The Elements of Teaching


The periodic table reveals an almost miraculous regularity. In it, the haphazard truths —observed piecemeal by so many individuals day-to-day, over centuries across the world— serendipitously fall in line. In its elemental predictability, a reassurance of order beneath the chaos.

Children are born ready to learn, and the sequence of development is progressive and predictable. However, the pace differs. Development in a single domain impacts and is impacted by learning and growth in other domains.

As a psychologist, the periodic table has always inspired a bit of jealousy in me. I want-ed that sense of underlying order that my colleagues in the physical sciences enjoyed. But it appears my wish may be coming true: as many states, like my own of Connecticut, join in the laborious steps toward defining the core knowledge and competencies for early childhood educators. Education policy is ambitiously working to lay out its periodic table. We are combining our collective experience with an unprecedented surge in rigorous research to define core knowledge and competencies (CKC’s), the foundational elements of what teachers need to know and be able to do to predict student success.

While some may complain the CKCs are “nothing new,” that is precisely the point. This codification is necessary. Like the periodic table, to understand the elements is to understand the universe.

Over the past four years I have been honored to lead hundreds of teachers, parents and advocates in Connecticut as they crafted this powerful roadmap for professional development and self-assessment. In this process we scanned Federal guidelines, best practice and other states’ frameworks. In the end, we in Connecticut, much like our col-leagues in Massachusetts, California and New York, came to a comprehensive “periodic table” of dozens of skills and knowledge areas across seven domains.

In stepping back to focus on the forest rather than the trees, all those individual elements are recognized as three basic practices:

  • Know Yourself
  • Know Kids
  • Know Your Kids

We all use these principles everyday as educators. The CKCs are simply the mapping of the detailed work that goes into each, so that none of the elements will be forgotten. But there are still a whole lot of elements — 45 in Connecticut’s version. So … I am encouraging leaders to introduce the CKC framework through this more practical three-step lens.

Know Yourself

To best support children in their growth, it is essential that we have an awareness of our own values and beliefs and how they impact our decisions. Reflective practice and self-evaluation are opportunities to ask “why do I do what I do?” They are processes that challenge assumptions and beliefs about early childhood education and practice, ask us to think critically about alternative perspectives and change based on new insights. This includes CKC’s like:

  • Engages in an annual self-evaluation process and uses information to develop an individualized professional development plan.
  • Integrates knowledge based on reflection and critical perspectives on early education.

Reflective practice requires us to distance ourselves from thoughts, opinions and actions, in order to objectively assess impact. It has been shown to foster continuous professional development for teachers and result in positive benefits for children.

Additionally, reflective practice acknowledges frames that we all bring to the teaching relationship. Often subconscious, implicit biases guide our expectations and interactions. Assisting with the goal of cultural competency and diversity in the classroom, the process of reflective practice moves us toward bringing the unconscious to the conscious level. When researchers discover biases in our classroom interactions that we could not see, it’s as though someone has for the first time given us access to an in-credibly powerful microscope. Suddenly, we see what we could not see before.

A 2016 study from the Yale Child Study Center found that preschool teachers anticipate more problem behaviors from black children, than white children. Correlated with that bias is data showing that black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students. On average, five percent of white students are suspended, compared to 16 percent of black students. As a start to countering bias, we must know it exists. Reflective educators may feel challenged by these findings, but they also feel gratitude at having the tools to intervene on the “chemical reactions” that produce bias in our classrooms.

Finally, reflective practice asks that we remain in the moment when making observations about children’s experiences and interactions. Child development theories, like the Gesell maturational theory, understand that children do not develop at the same rate; children even across one grade vary wildly. As such, reflective practice prepares us to assess impact and never assume. Honest reflective practice, as a complete process of self reflection and evaluation, leads us to appropriate adaptations for children and the classroom. It leaves room for curriculum planning that is respectful of children’s strengths and interests.

Know Kids

Knowing about child development and learning is crucial to guide decisions about practice and construct developmentally appropriate and meaningful experiences. Recognizing what is typical at each age and stage of child development, and importantly knowing that normal variations occur. This includes CKC’s like:

  • Knows and recognizes the major developmental milestones of children.
  • Recognizes that biology, individual characteristics, family, community and culture influence development.
  • Modifies own practice in relationship to current theory and research on child growth and development.

Children are born ready to learn, and the sequence of development is progressive and predictable. However, the pace differs. Development in a single domain impacts and is impacted by learning and growth in other domains. Recognizing key developmental milestones is as important as spotting when they are not being met. In addition to consideration of the child’s age and unique stage of development, good teachers consider the influence of a child’s culture, abilities and special needs.

Finally, we must remain curious students. Child development theory is on the cusp of a theoretical shift, in part as a reaction to new knowledge and tools to better understand human development and gene expression. Staying current on new research is imperative. For example, research about the developing brain and the impact of environment and relationships on brain development is relevant to the entire early childhood work-force, regardless of role. In 2015, the Institute of Medicine report on Transforming the Early Childhood Workforce was published, further informing the work of early educators. It calls upon us to respect that learning starts even earlier than we thought.

Know Your Kids

Good teachers understand how to promote young children’s learning and development by tailoring experiences to nurture young children’s individual nature. In their 2003 Position Statement, the National Association for the Education of Young, stated that early childhood professionals have the responsibility to “make ethical, appropriate, valid and reliable assessment a central part of all early childhood programs. NAEYC recommends that to assess young children’s progress and needs, use methods that are developmentally appropriate, culturally and linguistically responsive, tied to children’s daily activities, supported by professional development, and inclusive of families. This includes CKCs like:

  • Uses assessment tools and strategies that are appropriate for the child’s age and level of development and accommodate the child’s sensory, physical, communication, cultural, linguistic, social and emotional characteristics
  • Understands the types and multiple purposes of assessment; as well as how to design, adapt, or select appropriate assessments to address specific learning goals, individual differences, and minimize sources of bias

What we learn about specific children helps us teach and care for each child as an individual. By continually observing children’s play and interaction with the physical environment and others, we learn about each child’s interests, abilities and developmental progress. Gathering such individualized information from children isn’t easy. We must make an effort to get to know the children’s families and learn about the values, expectations, and factors that shape their lives at home and in their communities. This back-ground information helps us provide meaningful, relevant and respectful learning experiences for each child and family.

To do what we know is best, we must know what we do, know what to do, and assess. The periodic table of skills and knowledge are the building blocks of good practice, but the human element at work in their synergy and complex reactions can not be understated. The research is clear that young children thrive when supported by nurturing adults who are intentional about engaging the whole child. Intentionality includes knowing yourself and what you bring to the teaching relationship, knowing what children, of various ages and stages need to learn and grow, and finally being objective in assessing how what you are doing is working for each individual child, and a willingness to change practice when the situation asks. To teachers, this is old school from a new lens.

Dr. Peg Oliveira is a developmental psychologist with a career in advocacy and social activism, specifically on issues of affordable child care, fair pay and paid family leave. She received her doctorate from Brandeis University. For 16 years Oliveira has worked with state agencies, nonprofit advocacy coalitions and local initiatives to ensure that all children get a high quality early care experience.

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