Leading for the early years

The following, co-written with Judith Walker, appears in the March/April 2022 edition of Principal magazine.

Over the last 20 years, local, state, and federal officials have gradually come to recognize that early childhood education matters. In 2018, Congress passed a bipartisan spending bill that increased funding for early childhood education to the tune of $2.4 billion, and new federal funding proposals promise to create universal access to pre-K throughout the country. Such funding allows states to expand access to early learning, support families, and invest in the early childhood education workforce.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has encouraged states to leverage the increase in federal funding by adding their own supplementary investments. And NAESP and the National P-3 Center at the University of Colorado Denver have partnered to support and advise school leaders about the structures and competencies needed to promote quality early learning programs. This work is a great starting point for school leaders who are striving to create highly effective teaching and learning programs in the early grades and to develop cohesive, equitable strategies focused on our youngest learners.

NAEYC partnered with NAESP in 2005 to create a resource promoting high-quality early learning for all young children, birth through age 8, by connecting early childhood practice, policy, and research. Some of the recommendations to school administrators included:

• Taking proactive steps to recruit and retain educators and leaders who reflect the diversity of the children and families they serve;

• Employing staff who speak the languages of the children and families served;

• Recognizing the value of serving a diverse group of children and striving to increase the range of diversity among those served;

• Fostering staff learning communities that focus on equity issues;

• Developing relationships with social service agencies and providers within their communities;

• Establishing clear protocols for supporting children with behavior challenges and addressing them equitably; and

• Creating opportunities for multiple voices with diverse perspectives to engage in leadership and decision-making.

“A Principal’s Guide to Early Learning and the Early Grades,” a 2021 executive summary developed by NAESP and the National P-3 Center, is a comprehensive resource for school leaders who want to improve the education continuum from preschool through third grade. The competencies it outlines include:

• Understanding child development;

• Fostering partnerships;

• Embracing a pre-K–3 vision;

• Ensuring equity;

• Sharing leadership and building professional capacity; and

• Promoting continuous improvement.

Where to Start

Elementary principals can begin by acknowledging that there are two different systems operating in their schools: a birth-to-5-years system that includes pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students, and a traditional K–12 system that overlaps it. Together, the two systems address a range of child development, and school leaders should be sure they have a strong understanding of the whole continuum in order to support their students across the two systems.

Leadership preparation typically doesn’t include a strong foundation in child development that addresses the birth-to-5 system in their school, which leaves school leaders trying to apply what might be appropriate for learning in a K–12 system to their youngest learners. It’s difficult to create alignment across the two systems without a strong understanding of the differences in the child development needs of each.

Research has also shown that the early years of a child’s brain development are the most critical. It happens rapidly, and maximizing quality learning experiences during a child’s first eight years dramatically improves their learning trajectory in later years of schooling. Understanding this continuum prepares school leaders to recognize developmentally appropriate pedagogy and best practices, and child development courses and programs such as NAESP’s Pre-K–3 Leadership Academy and the New Teacher Center’s Early Learning Leadership Program can help.

High-Quality Early Learning Experiences

One currently misunderstood practice revolves around what high-quality early learning experiences look like. Children are experiential learners—they learn by doing rather than by thinking. Shared, physical, play-based activities with teachers and peers are especially effective opportunities for learning.

The concept of “play” is also misunderstood or misapplied by many. Effective educators of young children understand that this refers to hands-on engagement, not idle time. It is critical time for trial and error or informal experimentation. As children learn to understand and manage their emotions and behavior, they develop cognitive skills such as reasoning, attention, memory, listening, and language. Play allows them to progress through increasingly sophisticated levels of thinking and understanding.

While supplying classrooms with appropriate furniture and materials designed for young children enhances experiential learning, it is essential to also support the developmental needs of students during the school day. Expecting children to sit for long periods of time with too much teacher talk or teacher-directed activities hinders learning. The best classroom learning environments engage children in busy, active, and productive learning activities. Observational tools are available to help leaders look at their classrooms with the appropriate lens—one that distinguishes between the birth-to-age-5 and K–12 systems differently and appropriately.

Hiring, Placement, and PD

School leaders must hire and place teachers in the grades that match their knowledge and expertise, while keeping the continuum of child development in mind. Frequently, teachers have expertise in either the birth-to-age-5 system or the K–12 system, but not both.

School leaders can help teachers improve their practice through aligned, ongoing professional development and job-embedded coaching that reflects current knowledge of child development and best practices that support early learners. Aligned birth-to-age-5 and K–12 systems offer teachers opportunities to collaborate and learn where children are coming from and expose any persistent gaps in learning.

