Early Years Laying the Foundations of Learning
The provision of nurturing to children in their early years of schooling, prep to grade four, is well recognised as being important for an individual’s future success in education and learning throughout life (Queensland Government 2008; Dahlberg, Moss, & Pence 1999).
There is a convincing amount of literature to suggest that the early years of life are a critical period, in which the supported development of children will have long-term benefits (Australian Government [a] 2010). It is acknowledged that in the early years of schooling the foundations for aptitude and basic coping skills are established which, in turn have an effect on an individual’s ongoing learning, behaviour and health (Heckman, 2004; Dodge 2004). These issues of learning and wellbeing of a child depend on their circumstances as an individual, as a member of their family, community and wider society (Australian Institute of Family Studies 2010).
This essay gives specific regard to these issues that can influence a young person’s development in the early year’s stage of schooling. It sets out to demonstrate the complexity of early years, and highlight numerous risk and protective factors which combine to influence children’s development. Some of these factors affect the development of physical, cognitive, social and language skills necessary for later in life (Early Life Foundations 2010; Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority 2004). This essay groups these issues into four areas of context, these are; child, family, environment and community. This essay also gives critical examination of some current curriculum documents and learning resources which assist children in developing strong foundation for learning.
Analysis of issues that can influence a young person’s development at this stage of schooling and discussion of theoretical perspectives related to childhood development and learning;
The early years are a period in development where the brain and central nervous system grows and develops (Casey, Giedd, & Thomas 2000). Both the environmental factors such as nurturing and natural factors such as family genes influence the development of children. The quality of children’s first environments and the availability of appropriate experiences at the right stages of early year’s growth are key factors in brain development (The Royal Children’s Hospital, 2009).
Inadequate nutrition can also seriously interfere with brain development
(Glewwe, Jacoby & King 2000; Queensland Government [a] 2010). There is considerable evidence showing adequate stimulation has measurable better brain function of those raised in less stimulating environments. Early stress on brain development can affect learning, and memorably adversely, those children who experience acute stress in their early years are at a higher risk for developing a variety of ‘cognitive, behavioural and emotional’ difficulties later in life (Glaser 2000; Van der Gaag, 2003).
The early years are fundaments for the ‘formation of intelligence, personality, social behaviour and physical development’ (Aga Khan Development Network, 2007). Investment in the early years can result in significant returns, if children start as bring confident and enthusiastic for learning early on in life, they are more likely to be better students (Van der Gaag, 2003).
Current themes and trends in literature suggests that learning in the early years sets good foundations for learning throughout life and that children who have positive experiences in theses years have a greater chance of success (ACT Government 2010). This begs the question, what is success?
Generally speaking what society wants most for its children is for them to be happy, healthy and successful (Early Life Foundations, 2010). Both happiness and health can be considered as straight forward, however ‘success’ has many interpretations. It is therefore important those involved in early childhood education reflect upon what they deem success to be so as they can envisage what they want for children.
Whilst children attain competence in numeracy and literacy, being skilled in other non scholarly facets, for example sport, may help children develop more holistically (Lewis 2008). There are subjects, which some considered non-studious, unimportant and which are not promoted or even recognised in schools. Yet some subjects signed with these stigmas deal with children’s ability to enjoy success and form relationships with others that are productive and enable them to learn how to communicate effectively (Lewis 2008). These aspects can constitute success as children learn to express their feelings and cope with challenges.
Given that the early years of a child are commonly associated as being the time of the most rapid development and learning, a mass of recognition and advancement supporting the significance of early year’s offerings exists (Department of Education and Early Childhood Education 2008,). The first example element of this, to be discussed, is the early years learning framework for Australia (Australian Government [b]). The framework has been designed with the notion that one of the main issues shaping early years schooling is how the students perceive themselves.
