Leadership magazine logo.
Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Supervision of instruction in early childhood
Teachers must understand the cognitive underpinnings of their activities to properly scaffold learning
By Angel J. Barrett, Denise Cates-Darnell, Sue Kaiser and Heather Smith | January | February 2023
School principals walking through elementary classrooms are mesmerized by the sheer joy of children, the activity, the smell of tempera paint and colorful bulletin board displays. These classrooms are abuzz with learning and happy activities. Beyond the trappings of student artifacts are the important foundations of learning, and the understanding of the developmental milestones that must be encouraged and mined during these years in the life of a child. Understanding the “why” behind the activities is both an art and science of teaching and learning. However, understanding the implementation and supervision may be confusing and frustrating because early childhood is a new initiative that was not part of the K-12 administrative credential.
Background and professional learning
Reading rich literature to children from beautiful picture books, for example, increases listening vocabulary and understanding of descriptive language that is not present in a random conversation about content. In a study where rare words were analyzed in children’s television shows, picture books and the conversation between two college graduates, the findings were startling. Children’s television shows such as “Sesame Street” had two rare words in 1,000, the conversation between two college students measured 17.3 in 1,000, and rare words in children’s books came to 30.9 in 1,000. Knowing this bit of information provides the “why” behind reading aloud to children. This is only one bit of information that pertains to the training and shaping of professional development for early childhood teachers (Cunningham, Stanovich, 1998). The act of reading engaging literature to children, and discussing the meaning of the language as the story unfolds, increases children’s listening vocabulary, which will translate into spoken, read and written vocabulary expansion.
Extending the listening experience into the child’s own language allows children to develop agency in their learning and the language. Retelling the story in the child’s own words allows for development of how stories develop. Acting out stories and dressing up to become the character further extends the experience and invites the story into the child’s mind and world, and then creative art mimicking the beautiful illustration allows for creative expression that is so necessary in programs for young children.
These types of activities have been prevalent in these classrooms. What is needed is to ensure that teachers understand the cognitive underpinnings of such activities so as to properly scaffold the learning toward more complex thought and expression. Professional development for teachers of our youngest students must give teachers room to explore and understand the connections between the activity and the developmental learning as the progressions are carefully crafted along the developmental continuum.
Recently, the National Association of Educators of Young Children (NAEYC) published a position statement which outlines developmentally appropriate practice for early educators (NAEYC, 2020). In this document six areas are described as necessary and appropriate to be foundational in early childhood classrooms:

  1. Creating a caring, equitable community of learners.
  2. Engaging in reciprocal partnerships with families and fostering community connections.
  3. Observing, documenting, and assessing children’s development and learning.
  4. Teaching to enhance each child’s development and learning.
  5. Planning and implementing an engaging curriculum to achieve meaningful goals.
  6. Demonstrating professionalism as an early childhood educator.
These six practices truly encompass the art and the science of teaching in the early childhood classrooms.
As the state of California has committed to the expansion of early childhood education, it is imperative that the training of teachers accompany the expansion specifically for this age group. With the expectation that transitional kindergarten teachers receive 24 units from our universities in a course of study, guidelines must be carefully crafted around these practices for uniformity, consistency and reliability for these teachers to confidently approach their position with a strong foundation of knowledge of these practices.
Developmental milestones
Young children come to school filled with wonder and curiosity about the world around them. California has provided three key documents that are designed to support the developmental capabilities of preschoolers and enable teachers to provide a program to support their unique learning needs. The first of these is the California Preschool Learning Foundations. These are the “what” — the knowledge and skills that students should develop in a high-quality preschool program. The foundations describe what most students should be able to do at 48 months and 60 months of age with appropriate support. They cover nine learning domains and encourage a play-based learning model to support student growth and development.
The second part of the program is the California Curriculum Framework. This document supports educators with the “how” — the strategies, environment and interactions that teachers create to support students in their early learning. These documents use vignettes to show evidence of student learning and support teachers in creating a high-quality program. It also provides key principles for supporting children’s learning and descriptions of routines, environments and materials that will excite and interest students’ learning.
Finally, the Desired Results Developmental Program is an observation-based assessment for teachers to document individual learning progress of their students. It provides a checklist of outcomes along a continuum of development outlined by the foundations. Teachers use the results of the DRDP to plan for instruction, discuss progress with families and provide data for school improvement.
Best practices and observation
Delivery of instruction and assessment is by multiple means of exposure to content and showing us what they know, creating inclusivity for all children. Universal Design for Learning is rooted in cognitive learning. When observing, administrators should see a variety of centers and small group instruction.
