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Early learning is not the same as secondary learning or post-secondary learning. Pre-K to grade 3 is a unique period in the lives of students during which there is the greatest impact on a child’s development

Most brain development happens during this formative stage of life, as well as life changing experiences that can psychologically influence a child’s personality. Both of these things can determine the future academic and social success of a child. 

Given its importance, it’s essential to look at the major challenges faced by schools during early childhood education.

Education is one of those areas where all the major environmental forces play a role in shaping discourse. The political, economic, societal and technological climate all influence what we know as early childhood education.

Sprig Learning is committed to educational equity and ensuring every child has a fair shot at success. Part of upholding such a commitment involves looking at the current early learning landscape and identifying its biggest challenges. 

In order to bring equity to education, these systemic challenges, for  early learning in schools and programs, need to be examined.


What is Early Learning Anyway?

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization defines early learning as the period between birth and eight years of age. Both formal and information education provided to children during this period is referred to as early childhood education. The National Association for the Education of Young Children agrees with this definition, and promotes high-quality early learning during this stage of life. 

There are government preschool programs like Head Start and other private nurseries that are entrusted to prepare children for school. Once in kindergarten, early education continues up to grade 3, which roughly corresponds to age eight for most children.


The 5 Major Challenges in Early Learning

The criteria for picking five challenges strictly came down to the ubiquity of their existence. Often, they are root causes for all other challenges. Before addressing anything else, it’s important to recognize the issues that are an impediment to the advancement of accessible high-quality early childhood education.

Only by acknowledging the existence of these 5 challenges, will it be possible to think of innovative solutions that deal with them in the short term, and develop the necessary acumen to deal with them in the long term.


Lack of Time

Teachers in preschools, kindergarten and the earlier elementary grades have some of the most strenuous jobs. This is especially the case in preschools, where they are tasked with teaching concepts and skills that are brand new to children. Furthermore, many children have not yet learned the necessary social skills to cooperate with other young learners. 

It’s possible to identify the critical goals for childhood development in certain educational areas. But given the state of affairs, more often than not, such goals take a back seat to more immediate health, well-being and safety concerns.

Consider the Greater East Texas Community Action Program (GETCAP) Head Start program in Nacogdoches, Texas. Rosa Gonzales, a teacher working in the program, talks about the mandate of disinfecting all playing areas and the designation of children into smaller groups for safety during the pandemic. With programs such as Head Start tending to children, cleanliness is as big a priority, the responsibility of which is passed down to the educators.

Smaller groups also make it more difficult to tend to the needs of every child. Educators feel overworked in being burdened with more administrative duties, such as cleaning and management. Not being able to devote as much time as they wanted to teaching, they can get disheartened, leading to burnout in the long run.

Weldon Bread, the director of the GETCAP Head Start program, describes how they have invested in a contact tracing program to keep track of those going in and out of the classrooms. It’s again a case of doing absolutely whatever it takes to keep everyone healthy and safe. 

As important as operational investments are, it’s reported that there are little to no virtual learning devices in Head Start programs. Educators who feel overburdened with administrative duties could make use of more education related resources that would optimize their schedules. Greater priority on educational investments would allow educators to devote more time to teaching.


Lack of Pay

EdSurge conducted many interviews with early childhood educators and found that the lower pay grade in comparison to k-12 educators (already considered an underpaid group), had many adverse effects. It contributed to lack of well-being, reduced longevity in the profession, and lowered the educational quality offered in courses for ECE careers. 

Cindy Decker of Tulsa Educare was stumped by the low staff-to-child ratio, which prevented the program from committing to any new strategic decisions. Most of the energy and focus was spent on ensuring the functioning of the day-to-day operations. 

It’s a vicious cycle, where the lack of pay discourages people from entering the ECE sector. Fewer personnel leads to more work for those who do join. This is a major hurdle, especially considering the lack of paid planning time, where teachers have to work outside of school hours to plan lessons. 

Noticing such undesirable working conditions, even fewer people are motivated to join the early learning workforce. This in turn does not create any pressure to increase pay because no one lobbies for the profession. Thus the cycle continues.


Lack of Professional Development and Training

The lack of professionalization and affordable higher education options for educators is a big reason why there is a teacher shortage. As with any other professions, educators want adequate qualifications to enter the workforce and progress in their careers.

There aren’t enough educators who attend university courses related to teaching, present at workshops or make observational visits. For early childhood educators, the absence of such activities is even more pronounced as it doesn’t require the same level of qualification as a k-12 teaching job. 

For example, some states in the US require you to have an associate degree to teach a preschool, but many others require no training at all.

It’s the school districts that often have to cover the gaps when it comes to insufficient pre-service training. But even in schools, educators entering the workforce do not always feel that they have an established career path.

A significant share of teachers report not receiving key support in their first year such as “regular supportive communication with principals and others”, “observation and feedback on their teaching”, “seminars for beginning teachers”, “common planning time”, etc. In high-poverty schools, it’s a higher share of teachers who report not receiving such support.

Schools and postsecondary ECE programs have to work together to establish ongoing training for educators, where there is ample opportunity for them to improve their craft, and advance their careers.


Battling The Early Learning Slide

There are concerns that there are unmet learning milestones due to lengthy school closures caused by the pandemic. However, all hope is not lost. There is an opportunity to identify student learning gaps and rectify them early in a child’s learning journey. 

Whether there is a “learning loss”, or missed “learning opportunities”, it’s possible to unblock the learning pathways. It’s possible to begin the road to recovery using the level of learning that was previously retained as a starting point. 

Teaching students how to read, write, add and subtract are some of the fundamental blocks of early learning. These are absolutely essential skills that serve any student for their remaining school years.

Thus, it’s important that the teaching strategy not only focus on completing a particular curriculum, but rather emphasize the assessment of young learners to discover the above unmet learning needs.


Lack of Resources

The US public school system was reported to have a funding gap of $150 billion annually. School districts with a higher percentage of low-income and minority populations often bear the brunt of this underfunding. 

Things are slowly changing. The Build Back Better Act, passed earlier this November,  is a legislative package aimed at expanding preschool access across the US, among many other things. Over the first three years, $18 billion will be available to states that want to establish or expand their pre-kindergarten offerings for 4 and 5-year-olds who are not yet enrolled in kindergarten. This means that 20 million underprivileged children, who would otherwise be left out of the system, would now be privy to a high-quality education.

But providing access  is only half the battle. Ensuring high-quality learning requires making strategic investments in resources, people, processes and technology.  

There is unprecedented funding available to invest in such resources, but it’s important that early learning schools and programs strategically evaluate their needs to choose the resources that maximize support for their educators and student body.


The Solutions To These 5 Challenges

The challenges presented are systemic. Two of them deal with the needs of educators, all of them deal with the needs of children, and one of them deals with needs of education programs. 

In the next blog post, Sprig Learning will do a deep dive on each challenge, and the solutions available to address them. By identifying the biggest challenges, it’s possible to set the vision to address them.