Reconsidering Children's Early Development and Learning: Toward common Views and Vocabulary
In 1990 the President and 50 state Governors established National
Education Goals, the first of which is that "by the year 2000 all children in
America will start school ready to learn." In the ensuing years, this Goal has
been colloquially dubbed the "readiness" Goal and has generated public policy
debate at the federal, state, and local levels; in the public and private
sectors; and in the media, schools, and homes.
Much attention has been focused both on the Goal itself and on the
three objectives accompanying the Goal statement that reflect a broad concern
with children's early development and learning. The objectives, concerned
with the conditions of the institutions that affect such development
families, preschool programs, health care systems, schools are as follows:
"All children will have access to high quality and developmentally
appropriate preschool programs that help prepare children for school;
"Every parent in the United States will be a child's first teacher and
devote time each day helping his or her preschool child learn, and parents
will have access to the training and support parents need;
"Children will receive the nutrition, physical activity experiences,
and health care needed to arrive at school with healthy minds and bodies, and
to maintain the mental alertness necessary to be prepared to learn, and the
number of low-birthweight babies will be significantly reduced through
enhanced prenatal health systems."
Taken together, the Goal and the objectives represent an important
departure from past thinking about "readiness" in several ways. First, they
publicly acknowledge that the well-being of America's young children is a
shared responsibility of family and society, and that only by working
collaboratively across sectors and institutions will America be able to
realize its "readiness" vision.
Second, the Goal and its attendant objectives acknowledge that all
children not simply some are entitled to early experiences that will
foster their optimal development.
Third, the Goal and objectives tacitly acknowledge that narrowly
constructed, academically-driven definitions of readiness heretofore widely
accepted need to be broadened to incorporate physical, social, and emotional
well-being. Finally, the Goal and its objectives affirm the connection
between early development and learning, and children's later success in school
and in life.
As could be expected, such a landmark statement which carries
Presidential and gubernatorial sanction has also provoked considerable
activity. Some efforts have been devoted to the improvement of direct
services for young children and their families, including initiatives
undertaken by the National Governors' Association, executive branches of
federal and state governments, schools, communities, professional
associations, and parent groups. Other efforts have attempted to improve and
integrate the systems that affect children's early development. Still others
have sought to delineate more clearly what is meant by optimal outcomes for
children. And finally, some have sought new approaches to chronicle
children's development appropriately and inventively.
Although committed to fostering all four approaches (improving direct
services, improving systems, delineating optimal outcomes, and chronicling
progress), the work of the National Education Goals Panel has been focused on
the third and fourth approaches. In fact, the National Education Goals Panel
has been charged with chronicling the nation's progress toward meeting all of
the Goals over a ten-year period, from 1990 to 2000. To that end, the
National Education Goals Panel has established a Resource Group and at least
one Technical Planning Group for each Goal.
Working with these Groups, the Goals Panel publishes an annual report
that provides a picture of the nation's status in meeting the Goals. More a
snapshot than a completed portrait, the report, specifically, and the work of
the Goals Panel and its groups, generally, are designed to generate political
will and stress the urgency for action. Data in the Panel's first four
reports (1991, 1992, 1993, 1994) regarding the well-being of young children
sounded a call for action. Although no direct outcome indicators of
children's well-being were reported, direct indicators of children's access to
services reflected glaring deficiencies and inequities in our nation's service
delivery to its young.
GOAL 1 RESOURCE AND TECHNICAL PLANNING GROUPS' WORK TO DATE
The Goal 1 Resource and Technical Planning Groups were asked to suggest
data by which progress towards Goal 1 could be measured. Two kinds of
information were recommended: first, direct indicators of the Goal,
reflecting how children are doing, and capturing their welfare and resiliency
in the face of risk; and second, direct indicators of the objectives,
reflecting the quality of services afforded young children. The Groups
recognize the importance of both kinds of information and have been working to
put mechanisms in place that will collect such information at three points in
time: before school, upon entry to school, and in school. To hasten the
realization of these efforts, the Technical Planning Group was asked by the
Goals Panel to focus its work on conceptualizing an in-school assessment that
focused on child outcomes.
In preparing its initial report for the Panel, the Technical Planning
Group was guided by several assumptions that framed its recommendations.
First, because the purpose of the in-school assessment was to provide
information regarding the collective state of young children that would help
guide public policy not to assess or make decisions regarding individual
children or specific programs a sampling strategy was recommended. Such an
approach is not only appropriate to the purposes of the assessment, but also
safeguards against the misuse of information, so as not to label, stigmatize,
or place any child.
Second, recognizing that development and learning are highly episodic,
multi-faceted, and influenced by diverse contextual factors, the Technical
Planning Group recommended the development of an assessment system that would
collect data (1) at multiple points in time; (2) from multiple sources,
including parents, teachers, and children themselves; and (3) using multiple
strategies that are respectful of, and appropriate to, children's development.