Supporting Transitions

Effective transitions used to refer to some kind of single-event orientation for families and children or some communication of registration deadlines and processes as students progressed through the birth-to-age-5 and K–12 years. Today, quality transition strategies should reflect the varying and diverse needs of the school community.

Leaders should find out what their families prefer: school-based or home-based involvement. Rural families might need more transition supports and communication, since they might have less access to high-quality early learning programs. Boys, children with disabilities, and children living in poverty are also more likely to experience transitional challenges. Many resources are available to help leaders design strategies to support and promote family engagement during the transition.

One challenge for school leaders is to create policies and procedures that improve and strengthen transition practices between the sending and receiving sides of birth-to-age-5 programs. External early childhood programs occasionally share records with schools, but some research has shown that the receiving teachers rarely use them.

Knowing the early learning programs in your community and communicating and collaborating with them can provide a strong foundation for effective transition strategies. Teachers should have reliable information about the nature of their students’ preschool experiences, not just the informal knowledge shared by parents.

School Readiness

It’s often said that children need to develop school readiness, but schools need to be ready for the children they receive, too. In the birth-to-age-5 system and the K–12 system, keep in mind that what a child knows and is able to do is often a reflection of their prior learning opportunities, not an indicator of what a child is capable of learning.

This is another reason that early learning opportunities in the birth-to-age-5 system need to be of high quality and differentiated to meet the needs of children at any step in the development continuum. Classrooms can’t be one-size-fits-all in terms of teacher interactions, curriculum, and instructional strategies, nor can the school leader’s expectations. School leaders need to possess cultural competence, have an ability to establish an inclusive school climate, use data to identify any disproportionalities, and differentiate birth-to-age-5 and K–12 resources and strategies so that everyone has an equitable opportunity to succeed.

Leading for the early years requires administrators to gain the knowledge and skills to ensure that the birth-to-age-5 systems and the K–12 systems within their schools get the attention they deserve and reflect the appropriately high-quality teaching and learning across developmental continuums. Fortunately, NAESP, NAEYC, and the National P-3 Center have developed a treasure trove of resources for caring and concerned school leaders to explore.

Judith Walker is early learning branch chief for the Maryland State Department of Education.

Christopher Wooleyhand, Ph.D., is principal of Pershing Hill Elementary School in Fort Meade, Maryland.

What does a literacy-rich classroom look like?

Early literacy efforts are, needless to say, an ongoing concern for school districts across the US and the world.  The pendulum on what methodology is best has swung in enough directions to make the average teacher dizzy.  What constitutes good reading instruction?

The International Reading Association adopted standards in 2005 that are research-based and worth revisiting.  The IRA recommends that effective early childhood educators:

  • Recognize the importance of language and literacy experiences relative to achievement
  • Integrate early literacy experiences into the curriculum
  • Connect physical, emotional, and social goals in the language and literacy curriculum
  • Develop appropriate language and literacy standards
  • Create a language and literacy program that is culturally competent
  • Participate in professional development opportunities to stay up-to-date on evidence-based practice

For more info, see the IRA link below:


The question we must continually ask ourselves is, “What do those standards look like in the primary grades?”  What would an observer “see” in the classroom that demonstrates those standards?  The third bullet above is a poignant reminder that early literacy skills are best honed in a classroom that capitalizes on the social, emotional, and physical connections to learning.  Yes, strong literacy skills are a must for every teacher, but if they are unable to connect with students on a personal level, their success will be limited.

The other theme running through the IRA’s recommendations is that language and literacy are complementary skills.  Students in the primary grades must be exposed to a language-rich environment.  Reading skills will grow much quicker and deeper in a dynamic classroom that promotes discussion, movement, play, theater, and student autonomy.  A teacher who structures the classroom for student-choice will develop the independence in students that they need to succeed in life.

What do you expect to see in the primary grades when it comes to reading?  What indicators tell you that a classroom is literacy rich?  Join #mdeschat this Thursday 8PM ET and share, or add a comment below!

Isn’t it time for an elementary TOY, Maryland?

According to educationbug.org, there are 1,424 public schools in the state of Maryland.  More than half (866/60%) of those schools are elementary level.  With a little investigating at localschooldirectory.com one can discover that there are 33,000 elementary teachers (K-5) in Maryland and 24,544 secondary teachers.

