Parent-friendly standards for early childhood years
Two thousand days. While the approximate amount of time from a child’s birth until entering kindergarten may seem like eons, relative to a lifetime it’s the equivalent of a raindrop’s journey to earth. And like the powerful atmospheric forces behind every tiny raindrop, so too are the powerful forces behind a safe, healthy, nurturing, stimulating environment for learning and development needed from those who love, care for, and educate young children.
The recently revised Iowa Early Learning Standards are here to help guide adults, and benefit children during the most extraordinary, critical period of growth and development in a child’s lifetime.
Based on both research and theory in child development and early education, Iowa’s Early Learning Standards are intended as a resource to help support and enhance children’s learning and development, and a tool to share information among families, caregivers, and child care professionals. The goal is to help every child, beginning at birth, be healthy and successful (Early Childhood Iowa’s Vision).
The standards contain descriptions of the knowledge, behaviors, and skills that children from birth through age 5 may demonstrate. With emphasis on developmentally appropriate content and child outcomes, they are designed to assist adults in understanding what children should know and be able to do prior to entering kindergarten.
“Iowa was one of the original proponents of representing birth to age 3 instead of just a preschool focus,” said Kimberly Villotti, administrative consultant in the Bureau of Standards and Curriculum with the Iowa Department of Education. “Early childhood is a growing field. Research has expanded, and we have become much more detailed and attuned to the evolution of the expectations for what children know and are able to do. The breadth and depth of the standards has broadened.”
The original standards, written in 2005-06 as a response to federal requirements under Good Start, Grow Smart Early Childhood Initiative and the Federal Child Care Development Fund, have undergone periodic updates and revisions by the Iowa Department of Education, Department of Human Services, and other entities that make up the Early Childhood Iowa stakeholder group.
“It’s important to know that these standards don’t just live at the Department of Education,” Villotti said. “The Department is just one spoke in the wheel of all the stakeholders involved with early learning standards. All stakeholders have been engaged in their development, implementation and vision, and are equally helpful to connecting caregivers with the materials.
“Discussion about standards usually involves educational vocabulary. We have intentionally reshaped the standards to recognize that not everyone is going to come at this subject as a teacher or administrator. Moving away from educational jargon means the vocabulary is more relevant to a parent or caregiver who is always observing what a child can and cannot do and bouncing it against what typical development would look like.”
Transitioning from preschool to kindergarten can be a very challenging time for both children and families. The current standards, more deliberate in recognizing the value and importance of linking early childhood to school- age success, can give caregivers and families ideas of what typical development and learning progressions represent, and offer ways to help support the child’s journey.
In the presence of positive, warm, supportive, responsive relationships, young children are more receptive and open to learning opportunities, comfortable in inquiry, and best able to explore their world and take risks toward gaining new skills. Children thrive, feel valued, safe, and secure amidst the encouragement and guidance of consistent, caring adults.
“In early childhood we talk about the whole child,” Villotti said. “We created alignments of English language arts and mathematics, and now we have upped the ante by adding social studies, science, and fine arts. Not as a checklist for entry to school or as a foundation of expectation, but rather to help teachers and caregivers recognize what young kids focus on. It’s a symbiotic, reciprocal relationship. Both teachers and care givers have skin in the game with these kiddos. The document helps validate and affirm to care givers that they are doing instruction, and providing opportunities in fine motor, in language, in science, in social emotional supports. It’s a common understanding and language so we can best support kids.”
Initially, math and science standards were grouped together. That has changed because of new knowledge about the value of inquiry and importance of engineering concepts gained through science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. A stronger, more intentional emphasis on opportunities for both math and science experiential exploration is achieved by having math and science broken out and acknowledged separately.
“People tend to shy away from mathematics in early childhood contexts,” Villotti said. “Mathematics can be quite daunting to most people. We know that many people hear the word mathematics and get quite anxious. We took math concepts that are abstract, theoretical and conceptual and put them as concretes.
“We decided what mathematical practices look like for an infant or toddler, then described what an adult can do in a very simplistic way with a very young child to reinforce the math concepts. I can read about, mimic, and replicate the action steps with young kids and know that’s my contribution. I can help kids approach a mathematical situation and not feel overwhelmed, as well as reduce my own anxiety. We wanted to be quite intentional about making math approachable and understandable.”
The early learning standards have always contained content about approaches to learning, and abstract skills and behaviors pertaining to social, emotional competencies that children need to have as learners, such as skills related to curiosity and initiative, engagement and persistence.
“To have self-regulation, I have to be able to reason and problem solve,” Villotti said. “I have to be able to work through problems without having this crisis, breakdown moment, where I lose all control. I can be upset, but I can think here is a way I can go and address the problem, or here’s a way I can go ask for help.
“It’s giving children opportunities and scaffolding in their experience to persist, to learn to try a different way to problem solve. Engagement and persistence is a major piece of our social, emotional development of self-regulation. From an early childhood point of view, having a strong foundation in approaches to learning is a precursory need for kids to be successful in formal schooling.”
The standards contain adult support sections designed to help adults understand and conceptualize the standards. Illustrating how the standards translate for families is done by presenting each standard foundation, and articulating for every standard and benchmark how adults can positively contribute no matter their training or educational background. For example, the importance of play, and what play means for families, or the role of technology and media, and how that looks for families.
Villotti emphasizes that every time an adult gives the child a toy that is of interest to the child, or that is developmentally appropriate for his or her age group, the adult has supported the standard concerning child engagement and persistence. Every time the child is permitted to take the lead in a play interaction, a standard has been supported. Such detailed information is provided for every standard and benchmark.
The revised early learning standards are more attuned to cultural awareness and cultural diversity issues, reflecting reshaped thinking about inclusion of a number of subgroups outside just disabilities, including specific elements that positively reference considerations for dual language learners.
The standards also continue to represent ways all the stakeholders can align to the Iowa Core. A kindergarten teacher can see what a child should be able to do by the end of kindergarten, and also see what pieces led up to those accomplishments.
“If I am an early educator or early care provider, I look at how I as an infant/toddler teacher, or preschool teacher, reinforce steps that relate and feed in to the Iowa Core,” Villotti said. “All of the steps are equally important. It’s just what’s my entry point, what’s my contribution, so the process is seamless.”
“People often ask, ’What can I do to get my child ready for school?’” Villotti said. “In addition to the Iowa Early Learning Standards, we also have what we call the Iowa Core Knowledge of Child Development. We say at minimum, that if a family or care giver can understand that children learn in a variety of ways, and lots of areas in development and learning are important, that is the foundational piece. Then we build upon it and get more specific. These are the tools we recommend when thinking about getting your child ready for school. At minimum, understand how your child develops and understand your contribution.”
With the Iowa Early Learning Standards in hand during those first fleeting 2,000 days, adults have information and opportunity to nourish like rain, the learning, development, and ultimate success in school of Iowa’s youngest citizens, who will someday become adult members of their communities.