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Guiding Principles

First Class: A Guide for Early Primary Education.

These guiding principles for quality early primary programs were originally included in a 1997 position paper of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) External link opens in new window or tab. and are excerpted from Chapter 1 of First Class: A Guide for Early Primary Education.

  1. Domains of children's development—physical, social, emotional, and cognitive—are closely related.

    Development in one domain can limit, facilitate, or influence development in other domains (Sroufe, Cooper, and DeHart 1992; Kostelnik, Soderman, and Whiren 1993). Because the domains are interrelated, curriculum planning is critical to help young children make meaningful connections across domains and across related subject-matter disciplines.
  1. Development occurs in a relatively orderly sequence, with later abilities, skills, and knowledge building on those already acquired.

    Research studies indicate that relatively stable, predictable sequences of growth and change occur in children during the first nine years of life (Piaget 1952; Erikson 1963; Dyson and Genishi 1993; Case and Okamoto 1996). Predictable changes occur in all domains of development—physical, emotional, social, language, and cognitive—although the ways in which these changes are manifest and the significance attached to them may vary in different cultural contexts.
  1. Development proceeds at varying rates from child to child as well as unevenly within different areas of each child's functioning.

    Each child is unique, with an individual pattern and timing of growth and an individual personality, temperament, learning style, and family and life experiences. Age is only a crude index of developmental maturity. Recognition that individual variation is expected and valued requires that educators, while having high expectations and standards for all children, be flexible in the ways in which students reach these expectations. Rigid group-norm expectancies can be especially harmful for children with special learning and developmental needs (National Education Goals Report 1991; Mallory 1992; Wolery, Strain, and Bailey 1992).
  1. Early experiences have both cumulative and delayed effects on a child's development; optimal periods exist for certain types of development and learning.

    If an experience occurs occasionally, it may have a minimal effect; however, positive or negative experiences occurring frequently can have powerful, lasting effects (Katz and Chard 1989; Kostelnik, Soderman, and Whiren 1993; Wieder and Greenspan 1993). For example, when children have or do not have early literacy experiences, such as being read to regularly, their later success in learning to read is affected accordingly. Recent research studies on brain development (Shore 1997) are also contributing to this knowledge base by showing critical intervention periods and experiences.
  1. Development proceeds in predictable directions toward greater complexity, organization, and internalization.

    Learning during the early childhood period proceeds from the concrete to the abstract (Bruner 1983). The earliest form of symbolic representation in childhood is play, which begins at about 18 months of age and becomes increasingly complex through the primary years. Children learn to use their imagination and mental imagery to represent ideas, objects, and situations; for example, the block of wood "stands for" the telephone.
  1. Development and learning occur in and are influenced by multiple social and cultural contexts.

    Children's development is best understood within the sociocultural context of the family, educational setting, community, and broader society (Vygotsky 1978; Bronfenbrenner 1979; Forman, Minick, and Stone 1993). These various contexts are interrelated and have an impact on the developing child. For example, a child in a loving, supportive family within a healthy community may be affected by the biases of the larger society, such as racism or sexism, and may show the effects of negative stereotyping.

    Culture is defined as the customary beliefs and patterns of and for behavior, both explicit and implicit, that are passed on to future generations by the society they live in and/or by a social, religious, or ethnic group within it. Therefore, culture plays a role in the development of all children. Sensitive teachers realize that their own cultural experiences shape their perspective and that multiple perspectives, in addition to their own, must be considered in planning programs for children (Bowman 1994). The goal is that all children learn to function well in the society as a whole and move comfortably among groups of people who come from both similar and dissimilar backgrounds. For maximum social development, children must be provided with opportunities to expand language in positive ways as they interact with other children and adults.
  1. Children are active learners, drawing on direct physical and social experience as well as on culturally transmitted knowledge to construct their own understandings of the world around them.

    Children learn as they actively strive to make meaning out of their daily experiences, observations, and interactions with materials, children, and adults (Dewey 1916; Piaget 1952; DeVries and Kohlberg 1990; Gardner 1983). After children have formed their own hypotheses about life around them, they observe and reflect on their observations, ask questions, and formulate answers. When children's models are challenged by new experiences, they adjust the models or alter their mental structures to account for the new information. Teachers' encouragement of children to reflect on their experiences and activities deepens their knowledge and understanding (Copple, Sigel, and Saunders 1984).

