Early Childhood Education

Curriculum, Social


A social curriculum, in early childhood education consists of all the things that educators intentionally do to support young children’s social learning and development. While every child gains the core of his or her social learning in the family or home setting, nevertheless educators have something important to add. Especially in our complex world today, educators can be key supporters to the family in fostering social development and helping children learn to take their first steps in functioning outside the home and beginning to participate in a diverse society.

Implementing a social curriculum has two main components. The first part involves creating a learning environment that promotes a sense of caring and belonging. Grouping practices, for example, set the stage for what kind of community can evolve within the classroom. The second part involves the active teaching of those social skills, concepts, and knowledge that children need to interact competently with peers and adults and to understand and navigate their social world.

Implementing the social curriculum is closely related to promoting emotional development, but nevertheless, a distinction can be made. Although it also possible to merge social and emotional education into one “social-emotional” domain, the emotional curriculum focuses on helping children develop and maintain healthy attachments to parents and caregivers, trust the security of their environment, understand their own and others’ emotions, and gain skills such as empathy, emotional regulation and expression, and kindness and caring. In contrast, the social curriculum builds on those emotional foundations and assists children in getting along with others (gain social skills) and learning to understand the rules, roles, relations, and institutions of society (acquire social/moral knowledge).


The Social Environment

Research has shown a consistent link between high-quality early childhood environments and positive social and academic outcomes for children. Teachers can foster social development through setting up environments that promote social interaction, dramatic play, sharing, cooperation, and awareness of diversity. In addition, they can forge a caring classroom that communicates respect for others (Stone, 2003) and democratic decision making (Vance and Weaver, 2003). Educators can also dramatically influence classroom social dynamics through grouping practices. Three approaches to arranging the composition of children have received the most attention: mixed-age grouping, looping, and inclusion. Each approach presents different opportunities for children’s social learning by providing different relationships with adults and peers.

In mixed-age grouping, a classroom is organized to contain children that span two or more years of age. The wider span of ages requires teachers to plan in a more individualized way and create a more differentiated approach to instruction. Studies have shown that multiage grouping allows for more cooperation (less competition), peer modeling and teaching, and increased development of responsibility and perspective taking skills, and that it has beneficial academic and social outcomes for children (Katz, Evangelou, and Hartman, 1990). Findings are particularly strong for low-income children who show benefits in achievement, social development, self-concept ratings, and more positive attitudes toward school when in multiage as opposed to age-segregated settings. Multiage grouping has been used successfully in public schools, preschools, and child-care programs (where it is sometimes called “family grouping”), and is fundamental to the Montessori method, which uses three-year age groupings (under ages 3, 3-6, 6-9, and 9-12).

In looping, a group of children keep their same teacher(s) over a span of years. In the United States, this practice is not widespread but has existed since 1913 under different names: teacher rotation, family-style learning, student-teacher progression, and multiyear instruction. Looping is the norm in many European countries, such as Norway and Italy, where the teacher remains with her classroom throughout the entire five or six years of elementary school; and it is also fundamental to the Waldorf method. The belief is that teachers thereby know students better and are able to individualize and provide appropriate instruction as well as use more positive approaches to discipline. Looping also saves instructional time because the routines and orientation established in the first year continues in subsequent years but also has social benefits, allowing children more time to develop relationships with teachers and peers. Parents and teachers too develop stronger working relationships that allow them to send consistent expectations to children about the importance of schooling and behavior. Children and parents who need more time to develop connections to school can do so.

Inclusion refers to integrating children with disabilities into the daily life, routines, and social interactions of their natural environments and is conceptualized as a benefit to all children. Social integration in inclusive classrooms tends not to occur unless teacher support is provided, but when teachers are trained and supported, then young children with disabilities show more interaction and higher levels of play in inclusive classes as opposed to segregated ones. Typically developing children can become more accepting of human differences, more aware of other children’s needs, and more comfortable around children with disabilities. To promote integration, teachers need to coach children in the skills of entering and sustaining play, sharing meaning, attending to verbal and nonverbal cues, and appreciating their similarities and differences—skills that will serve them well the rest of their lives (Diamond and Stacey, 2003).


