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What Are Signs of Quality in Early Learning Settings?

There are numerous ways to judge the quality of early childhood education settings.

Some programs voluntarily seek accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children. NAEYC sets standards in 10 areas, such as staff qualifications, curriculum, physical environment and relationships with children and families.

States also may use quality rating and improvement systems to evaluate child care and other learning programs. To make such systems user-friendly, they often use a recognizable symbol, such as Pennsylvania’s Keystone STARS program, which awards up to four stars.

At a recent EWA seminar, experts offered journalists practical tips for identifying signs of quality when visiting preschool programs and other early learning settings. One key tip: Watch how teachers interact with children.

For example, a conversation with a child playing with blocks can be a learning opportunity, a chance to bring in math, science and literacy, said Angela Searcy of the Erickson Institute in Chicago. “Play is just play until we get involved,” she said.

The interactions between caregivers and very young children can also be telling, Searcy said. Teachers should be engaging with infants and toddlers, responding to their babbles and motions.

(Read an EWA blog post about the session here.)

The YMCA of Metro Chicago suggests a variety of characteristics to look for:

  • The environment should be warm and welcoming, socially and culturally appropriate and offer individual attention.
  • The classroom should have well-defined, accessible activity areas with materials that are plentiful and organized, not cluttered.
  • Teachers should be using advanced language, asking lots of open-ended questions and following children’s interests.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children highlights the following traits to look for in high quality preschool programs:

  • children interacting with caring adults;
  • active hands-on and “minds-on” play and learning;
  • connecting prior knowledge and skills with new knowledge and skills; and
  • teacher-guided learning that encourages children to take responsibility for their own learning.

The organization also has identified some warning signs of poor quality. These include the use of worksheets, flashcards or toys that can be used in only one way. Another is teachers who tell children how to do something instead of asking questions to help them learn. Still another is the failure to communicate with parents.