Start Early. Start well.

December 09, 2016

Professional Learning Institute Focuses on Strategies to Help Young Children Be Active Thinkers

Exploring strategies to help young children actively engage in their own learning was the focus of the first institute of the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan “Professional Development for All” 2016-17 series December 1-2 in Omaha.

About 200 teachers, community-based early childhood educators, and others who serve young children in the metro area took part in the event, entitled “Engaging and Nurturing Young Children as Active Thinkers.”

Developed by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and funded by the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, the free professional development series is designed to introduce leading-edge research and innovative practices to those who work with young children and families, and give early childhood professionals the chance to come together and learn from each other. 

Teaching Isn’t Rocket Science—It’s Harder
Dr. Jerlean Daniel, an early childhood education consultant who is former executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), said in her keynote address that educators’ work is much harder than rocket science.

“The kind of scientists we are as teachers, we have to make in-the-moment, precise decisions,” she said. “When teachable moments occur, we have to act quickly. We have to pull what we’ve learned. We have to summon that very quickly."

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“What exactly is active learning? I often say young children have to squirm to learn,” Daniel said. “They have to use all their senses. They soak it up through their pores.”

Daniel said you can’t just engage the mind of a child birth to age 8 and expect maximum development. You have to consider the social, emotional, and physical. 

“In our rocketry work, we have to pull all of that together. It’s hands-on, minds-on kind of work.”

When some early childhood professionals hear talk of rigor and robust curriculum, what they think is, “Here we go, they want to take play away from children,” she said. “We distance ourselves from the notion of robustness and rigor without giving it a chance.

“Sometimes as adults we want to break things into little parts so children will understand it. But it doesn’t work, because they can’t see the whole picture.

“One of the things we have to realize: you can’t teach critical thinking and learning if you’re not a critical thinker yourself,” she said. “If you feel as a teacher that you have all the answers, you can’t help children become critical thinkers and learners.”

Supporting Children in Their Thinking and Tinkering
Michelle Rupiper, associate professor and assistant department chair for Child, Youth & Family Studies (CYAF) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said children really can think critically when they have support.

Part of that is helping them develop their ability to focus on what’s important and ignore distractions. Those are executive brain functions, which some experts say are better than IQ scores at predicting children’s success, Rupiper said. Some keys are helping children learn focus and self-control, how to pay attention, remember rules, and delaying gratification to achieve a larger goal.

When children’s ability to pay attention improves, their reasoning and thinking skills also improve, she said.

Educators need to structure opportunities for kids to do that deep thinking, she said. When we do thinking like making connections between items, when we think about what makes things similar or different, we’re helping them develop critical thinking and using executive brain functions.

Educators need to build on children’s natural curiosity, she said.

“I hear people say young children have real short attention spans. That’s true, when they’re not interested,” Rupiper said. “But they have great attention spans when dealing with things they’re curious about.”

Children need lots of opportunities to explore, ask questions, and make connections. It’s much richer than giving them answers to their questions. We want to give them “just-in-time” information to help them in their learning journeys. She called it thinking and tinkering. 

“When we let kids design, problem-solve, we’re preparing them for the age of innovation.”

Participate in child’s play, she said. Timely questions and prompts can “up their play a little bit” and help them develop higher-level thinking skills, she said. When we invite children to explain their thinking out loud, it forces them to clarify their thoughts, she said.

Play games that require children to pay especially close attention, like “red light, green light,” or I Spy—anything that makes them use inhibitory self-control. 
Play sorting games by color, by size, by shape. Use the same materials but change the rules, which promotes cognitive flexibility.

When we use rich language, good children’s books, poems, when we use “5-dollar words,” we’re enriching kids’ critical thinking, Rupiper said.

Encourage children to pretend and make up stories. That incorporates language, social skills, all kinds of things. Help get them started with a prompt like “once upon a time” or have a box of items, have them pull one thing out, use that in a story, then pull out another object and put that in the story, too. Or take familiar stories and write a new ending.

“That promotes that deep thinking,” she said.

Curriculum That Promotes Hands-on Learning
Bonnie Reyes and Stephanie Reid from the Office of Early Learning in the St. Paul (MN) Public Schools, talked about how their school district shaped its curriculum for PreK to Kindergarten.

Must-haves included teacher assistants in every room, block schedules to reduce transitions, 4- to 6-week units to allow for extended projects and deeper learning with hands-on experiences. Kids can get that experience in independent learning centers for reading, writing, math, science, dramatic play/social studies, art, and so on. The centers also provide a place for kids to work together, to plan and brainstorm, create and construct.

“Creating and constructing is a messy time. And that’s OK,” Reid said.

Teachers have to do monitoring and adjusting. You know from lesson planning it doesn’t always work the way you have it on the sheet, Reid said.

‘We Have to Take Parents With Us’
Portia Kennel, a senior advisor to the Buffett Early Childhood Fund who previously served as senior vice president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund and as executive director of the Educare Learning Network, closed the day by talking about building partnerships with families.

“Teaching interventions aren’t enough to close the achievement gap,” she said. “We have to take parents with us.”

“There is growing evidence that parental relationships with children have great impact, so we have to change our mindsets about how we work with families.”

This work with parents is not an “add-on,” she said. We have to shift from thinking about family engagement as “more work” to an essential part of effective teaching and learning. 

To build good relationship, educators need to recognize that parents have funds of knowledge about their children; that they bring resources to the partnership.

Science and information alone won’t change parenting behavior, she said. But if educators build a good relationship they can begin to work with parents to build their capacity to support their children’s learning.

The next 2016-2017 “Professional Development for All” institute will be next month. Register for either Jan. 19 or Jan. 21.