Teaching Social Skills, Concepts, and Knowledge

A quality early childhood program promotes young children’s capacity to learn in a social setting by helping them learn to engage in strong, positive interactions with both adults and peers. Individual differences in children’s social competence are readily apparent in groups of young children, and unless these are addressed, children’s academic and learning outcomes cannot be maximized. All young children, in particular those from stressful and nonnurturing environments, benefit from a proactive social curriculum.

Dramatic and imaginative play provides children with the best opportunities to learn to notice and appreciate other children’s points of view. Ideas and materials have to be negotiated and agreed upon and problems solved as conflicts arise. By encouraging and monitoring children’s social play and intervening in a supportive way when necessary, teachers can help young children learn to use words, take turns, lead and follow, and control aggression. To avoid inadvertently widening the gap between different children’s social knowledge and skills, teachers must create alternative learning situations for children to practice skills. “Floor time” (Greenspan, 2002) with a trusted adult or peer allows children to become more confident in play. For a child who has particular difficulties with social play, the following are some positive ways to intervene (Landy, 2002, p. 294):

• coach the child in words to use in a situation,

• help the child see the connection between his action and the other child’s responses,

• suggest some ways for the child to enter the group and join the play,

• coach the child to respond to other’s invitations,

• coach the child to learn and use others’ names,

• show the child how to join the flow of the play so as not to disrupt it,

• encourage a rejected child to try again.

Children can also be taught the skills of social problem solving so that they are better able to negotiate, take turns, and solve problems verbally rather than physically. Through direct instruction, stories and formal and informal conversations, teachers can talk about consequences, explain tasks, talk about the sequence of events, and ask questions that help children consider alternatives. In this way, they teach and model the components of social problem solving that become internalized into private speech. Some children, particularly those who have difficulties with attention or impulse control, need intensive support in learning and practicing these skills through such techniques as role-play and structured discussion.

Children demonstrate social skills with adults when they seek information, help, permission and attention in appropriate ways; listen and follow directions; converse, show, and share. The social curriculum includes instruction and guidance in appropriately and consistently using adults as resources.


Education for Social/Moral Knowledge

In primary school, the study of people is called social studies and involves looking at how people live and work, now and in past times, how their families and societies are organized, and how people are shaped by their everyday contexts. In preschool, teachers implement the equivalent when they provide experiences, activities, and materials that foster learning about the social world and its organization. When teachers go beyond those basics to teach about rules and conventions, fairness, authority, and welfare, they are enriching the social studies curriculum to include a moral domain.

There are many ways for teachers to create topics or themes and sequence their curriculum to help children master social/moral knowledge; different formal curricula offer alternative approaches. For example, the early childhood program known as Creative Curriculum organizes the components of “social studies” for preschool children into the four categories: spaces and geography, people and how they live, people and the environment, and people and the past (Dodge, Colker, and Heroman, 2002). These four topics roughly correspond to what, in later grades, will come to be called geography, sociology, ecology, and history. Through these studies, children delve into familiar topics in many preschool and child-care programs, such as their community, maps, families, jobs, school and home rules, caring for the environment, and growth and change over time. The Montessori primary level for children aged 3-6 includes a broad “Cultural Curriculum” with many subtopics, including the study of people and cultures in other countries, music, art, world geography, plants, animals, and the solar system. Montessori students always start with the biggest question and the widest scope before moving to more specific questions and topics. They learn about the whole earth before learning about the continents, and then the countries. This approach is intended to teach them to respect other living beings and the earth and to feel connected to the global human family.

A range of approaches to a Social Curriculum can be found in the early learning standards formulated across the United States in recent years in response to federal policies such as the Head Start Child Outcome Framework and the Good Start, Grow Smart requirements. A comprehensive content analysis of state early learning standards, drawing from the National Education Goals Panel’s five dimensions of school readiness, categories the curriculum contents into four parts:

• Physical—knowledge about the specific properties, characteristics, and facts related to the physical world;

• Logico-mathematical—knowledge about mathematics or high-order thinking about relationships, such as same/different, cause and effect, part/whole;

• Social—knowledge about roles of persons or groups within society;

• Social-conventional—knowledge about the conventions and moral rules of society, the home, classroom, or school.

