Two competing narratives have taken root in communities of early-childhood education policy and practice:
On one hand, an increased emphasis on numeracy and literacy in a child’s early years comes at the expense of developing the whole child, including the social-emotional learning and executive functioning that have a profound impact on later learning. On the other hand, adopting whole-child curricula in kindergarten that widen the aperture of key learning outcomes to incorporate social interaction, self-regulation, and other psychosocial development milestones puts academic progress at risk.
Such a distinction presents a false choice, with serious implications for student outcomes.
Skepticism of whole-child curricula is, in some ways, not misplaced. But it is outdated. In decades past, some whole-child curricula failed to provide educators with all the resources they needed to address some of the most fundamental dimensions of early-childhood development and foundational learning. While early versions of this approach did not always incorporate explicit attention to all elements of children’s learning and development, educators have made great strides in addressing the core elements of learning that matter most for later development.
Many school and district leaders still remember an approach to social-emotional development that competes for class time and attention with the development of foundational math and literacy skills.
Today, the early-childhood field has evolved to combine rigorous academics with professional supports that enable teachers to consistently address social-emotional development.
While these supports were not always treated as essential elements of the whole-child approach it-self—in fact, curricula of all kinds were too often separated from the critical training that any educator needs to be successful—that time is long gone. Today, whole-child curricula can incorporate both the essential foundational elements of children’s learning and development, and also the key skills and tools that educators need to effectively implement it.
Many school and district leaders still remember an approach to social-emotional development that competes for class time and attention with the development of foundational math and literacy skills. They wrestle, in turn, with the perception that an emphasis on the whole child is at odds with academic knowledge that will be measured in the 3rd grade.
But the growing push for more academics in early grades is often rooted in claims regarding whole-child approaches that are hardly representative of the sort of comprehensive curriculum and supports offered today.
In a recent evaluation of the Seattle Public Preschool Program by the National Institute for Early Education Research, students educated using either of two whole-child curricula made gains in all measured domains, including language, literacy, and mathematics. Based on tests administered at the beginning and end of the 2017-2018 year, the students’ gains in language and literacy surpassed those of a nationally representative sample of kids who took the same tests. Beyond that, children also improved on measures of executive functioning, including key mental processes and skills like working memory and effectively shifting attention between tasks.
These improvements reflect an evolution of the field in recent years that includes increased emphasis on professional development and coaching for teachers and administrators, as well as the introduction of assessment tools that are more closely aligned with specific curriculum. Educators can now access increasingly sophisticated professional-development resources to translate the diversity of developmental progress and learning experiences in their classroom into an approach that helps all students make progress against key milestones, both developmental and academic.
The promising Seattle Public Preschool Program results were the result of significant planning and investment. The program—established in 2014 by voter approval of a $58 million property tax levy—not only provides educators with an evidence-based, whole-child-centered curriculum, but also with customized training in its implementation and ongoing instructional coaching. Lead preschool teachers are required to hold at least a bachelor’s degree in early-childhood education and assistant teachers an associate’s degree. The program utilizes a teacher compensation model that supports retention of highly-effective teachers. Children attend the program six hours a day, 180 days a year.
No curriculum alone is a silver bullet, but an evidence-based whole-child curriculum that is implemented with fidelity by well-trained teachers provides the best opportunity to facilitate comprehensive child development and school readiness. Whole-child curricula are a critical part of a broader commitment to creating safe, nurturing, high-quality learning environments for all children.
The Every Student Succeeds Act and other shifts in federal policy that encourage districts to take a more holistic approach to a child’s development and to prioritize and begin gathering data on social-emotional learning are increasingly enabling these improvements. ASCD has argued for such an expansion of the definition of student success since at least 2007, when it began promoting its Whole Child Initiative, which has since gained the support of 75 organizations worldwide, including the American Association of School Administrators, American School Health Association, and the National School Boards Association.
The push toward the academicization of early-childhood curricula by some policymakers and even researchers misses both the mood and the urgency in the entire education field right now, as the entire pre-K-12 system should be grappling with how to provide more continuity in addressing the whole-child. The field cannot allow outdated and misleading assumptions about whole-child curricula to regress early-childhood education.