Early learning opportunities give children a critical foundation for success. High-quality early learning programs help children learn the basic academic skills and the social and emotional competencies they’ll need for more advanced learning. Research shows these programs can benefit all children—but especially English learners and those who come from low-income households.1
Early learning has taken on even greater importance as COVID has set back young children’s readiness for school. Children have missed valuable opportunities to develop social-emotional skills by playing with others, which they couldn’t do as often during the pandemic. Moreover, the pandemic has widened existing income gaps, with lower-income households seeing their median earnings decline.
“Low-income children start school less prepared to learn on average than high-income children, and they struggle to catch up. We’re going to see that even more” due to the pandemic, Dr. Dimitri Christakis, Director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, told a local TV station.
As fewer children begin school ready to learn, early education programs can help close these gaps by providing extended learning opportunities for students. The more high-quality instruction children receive, the greater their chances of success. Here are three ways to extend early learning effectively for all children.
Offer extended learning time.
Adding time for more structured learning is the most obvious way to extend young children’s education. Early learning programs can do this by providing full-day programs, expanding the school year, creating before or after-school programs and activities, offering instruction or enrichment during school vacations, or providing formal tutoring outside of traditional hours.
Of course, there might be significant challenges involved in providing formal extended learning opportunities for children. Finding staff for additional programs, procuring the needed learning materials and resources to support the programs, and obtaining the necessary funding for these supplementary needs, are just a few of the obstacles to overcome.
Here are three other keys to success:
- Make the learning enjoyable and engaging. Whether all children are required to take part in extended learning opportunities or these programs are offered voluntarily, the activities that children will be doing need to be fun, meaningful, exploratory, hands-on, and creative. These ingredients will ensure student engagement in learning beyond the traditional school day.
- Make the learning environment comfortable and stimulating. Young children need a comfortable and stimulating environment in which to learn. Equip the learning environment with beanbag chairs, carpets, and other soft seating options, and give students plenty of opportunities for movement. For instance, motion stools allow them to gently rock or tilt while still seated, facilitating focus and attention to learning.
- Provide opportunities for children to de-stress. Young children, in particular, may need a quiet place to retreat and take a break if they’re feeling overwhelmed or tense in the learning environment, especially if the school day is extended. A sensory room or corner with calming devices such as weighted blankets, fidgets, and other sensory tools can help children feel secure and relaxed when they need a break.
Make the most of existing class time.
Another option for extending early learning is to make every minute of regular class time count. This is particularly important if staffing or resource constraints make it difficult to provide formal instruction beyond the regular school calendar. Here are three ideas for implementing this strategy.
- Be intentional about instruction. Any lesson, game, or activity that teachers introduce should be planned and purposeful. There should be a clear goal behind everything happening in the classroom.
- Look for simple ways to build on every child’s learning. In their book Powerful Interactions: How to Connect with Children to Extend Their Learning, authors Amy Laura Dombro, Judy Jablon, and Charlotte Stetson provide examples of how early childhood educators can have powerful interactions with children to help them extend their learning. For example, teachers can add to what children already know, encourage them to try something new, and introduce interesting new words. “Find and take advantage of opportunities to provide interactions that support learning during daily routines and while children play and explore,” the authors recommend. “Teachers promote learning when they model curiosity, introduce new vocabulary, encourage thinking, take risks, teach [children] how to find answers, and recognize children’s accomplishments and progress.”
- Use the environment as a third instructor. Fill the classroom with interactive, hands-on materials that invite children to explore and discover. Promote children’s independence and initiative by making materials easily accessible and clearly labeled so they know where to find what they need and where to put things away when they are done.
Enlist families as partners in their children’s education.
Powerful, long-term learning occurs when children have opportunities to practice and apply at home the skills they’re acquiring in school. With the right guidance and support, parents and other caregivers can extend their children’s learning beyond the school day by building on lessons and activities done in the classroom. Here are three ways to make this happen.
- Give families explicit ideas. Share examples of how they can extend their child’s learning at home by integrating concepts such as counting, measuring, and developing vocabulary into everyday routines, like cooking, shopping, and setting the table.
- Relate these ideas to the lessons being taught. For example, you might tell a parent: “Today, we learned about shapes at school. You might have your child go on a shape hunt around the house and see which ones they can find.”
- Make instructional resources available to families. Purchasing take-home packs, activity sets, and other materials is a smart investment that can boost family engagement and extend children’s learning at home.
School Specialty has partnered with early education programs for more than six decades, providing tools, resources, and strategies that promote successful early education at home and at school. To learn how School Specialty can help you extend the early learning programs in your community, visit our Extended Learning page.
1Wechsler, M., Melnick, H., Maier, A., & Bishop, J. (2016). The Building Blocks of High-Quality Early Childhood Education Programs (policy brief). Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.
Jennifer has over 30 years of experience in education. She has degrees in Elementary Education, Spanish, and Bilingual Education and holds teaching licenses in Texas and Minnesota. She has taught PreK-2nd grade in general and bilingual settings. She served as a professional learning specialist for seven years and currently presents at state and national conferences.
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