This analysis revealed that state early learning standards put much less emphasis on the two kinds of social knowledge standards than on either the physical or logico-mathematical areas of knowledge (Scott-Little, Kagan, and Frelow, 2005).

Most early childhood educators believe that young children have intense interests in social and moral knowledge, and that teachers should respond by encouraging them to ask questions, dialogue with others, and think about the reasons underlying social and moral ideas. When teachers approach the teaching and learning of social/moral knowledge in an inquiry-oriented way, children are exposed to rich factual and conceptual information that they can use to construct their own knowledge. In this way, children’s thinking grows increasingly abstract and complex with age. For example, young children are interested in the following social and moral concepts that can be featured in the curriculum through books, role plays, dramatic play materials, field trips, and class speakers, which draw attention to the following:

• age categories and relationships,

• gender,

• race (skin color),

• families and kinship,

• friendship,

• ownership and bosses,

• money, buying, and selling,

• social conventions—good manners,

• morality—justice and fairness,

• morality—respect and authority.

In all of these areas, young children at first have simple and concrete ideas about them that may contain “mistakes” by adult standards (“a brother is someone who wears pants with pockets,” “I’m a girl, but when I’m four, I’ll be a boy”) (Edwards, 1986; Edwards, Logue, and Russell, 1983). Children’s early social concepts and moral knowledge represent their best approximation of adult knowledge. When adults listen carefully to a child’s point of view, encourage discussion, answer questions, and provide stimulating books, social encounters, activities, and thinking games, they can strengthen the child’s identification with adults, elicit willing cooperation, and stimulate young children to gradually re-structure their social and moral thinking toward greater maturity.

In summary, teachers support social learning through a social curriculum that includes opportunities for children to do the following:

• learn from each other through play and problem solving,

• model the language and social skills of more competent peers and trusted adults,

• question, discuss, and receive age-appropriate information about the social and moral issues and categories that most concern them,

• participate in setting fair and understandable classroom rules,

• regroup from their mistakes and have enough time and opportunity to practice their emerging skills, and

• master the social skills, concepts, and knowledge that they need to fully participate through multiple pathways.

See also Curriculum, Emotional Development; Development, Emotional; Development, Social.

Further Readings: Diamond, Karen E., and Susan Stacey (2003). The other children at preschool: Experiences of typically developmentally children. In Carol Copple, ed. Readings on teaching young children in a diverse society. Washington, DC: NAEYC, pp. 135139; Dodge, Diane T., Laura J. Colker, and Cate Heroman (2002). The creative curriculum for preschool. 4th ed. Washington, DC: Teaching Strategies; Edwards, Carolyn (1986). Promoting social and moral development in young children: Creative approaches for the classrooms. New York: Teachers College; Edwards, Carolyn, Mary Ellin Logue, and Anna Russell (1983). Talking with young children about social ideas. Young Children 39, 12-20. Available online at http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/famconfacpub/12; Greenspan, Stanley, I. (2002). The secure child: Helping children feel safe and confident in an insecure world. Cambridge, MA: DaCapo Press; Katz, Lillian., Demetra Evangelou, and Jeanette A. Hartman (1990). The case for mixed-age grouping in early education. Washington, DC: NAEYC; Landy, Sarah (2002). Pathways to Competence: Encouraging Healthy Social and Emotional Development in Young Children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes; Scott-Little, Catherine, Sharon L. Kagan, and Victoria S. Frelow (2005). Inside the content: The breadth and depth of early learning standards. Greensboro, NC: SERVE. Available online at www.serve.org; Stone, Jeannette G. (2003). Communicating respect. In Carol Copple, ed. Readings on teaching young children in a diverse society. Washington, DC: NAEYC, pp. 41-42; Vance, Emily, and Patricia J. Weaver (2003). Using class meetings to solve problems. In Carol Copple, ed. Readings on teaching young children in a diverse society. Washington, DC: NAEYC, pp. 43-44.

Carolyn Pope Edwards and Mary Ellin Logue