Third, recognizing the wide range of abilities and experiences upon
which early learning and development rests, the Technical Planning Group
suggested that early development and learning embrace five dimensions: (1)
physical well-being and motor development; (2) social and emotional
development; (3) approaches toward learning; (4) language development; and (5)
cognition and general knowledge. Preliminary conceptualizations of the
dimensions were offered in the Goal 1 Technical Planning Subgroup Report on
School Readiness (National Education Goals Panel, 1991b, pp. 10-11):
1. Physical Well-Being and Motor Development A strong body of
research links maternal and child health to performance in school. We know
that conditions such as very low birthweight and poor nutrition may have
long-term effects on a child's preparedness for school. Basic information
about the child's health history is vital for understanding the condition in
which children come to school. In addition, early childhood educators
emphasize the importance of optimal motor development in children, from large
motor movements that occur on the playground to small motor work required for
holding a crayon or putting together puzzles.
2. Social and Emotional Development This dimension serves as the
foundation for relationships that give meaning to school experience. It
involves a sense of personal well-being that comes from stable interactions in
children's early lives and interactions that enable children to participate in
classroom activities that are positive for themselves, their classmates, and
their teachers. Critically important conditions of social and emotional
development include emotional support and secure relationships that engender
the child's acquisition of such characteristics as self-confidence and the
ability to function as a member of a group.
3. Approaches Toward Learning Approaches toward learning refer to
the inclinations, dispositions, or styles rather than skills that reflect
the myriad ways that children become involved in learning and develop their
inclinations to pursue it. Approaches to learning that vary within and
between cultures must be respected, making a uniform or "cookie cutter"
approach to early childhood education with the Goal of all children coming
out the same undesirable. A child can be successful in school in many ways,
and families and teachers should understand the various ways that children
become engaged in learning in order to know how to enhance and not discourage
their engagement. Curiosity, creativity, independence, cooperativeness, and
persistence are some of the approaches that enhance early learning and
4. Language Development Language empowers children to participate
in both the cognitive and affective components of the educational program.
Experience with language, in both written and oral form, provides children
with the tools to interact with others and to represent their thoughts,
feelings, and experiences. Communicating effectively with other children and
adults and having emergent literacy experiences with diverse forms of language
are fundamental elements of this dimension.
5. Cognition and General Knowledge A foundation for later
learning is provided when children have opportunities to interact with
individuals and materials and, as a result, are encouraged to learn from their
surroundings. Children's transitions to formal schooling are eased when
children have been provided with a variety of play-oriented, exploratory
activities, and when their early school experiences continue these activities.
Cognition and general knowledge represent the accumulation and
reorganization of experiences that result from participating in a rich
learning setting with skilled and appropriate adult intervention. From these
experiences children construct knowledge of patterns and relations, cause and
effect, and methods of solving problems in everyday life.
THE PURPOSE OF THIS DOCUMENT
Admittedly brief, the above statements were designed to convey the
flavor of the dimensions presented. They were intended to be suggestive, not
definitive. Acclaimed for their inntent by a national review process and
later adopted by the Goals Panel, these dimensions require elaboration if they
are to describe more fully the elements of readiness and to capture what
programs and policies should strive to nurture.
The purpose of this document, then, is to lend greater specificity to
each of the dimensions with the goal of ultimately achieving a common
vocabulary that expresses current knowledge and common views about the needs
of children and the nature of their development. It is hoped that such
amplified definitions will further the dialogue regarding how best to foster
children's healthy development. This paper uses as points of departure the
available research (though the document is not intended to be a review of the
research), a series of commissioned papers, and synthesis of the Technical
Planning Group's work. Where research is incomplete, this paper reflects the
collective best judgment of the members of the Group.
This document represents not only the work of the Goal 1 Technical
Planning Group, but the input of hundreds of individuals who took the time to
comment on the original draft. Many of their comments have been incorporated,
and the Technical Planning Group wishes to acknowledge the thoughtful input of
the reviewers of this document.
CONSIDERATIONS REGARDING THE DOCUMENT
The Interrelatedness of the Dimensions
Though presented separately for the sake of clarity, the five
dimensions are inextricably linked. Attempts to clarify distinctions in the
dimensions underscore their interrelatedness. For example, the reader will
note that several defining variables (e.g., temperament) appear under more
than one dimension, and that development in one dimension often influences
and/or is contingent upon development in other dimensions. It is therefore
imperative that the dimensions be considered as a totality, with no single
dimension acting as a proxy for the complex interconnectedness of early
development and learning.
Variation in Information Available Regarding the Dimensions
The availability of scholarly work to assist in amplifying the
dimensions varies tremendously by dimension. For example, and not
unexpectedly, much work has been done on specifying variables related to
cognition and general knowledge, enabling us to render a greater level of
precision in this dimension than in some others. Where data are relatively
sparse, the limitations of the knowledge base are acknowledged, and the
information provided is based on the best judgment of those advising the
Technical Planning Group.