    In recent years, discussions of cognitive development have become polarized regarding whether children's development precedes learning or whether learning precedes development. Current attempts to resolve this apparent dichotomy acknowledge that both theoretical perspectives are essentially correct in explaining aspects of cognitive development during early childhood (Seifert 1993; Sameroff and McDonough 1994). Strategic teaching can enhance children's learning; yet direct instruction may be ineffective if it is not attuned to the cognitive capacities and knowledge of each child at that point in development.

    Because active learning is time intensive, group instruction and student-choice periods need to be long enough for children to handle and observe materials, have in-depth intellectual experiences, negotiate problems, and use language. When children are truly engaged, even young children have long attention spans. The teacher's challenge is to provide experiences that relate well to each child but are also novel.
  1. Development and learning result from interaction of biological maturation and the environment, which includes both the physical and social worlds that children live in.

    Human beings are influenced by heredity and environment, both of which are interrelated. Current theory is that development is the result of an interactive process between the growing, changing individual and his or her experiences in the social and physical worlds (Scarr and McCartney 1983; Plomin 1994a, 1994b). For example, a disability—inherited or environmentally caused—may be ameliorated through systematic, appropriate intervention. The teacher does not wait for children to mature or "be ready" for particular skills, concepts, or knowledge, but instead stimulates development through rich, organized, appropriate activities and environment and through time for children's reflection about these experiences.
  1. Play is an important vehicle for the social, emotional, and cognitive development of children, and a reflection of their development.

    Play gives children opportunities to understand the world, interact with others in social ways, express and control emotions, develop their symbolic capabilities, practice newly acquired skills, solve complex problems, develop their imagination, and extend language (Piaget 1952; Vygotsky 1978; Fein 1981; Fein and Stork 1981; Smilansky and Shefatya 1990; Fromberg 1992; Van Hoorn et al. 1993). Research studies demonstrate the importance of sociodramatic play as a tool for learning curriculum content with four- through six-year-old children. Children's language and literacy skills can be enhanced when teachers provide a thematic organization for play; offer props, space, and time; and become involved in the play by extending and elaborating on the children's ideas (Levy, Schaefer, and Phelps 1986; Schrader 1989, 1990; Morrow 1990; Levy, Wolfgang, and Koorland 1992).
  1. Development advances when children have opportunities to practice newly acquired skills and when they experience a challenge just beyond the level of their present mastery.

    Research studies demonstrate that children should negotiate learning tasks successfully most of the time if they are to maintain motivation and persistence (Lary 1990; Brophy 1992). Faced with repeated failure, many children stop trying. Most of the time, teachers should give young children tasks that require effort to accomplish and present content at the children's level of understanding. At the same time, young children need opportunities to work at their "growing edge" (Berk and Winsler 1995; Bodrova and Leong 1996). In giving a child a task just beyond his or her independent reach, the adult and more competent peers contribute significantly to a child's development as they provide "scaffolding," or a supportive structure that allows the child to take the next step (White 1965; Vygotsky 1978). For example, two children play with a peg board with pegs of graduated heights. One discovers and shows her friend that the pegs can be inserted like steps. They take out the pegs, and the second child successfully arranges them sequentially from shorter to taller.
  1. Children demonstrate different modes of knowing and learning and different ways of representing what they know.

    Human beings come to understand the world in many ways and have preferred modes of learning and expressing that learning. Research studies by learning theorists and developmental psychologists have described children's use of various modalities to learn (Witkin 1962; Gardner 1983). While the classroom environment and curriculum should be individualized to maximize the various intelligences, this approach should not be interpreted to mean that every classroom lesson should necessarily represent all modes of learning.
  1. Children develop and learn best in the context of a community where they are safe and valued, their physical needs are met, and they feel psychologically secure.

    For young children school becomes a home away from home. Optimum development will occur when teachers create an environment in which the children and their families feel welcome, loved, and accepted and where all children's approaches to materials, ideas, and people are respected (Ramsey 1987). Because children's physical health and safety are too often threatened in society, schools should work with other agencies to ensure that children have adequate health, safety, nutrition, mental health, and social services to optimize their development (Caring Communities 1991; Head Start Performance Standards 1996).

    To plan and provide an environment in which children of all ages learn to feel safe and respect others, teachers plan activities that encourage children to see themselves as productive members of society, to see others' points of view, to cooperate with others, and to confront discrimination and injustice. Crucial to the success and validity of a comprehensive approach to valuing diversity is the teacher's attitude of respect for the cultures of those in the classroom and communication with families.

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Questions:   Early Education Division | 916-322-6233
Last Reviewed: Tuesday, January 9, 2024