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A Tale of Two Studies: What We Know About Children and What We Do

Posted by on in Early Childhood
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In 2005, Dr. Walter Gilliam, a researcher from Yale University, released a study examining the expulsion rates of preschoolers.  That's right -- expulsion.  As in kicked out.  Dr. Gilliam found that in his large, nationally representative sample of prekindergarten programs, preschoolers were being expelled at THREE TIMES the rate of students in grades K-12.

Are preschoolers really three times as difficult as their older counterparts?

I don't think so.

There are many factors that contribute to this elevated rate of expulsions.  Gilliam outlined several in a presentation he made at an NAEYC conference in 2009.  All deserve our consideration as we create quality early childhood programs, but two in particular catch my attention.

bucketThe first is dramatic play.  You may remember it from your own preschool experience.  You and your friends dress up and play house, launch into outer space, or save the world.  Maybe even all three in one afternoon.  In Dr. Gilliam's research, he found that preschool programs offering dramatic play every day had an expulsion rate of 9.4%, while programs that reported offering dramatic play "once a month or never" saw a much elevated rate of 25.5%.

Similarly, programs that reported using worksheets and flashcards daily reported higher expulsion rates than those that used them rarely or never.

It appears that we could extrapolate from that data that a developmentally appropriate, play-based approach to early education contributes to lower expulsion rates, and thereby, better educational opportunities for children.

Now, put that data to the side for a moment, and let's look at another study.

A recent working paper released by the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia examines the question, Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?  In it, researchers Bassok, Latham, and Rorem compared responses about attitudes and practices of a large, national sample of early childhood teachers between 1998 and 2010.

While there are many startling shifts highlighted in that comparison, there are two findings that stand out, particularly when set side by side with Gilliam's research noted above.

As kindergarten teachers responded to questions about the availability of specific areas or centers for activity in their room, there was an obvious shift when it came to the dramatic play area.  In 1998, 87% of respondents reported having a dramatic play area in their kindergarten room.  In 2010, that number dropped to 58%.  That's almost a 30% drop.

At the same time, teachers reported a 15% increase in math worksheet use and a 16% increase in reading worksheet use.

So let's summarize these two studies together.  (Granted, one study is looking at the preschool years while the other is examining kindergarten, but I do believe they are representative of shifts that span across the early childhood spectrum.)  Here's what we know, based on research:

  • Children are more likely to be expelled from programs that use more worksheets and less dramatic play.
  • Programs are increasing their use of worksheets and decreasing their use of dramatic play.

Does anyone see a problem here?  Does it seem that we are setting children (and teachers, and programs, and parents...) up for failure?  Are we paying attention to what we know about children when making decisions about what we do in our classrooms?

I am passionate about aligning what we know about children and child development, and what we do in creating policies, practices, and environments for children.

Sadly, it's rather easy to find cases where these two are not in sync.

We know engaging with an effective teacher is one of the strongest variables in a child's classroom experience, but in too many classrooms we're exchanging powerful learning time for a steady stream of substitutes as we require teachers spend more and more time out in the hall or computer lab, administering assessment on top of assessment to our youngest learners.

We know that young children learn best through hands-on experience, but we give young children more direct and to-the-test instruction, and trade play time for computer time so that children can practice taking tests.

We know children need play and actually learn better when playful and physically active, but we see recess times disappearing.

And while all of this can be discouraging, I notice another pattern.

I notice change.

I noticed a state respond to a kindergarten teacher (and loads of constituents), who demanded the testing system change.

I noticed a school in Texas shifting from one 15 minute recess period in the day to four -- and getting great results and lots of attention in the process.

I notice that things can change for the better when good people and good information get together. When people are willing to ask "What if?"

"What if we didn't just know better, but we did better?"



I'm hosting a read along of Rae Pica's book, What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children’s Lives (affiliate link).  In it, she examines more situations where what we know about children is not being applied in our practices and policies, and she dares to ask the question, "What if..."

Catch all the read-along details here and join us as we discuss these essays, asking together, "What if everyone understood child development....and let that shape how we best serve the children we love and teach?"

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Amanda Morgan, MS, has nearly 20 years of experience teaching children, parents, and teachers in a variety of environments. She is a speaker and educator with degrees focused on early childhood education and child development, and currently writes at the blog, Not Just Cute
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