Category Christian School Education
Title Understanding Academic Rigor in the Early Education Classroom
Author/s Sara Jo Dillard, MEd
Preview When young children attend an early education program that uses research to inform practice, intentional and active learning takes place throughout the day. Children sing, move, and play as part of their learning experience.
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Academic rigor in the elementary and secondary schools is a common indicator of the quality of instructional practices taking place in the classroom. In the early education classroom, it is very possible for the same rigor, using developmentally appropriate practices, to coexist using active learning. Academic rigor in the elementary and secondary schools concentrates on cognitive development; developmentally appropriate practices in the early childhood classroom address the whole child, including spiritual, social, emotional, and physical development.

When young children attend an early education program that uses research to inform practice, intentional and active learning takes place throughout the day. Children sing, move, and play as part of their learning experience. Teachers develop exciting curriculum that includes visual, auditory, and tactile learning activities. While this playbased curriculum describes a developmentally appropriate learning environment, it also describes an academically rigorous early education program.

Rigorous early education classrooms set academic goals and standards in which teachers support the learners as they move through the curriculum. The teachers work with the children and address their growing needs through hands-on learning, which connects the learners to the real world.

In an academically rigorous early education program, the teacher uses intentional and strategic plans based on state and national early learning standards to develop a curriculum map while integrating observation, exploration, and play into the curriculum. For instance, the curriculum map may include this learning standard: "to develop awareness of observable properties of objects and materials." In a three-year-olds classroom, the children may learn about the movement of objects and people using concepts of over, under, in, out, sink, float, etc. In the four-year-olds classroom, the children may explore what happens to an object in relation to other forces, such as throwing rocks and rolling balls. One activity the teacher may use to introduce this standard is allowing the children to explore motion by painting using a marble and a straw. The children blow into a straw as the marble moves around on a sheet of paper secured inside a shallow box. Various colors of paint are dolloped on the paper. To the untrained eye, this activity may appear to be just playful fun; in reality, children are learning the properties of motion and air in a hands-on way.

Educators at other grade levels may question whether a multisensory and active learning environment is truly rigorous in an early education classroom. But there is a significant difference in the way academic rigor is carried out in the early education classroom versus the elementary classroom. It is common for elementary teachers and administrators not to understand the connection between multisensory teaching and active learning in the early childhood classroom. While research supports that young children learn best through action and movement, rather than sitting and completing worksheets or listening to direct instruction, this knowledge is not understood or practiced by all educators in the field.

Regular, authentic assessment establishes a strong foundation for success in the higher grades. When teachers give their learners opportunities to experiment with new ideas in a way that speaks to their learning style, academic rigor is embedded in developmentally appropriate practice. Early childhood educators should share with their education colleagues and administrators how their classrooms support academic rigor and early learners' success as they move to kindergarten and beyond.


Sara Jo Dillard, MEd ACSI Director of Early Education Resources

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