UDL strategies allow for multiple means of representation (instruction, questioning, experiences and learning opportunities), multiple means of action and expression (variety of formats to respond and demonstrate learning) and multiple means of engagement (keeping students interested and motivated such as interest subjects, scaffolding and challenges). For preschool, UDL means including as many of the senses as possible and designing lessons for the visual, auditory and tactile needs of students. Technology is an important part of UDL and also includes low-tech items such as pencil grips and iPad stylus. Self-directed centers provide multiple opportunities for exploration. However, organized routines set an environment for young students by providing a structure and sense of security.
UDL is important in assessment and learning. For example, in reading to students, there are many options: adult reading, students telling the story, listening on audio with students holding the book and watching a video. Each allows for variations on tactile, aural and visual stimulation. In assessing numeracy, vary manipulatives by student choice and, instead of pulling students to a table in the back, assess in a center with manipulatives the children are currently using such as vehicles, fruits or blocks.
One strategy that is uniquely visible in many early learning classrooms is the use of learning centers. These are opportunities for students to interact with materials or scenarios that stimulate the senses and encourage creativity. Furthermore, centers like the dress-up center and kitchen center not only allow for creative play but also assessing and instruction of vocabulary and grammatical structure. Post COVID-19, many students may need encouragement to begin conversation. Observing student play also provides information on their pedagogical stage of self, mimicking or parallel play or collaboration. This information is important in planning instruction. Center content should be added and removed to keep centers interesting and reflect current instruction.
Social-emotional learning and MTSS
To support all children in California, a Multi-Tiered System of Support structure for academics, behavior and social-emotional learning has been developed and is widely used among a variety of early learning environments. As an integral part of the MTSS framework and a critical component of school readiness in young children, social-emotional learning is of the utmost importance when considering age-appropriate development. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning has identified five core competencies for social-emotional learning: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. While these skills can and should be taught throughout childhood and adulthood, maintaining a developmentally informed approach is necessary, particularly while supporting young children. In addition to the SEL competencies, it is necessary to provide a systematic approach in key settings including classrooms, schools, families and caregivers, and communities.
Interactions and activities in the classroom environment require careful consideration and systematic planning to ensure equity and access to developmental tasks.
Early education leaders should be cognizant of the SEL competencies as well as examples of developmental tasks that students typically engage in their early years. Examples of such tasks include but are not limited to: beginning peer interaction while managing feelings, initiating social interactions and friendships, staying connected with others, (including adults), and understanding basic emotional situations and how to manage them. As young learners are explicitly taught the skills needed to successfully and consistently manage developmental tasks similar to those mentioned above, they will become more successful at the process needed to progress in increasing emotional literacy. With positive adult support and multiple opportunities to practice newly acquired skills, children will continue to develop their abilities to recognize and manage their emotions. This will lead to making appropriate decisions while interacting positively with others (children and adults) and playing cooperatively with peers. Educators need to see the connection between the aforementioned skills and children’s abilities to develop positive relationships and avoid negative behaviors both in and out of the early education environment.
Early educators must promote the use of social-emotional learning skills by providing an environmental context for children to engage in explicit lessons and engage in activities that encourage the application of the skills. Interactions and activities in the classroom environment require careful consideration and systematic planning to ensure equity and access to developmental tasks. The Pyramid Model is a framework used in many early learning environments to support social-emotional learning while maintaining a tiered system of support for all children. The levels of the Pyramid Model include evidence-based practices that can be used to not only increase social competencies but also prevent and manage challenging behavior in young children. At the core of the model is an effective workforce that prioritizes nurturing and responsive relationships and high-quality supportive environments. Young children needing additional support are provided with targeted teaching of identified skills which may be followed by intensive assistance for the few students needing Tier 3 interventions.
Social-emotional learning skills are essential for young children to learn and practice often throughout the early years of their education. Leaders, teachers and paraprofessionals supporting students in preschool, transitional kindergarten and kindergarten are instrumental in aiding children in acquiring the skills needed to successfully master developmental tasks linked to the SEL competencies. Continuous monitoring of students’ skill attainment is critical for educators to ensure school readiness and successful transitions between early education environments.
Social-emotional learning:
Universal Design for Learning:
National Association of Educators of Young Children, Using Developmentally Appropriate Practice (3rd ed.) with NAEYC’s 2020 DAP Position Statement (4th ed.)
Cunningham, Anne E.; Stanovich, Keith E., What Reading Does for the Mind. American Educator, v22 n1-2 p8-15 Spr-Sum 1998.

Angel J. Barrett, Denise Cates-Darnell, Sue Kaiser and Heather Smith contributed to this article.
Contact Us
© 2023 Association of California School Administrators