Essential Practices

The Standards represent expectations for young children’s learning and continual growth in all areas: intellectual, physical, and emotional.

Updated and expanded, they are grounded in foundational knowledge about how young children develop and learn. Research confirms that successful approaches to supporting early learning are based on knowledge of the whole child, including a child’s individual strengths, characteristics, and culture; that learning is dependent upon experiences; that developmental domains are interconnected; that relationships and play are fundamental to a children’s learning; and that the intentionality of teachers and caregivers can greatly enhance growth and development.

  1. Educating all children:
    All children differ in their intellectual, physical, and emotional abilities and potential; and children frequently develop at different rates. Some require a great deal of time and support, (Rhode Island Department of Education, 2012) while others are fiercely independent. Regardless of a child’s pace of development or inherent capacity, research has confirmed that the earliest years are the most critical, particularly for any child who might be struggling: “There is an urgent and substantial need to identify as early as possible those infants and toddlers in need of services to ensure that intervention is provided when the developing brain is most capable of change.” (NECTAC, 2011)

    • Children with disabilities: The Standards represent expectations for all children. However specific timelines and indicators may need to be adapted for individual children, particularly those with disabilities. Some children may need more individualized or more intensive instruction than others in order to make progress. Other children may require accommodations to their environment, or they may need adaptive or assistive technology in order to participate in learning experiences that promote progress. Teachers need to understand that all children should be provided with a variety of ways to demonstrate what they know and can do. Differentiating instruction and individualizing its intensity and frequency through a data-based, decision-making process* will ensure that all children are meeting these important early learning standards.
    • Supporting children who are dual language learners: In Rhode Island, the ethnic diversity within communities also means that young learners bring a wide range of linguistic experiences to their early care and education settings. Children who speak a language other than English in their homes and communities have varying levels of exposure to and competence in English when they enter early care and education programs. While confirming the importance of supporting these children to learn English, The Standards also clearly recognizes these children’s home language as a source of tremendous strength, and its guidelines and indicators promote the continued development and growth of every child’s home language as the child learns English—thus the term “dual language learners” (DLLs).
    • A child’s home language can be thought of as a foundation for the acquisition of English. In fact, research shows that when they have a strong background in their first language, children learn a second language more easily; as well, they have cognitive, academic, personal, and cultural advantages. (Ada & Zubizarreta, 2001; Collier, 1987; Cummins, 1984) In other words, the stronger the foundation in the home language, the better able children are to learn to understand and speak English—and to learn across all domains. Clearly, programs need to ensure the continued development of children’s home language, while promoting their acquisition of English. Additionally, children who are dual language learners should have the opportunity to interact and demonstrate their abilities, skills, and knowledge in any language—English and their home language.

    In addition to differences in ability and language, children come to an early childhood classroom or care setting with widely ranging familial, social, and cultural experiences and expectations. Educators and caregivers face an important challenge in accommodating these differences and creating learning environments that support the growth and development of all children. While no one can be expert in every field, educators and caregivers can develop collaborative networks that include other area agencies and services that are designed to support and promote the development of young children. These kinds of partnerships take effort to establish. But since no one individual or agency can “do it all,” collaboration among agencies and services goes far toward enhancing the lives of both children and the educators who serve them. (Human Services, Community Services, 2010)

    Because “individuals bring a huge variety of skills, needs, and interests to learning,” (CAST, n.d.) classrooms and care settings are most effective when they reflect the principals of universal design for learning (UDL), which help to guide the development of curricula that “give all individuals equal opportunities to learn. UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone—not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.” (UDL Guidelines, 2010) The three foundational principles of UDL involve support for (a) “recognition learning” by providing multiple, flexible methods of presentation; (b) “strategic learning” by providing multiple, flexible methods of expression and apprenticeship; and (c) “affective learning” by providing multiple, flexible options for engagement”. (National Center on Universal Design for Learning, 2010) Research shows that when UDL principles are applied in the classroom, children become learners who are resourceful and knowledgeable, strategic and goal-directed, and purposeful and motivated. (Hall, Meyer, & Rose, 2010, p. 23.).

