Promoting quality education for all.

Quality Education Requires More than Math and Reading

Heidi Gibson, Director of Global Schools First, CEI, 
Quality Education Requires More than Math and Reading


For years, childhood education professionals have advocated for early access to early childhood development (ECD) programs as a means of leveling the playing field between better-resourced, more affluent students and more marginalized and vulnerable students. Focusing on early literacy and numeracy skills during the pre-primary and primary years can be a useful way to address achievement gaps. However, ECD programs often feel pressured to spend the bulk of their time on specific literacy and numeracy competencies, ignoring some of the “soft skills” that are critical to development in the early years. These skills, including social-emotional learning and global citizenship competencies, not only increase students’ success in school, but also help prepare them for their future as adults.

These skills are necessary components to quality education and should be accessible to all children. Fortunately, these skills can be taught without expensive textbooks or resources and can build upon what schools are already doing. Recognizing the need to include these skills and tweaking techniques to be more effective can be an easy move toward delivering the quality education that we hope all children receive.

A quality ECD education includes:

  1. A secure sense of self: Developing a sense of one’s own unique identity is a foundational skill for global citizenship education and social-emotional learning. Before we can understand others, we need to understand ourselves. Children should be encouraged to explore their talents and attributes. Many schools develop projects that ask students to identify those things that make them uniquely themselves and then explore the aspects that make their classmates uniquely themselves (for example, giving presentations about themselves or decorating something with things they like). Supporting students in exploring what they view as the critical aspects of their identities can be accomplished even in the earliest school years.
  2. A firm foundation of right and wrong: ECD programs should include exploration of shared universal values, such as honesty, loyalty, fairness, and respect for others, as part of their curriculum. When schools go beyond just teaching curriculum content and try to help students consider right and wrong, they are laying the foundation for ethics. Rather than telling students to act in the “right” way, ECD programs can develop situations that require students to puzzle out their own views about the ethics of those situations. For example, rather than just telling one child to share with another, teachers can act as guides to help students understand concepts such as fairness and respecting others’ feelings.
  3. Empathy and a shared sense of humanity: Empathy is a skill that needs to be specifically taught. Understanding the identities and situations of others is a good basis for developing empathy. Students can explore commonalities by interacting with any individual or group that students identify as “not like us,” such as those of different ages or those from different socio-economic status or racial or ethnic groups. Even using picture books as a tool to explore how different characters might be feeling can be a useful technique to promote students’ consideration of others’ perspectives.
  4. Conflict management:Conflict is an inevitable part of life, especially in the ECD classroom. However, learning to manage disagreements in a productive way builds skills necessary for work and personal life. Teachers need to help students find truly peaceful resolution and build consensus, not just shut down disagreements. Communication skills, including naming their emotions, expressing their own feelings without blame, and active listening, can help students move beyond the conflict and build deeper understanding.
  5. Openness to new people, ideas, and experiences: The wonder years of early childhood are marked by a deep curiosity. Ideally, children are supported in this curiosity – exposed to new experiences, welcomed to observe and question, and encouraged to follow different interests. Access to diversity – including people, cultures, or places – allows students to engage with new things in a positive way.
  6. Deep connection to the planet around them: Spending time outdoors makes us happier and healthier; it also makes us care more about what happens to the planet. Huge issues, such as climate change or biodiversity loss, may be too emotionally stressful for young children. However, nurturing a sense of integration with the natural world develops a relationship that students can continue to draw upon as they grow developmentally ready to engage with larger environmental issues. Even in the early years, incorporating eco-friendly practices into daily life is an important habit to build with students. Help students see how local actions become global in scope when everyone contributes.

Developing these skills does not require a huge new investment in resources. We merely need to provide the time and attention, beginning in early childhood classrooms and beyond, to help students prepare for future success. Sparking students’ engagement with and curiosity about the rest of the world and developing their social-emotional skills needs to be an integral part of the early years education. Equity demands that in addition to focusing on basic academic skills, all young children also should be given opportunities to explore the world, pursue diverse interests, and develop skills, such as managing conflict, that are strongly linked to positive outcomes for students. Readying students to actively contribute to a brighter future for themselves and others is the most important goal a school can have.

Childhood Education International works at the intersection of education, child development, and international development—international development being the actions that build, grow, and strengthen communities and nations.  They believe in empowering communities to create education experiences that are relevant to their education needs, the context of their community, and their unique cultures. Learn more. 

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