Education and care for young children – three-, four- and five-year-olds – goes by many names: child care, day care, nursery school, preschool, pre-kindergarten, and early education. It is delivered in many settings: center-based, home-based or at the local public school, in urban, suburban and rural communities. Some programs are part-time, part-year, while others offer full-day, full-year services. They can be privately run, either non-profit or for profit, or they can be operated by the local school system or by a federally funded program such as Head Start.

Over the years, there has been much debate over which type of program qualifies as care and which as education. Increasingly, child development research shows that -- regardless of the setting -- quality early childhood education must include both warm, nurturing care and enriched learning experiences designed to stimulate a child’s development in all key developmental areas: cognitive, physical, and social-emotional.1 Recent research provides clear evidence that strong social-emotional development underlies all later growth and learning.2 A well-educated and caring staff, high program standards, and a curriculum based on a child’s developmental needs are among the most important components of a high-quality early learning environment.

What Distinguishes High-Quality Early Childhood Education?

The quality of the early childhood education a child receives has a direct impact on positive child development – in language and math skills, as well as social and behavioral skills.3 While this quality can be delivered in a variety of settings – from family child care homes to public school programs to private preschools – there are certain characteristics that distinguish high-quality early learning settings:

  • Well-educated and caring teachers: Early childhood research draws a direct line between program quality, the amount of specialized early childhood training a teacher has received, and adequate compensation (which reduces turnover). Some college training in child development is considered ideal, whether a Bachelor’s Degree, Associate’s Degree, or a Child Development Associate (CDA) Credential.4 Current teacher licensing standards in Massachusetts require only a high school diploma and one course in Child Development, plus child care experience.
  • Program quality standards: Massachusetts licensing standards, set and monitored by the Office of Child Care Services (OCCS), are among the strongest in the country. They address program quality, as well as child health and safety. In addition to licensing, however, programs and providers can seek national accreditation – from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) for center- and school-based programs, and from the National Association for Family Child Care (NAFCC) for family providers. Accreditation means that providers have been independently evaluated as meeting voluntary, more rigorous program standards. Massachusetts currently has the highest percentage (31%) of NAEYC accredited programs in the country.5 The NAFCC accreditation, along with the CDA Credential, is increasingly popular with family child care providers.
  • Curriculum and activities: Many different “curricula” or teaching approaches can create an enriched learning environment for children. Some core quality characteristics include:
    • Well-planned: Whether a pre-designed model or homegrown, a curriculum should reflect current research on child development and it should include specific learning goals for children. Well-planned learning activities can also be embodied in a particular philosophy or approach to early childhood education such as Montessori, Reggio Emilia, or Waldorf Schools.
    • Based on a child’s developmental needs: Activities, materials and schedules should be appropriate to a child’s ages and support all three key developmental domains – cognitive (language development and problem-solving skills), physical (gross/fine motor development) and socialemotional (interactions with others in a group)6 to children’s overall development.
    • Balanced: A good curriculum provides a balance of play and structured activities, teacher-initiated and child-initiated exploration.

Massachusetts Paves the Way

The Massachusetts Board of Education approved the “Early Childhood Program Standards for 3- and 4-Year Olds” and the “Guidelines for Preschool Learning Experiences Based on the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks” in Spring 2003. The Program Standards and Guidelines are designed to enhance the quality of preschool programs throughout the Commonwealth and help early education and care practitioners build strong foundations for learning by:

  • putting learning in the context of play and meaningful activities that can occur on an everyday basis in high-quality preschool programs.
  • Providing an outline of desired learning experiences, specific examples of classroom activities, books and supplies related to the core content areas of English Language Arts, Mathematics, Science and Technology, and History and Social Science. 7

The Standards apply to programs receiving funding through the Department of Education’s Community Partnerships for Children Program.