Early Childhood Education



Academics in early childhood education generally refer to the specific focus on academic content areas such as mathematics, reading, writing, and other curriculum domains. Although attention to school readiness and to preparing children for success in school has long been part of the early childhood landscape in the United States, controversies over the role and nature of “academics” in early education gained urgency in the 1980s and continue today.

In the context of what was called a back-to-basics movement in education, David Elkind’s books about the “hurried child,” and the “miseducation” of preschoolers sounded an alarm in the field, as he described the pushing down of formal academic content and teaching into the years before kindergarten. At the same time, similar concerns about early academic pressures influenced the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) to develop its position statement on developmentally appropriate practice. In this publication, NAEYC stated that “in recent years, a trend toward increased emphasis on formal instruction in academic skills has emerged in early childhood programs. This trend toward formal academic instruction for younger children is based on misconceptions about early learning” (Bredekamp, 1987, p. 1). The position statement was intended to counter these misconceptions with a different view of early development and learning, and guidelines for a different set of practices.

At the same time, several lines of research sought to explore issues around “academic instruction” in early childhood. Typically, the designs of these studies contrasted “academic instruction,” an “academic focus,” or an “academic curriculum” on one hand, with a “child-centered curriculum” or a “developmentally appropriate focus” on the other. Academic instruction was viewed as necessarily didactic and adult-directed, with the child in a passive role, and emphasizing rote learning or drill-and-practice. Contrasted with this was a form of education in which children chose their activities, adults served as facilitators rather than providing instruction, and in which explicit teaching of skills in mathematics and literacy was considered inappropriate. Results of several studies using this child-centered pedagogy appeared to find disadvantages to the “academic” emphasis, including greater child anxiety and lower motivation on the part of children, without a significant improvement in academic skills except for perhaps some short-term gains in specific knowledge. These results have been found both with economically advantaged and poor children. A well-known longitudinal study in this research tradition was the curriculum comparison study conducted by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, in which outcomes for children who had been randomly assigned to an academically oriented curriculum were compared to those for children in a more child-focused, constructivist curriculum (Schweinhart, Weikart, and Larner, 1986). The researchers interpreted the results as showing clear long-term advantages, especially in the domain of social competence, for the more active, constructivist curriculum rather than the curriculum that emphasized academic skills.

For a number of reasons, these results have not ended the discussion about the place of “academics” in early childhood education. First, the findings of these studies have sometimes been criticized on methodological grounds, and the interpretation of results has been questioned. Second, deep-seated, differing perspectives on the importance of academic instruction persist not only across cultures but also within cultures. Family and community expectations for what children should learn are frequently in conflict with the beliefs of early childhood professionals. Additionally, several new developments later in the 1990s and into the present make the picture more complex than it may have appeared fifteen years ago.

For example, developmental and educational research, especially in the area of literacy, indicates that one can predict later school success from children’s acquisition of specific academic skills such as alphabet knowledge before they enter kindergarten. These kinds of findings have caused even traditional early childhood educators to consider the extent to which they should include some degree of academic instruction in their programs.

Additionally, as every state in the United States has developed or is developing “early learning standards,” academic skills are increasingly emphasized to a greater extent in programs for children below first grade. Although they vary in emphasis, state early learning standards typically include “academic” content areas such as literacy, mathematics, and science, with efforts to link or align these standards to those previously developed for grades K-12. And at the federal level, policy debates over the Congressional reauthorization of Head Start have focused on strengthening its academic components. Similar issues have surfaced in the United Kingdom (see Volume 4) and other countries with changes in education policies.

In an effort to distinguish early learning from that which takes place in later grades in the United States, the term “preacademic” has sometimes been used to describe foundational school readiness skills such as knowledge of shapes, visual perception, copying letters, and so on. Internationally, the IEA Preprimary Project used this term in its “Preacademic Skills Measure.” Some have criticized this terminology as placing emphasis on the value of early learning for its contribution to what is to come later, rather than having value for its own sake.

Part of the difficulty in conceptualizing early “academics” has been definitional. At times, “academics” refers to a certain type of content (e.g., content and skills in literacy, mathematics, science, and so on), and at other times it refers to teaching methods (e.g., decontextualized, adult-directed, and didactic). Additionally, there has been a failure to distinguish between specific academic skills and broader intellectual competencies and dispositions, which some believe are given short shrift or undermined when narrower academic skills are emphasized. Katz argues that by using project work, the early childhood curriculum might focus on “at least a trio of goals: (1) social-emotional development and (2) intellectual development, and (3) the acquisition of meaningful and useful academic skills” (Katz, 1999, p. 4).

Within this context, the issue today may be reframed, moving away from a dichotomous view. Within this reframed perspective, the question is not whether academic skills and content are an appropriate component of early childhood curriculum and teaching, but how these may be integrated and taught in ways that are engaging and effective. To do this, early childhood educators would need to select academic content that is important and appropriate; continue to promote social and emotional competence, teacher-child-family relationships, and positive approaches to learning; prepare teachers to integrate academic content effectively; and embed academic content within appropriate curriculum and teaching strategies including investigation and play. See also Curriculum, Science; Pedagogy, Child-Centered.

Further Readings: Bowman, Barbara, ed. (2002). Love to read: Essays in developing and enhancing early literacy skills of African American children. Washington, DC: National Black Child Development Institute; Bredekamp, S., ed. (1987). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children birth through age 8. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children; Elkind, D. (1987). Miseducation: Preschoolers at risk. New York: Knopf; Fuller, Bruce, Costanza Eggers-Pierola, Susan Holloway, Xiaoyan Liang, and Marylee F. Rambaud (1996). Rich culture, poor markets: Why do Latino parents forgo preschooling? Teachers College Record 97(3), 400-418; Hyson, M. (2003). Putting early academics in their place. Educational Leadership 60(7), 20-23; Katz, L. G. (1999). Curriculum disputes in early childhood education. ERIC Digest. Champaign, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education; Kwon, Y.-I. (2002). Changing curriculum for early childhood education in England. Early Childhood Research and Practice 4(2). Available online athttp://ecrp.uiuc.edu/v4n2/kwon.html; Marcon, Rebecca. (1992). Differential effects of three preschool models on inner-city 4-year-olds. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 7(4), 517-530; New, R. (1999). What should children learn? Making choices and taking chances. Early Childhood Research and Practice 1(2), 1-25; Rescorla, L. A., M. Hyson, and K. Hirsh-Pasek, eds. (1991). Academic instruction in early childhood: Challenge or pressure? New Directions for Child Development, No. 53. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; Schweinhart, L. J., D. P. Weikart, and M. B. Larner (1986). Consequences of the three preschool curriculum models through age 15. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 1, 15-45; Scott-Little, C., S. L. Kagan, and V. S. Frelow (2005). Inside the content: The depth and breadth of early learning standards. University of North Carolina at Greensboro: SERVE Center for Continuous Improvement.

Marilou Hyson