    In order to provide challenging and developmentally appropriate experiences for all children, educators and caregivers must consider the entire range of learning needs of each child. Appropriate learning experiences enable each child to achieve at the maximum level of his or her abilities. In sum, developmentally appropriate learning experiences should

    • incorporate appropriate adaptations for children diagnosed with disabilities,
    • demonstrate knowledge of and respect for the language skills and culture of learners,
    • and reflect an understanding of universal design for learning.
  2. Integrated development:
    A child’s development does not occur in a straight line. Each domain or specific area of learning identified in The Standards connects to other domains. Children learn through authentic experiences that include interactions with adults, peers, and materials. As they construct knowledge and learn in one domain, children are influenced by their progress in others. High-quality early learning environments and curricula that focus on the whole child—their intellectual, social, physical, and emotional development—will reflect a knowledge of this “whole-child” process of development and stimulate the integrated, simultaneous learning of knowledge and skills across multiple domains.
  3. Executive function:
    In order to organize the early learning and development standards, the process of learning is divided into domains—even though learning for the young child is not isolated by domains but occurs across areas. Advances in the field of neuroscience have provided insight into how a child develops across these domains, emphasizing a particular set of cognitive skills referred to as “executive function.” These skills are important for planning, problem-solving, and regulating emotions:

    • Working memory: the ability to hold information in one’s mind and to manipulate it to perform tasks
    • Inhibitory control: the ability to filter impulses, resist temptation, and sustain attention on a task
    • Cognitive flexibility: the ability to adjust to changes in demands, priorities, and perspectives

    Taking turns, getting along with others, controlling emotions, following instructions, and being self-directed—all executive functions—are critical skills for school readiness. (Blair, 2009)

  4. The importance of relationships:
    Healthy development and successful learning are dependent upon the positive relationships and interactions that children have with nurturing adults who are consistently present in their lives. In this way, both home and early education environments influence school readiness and early academic success. Children thrive when their relationships promote growth through a series of significant interactions that

    • build on a child’s own interests, capabilities, and initiative;
    • shape the child’s self-awareness; and,
    • are tailored to a child’s unique personality. (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004)

    Relationships affect all aspects of a child’s development. Early relationships lay the foundation for later academic and social success. Adults, families, and teachers need to nurture each child’s potential through consistent, positive interactions that promote a child’s self-confidence, sense of safety and stability, and motivation to learn. The early learning and development standards reflect the importance of building these kinds of relationships.

  5. The necessity of intentional teaching:
    How a child learns varies from child to child and also varies over time. Children learn best when teachers purposefully support children’s self-guided discovery through play, which then allows children to construct their own knowledge and develop skills through exploration and experience, including the experience of interacting with their peers.15 Play allows children to learn the skills, knowledge, and dispositions that support success in later schooling. Several types of play foster early learning:

    • Social play, which advances cooperation and sharing
    • Constructive play, which allows children to explore objects and discover patterns
    • Physical play, which provides opportunities for gross and fine motor development
    • Expressive play, which supports the expression of feelings
    • Fantasy play, which encourages the development of the imagination

    Teachers positively influence children’s learning outcomes when they do two things: when they act in a full awareness of the importance of intentionality: that is, when they “act with knowledge and purpose to ensure that young children acquire the knowledge and skills (content) they need to succeed in school and in life”; (Epstein, 2007) and then, when they understand the ways that play facilitates progress toward each domain’s learning goals and thus incorporate play into their intentional strategies.


* Tracking data and using it to make decisions about how to create learning environments has become a widely mandated set of activities. However, these requirements do not mean that every early childhood teacher and caregiver needs to become a data or computer expert. Far from it. Valuable student data can be gathered in a number of easy and efficient ways. For example, using a notebook to record observations about how a child changes and develops from week to week can generate a valuable “data” profile. “When teachers…track student achievement systematically, they can make adjustments in the educational system that result in real improvements in student achievement.” (Jones & Mulvenon, 2003, p.13)