Children enter early childhood settings with different backgrounds, languages, experiences, and knowledge. One of your tasks is to create language- and literacy-rich learning environments that meet the needs of all these children. To do that, you must provide time, training, and materials to your staff to enable them to meet children’s needs.
Developmentally appropriate practices must guide instructional planning for young children, so there must be awareness of the ages and stages of all children at an early childhood center. This is also true in elementary schools. Early childhood and elementary education teams share the responsibility of implementing approaches that meet the needs of all children. Both teams design schedules that allow time for extra reinforcement or accelerated learning opportunities.
However, implementation of the approaches may differ. In elementary schools, teachers gather the majority of data through formal assessments, and children attend school for a full day. In 0–SE programs, there is a greater reliance on gathering ongoing information about children from other types of assessments, such as questionnaires, checklists, and screeners. Children in some prekindergarten programs may attend for only a half-day and therefore have less time to accomplish objectives. Consequently, leaders need to be aware of the challenges that half-day programs present so that they can maximize instructional time to provide extra reinforcement or accelerated learning opportunities for these children.
As children enter your early childhood programs, staff will need to make initial observations or assess them using questionnaires, checklists, and screeners to determine what each child needs. Subsequently, staff can begin planning accommodations to meet the identified needs.
This lesson focuses on children’s cognitive development. One of the most effective ways to work on cognitive skills is through small-group or individualized instruction. As leaders, you will be reflecting on the best ways to support your staff as they develop plans and systems to deliver both small-group and individualized instruction.
Young children can benefit from small-group and individualized instruction when it follows developmentally appropriate practices (e.g., engaging hands-on learning activities that are matched to the child’s skill level and attention span). Instruction should be based on learning objectives, child assessments, and staff observations. Working in small, flexible groups for short periods of time, teachers can teach within each child’s optimal learning level or within the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978). In early childhood settings, this is a helpful way to understand differentiated instruction, or instruction that is tailored to meet individual strengths and needs. Such teaching is based on understanding that learning will not occur at its optimal level if children are not challenged enough or if they are over-challenged and frustrated.
Leaders and staff must review the daily schedule to ensure that it provides blocks of time for small-group or individualized instruction. Finding blocks of time that are forty-five minutes to an hour long in preschool schedules allows time for intentional, quality, small-group instruction. Long blocks of time allow teachers to work in rotation with small groups of children for 10–15 minutes each. For preschoolers in full-day programs, you may plan two blocks of time for small-group instruction, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Preschool children typically have a longer attention span and are able to focus on a topic for a longer period of time than infants and toddlers. You will read a scenario in Part 2 of this lesson that shows how small groups can be used for differentiated instruction in a preschool class.
Individualized learning opportunities for infants and toddlers can still be intentional and planned, but it will need to be flexible and take place in shorter activity periods, as this scenario demonstrates.
Scenario: Ms. Miranda works with young two-year-olds. After assessing what each of her toddlers understands about spatial vocabulary words, she decides to work with a group of three toddlers on the concepts of “in,” “out,” “on,” and “under” using small toy animals and a set of nesting cups. She sits down with them on the rug and invites them to play with her using these toys. As the children explore the animals and cups, she demonstrates putting an animal on, in, and under a cup and then encourages the children to do the same action. She models using these spatial vocabulary words repeatedly and encourages the children to say them as they position their animals in different ways. Some toddlers in Ms. Miranda’s class are not yet ready to learn these spatial concepts. Ms. Miranda uses the cups and animals with these other children separately to work on learning the names of the animals and playing a memory game by hiding animals under the cups for the children to find.
As you reflect on the needs of your preschool children and begin to make initial plans for small-group or individualized instruction, you will consider several factors. As with infants and toddlers, the age and developmental stage of your preschool children will help you determine the length of instructional time to schedule, the number of students to group together, and the time to block for small-group instruction.
Additionally, in planning for small-group and individualized instruction, it is important to consult the data you have collected, and will continue to collect, about students (e.g., parent/family questionnaires/interviews, checklists, informal observations/anecdotal notes, portfolio entries/work samples, screeners, formal assessments, parent conferences, curriculum assessments, etc.). Use this information for grouping students who need to work on the same types of skills and for planning specific skills to target during instruction.
Teachers will need good classroom systems in place for differentiating instruction. This includes having a designated space created for small-group instruction, as well as having effective systems for gathering children to the group, managing transitions between small-group and large-group instruction, and providing meaningful activities for children engaged in independent work while teachers work with specific students. In other words, think about
where you will work with a small group to minimize distractions;
what other learning activities children can work on independently while you are working with a small group;
how you will signal children to come to the group when it is their turn; and
how you will teach children to transition from one activity area to the next when they are working independently.
Successful leaders want their staff to understand the value of small-group and individualized instruction and the meaning of differentiated instruction. Differentiated instruction means that you respond to and recognize the differences in children’s readiness, skills, and interests. Your expectation should be that your staff know they must implement differentiated instruction and that, as leaders, you will provide them with the knowledge to deliver this instruction in appropriate ways. Leaders should offer the appropriate professional development to prepare staff to successfully plan and deliver small-group or individualized instruction. During professional development, the following questions should be answered:
What is the value of small-group and individualized instruction, and why do we do it?
What is differentiated instruction?
How do I set up a system for small-group and individualized instruction?
How do I determine what to teach?
How do I continually monitor and regroup children?
After staff members have received this professional development, they will be prepared to better meet the needs of all children and understand how to provide extra reinforcement and accelerated learning opportunities that are age and developmentally appropriate.
TO LEARN MORE: Go to page 15 in the Texas Prekindergarten Guidelines to find information about the value of small-group instruction.