Infant/Toddler Programs

The fastest growing segment of early childhood programming is the infant/toddler component (birth to 2 years of age). Until fairly recently, most very young children were cared for by family members in the home. Recent research in the United States, however, has found that 38% of children from birth to age 2 spend over 35 hours each week in child care out of the home and another 17.3% spend between 15 and 34 hours per week in such care (Capizzano & Main, 2005). Statistics on the family suggest that this trend will likely continue. As these numbers continue to grow, the impact on low-income families is particularly strong. The need for quality infant/toddler care is especially important for this group of children and their families (Paulsell, Nogales, & Cohen, 2003). Although most current infant/toddler programs operate in a home environment with small groups of children, the number of center-based options where larger groups of very young children receive care is increasing. In either homes or centers, the major challenge for a teacher is to form a close relationship with each child in his or her care. Consistently and lovingly meeting the physical and emotional needs of very young children is an extremely important and challenging task (Edwards & Raikes, 2002).

A Center-Based Program for Toddlers

A typical center-based toddler classroom can have as many as six or seven children under the care of one adult. While additional assistance may be available during portions of the day, much of the care is provided by this one person. Caregivers working with toddlers spend considerable time assisting with activities such as eating, sleeping, and toileting. They work to make these interactions enjoyable parts of the day as they playfully and lovingly meet the needs of young children. The schedule of events for toddlers should be in a predictable sequence, provide for active and quiet times, and encourage quality adult–child and child–child interactions. The following schedule is typical of what you would find in a center-based program for toddlers. Try to imagine yourself spending extended time in this setting, engaged in the tasks described here.

Preschool Programs

Traditionally, preschool programs were designed for children between the ages of 3 and 5 as a way to enhance social and emotional development. These nursery school options became popular in the 1920s and continue to be highly valued by many middle-class families. More recently, prekindergarten programs have been promoted as a way to help children identified as at-risk of failing in the K–12 system develop the skills they will need to be successful in later years. Many preschool programs today have also expanded their age range downward to include 2-year-olds.

Rather than being full-day programs, most preschool classrooms operate half-time or less. A common model is to enroll children for three to five half-day sessions per week. With the increasing numbers of single parents and dual-career families, however, these partial-day sessions are often combined with the chance for children to participate in full-day child care as well. Preschool students may be in the same classrooms and working with the same adults as students in child-care options, thus making it difficult to separate the two programs.

Child-Care Programs

Child-care programs are designed to provide children with quality care and education for full days. With more parents working full-time, the need for child-care options for young children continues to grow. Typically, child-care programs provide care for children from the beginning to the end of the parents’ workday. It is not uncommon for some children to be in a child-care setting from 6:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. As indicated earlier, other children may attend part-days for a preschool experience.

A variety of child-care options are available. The most common type is called the family home child care. These programs operate out of the caretaker’s home and enroll only a small number of children. Child-care centers are programs located in buildings either designed for, or remodeled to be used with, young children. More children are typically enrolled in these programs, with several teachers hired to work with different groups of children. School-based child care is becoming a more popular option in many locations. Public and private schools are setting aside space in their elementary school buildings for child-care programs under their direction. Corporate child care is also growing in popularity. An increasing number of businesses are offering on-site child care as a convenience and service to their employees. Before- and after-school care is a final option available in many settings. These programs may be provided at the elementary school, or children may travel to other sites to receive this care.

Programs for Children with Special Needs

Early childhood programs designed for children with special needs are also available in most communities. Federal legislation over the past two decades has mandated these important options. Public Law (PL) 94–142, enacted in the mid-1970s, requires that all children with special needs beginning at age 3 be provided a free and appropriate public education. Later revisions of this act extended the availability of these programs downward to include birth to age 3. In 1990, after several more revisions, the act was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It was last amended in 2004. This law is intended to educate children with special needs in classrooms with their normally developing peers. This integration effort has led to early childhood special education programs that are blended with other options for young children.

