- Describe the significance of high-quality environments and materials for cognitive development.
- Discuss the importance of planning for environments and materials that address the needs of all learners.
- Identify management practices to support staff plan meaningful environments and materials for children and youth.
The Importance of Environments
Just like adults, children are affected by their environments. It is our job to ensure classrooms and other learning spaces for children make them feel welcome, secure, and ready to learn. Classroom and program learning environments and materials should be organized yet flexible and responsive to children's changing needs. This will help maximize children's engagement and learning.
As you learned in Lesson 1, cognitive development is all about learning. When children imitate caregivers' actions, that is cognitive development; when they pretend to be a store keeper or a mommy, that's cognitive development; when they read books during quiet time, that's cognitive development; when they discover something new, that's cognitive development; when they sing songs, that's cognitive development; and when they use their words to talk to a peer about their emotions, that's cognitive development.
Environments and Materials that Promote Children's Cognitive Development
In their own courses, staff members have learned the importance of meaningfully planning environments and materials as well as strategies for meeting the needs of individual learners. You should work with training and curriculum specialists to reinforce staff learning as staff members will need support in knowing how and when to use the strategies they have learned. As highlighted in Lesson 2 in this course (Cognitive Development: Helping Staff Members Understand Child Development), it is critical to understand the needs of children with IEPs, but it is equally important to understand that all children and youth need individualization. Help them consider and plan for the preschooler who needs an extra challenge, the toddler who is learning more than one language, or the pre-teen who sits quietly by herself. Work with the Training and Curriculum Specialists to identify training needs for the staff in your programs and to make sure that all children are getting the support they need.
As you learned in Lesson 3 in this course (Cognitive Development: Interactions that Support Learning), it is also important to help staff reflect on their cultures. To support staff members as they reflect on their own cultures, you can be prepared to ask questions and guide discussions. It can also be valuable to engage in reflection activities along with staff.
The Importance of Inclusive Environments and Materials
There are many ways in which you can model an inclusive attitude with staff members. There may be unintentional biases related to race, culture, family traditions, ability level, or family structure in your program. Several observation tools (like the ECERS-R for early childhood programs and the Council on Accreditation's Program Observation Worksheet) have guidelines for promoting cultural and linguistic diversity. As you spend time in classrooms and school-age settings, you should be aware of the following:
- Biased language. Watch for language that may send stereotypical messages. Staff members may call children "baby girl," "big boy," or "cutie" rather than their given names. Do staff members comment equally on girls' and boys' appearances and accomplishments? Do they praise African American boys for their athleticism more than their academic achievements? Do they comment on children's size (e.g., "He's going to be a football player")? Do they encourage girls and boys to play sports or lift weights? Do they encourage girls to "be careful" while saying "boys will be boys"? Do staff members encourage peaceful solutions for all children (e.g., avoid directions like not hitting kids with glasses)?
- Stereotypical play opportunities. Are children encouraged to play in stereotypical ways (e.g., girls with dolls and boys with trucks)? Do boys and girls get equal access and encouragement for playing "house," woodworking, music, science, active or messy play?
- Biased materials. Do posters, photos, and displays represent the children in the classroom and the broad range of human experiences? Are there any stereotypical images (i.e., Native Americans in "war paint")? Are men and women portrayed equally in images of physical, intellectual, and service professions? Are there respectful images of people with disabilities? Are there books in a variety of languages? Do books represent real-world experiences?
If you see any examples of bias in your programs, say something. Model unbiased language and interactions. Make it clear that men and women can be equally strong and nurturing; that we all benefit from a range of experiences; and that our "labels" do not define our interests or abilities.
Environments and Materials that Address the Needs of All Learners
There are many things you can do along with training and curriculum specialists to support staff help all children meet important learning goals. The first and most important step is to encourage staff to gather information about each child. Your staff will need to know what each child is able to do well and what seems to be hard. Staff will also need to know what each child likes and what is motivating for them. Gathering information will help them know the skills and strategies that are likely to help a particular child in their care.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL; CAST, 2011) is one strategy you can share. UDL helps all people learn and be successful in their environments. There are examples of universal design all around us: audio books, curb cutouts for strollers and wheelchairs, keyless entry on cars, and electric can openers. Many of these tools were developed for people with disabilities, but they make life easier for all of us. Using the concept of UDL, some examples of what staff can do in their learning environments to support children with special learning needs are using adaptive toys and eating utensils, using picture schedules, adapting seating arrangements, providing agendas (with or without pictures) of the activities that children will participate in, providing multiple ways for children to learn information (e.g., reading a book, watching a video, using the internet to research a topic), using materials in a different language, or sharing vocabulary words with school-age children before reading them a story.
The Figure below shows three strategies for using UDL and offers examples of each.
How adults display information and provide directions
- Use objects, pictures, text
- Vary font size, volume, colors
- Offer tactile, musical, or physical variation
How children respond and show what they know
- Choice of text, speech, drawing, music, sculpture, dance
- Help with goal setting
- Provide Checklists and planning tools
- Use social media
How children become interested and motivated to learn
- Use child preferences
- Offer choices
- Vary levels of novelty, risk, and sensory stimulation
- Encourage peer learning
- Provide individual feedback
Management Practices That Support High-Quality Learning Environments and Materials
- Take time to model the following behaviors that support efforts to promote children's learning. Spend time observing in classrooms or programs. Make special notes about children you see struggling. Also be sure to note children who need an additional challenge.
- Hold high expectations for all staff members when it comes to children and youth outcomes by setting learning goals for all age groups.
- Seek out knowledge of the cultures and preferences of the families you serve and ensure those preferences are integrated throughout environments and materials.
- Talk to staff members about the ways they support children's learning by designing meaningful environments and using developmentally appropriate materials. Recognize their accomplishments and encourage them when they are struggling. Be a resource for staff members and help them find ways to reach each child.
- Provide community based resources such as guest speakers; support attendance to workshops and conferences for staff members.
- Use multiple data sources such as classroom observations to evaluate and provide feedback on how effectively staff are designing environments and choosing materials.
- Ensure professional development plans have identified goals for meaningful environment design based on classroom observations.
- Recognize skilled staff members who demonstrate an understanding of the significance of environments and materials and have them mentor less experienced staff members.
There will be times when teachers and staff in your program will come to you with concerns about a particular child or children. Download the scenarios in the Adaptations Activity. Training and curriculum specialists also have this activity in their Virtual Lab School lesson. Talk with training and curriculum specialists in your program about how you would respond to these scenarios. Are you responding consistently? What steps would need to be taken in each of your unique roles? After you have completed the scenarios and discussed them with the training and curriculum specialists at your program, compare your answers to the suggested responses.
Use the resources in this section to help you and your staff be sensitive to the needs of diverse learners in your program.
The first document is a checklist you can use to review children’s books for bias. As bias sometimes sneaks into our programs, it is important to take some time to look through the books, toys, and materials in your programs to ensure that people of all races, cultures, ethnicities, ages, gender, and abilities are equally and appropriately represented. Download the Cullture and Children’s Literature activity. Use this activity to review children’s books for common stereotypes and write your responses.
The second document will help you support staff if they need help thinking of ideas to help individual children in their classroom and program. Download the Problem Solving Planning Form below. Use this form to help staff members brainstorm solutions to problems they face. First identify the problems a child faces (e.g., cannot reach the sensory table). Then think of as many solutions as possible (e.g., lower the table, provide a smaller portable table, etc.).
The third document is a Resource List. Use it to think of additional ways to support the cognitive development of every child in your program.
|Accommodation||Changing the delivery of instruction or classroom activities without changing learning goals|
|Bias||Bias is a set of preconceived notions or prejudices that influence how we interact with others. We are often unaware of our biases|
|Culture||Culture comprises all we learn or transmit to and from the people around us. It includes arts, beliefs, institutions, behaviors, attitudes, values|
|Home language||The language used by a family in their living place. This could be the family’s native language or one adopted by the family. It may be different from the language they use for business or social events|
|Stereotypical||Materials or objects that represent an oversimplified, biased, or outdated image of a person or people. An example of a stereotype is that women do the cooking|
CAST (2011). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.0. Wakefield, MA: Author.
Derman-Sparks, L., & Edwards, J.o. (2010). Anti-bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Draves, W. A. (1984). How to Teach Adults. Manhattan, KS: Learning Resources Network.
Hanft, B. E., Rush, D. D., Sheldon, M. L. (2004). Coaching Families and Colleagues in Early Childhood. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing, Inc.
Kids Included Together. http://www.kitonline.org/
National Association for the Education of Young Children (1995).Responding to Linguistic and Cultural Diversity Recommendations for Effective Early Childhood Education. Washington, DC: NAEYC. Available at http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/positions/PSDIV98.PDF