The question I have is, if there are nearly ten thousand more elementary teachers in Maryland than secondary teachers, why has there only been one elementary level Maryland Teacher of the Year in the last eleven years?  This puzzling pattern is not just a state issue, but a local district issue as well.  I can’t remember the last time an elementary teacher won the county teacher of the year award in my district.

I am not suggesting that there is some kind of nefarious plot against elementary teachers, but there may be something as deeply disturbing afoot.  Have elementary teachers become the Rodney Dangerfield’s of education?  Is there a lack of respect for what elementary teachers do?  Are secondary teachers selected more often because they tend to specialize in specific content areas?  I have more questions than answers, but I am hoping that respect is not the reason.

I have great admiration for what middle and high school teachers accomplish every year.  They make an impact on the lives of students that often determines the direction they will take as young adults.  Yet, no one can tell me that their accomplishments are more meaningful or important than what elementary teachers do.

I get the sense that the people who sit on these selection committees think elementary teachers spend their days wiping noses and tying shoes.  While our teachers do those things gladly, they also provide innovative instruction in science, technology, reading, math and many other areas.  Elementary teachers form the foundation that middle schools and high schools build on.  Without that foundation, our educational system would crumble.

I am hopeful that selection committees across Maryland (and other states) will be diligent in evaluating candidates fairly.  Fairness starts with giving equal weight to the level that candidates represent.  Being a middle or high school teacher should not give one an advantage over elementary level candidates.  Perhaps members of the selection committees should spend a little time in an elementary school.  If they are brave enough to, it won’t be long before this conspicuous disparity is rectified.

Six Tips for Growing Good Readers

I wrote following article for Forest of the Rain Productions this week (www.forestoftheraineducation.weebly.com)

In 2000, the National Reading Panel issued a report that served as the basis for reading instruction across the United States.  Many NCLB initiatives used the Panel’s report to justify a very narrow definition of reading instruction.  Their findings suggested that the best approaches to reading incorporate:

  • Explicit instruction in phonemic awareness
  • Systematic phonics instruction
  • Methods to improve fluency
  • Ways to enhance comprehension

Fourteen years later, as we prepare for the Common Core era, schools are hopefully shifting their focus to a broader and more comprehensive view of reading instruction.  Something significant has been lost with recent school reform efforts.  The creation of formulaic reading programs has moved schools away from fostering a lovefor learning in their students.

Before you can interest a child in unlocking the sounds associated with letters, you must at least light a candle of interest.  If you want children to become fluent readers who also comprehend, then show them how reading unlocks the world.  Schools wishing to elevate student success should encourage parents and teachers to consider the following tips on growing good readers:

1.      Talk to them

Vocabulary development and reading skills are linked processes.  The more you read, the better your vocabulary, the more you engage in conversation, the better you’ll be able to read.  Busy parents must take the time to talk with their children about a range of subjects.  Teachers must give their students opportunities to talk with their classmates.  While we can all appreciate the value of peace and quiet, our children will become better readers from ample opportunities to talk.

2.      Read to them

Oral comprehension supports the growth of independent reading skills.  Parents of young children should be reading to them every night.  Teachers should build read-alouds and books on tape into their daily instruction.  Older students also benefit from listening to others read.  You can turn the table on them by having students record themselves for others to listen to.

3.      Model good reading

Children tend to value what the adults in their lives show enthusiasm for.  If you want your child to be a reader, you have to model it.  Talk to them about the books you are reading.  Share your excitement about your favorite genre.  Have a quiet reading time in your home or classroom where everyone is reading at the same time.  Involve the extended family in sharing their reading interests.  Invite guest readers to the classroom to share their love for reading.

4.      Ask Questions

Questioning is the starting point for reading comprehension.  Good readers are constantly asking questions as they read.  Young readers should be encouraged to share what they are thinking as they are reading.  Reinforce questioning before, during, and after reading.  As children improve their questioning skills, raise the level from explicit to implicit questioning.

5.      Take them places

Background knowledge is vital for growing good readers.  Every trip a parent takes their child on, no matter how long or short, should involve literacy moments.  Trips to the store, to the park, or to the gas station can all provide teachable moments for parents.  Point out signs, letters, and numbers as you travel.  Have your child help you with the grocery list.  They can “read” it to you as you shop.  Children need to see the connection between reading and the real world.  The more background knowledge a child has, the better prepared they’ll be when the demands of reading get harder.

6.      Go to the library

You can never expose a child to too many books.  Our public libraries are tremendous resources for parents and teachers.  Many have very liberal policies when it comes to checking books out.  Your local library probably sponsors a summer reading program and many offer homework help for school-aged children.  In hard economic times, public libraries offer parents affordable and often free resources for growing young readers.