While many educational efforts for children with special needs are integrated with other early childhood programs, early intervention programs for children with special needs are also available (U.S. Department of Education, 2005). These programs are designed to help identify children’s disabilities and assist them in growth and development. Options for infants and toddlers are most common and often combine limited small-group experiences with home visits where the parent and home visitor work together to support the young child’s development.

Kindergartens

It may surprise you to know that publicly funded programs for 5-year-old children are a relatively new option in many states. Many public schools either did not provide kindergarten or offered it only for parents who were able to pay for the service. Currently, only 40 states mandate kindergarten education for all students. In the remaining states, school districts are encouraged to offer this option, but are not required to do so (Griffith, Kauerz, & McMaken, 2003).

Traditional kindergartens in the United States were half-day programs designed to help children develop social, emotional, and cognitive skills through a play-oriented experience. Despite the many benefits of this focus, many programs today are more academic and present a curriculum that looks much like that of the first-grade classroom. One reason for this more academic focus is the increased pressure from state and federal agencies to improve the literacy, science, and mathematical understandings of young children. Federal legislation, such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, provide financial incentives to schools that make good academic progress as measured on standardized tests and penalize those that demonstrate poor performance. Consequently, kindergarten teachers spend more of their classroom time engaged in these more academic subjects and have fewer opportunities for other very valuable experiences. In part to accommodate this more academic focus, many kindergarten classrooms are now full-day programs that meet three to five days a week. Research on this option suggests that the longer school day is beneficial when teachers provide a curriculum that allows children time to learn playfully about their world (Kauerz, 2005).

Primary Education

Grades 1 through 3 in elementary schools are referred to as primary education and have been a part of American schooling from colonial times. For most of this period, the methods and materials for teaching at this level have mirrored those used with older elementary students. Instruction was teacher-directed and included mostly small- and large-group teaching combined with independent work for students.

Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, the popularity of theorists such as Piaget (Flavell, 1963), Bruner (1966), and Dewey (1929) led to new teaching strategies for primary education. Educators began to view young elementary students as more like preschool and kindergarten children in their thinking rather than older elementary students. More opportunities to learn through hands-on manipulation of objects and interaction with peers were implemented. Although instruction at the primary level remains teacher-directed in a majority of classrooms, more primary teachers are starting to engage in a variety of interesting teaching and learning strategies. The multiage classroom, in which two or three grades are grouped together for instruction, is one option being tried. For example, rather than having separate groups of 5-, 6-, and 7-year-old children, students are mixed together in the same room. Multiage classrooms can be traced back to the one-room schoolhouses that existed in America until the early part of the 20th century. A renewed interest in this option began in the 1980s. In these classrooms, younger children learn from their interactions with older classmates, and older students reinforce their own understandings as they work with younger students. Because teachers have many of the same students for more than one year, there tend to be stronger teacher–student relationships in multiage classrooms. Both research and practice suggest that these classrooms enhance child development (Carter, 2005; Kinsey, 2001). Multiage classrooms produce students who have more positive attitudes toward schooling, demonstrate stronger leadership skills, have greater self-esteem, and engage in fewer aggressive behaviors.

Other creative options being tried include looping, in which the teacher remains with the same students for several years. For example, a first-grade teacher could work with the same students from first through third grades before “looping” back to a new group of first-grade students at the end of the 3-year period. Using an integrated curriculum, in which mathematics, reading, science, and social studies are all learned simultaneously through the teaching of specific themes, is another example of a creative option being used in the primary grades. An example of a theme that may be of interest to a group of second-grade students is the topic of hurricanes. As children read about them, write their own stories, learn about the impact of hurricanes on people around the nation, and create graphs of hurricane activity, they are engaged in meaningful integrated learning.  Creating classroom centers where children can independently explore materials and activities of their own choosing in playful ways is yet another strategy used in many primary classrooms.