As children physically develop they also develop personal interest and begin to construct their own identities and understandings of the world around them (Commonwealth of Australia [a] 2009). Fundamental to the framework is a view that children’s lives are characterised by the factors of belonging, being and becoming (Australian Education Union 2009). Whilst the framework recognises the importance of literacy and numeracy learning’s it focuses vastly on children’s social development, namely: sense of personal identity, connectedness and contribution to their world, strong sense of personal wellbeing, confidence and involvement (Strong 2004)
Many curriculum documents and documents directly refer to ‘children’s context’, specifically individuals attributes and personalities, motivation, behaviour and health (Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority 2010, Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority 2010).
One of the most convincing reasons for investment in early year’s development is that without it potential for educated human capital is reduced. Thus far research in this field has shown that investments in early years education are financially more efficient than remedial support programmes (Van der Gaag, 2003; Heckman 2004).
When planning for education in the early years, consideration must be given for how students learn and what they are capable of learning. Theorists explain to us that in their early years children develop in a series of areas, including physical development, speech, social and emotional and children can show varied capabilities in each area (Genovese, 2003).
Commonly planning and school programs are modelled on Piagets theory, a four stage cognitive development theory which provides part of the foundation for constructivist learning (Flavell 1999). Similarly early years schooling is largely shaped by Vygotskys notions related to sectors of development.
What a child can do alone and unassisted is a task that lies in what Vygotsky calls the zone of actual development (Kozulin 2003). Vygotsky’s believes that children enter this zone when they are able to successfully complete tasks independently (Kozulin 2003). Children can then apply this knowledge to new-found situations they may encounter afterward.
Family relationships context
Of course to achieve autonomously, children need to begin to learn with some assistance. This is where family and relationship context play a vital part in early year’s development. Children require stimulation and support to aid their development and relationships tend to affect virtually all aspects such development, counting social, emotional, physical, and behaviour (Commonwealth of Australia [b]).
The quality and solidity of a child’s relationships in their early years lay the foundation for a wide range of crucial later developmental outcomes. Chiefly these upshots are self-confidence, health, motivation to learn, the ability to self-manage problems and resolve conflicts in nonviolent ways and ultimately having the skill to build and uphold relationships. Put simply, relationships are imperative to robust early year’s development (The Benevolent Society 2010).
Relationships connect children to their community in a way which help them to define their identity and what they can achieve, however, it should be noted that families expectations of children differ (Howes, 1999).
Relationships between family members such as siblings can allow children in their early years to practice negotiation and skills for coping with disagreements constructively. For children the task of finding a balance between positive and negative aspects of interaction with their family is a trait that can be transferred into children’s positive social development. On the other hand poor early relationships may be associated with adverse developmental outcomes. In this case children may struggle to make friends and learn how to work cooperatively with others influencing their early years learning.
For some children there lies an expectation for verbally communicate to take place in their home setting. This occurs for a range of reasons, such as describing events, responding to questions and participating in family discussions (ref). All of these proficiencies are alike those in school settings. Other the contrary, children not concerned with school-like experiences at home may not use language to complete tasks and may have many experiences without surrounding them with discussion.
Through the theory work of Vygotsky and also that of Jerome Bruner, the idea that early years learners need 'scaffolding' was taken on. This means that those involved in the education of early years students should be attuned to the interests and learning requirements of students. Given this students are able to move progressively to higher levels of development. Scaffolding, like any approach in teaching, can be advantageous and disadvantageous for learners. This is because when the theory of scaffolding in put into practice there is potential for the zone of development to be estimated inaccurately (State of Victoria 2007)
Relationships with parents are also a significant component of early year’s development and consequently parents are often viewed as ongoing advocates for their children. Teachers allying the Reggio Emilia consider parents as the first teachers of children and therefore this schooling theory involves parents in all aspects of the curriculum (Cadwell, 1997).
Thirdly, learning contexts, such as informal home learning environments and formal schooling play important parts in early year’s development (ref). Supporting environments that promote optimal early year’s development greatly increase the likelihood of better education outcomes and health within and subsequent to schooling.
