never worked in an early childhood classroom,” says Anne Tucker, a teacher at Mansfield Discovery Depot in Connecticut who took an EIT course last year. “This was really geared toward teachers in the classroom, so you could try out what you were learning.”
EDC’s Center for Children & Families designs each course to help teachers and their supervisors learn how to reflect constantly on their daily practice. For example, Deborah Leichner, also a teacher at Mansfield Discovery Depot, describes how the behavior course helped change her teaching approach. “Before this class I had thought that if some of the children in the classroom had behaviors that challenged me, I needed to address the behaviors and the emergent curriculum would be the ‘fun stuff’ we could do once the ‘behavior problems’ were addressed. Now I realize that it’s my behavior—specifically the way I manage the environment, plan the curriculum, and develop, sustain and refine my relationship with the challenging child and the rest of the class—that affects the overall classroom ecology and the behaviors that challenge me.”
Each course meets for three intensive two-day sessions, totaling six days of class time. In between these sessions, which are currently being offered throughout New England, teachers and supervisors complete assignments that ask them to apply their coursework to their classroom teaching. “Connecting theory to practice makes the learning more meaningful and effective,” says Ingrid Chalufour, an EDC project director and one of the principal developers of the EIT courses. “Learning is more powerful when teachers get out of their everyday environment, examine what works, and take time to build on what they are learning.”
After taking an EIT course, Carmen Morales, a teacher at Central Baptist Preschool in Connecticut, says that she has become much more aware of ways to incorporate literacy into every aspect of her teaching—and of the value of doing so for the children. “Everyday, in my head, I’m asking myself ‘how do I make this a literacy experience for the children?’” Morales explains. “I am much more aware now of how much I can give the children in literacy. For instance, I have a teaching bulletin board. My board always had the children’s names but now the board has much much more print. It is full of print.”
By attending the EIT courses in teams of teachers and supervisors, participants are able to analyze and reflect on their unique situations collectively. Using theory, tools, and guidance acquired in the sessions, they are able to work together to improve their classrooms. The courses also give teachers and supervisors the opportunity to strengthen their relationships with each other and to learn how they can collaborate most effectively.
Sandra Lamb, a supervisor and School Readiness Coach for the Hartford Area Child Care Collaborative, decided to take the course primarily because of the opportunity to learn with her supervisee. “I found that because we were taking in the same information we were in sync with one another,” says Lamb. “When I spoke about literacy and young children she knew what I was talking about. We both learned. We both discussed. We were colleagues and we were able to become more reflective about our work.”
Carmen Morales says that taking the course with her supervisor helped keep her focused on incorporating what she was learning and generated more excitement about its potential for the children. “My supervisor’s enthusiasm about the course helped me stay enthusiastic about it. And now, I know she has expectations of me to incorporate what we have learned,” Morales explains.
In addition to the praise from teachers and supervisors about the courses, research suggests that the literacy course has had a significant impact. The data show the course has helped teachers support language and literacy through classroom organization, curriculum planning, and working with families. The data also show that the course improves supervisors’ ability to sustain effective practices, and that children’s language and literacy skills benefit from these changes in teaching practice.
“The goal of all of the courses we offer is to promote the craft of teaching and the teacher as artist,” says Joanne Brady, director of EDC’s Center for Children & Families. “We believe that with the right tools, teachers can reacquaint themselves with their own curiosity.” According to Brady, the tools that help teachers reflect on and improve their effectiveness include:
- learning how to collect data on their teaching
- analyzing their practice
- having hypotheses about what works with children
- examining the evidence about children’s learning and their own teaching to refine their practices
EIT courses help teachers and supervisors use these tools by exploring early childhood education theory and giving participants the structure and time to reflect on their own practice in relationship to this new information. “The assignments built on each other,” Anne Tucker explains. “It was very methodical, it was very organized, it was very well presented. By the time I finished I really understood where I had been and where I was going.”
Supervisors and teachers stress that the courses are challenging, but the rewards are extraordinary. For Sandra Lamb and many others, the experience renewed their approach to their work: “I got so excited about the course itself that I truly enjoyed going back into the classroom and working with the children,” says Lamb. “The course was so exciting and stimulating that I wanted to try out things in the classroom.”
Over the past three years, EIT courses have been offered in the New England region to almost 800 early childhood teachers and supervisors for undergraduate or graduate credit. Courses include:
Children’s Challenging Behavior and Classroom Ecology
This course is designed to help participants understand three factors that affect children’s behavior: teacher-child and child-child relationships, the environment, and curriculum. First, participants explore ways that expectations and culture influence children’s responses and strategies teachers can use to promote more productive classroom interaction. Participants also explore how the physical environment and classroom climate affect children’s behavior. Finally, participants explore ways they can combine strategies to design engaging curriculum with the most vulnerable child in mind. In addition to the curriculum content, participating supervisors learn how to support their teachers’ application of new strategies.
Constructing Cognitively-Challenging Curriculum
This course provides a conceptual framework for increasing the opportunities for cognitive challenge teachers offer young children. Participants learn to facilitate play and conduct in-depth science investigations in ways that challenge children to problem solve, imagine, hypothesize, and represent their thinking. Real classroom settings are used to build understanding of the course content and try out new approaches. In addition to the curriculum content, participating supervisors learn how to support teachers’ application of new teaching strategies.
Literacy Environment Enrichment Program (LEEP)
This course provides participants with the information and support they need to apply the most current research to promote children’s language and literacy development, including children who are English language learners. Participants gain competence in observing and assessing children’s language and literacy development. They also learn to evaluate and refine their own language and literacy-related practices. In addition to the literacy content, participating supervisors learn how to support their teachers’ application of new teaching strategies.
Science Exploration: Facilitating Science Inquiry with Young Children
This course provides the science background essential to conducting scientific investigations with young children. Through hands-on explorations, examination of work from other classrooms, and application activities, participants come to understand how young children learn science and the role of the teacher as a guide in the process. In addition to the curriculum content, participating supervisors learn how to support teachers’ application of new teaching strategies.
This course provides teachers and supervisors with the opportunity to learn about infant/toddler development across all developmental domains and about ways to communicate and collaborate with families to set individualized goals for infants and toddlers. Participants enhance their skills in planning rich play and exploratory experiences for infants and toddlers through analysis of learning materials and environment. In addition to the curriculum content, participating supervisors learn how to support teachers’ application of new teaching strategies.
The Challenges of Exploring and Responding to Young Children’s Troubling and Troubled Behaviors
This course provides preschool teachers and their supervisors with a framework and skills to address children’s troubling behaviors as teaching and learning opportunities, rather than as occasions that require control or correction. We explore strategies aimed at changing the classroom environment, relationships, and curriculum, as well as ways to support the learning of children who have a diagnosis such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In addition to the curriculum content, participating supervisors learn how to support teachers’ application of new teaching strategies.
Originally published on April 30, 2002