Doing Early Childhood Education Right: From Boston to Nablus

Earlier in February, Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo announced that he would make access to high quality early childhood education (ECE) among his top three priorities in the current legislative session. He stated, “Not only is a renewed commitment to early education and care vital to the current economy by helping working parents-- it's vital to our children's future.” puzzle

DeLeo’s words should invite little controversy; however, his address falls at a time of growing resistance throughout the US to allocating more resources toward ECE. The reason? Critics claim that there is little evidence supporting the impact of ECE on later school performance; that the benefits of ECE only resound with children coming from lower-income households; and most surprisingly, that whatever benefits gained from ECE are short-lived.

In response to DeLeo’s statement and the responses of critics, Dr. Donna Housman – founder of Beginnings School, an early childhood school combining academics with social and emotional development – reflected on what we define as “high quality” ECE. Housman identifies three key components of quality early childhood development:

1) High quality learning experiences start very young, before age 4.

2) Learning the fundamentals of emotional and social intelligence is equally important as the development of cognitive skills.

3) Cognitive skills, such as math and literacy, cannot be taught as isolated subjects; rather, they must be taught via ‘creative play’ in order to not only get the concepts across, but also to teach children about positive learning processes.

These same three lessons are at the core of TYO’s programs. Though our early childhood education program starts at 4 years old, our Women’s Group targets and empowers mothers in our community to provide the positive, supportive, and responsive home environment essential for the education and development of their youngest children. Building the family characteristics of nurture, connection, respect, limit-setting, and responsiveness – through our work with mothers, young children, and the youth to become tomorrow’s parents – are at the core of TYO’s multigenerational approach.

Additionally, our ECE curriculum puts the development of social, emotional, and physical skills at the same level of importance as cognitive skills. In the first week of our 4-5 year old program, children learn not only how to recognize and describe their individual attributes, but through those topics, they also learn about caring for themselves and the qualities of self-efficacy and self-worth. Similarly, our older children ages 6-8 learn about public health issues that they witness at home and in their communities, and through those discussions learn about social connectedness (awareness, and value, of themselves within a larger community).

Along the same line, core cognitive skills (e.g. Arabic and English literacy) are taught with a focus on preparing children to be life-long engaged and active learners. For example, the same week that children learn logic and reasoning skills (through learning how plants grow and learning about basic chemical reactions through building a volcano), they also play a tower-building game to practice dealing appropriately with frustration. The class teacher and volunteers help children to build towers using various blocks and recycled materials; when the towers fall, the teacher and volunteers exhibit a healthy and positive response and then encourage children to try building again. The children observe a healthy response to setbacks and then have a chance themselves to build towers and practice their own skills in coping with frustration.

Perhaps the best lesson to take from Housman’s article is about who can benefit from quality ECE. Housman makes an important counterargument to the misconception that income alone is to blame for achievement gaps between children. She states, “Positive, responsive relationships, rich in quality time and communication, are what influence and shape a child’s growing brain and development… those are family characteristics that are not necessarily linked to income.” We absolutely agree – and not only are the basic factors that constitute quality ECD applicable across income levels, but they are also applicable across borders and should be the standard of all ECE programs. The basic principles of holistic education, teaching social and emotional development alongside cognitive skills, and most importantly starting early, are universal – from Boston MA to Nablus Palestine.

- Niralee, TYO Core Child Program Manager