Many theorists contribute to the environmentalist perspective of development, believing that learning and behaviour of early year’s learners are reactions to their surroundings
Due to this the organisation of learning environments is key to Reggio Emilia's early year’s philosophy. The significance of the environment follows the belief that children can be aware of their world through situations which support thoughts and various ways of expressing them. In a Reggio Emilia setting, groups of children stay solely with a teacher for three years, in turn, this creates a constant environment without pressures of forming further relationships.
The constructivist perspective of development has been highly developed by several theorists, namely Piaget, Montessori, and Vygotsky (NCREL, 2010). Even though their work differs, there is an overall consented belief that development occurs when early years students relate with those and the environment surrounding them (NCREL, 2010; Centre for Child Development 2010).
Today, many parents still believe that children are not ready for early years schooling unless they aquire the talents of reciting the alphabet, counting, and rightly follow basic instructions.
Another common belief is that children are ready for the early year’s stage of schooling when they can appropriately respond to their environment, i.e. follow rules and directions and exhibit a proper code of behaviour
When early years students encounter difficulties in learning processes, they often are labelled as having learning problems and are monitored in classrooms with curriculum customised to control their behaviour. On the other hand, some theorists advise changing classroom settings to help the children address difficulties.
Bronfenbrenner’s theory describes the environment as having layers, each playing an effect on a child’s development. Bronfenbrenner sees the volatility of families as having potential to be a destructive force in early year’s development and therefore believes that children’s primary relationship needs to be with someone who can provide a sense of care permanently. This theory has dire implications for the practice of teaching. For teachers this theory has implications as it necessitates teachers to provide stable, long-term relationships.
Teachers organise the learning environments, they consider how the environment’s organisation stimulates children and enable them to work most effectively. Effective learning environments are purposefully constructed to aid children’s holistic development.
Lastly the community context relating to the environment in which children live, including resources and opportunities, community values, and protection adversely impact upon the development of early year’s students (Government of South Australia 2007).
During early years, children’s identities, knowledge, understandings, capacities, skills and relationships change, these are influenced by events and conditions. By means of correlations with communities, teachers are capable of enhancing their understandings of their students and how curriculums can match their learning and developmental needs. By working with communities, teachers can also form environments for learning which encompass children’s social and cultural existence.
The Reggio Emilia way of thinking pays attention to such various points of view along with the needs, interests and abilities of early year’s students. Perhaps the most trying aspect of this theory is that teacher must trust students to be interested in appropriate learning and be confident they can teach in response. This philosophy also assumes that parents will be proactive in joining their child’s education.
Critical examination of current curriculum documents that pertain to this particular
stage of schooling;
In recent times a more apparent comprehension of the ways in which children learn and develop has emerged. Within Australia the recognition of the importance of the early years is also reflected in the development of curriculums. There are many aspects to be considered when planning for teaching and learning in the early years and many theorist have had strong influences in the field of planning. Given child, family, environmental and community contexts shape children lives in the early year’s stage of schooling, curriculum documents ought to value these attributes. The delivery of developmentally appropriate learning should therefore occur accordingly.
In Australia there exists a diversity of backdrops for childhood upbringings; including urban and rural living as well as multiple care experiences and contact with various social and cultural customs (Petriwskyj, A 2010).
There are numerous documents available to provide teachers with a framework for interacting with children, planning, assessing and reflecting on an effective early year’s curriculum. Today the most commonly used methods of introducing curriculum driven outcomes in schools is the development of new resources and guidelines. In effect, these methods lead to a surplus of products which consequently can fail to bridge networks or engage students and school communities. In order to suppress the duplication of poor quality education resources, teachers designing unit and lesson plans must understand the importance of alliance building in order to achieve solid educational outcomes without squandering time in re-inventing the wheel.
The development of early year’s curriculum needs to be mindful of diversity of children and families it aims to be inclusive of (Government of South Australia 2007). . Curriculum makers need to also cater for institutions that follow differing philosophies such as Reggio Emilia, Steiner, and Montessori.
