Getting a Head Start

The importance of early education

BY DANIEL BEAUREGARD

In decades past, it was common to leave a child at a day care or preschool and expect little more than that the staff keep him or her occupied while the parents were at work. But as educators learn more about what and how children learn in their first few years, early education has come to mean much more than simply dropping a child off at the doorstep of a day care center.

Many experts consider the early years, from birth to age 4, to be the most important developmental phase of a child’s life.

“The human brain never grows any faster making any more connections than during the early years of life,” says Kristin Bernhard, deputy commissioner for system reform for Bright from the Start, the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning. “Anyone who’s been around infants knows they are not the same two days in a row. Even babies are learning so much every day.”

Many early education facilities develop programs that take advantage of a young child’s natural curiosity. At The Goddard School on Windward Parkway in Alpharetta, children learn colors, letters and how to take direction, among other things. And these lessons are presented in a way that engages and also excites young minds.

“It’s extremely important to start a love of learning at a young age,” says Jenna Ellis, the school’s director. “If a child is stagnant in their learning environment, typically a child doesn’t love coming to school. They’re not learning new things. They’re not excited. They’re not passionate. We want to make sure children feel nurtured, and feel love and passion from our teachers. They’re happier at school when they’re learning.”

That emphasis on excitement extends to the teachers, who are given the freedom to create their own lesson plans. Without that input, “our teachers won’t be passionate,” Ellis says.

Education and early childhood experts say parents should start looking for an early care center as soon they’re expecting, so they can get on the waiting list of a high-quality program. Many early care centers take children as young as six weeks, which is usually when parents are returning to work after maternity leave.

Stages of Development

There are four stages of development children go through that both parents and educators should watch for. The curriculum of quality early care or pre-K program should feature learning activities that correspond to these varied stages.

Cognitive: Teachers read to children, sounding out the words and showing them objects to illustrate their meaning. With toddlers, the teacher may help them with hands-on problem-solving activities, such as putting blocks through a cube sorter, or asking open-ended questions and coaxing them along the way, which improves literacy and problem-solving skills.

Social: Facilitating a child’s social learning can be as simple as looking into his or her eyes and mirroring the emotions they’re experiencing. The teacher can engage directly with the child, eliciting a back-and-forth interaction between the child’s gestures and the teacher’s responses. With toddlers, this form of interaction may look different. At that age, the social domain of learning focuses more on teaching them how to get along with preschoolers and to take turns and positively engage with each other.

Emotional: Teachers give positive feedback to young children or toddlers and teach them words that validate their emotions: If a child or toddler is crying, teachers can help them understand the words—such as sadness or loneliness—behind their feelings.

Physical: To encourage healthy living from an early age, teachers engage with their students in activities that hone fine motor skills and teach them how to use their fingers to develop writing skills. Toddlers engage in activities such as running outside, jumping and throwing balls to further develop motor skills.

Accreditation

Although each program is different, many agencies, such as Georgia’s Bright from the Start or the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), support programs with a rigorous curriculum and a list of definitive yardsticks, including ratings systems to make sure each program is highly maintained.

Early care and pre-K facilities follow minimum state requirements, but both NAEYC and Bright from the Start take those one step further, ensuring parents get the best early education possible for their child and remain well-informed along the way.

Bright from the Start, which oversees approximately 5,000 child care centers throughout the state, uses a Quality Rated certification program to give parents detailed information on different locations.

Child care centers that receive Quality Rated certification adhere to such standards as a lower teacher-to-student ratio, higher credentials and qualifications for teachers, and regular assessments. They also place an emphasis on health, safety and physical activity.

By submitting to the Quality Rated program, these centers “are agreeing to participate in rigorous coaching for teachers” and offer “better classroom materials,” Bernhard says, adding that 950 child care centers in Georgia have been rated through the program.

But those aren’t the only rigorous accreditation programs available. The Primrose Schools, with child care education centers open or in development in 23 states, are accredited by the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement or, here in the South, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School Improvement (SACS CASI), which also accredits public schools, independent schools and colleges. The Goddard School is also accredited by SACS CASI.

When searching for an early education facility for your child, take note of each school’s different accreditations. Paying close attention to curriculum, staff and certifications will help you get a clear picture of each school’s strengths—and help ensure that your child is enrolled in a safe, positive environment with the tools to help him or her learn and develop to the best of their ability.

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