By Elizabeth Clarkson Professional Development Specialist, Early Childhood Education and Early Literacy

Early childhood curriculum writers face specific challenges when writing developmentally appropriate curriculum. There are many philosophies that educators draw from that will guide and shape the process of planning early childhood instruction. Regardless of the underlying philosophy, early learning educators need to consider multiple areas of development in their planning process in order to address the needs of the “whole child.” These areas traditionally included cognitive/academic, social, and emotional development.

As research provides more information and the field of early childhood education becomes more robust, researchers and educators recognize the need to address additional areas of childhood development, as well.

Approaches to Learning in Early Childhood Education

One area of early childhood development that programs should include in their planning considerations is termed ‘approaches to learning’ and refers to the attitudes, behaviors, and learning styles children use in social situations. Head Start defines approaches to learning as “the ways in which children learn.” These approaches are useful in acquiring information and knowledge, and by thoughtfully including them in planning, teachers support children in being flexible and resilient when they are faced with change or conflict. The development of positive attitudes and dispositions is also included in this category of approaches to learning.

The Understanding by Design framework is used all over the world to guide curriculum mapping in academic areas but can also be used successfully in early childhood education planning for areas such as approaches to learning. A developmentally appropriate program should consider all these elements when planning and reflecting on their curriculum map.

For example, The New York State Education Department offers a New York State Pre-Kindergarten Foundation for the Common Core includes an Approaches to Learning domain that focuses on four categories:

  • engagement,
  • creativity and imagination,
  • curiosity and initiative,
  • and persistence.

In this example, the Understanding by Design framework can support early childhood education professionals in structuring and organizing their planning to address these categories within the Approaches to Learning domain. By personalizing a school’s curriculum development templates, teachers are able to focus on key questions that are specific to their school culture, planning needs, and long-term goals for children.

Understanding by Design for Early Childhood Curriculum

The Understanding by Design framework has gained popularity both in the United States and internationally because of its straightforward planning process and structure to integrating the elements of curriculum, assessment, and instruction. Two key ideas drive this framework: 1) a focus on teaching, assessing, and learning transfer, and 2) creating units of study by starting with the end in mind. The term “backward design” is often used to conceptualize this type of planning.

Within a school’s curriculum development templates, the Understanding by Design framework supports educators by focusing their planning efforts into three stages. In the case of early childhood curriculum writers, their personalized templates and the Understanding by Design process provide a developmentally appropriate program planning guide. Let’s look at an example of these three stages in relation to New York State’s Approaches to Learning Domain.

Four Approaches to Designing Early Childhood Curriculum

Start here to design early childhood curriculum. This collection of sample unit planning templates reviews four approaches schools take when developing early childhood curriculum.

Explore sample early childhood curriculum templates >>

Stage 1: Identify Desired Results.

Historically, this stage focuses on what students should understand, know, or be able to do. Understanding by Design also asks educators to consider the enduring understandings and essential questions of a unit. It is important to clearly define these elements so lessons within units are both focused and meaningful.

As all early childhood educators will agree, attitudes, behaviors and learning styles of children are important to the development of the whole child. The Understanding by Design framework can be useful in framing non-academic content areas. Let’s look specifically at the category of “curiosity and initiative.” As an early childhood curriculum writer, consider what “big ideas” and “really important questions” children should be thinking about and consider the enduring understanding, essential question, content, and skill examples.

  • An enduring understanding in this category might be: Children show curiosity, interest, and willingness in learning new things and having new experiences.
  • An essential question might sound like: What happens if I move/remove one small piece of a larger/more complex object?
  • A standard broken into its content and skill components might be: I know complex objects are made of smaller parts” and “I can try to take objects apart and/or put them back together again.

Stage 2: Determine Assessment Evidence

The Understanding by Design framework asks teachers to consider how they will know if students have achieved the desired results. In considering the unique needs of young learners, teachers should also consider the many options for students to express their learning, both cognitive and non-academic learning. Teachers should also consider how to document student learning in developmentally appropriate ways. In using the same category of curiosity and initiative, teachers should consider:

  • What does curiosity and initiative look like with young learners? What actions, behaviors, or vocabulary am I likely to see and hear when children are showing curiosity and initiative?
  • Am I mindful of the variety of ways and situations where children can show these skills, such as social situations, self-help skills, and physical play?
  • Am I interested in showing varying degrees of mastery (beginning to develop, etc.) in areas and if so, do my methods match my philosophy?
  • Have I explained these standards or goals to families in ways that match our philosophy?
  • Does the platform or method in which I share information with families match our philosophy (traditional report card, photo sharing, written description, etc.)?

Stage 3: Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction

Some teachers choose to organize lesson plans by day and time; others might choose to organize by area in the room. However a teacher decides to structure their thinking, remember to include areas that address the social, emotional, and physical environment, as well. When planning learning experiences for young children spend time considering the environment, materials that support independent exploration, and a teachers’ role in supporting investigation. For example:

  • How can I structure the classroom routines to encourage behaviors associated with curiosity and initiative?
  • What elements and materials should be present in the environment so children have opportunities to practice these approaches to learning in real and authentic ways?
  • What are verbal and non-verbal prompts that adults can use to support this exploration?

Early learning and early childhood curriculum writers face unique challenges because of the developmental characteristics of young children. Curriculum needs to be both developmentally appropriate and responsive to these needs. Without a clear understanding of the purpose and desired outcomes of an early childhood education program, educators can fall into the trap of planning fun activities without an overall intention. Educators should also view early childhood curriculum through the lens of developmentally appropriate and responsive practice or they risk focusing on the traditional academic content at the exclusion of the necessary early childhood elements of exploration, curiosity, and authentic experiences.

Review early childhood-specific curriculum development templates >>

Dr. Elizabeth Clarkson began her career in North Carolina, which she still considers her home. After earning a B.A. in birth-kindergarten education at Appalachian State University, she started her first teaching position as a PreK teacher with North Carolina Public Schools and was named the 2004 Teacher of the Year for her school.

With an interest in young children and international education, Elizabeth completed a short study program in Reggio Emilia, Italy and completed her M.A. in Educational Psychology in Colorado. 

Elizabeth served as an Early Reading First Literacy Coach for United Way of Greater Atlanta, working with teachers of prekindergarten students.  In 2013, Elizabeth completed her Ed.D in Educational Leadership from the University of Georgia with a dissertation focusing on the relationship between a specific type of professional development, young children’s literacy outcomes, and teacher practices. 

Elizabeth began her international career in administration when she moved to Guayaquil, Ecuador and served as the Founding Academic Director for Colegio Menor, Campus Samborondón, a private bilingual school providing an American-style education to Ecuadorian children and their families.  She continued her international principalship in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil at the American School of Rio de Janeiro as the Lower School Principal. 

Elizabeth volunteers her time with AdvancED as a school and district level External Review team member. Currently, Elizabeth is a consultant focusing on early childhood education and early literacy. 

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