Rather than preparing blanket approach frameworks which cause school staff to squeeze through circles, future curriculum documents should acknowledge that implementation of a framework in should be unique to its setting.
With this is mind curriculum documents that pertain to the early years stage of schooling could instead focus on ‘how’ learning can take place, opposed to ‘what’ has to be learnt.
Where current curriculum documents are complex and often bombastic, plain language could be invoked. One crucial element of beneficial early years education is the involvement of the school community, i.e. parents and teachers for students learning. Without the typical education jargon which can be difficult to decipher parents and teachers alike may better understand core curriculum documentation.
The support of early year’s learning settings in a community, from parents could be achieved by making primary school hubs. By moving away from a model of service provision, towards a holistic approach, programming could be further based on the individual needs of children.
Formulation of teaching and learning strategies, including resources that assist in
teaching this age group.
Educators use a wide scoop of strategies to pull together, detail, order and give detail of what they gather to assess the learning of early year’s students. In recent times approaches to assessment also analyse the many learning strategies that early years students use, these include inquiry based learning and learning by play (Gorden, n.d).
Some parents and educators recognise play as a valuable component for learning as it provides opportunities for children to not only explore learning but also to transfer learning from one situation to another. Play is also thought to provide valuable perimeters within which teachers can gauge and scrutinise learning (Australian Government Department of Education, Employment and Workplace. 2009).
For play based learning, resources that reflect children’s interests can be provided to stimulate and support engagement in recreation (Kennedy). Resources which permit unrestricted use such as cardboard boxes or blocks promote imagination, originality and manipulation of common concepts (Wood & Attfield 2005)
The Early Years Learning Framework, developed collaboratively by Australian State and Territory Governments, has a set stress for play-based learning as an important medium for early years learning. The framework ‘describes the principles, practice and outcomes essential to support and enhance early years learning’ (Australian Government 2010).
Complementing this resource are various websites which look at early year’s development and unpack support and education information. Delivering resource packages of audio, document, image, video and interactive software is the Australian Government body; Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (State of Victoria 2007). Via its FUSE (Find, Use and Share Education) website the department supplies resources, agendas, guidelines and professional development that caters for communication, contribution, identity, learning and wellbeing of early years children (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2008)
Further resources including an Educators’ Guide is being prepared to encourage the carrying out of the Early Years Learning Framework, additionally Professional Support Coordinators and Indigenous Professional Support Unit networks across Australia are able to deliver assistance and support its implementation (Australian Government, 2010).
Resources designed to assist teaching of early years classes must be focused on promoting life-long learners. Monitoring and assessing are also integral part of curriculum decision making. Strategies teachers can use to that support children’s learning include: providing feedback to children on their progress during learning experiences, reflecting with children about their learning, and keeping the network of those involved in a child’s learning informed. Means for implementing these strategies can include the selection of work artefacts for inclusion in folios, writing in communication diaries, reporting in newsletters (Australian Government Department of Education, Employment and Workplace 2009).
The inclusion of early year’s students in assessment processes can help build a view of why this learning is considered valuable. This strategy allows children to become more aware of their own learning and empowers them as they continue to learn.
Given the diversity of children in early year’s settings, learning experiences differ; we need to cater for children from various social backgrounds as well as their emerging interests and likings they foster.
To help lay strong foundations for early year’s students to succeed, this essay has demonstrated how we can draw upon theoretical perspectives related to learning. Although it notes theory without execution is inefficient.
It is understood that success, health and wellbeing can all stem from the early years of childhood. In knowing this, we as teachers can focus upon our interactions and find opportunities to be creative and imaginative and allow children not to be rushed through their early childhood years. Another key components that is used for curriculum decision making in the early years phase of learning is the establishment suitable learning environments of which is developmentally appropriate for children. Investing resources to support children during their early years of life brings long-term benefits to them and for society as a whole.
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