Good readers become great readers through a process that is part art and part science.  While phonemic awareness and phonics should be components of good reading instruction, we must remember to build a love for reading in our students.  A love for reading blooms in students who are exposed to a variety of literature using methods that actively engage them.

Let’s think of it this way:  the stem, leaf, roots, and flower are the phonics/phonemics of reading, the love for reading comes from the soil, sun, and water we supply.  If we provide the best of both for our students, they will surely become lifelong readers.

Will Testing Be the Focus of Pre-K Programs?

The current pre-kindergarten bills being discussed before the United States Senate and House have the potential to positively impact education across our country.  The decision to provide states with the funds to meet the needs of our youngest learners signals a fundamental shift in thinking.  Federal and state politicians seem to finally agree that our country needs to focus on early childhood education.

The House proposal (H.R. 1041- PRE-K Act) includes the following language regarding what pre-kindergarten programs should look like:

Use of research-based curricula that are aligned with State early learning standards that are developmentally appropriate and include, at a minimum, each of the following domains:

(i) Language development.
(ii) Literacy.
(iii) Mathematics.
(iv) Science.
(v) Creative arts.
(vi) Social and emotional development.
(vii) Approaches to learning.
(viii) Physical and health development.

The House’s description seems to be aligned with the goals of most state-level early childhood programs.  They could add a line about the importance of developing a curiosity and love for learning, but maybe they consider that covered under (vi) and (vii).  States will likely have some freedom in choosing the scope and sequence of their pre-kindergarten programs.  Like Race to the Top, however, they will have to meet specific requirements in order to “opt in” to the federal program and receive funding.

On the surface, the proposals by the House and Senate seem to mean nothing but good things to come for early childhood education in the United States. There is, however, one catch that doesn’t seem to be getting much attention.  Both the Senate and House proposals include language that requires states to have a monitoring process to evaluate the effectiveness of their pre-kindergarten programs.  In her Edweek blog, Alyson Klein noted that, “States would have to have early-learning standards, be able to link preschool data to K-12, and provide state-funded kindergarten, among other requirements.”

Yes, accountability is important.  The federal government will expect to have a certain level of control when their funds are used for pre-kindergarten programs.  My worry is that the feds and states will turn the accountability piece into an early childhood version of NCLB and Race to the Top.

Will their pattern of focusing on data override the need to train teachers, provide materials, and build strong early childhood programs?  Maybe some brave member of Congress can bring this concern up before we have a law on the books that leads to an over-emphasis on testing our youngest learners.  Perhaps we could focus first on providing them with rich learning environments and highly skilled teachers.  If we truly care about early childhood education in the United States, we should build the programs up before we examine their efficacy.

What About Kindergarten?

The United States House of Representatives and Senate are currently considering separate bills on strengthening pre-kindergarten programs across the United States.  On the surface, this sounds like great news.  Who would argue against providing educational opportunities to four-year-olds?

There is, however, (at least) one problem.  The House and Senate bills do not address the need to provide all day kindergarten in all fifty states.  President Obama’s initial proposal included funds for all-day kindergarten.  The House and Senate proposals lack that element and include funding formulas that are discretionary (Alyson Klein, Edweek Blog, November 13, 2013).

This could lead to the age-old problem of unfunded mandates.  By the eighth year of the proposed Senate bill, states would be responsible for providing 50% of the cost of their pre-kindergarten programs.  Where that money would come from is a mystery.

So, as exciting as funding for pre-kindergarten sounds, we are still a nation without full-day kindergarten in all fifty states.  In fact, only ten (10) states and DC offer full day kindergarten programs.  Thirty-four (34) states offer half day kindergarten programs and six (6) have no requirement for kindergarten attendance.  In addition, many of the states that offer kindergarten programs do so without making attendance mandatory (childrensdefense.org).

Any bill being proposed to build pre-kindergarten programs must include funding for mandatory full-day kindergarten programs in all fifty states first.  Can you imagine states developing strong pre-kindergarten programs and then sending their students to kindergarten programs that are half day and/or optional?

We should applaud the President, the Senate, and the House for making early childhood education a priority.  Those who work in primary level schools can tell you that the earlier we get children in school, the bigger impact we can make.  The opportunity to reach out to four-year-olds and their families is exciting.  It is, however, tempered by the knowledge that as a nation we have yet to fully commit to the education of our five-year-olds.  Let’s get that right first and then address the pre-kindergarten dilemma.

Related links: