Host: Hey everybody and welcome to Well Said, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s podcast where we talk with students, faculty and staff about what’s going on on campus and around the world. And today we’re talking about early childhood education with Margaret Burchinal, a research scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute and a research professor in developmental psychology.
Host: Let’s start out by talking about the organization that you work with every day, the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. What is this program and what do researchers there focus on?
Burchinal: FPG is 50 years old. It was started as a research institute to look at early childhood issues. And it was started to really, in part, address issues like early childhood education. The Abecedarian Project was one of the first projects at FPG. Over those 50 years, there’s really been two strong themes or strands of research here. One has to do with child care and what constitutes good quality child care, evaluations of programs, development of measures of quality of child care and evaluating whether HeadStart, whether Pre-K programs, whether community-based programs, how good they are and how does that relate to how well children are doing. The other strand that we just have a long history of contributing is looking at children with special needs, especially young children with special needs. And so over the 50 years, there’s been a focus on children with autism, children with Fragile X, children with other developmental disabilities, and looking at what kind of interventions work well for these children, especially for parents with young children, what kind of family supports help the families, help the children and a technical assistance for states who are looking at what kind of programs they have for children with special needs and providing assistance to those states to try to help them make sure that they’re providing the best programs.
Host: So, why is early childhood education so important? What are children learning during this period of their lives?
Burchinal: OK. So, it’s clear now and everybody totally buys the fact that what happens in the first five years of life are really important. They’re important for the developing brain. They’re important for developing the kinds of skills that children need to navigate life. You know, just on the side of brain development, in the first year of life, children’s neurons, there’s a proliferation of neurons that then get pruned back and as networks develop in, as children actually learn, your visual cortex gets defined and pathways get established and so the brain becomes a very efficient processor of information. A lot of that is happening in the first two or three years of life and it’s really clear that how well that happens, in part, is determined by what happens with the child. So, for a child, if the world is a predictable place where people care about you and that your needs are important to the care givers and that you can trust that good things are going to happen. When that happens with children, they become curious. They really want to learn about the world and they want to try to figure it out. During those first years, you know, as language emerges, as children really start establishing relationships with people that are really bilateral, where it starts out with parents, where the parents are really scaffolding this relationship, and then by the time children start school at age five, they need to know “how do you establish a social relationship? What do you have to do for somebody to be your friend? What does it mean to be a friend?” You know, how do you develop these expectations and knowledge and sense of what kind of behaviors are appropriate and what kinds of behaviors are not appropriate. How you learn about the world. How do, you know, how do you develop a sense of language of interest in in science and, you know, just learning about the whole world. All of that’s going on in the first five years.
Host: The most logical follow-up question then is what makes for a good, high-quality early childhood education? What should be going on in the classroom?
Burchinal: You know, when I was growing up after World War II, mothers stayed home and, you know, mothers were the ones who were responsible for doing that. And fathers played a role, but mostly it was the mothers. And then by the time I was in college, mothers were going to work because it became necessary for both parents to work in order to have the kind of lifestyle that most families wanted. By 1980 or 90 — especially by 1990 — 75 percent of preschoolers had, all their parents were working. And even 50 percent of infants and toddlers had parents that were working. And so, this created a world in which child care became normative. So, families had to find child care, they had to figure out what they could afford and what they valued and try to figure out how that match their schedule, their budgets, their transportation — all of these became big issues that we’ve been trying to deal with as a country now for 25-30 years. This issue of what is good child care. I mean all parents want their children to thrive. And so, it became really important to try to understand what it is about child care that helps children develop. So, under what conditions do children show bigger gains in language skills and social skills and early academic skills, and under what conditions, you know, do they show smaller gains? And the research really suggested that having caregivers who are warm and sensitive, who are responsive to the children, that’s really critical, that that is like the necessary condition. Everybody likes to be liked, but young children need somebody who can take care of them. They can’t do it on their own. But then in addition, there was growing evidence that they needed people who talked to them, who kind of understood where they were cognitively and were always stretching those boundaries. So, you know, if you had a good idea — like my son went through a phase where he loved dinosaurs. We were always talking about dinosaurs when he was about two or three. I would throw in things like “Oh, look that’s a red dinosaur. And look over there, there’s a red ball. Do you think that dinosaur would want eat that?” But just always trying to extend, take what the child’s really interested in and use that to push them into learning something new and different, but do it in a way where it was fun for the child. Now that is ideal child care. That’s ideal life. If you can have that under any circumstances it’s pretty good. But so this is why we’re looking for, but trying to measure that is really difficult because it’s hard enough to do when you’re a parent — you know you maybe have two children at home under the age of 4 — but if you’ve got a classroom of 20 kids, 20 four-year-olds or even 15 four-year-olds, trying to figure out how to do this in a way that engages all of them and keeps — especially, you know, the more antsy kids from getting bored and bumping the kid next to them — it’s a real challenge. And this is the challenge of trying to figure out what is good child care and how do you set it up so that all children are benefiting.
Host: Two terms that come up in your research are “scaffolding” and “intentional teaching.” So, what do you those two things mean and why are they important?
Burchinal: So, scaffolding is what most parents do intuitively. So, you’re trying to engage the child and trying to provide them with information in a way that they can understand, that stretches their knowledge. So, you know, whether it’s adding colors into a discussion of dinosaurs, whether it’s talking about how many kids in the classroom have birthdays in June and what is June like, how is that different than December. So, you know, it’s really trying to infuse into any conversation opportunities to engage children and extend their knowledge. And, you know, if you do it, it’s really fun because kids get engages, you know, you kind of are just feeding off of each other. When you don’t do it, the kids look at you like, “What are you talking about?” So, when you don’t manage to do it you oftentimes end up with disengaged, bored kids and caregivers who also are probably kind of bored and get disengaged because they’re not getting that kind of, you know, mutual feedback. So, intentional teaching is figuring out what it is you think that these children need to know, and determining a plan as to how you’re going to make sure that they have an opportunity to learn it. So, you might with, say 2-year-olds, decide that children need to learn colors. And so, as part of intentional learning then, what you would want to do is set up lots of cases where you can show examples of different colors and lots of cases where it’s clear for the child what is red and what’s not red. So, as part of the intentional learning you would be thinking what does the child need to now in order to learn this and how can I set it up in a way that they will learn it, which involves is engaging and hopefully scaffolding.
Host: You’ve already mentioned a few ways that caregivers and educations are already using these things, but can you give a few more examples of how these can be used in the classroom? What does it actually look like?
Burchinal: For babies, it would be a classroom where teachers are warm and sensitive, feed them, but mostly talked to them and, you know, just catch their eye, make them laugh, you know, engage in babbling exchanges with them. For a 1-year-old, it might be, you know, both a combination of being responsive and sensitive, but again really trying to make sure that you’re doing the intentional teaching where you have several constructs that you think 1-year-olds really need to learn — like bigger or smaller — and make sure that your building that into the kinds of activities, you know, the conversation you’re having with the kids as they work on activity for, like for the 1-and 2-year-olds. For like 3- to 5-year-olds, it might be making sure that you’re setting up activities that have evidence that they actually produce the kinds of outcomes that you’d like to see. So, like there’s some wonderful programs that introduce language and make sure that children learn a wide variety of vocabulary words and, really, you know kind of like science and there’s a set of lessons that the teacher can use and adapt for her class that hopefully engages children and that the teacher could figure out what out of those lessons her children would really like and go through the sequence in a way that supports learning. You know, there might be something similar for like exposing children to early math. I think that this is something that we see a lot more of in elementary school. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to see more of it in early education and child care, but it needs to be programs that engage children and and are fun for children and that really we know have positive effects.