Supporting early education
To the Editor:
How wonderful that Early Childhood Education is now a local, state, and national priority. It's been a long time coming! I have been in this field for 40 years, the last 14 as a Special Educator and a Pre-K classroom teacher at the St. Johnsbury School. Now retired, I continue to find wonder in early child development, and to advocate for quality education and guidance for our youngest learners, both at home and in early childhood settings. It is an investment worth making.
Recently, there have been a series of articles and letters to the editor about The St. Johnsbury School's youngest students and how some are behaviorally challenging. May we all remember that every child has unique gifts and challenges and our role as parents, teachers, and community members is to support them all as they learn and grow. School is not just "academics", especially at this young age. It also is figuring out life's rules, routines, and social expectations. It's experimenting, discovering, creating, and feeling joy in learning.
Why do some young children have challenging behaviors in Pre-K and Kindergarten? Multiple reasons. Some children have intrinsic genetic or neurological differences and need medical/therapeutic interventions. Some children may come from chaotic or disruptive homes, or where basic safety, health and nutrition needs are not met. Some children may come to school from environments where there is little structure or unclear expectations. Some children may come from environments where there is little emphasis on learning from books, rhymes, songs, and experiencing nature. Some children just need a little more time to make the jump into academic learning and may feel stress in an all-day kindergarten class with a 20:1 child-to-teacher ratio. Each child is unique so there is no "cookie cutter" remedy.
So, what can schools do? I've always thought that a top priority for our youngest learners should be on explicitly teaching social skills. For example, the St. J. Pre-Kindergarten now has added a social skills curriculum, called Second Step, to help children learn about listening and attention, recognizing emotions, and problem solving skills. Another school initiative, Responsive Classroom, focuses on building community (especially in the first six weeks of school), learning school rules and routines, and taking responsibility for actions. Unfortunately, this initiative has faded with the strong emphasis on academic standards and frequent assessment, even in Kindergarten. There seems to be a need for a more balanced approach.
Kindergarten classes also should be small, allow time for guided play (play is how young children best construct and generalize knowledge), and have a second adult/paraeducator to give optimum support for both behavior and academic learning. Behavior specialists should be available to support Pre-K and Kindergarten children and their families. The goal should be that every environment a young child experiences is stable and nurturing, guiding them to learn age-appropriate social skills as they also learn about early reading, writing, math and science. Then we would see fewer classroom disruptions!
Although this newspaper focuses on negatives, there are many positives happening in early education in St. Johnsbury. Most children entering Kindergarten have attended excellent Pre-K classes in the St. J. School or other quality programs, happily learning the joy of books and storytelling, numbers and math, discovery and science, music and the arts, and how to be good friends. Other local preschool programs also are teaching social skills, and parenting classes are offered in the community. Some children's behavior challenges take years to redirect, however, and those children will continue to need extra supports in Kindergarten and early grades.
The St. J. School is taking another positive step by reactivating an Early Childhood Forum (there was a similar planning forum some years back) to work together on local early childhood issues and challenges. As a community, let's remember to celebrate our successes, and openly support our families, schools, child-care centers/homes, and all who touch the lives of young children.