Defining Versus Measuring the Dimensions
Offering amplified definitions of the dimensions of early development
and learning should not be equated with assessing the dimensions. Though both
efforts are linked, defining involves the specification of attributes,
variables, and criteria; assessing involves, in part, consideration of the
tasks, observational methods, and conditions that lead to quantification of
While the primary challenge of this document is to further the
specification and discussion of variables associated with children's early
development and learning, the Technical Planning Group is also concerned about
the assessment of early learning and development. The Group does not believe
that there is a single magic threshold above which children are deemed
developmentally fit (ready) and below which they are deemed unfit (unready)
for school entrance. It is for this reason that this report assiduously
avoids use of the term "readiness" a word that often implies a single
dimension and single standard of development and learning. To the contrary,
because individual child performance is multi-dimensional, highly variable
across the dimensions, episodic, and culturally and contextually influenced,
the establishment of any single "readiness" threshold is misleading and
dangerous. Rather than advocating any such developmental threshold or a
uni-dimensional approach to assessment, this effort must be
understood as one that attempts to amplify the range of variables associated
with early development and learning. It offers universal domains pertinent to
all children during their early years, recognizing that healthy development on
all of these dimensions is heavily contingent upon the services and supports
to which children and families have access.
The Importance of Families and Communities
No document considering children's early learning and development can
overlook the critical importance of families and communities in that
development. Families and communities shape the context in which children
grow, framing children's most important early experiences and encounters with
their environments. Because of the transcendent importance of families and
communities to children's development, families are discussed throughout the
document, with emphasis on the rich variation in family attitudes, beliefs,
cultures, child-rearing practices, and resources. The document also
underscores the profound importance the community plays in supporting children
and in supporting parents as they engage in their demanding roles as nurturers
Individual, Cultural, and Contextual Variation
It is widely recognized that children vary on every measurable
characteristic. Youngsters demonstrate individuality related to genetic,
cultural, and contextual factors. Despite the rhetorical acceptance of such
variability, conventional definitions of early development and learning have
been more attentive to genetic and/or developmental variation than to cultural
or contextual variation.
Such a focus on genetic and developmental variability has had important
and often negative consequences. In some cases, access to differing
educational opportunities has been determined by assessments that ignore
cultural competence and that use majority-culture norms to determine
competence on a single dimension. For example, a cognitively normal but
physically disabled or non-English-dominant child might be consigned to
special education as a result of such assessments. Conversely, a gifted
preschooler who comes from a low-income neighborhood might not have his or her
talents recognized. Indeed, normative definitions of competence have
prevailed, with cultural and contextual differences often misinterpreted as
deficiencies (Garcia & Figueroa, 1993). Developmental equivalencies are often
not understood, and variation within cultures is often neglected.
Individual, cultural, and contextual variables influence how children
present themselves, understand the world, process information, and interpret
experiences. As such, individual, cultural, and contextual variables cannot
be attributed to any single dimension. Because of their pervasiveness and
their centrality to a new understanding of each dimension, they are discussed
within each dimension and not treated separately.
Societal Willingness to Accept Responsibility for Children's Well-Being
Focused on dimensions of children's well-being, this report would be
incomplete if the Technical Planning Group did not make explicit its
commitment not only to assuring more robust definitions of the dimensions, but
also to fostering the implementation of services and supports known to
increase the chances of children's full development. Though outside the
specific purview of this document, the Goals Panel and the Technical Planning
Group are working to foster broader societal commitment to all young children.
Both Groups recognize that responsibility for children's early development and
learning entails not only academic analyses, but must also pervade societal
institutions, including government, corporate America, the media, schools, and
families. For America to achieve its first Education Goal, its schools must
be ready for diverse children; its families aware of and able to support
youngsters in their first critical years of life; and its political,
communication, and corporate sectors poised to meet the challenge that such
commitment demands. As we turn to amplify the dimensions of children's early
development and learning, let this effort be recognized as one step in a long
series of efforts (1) to elevate children to their rightful place on the
American social agenda, and (2) to foster society's willingness to accept
responsibility for children's well-being.
Introduction to the Dimensions
Building on the initial report of the Technical Planning Group, five
dimensions are discussed below: (1) physical well-being and motor development;
(2) social and emotional development; (3) approaches toward learning; (4)
language development; and (5) cognition and general knowledge. The discussion
of each specific dimension begins with an introduction that is followed by a
rationale and general definition. Each section also includes a discussion of
individual, cultural, and contextual variation, and ends with a summary
statement that highlights the major points addressed. Following discussion of
the five dimensions, the document ends with a conclusion section that
delineates issues underlying the discussion, implications, and action steps.
DIMENSION I PHYSICAL WELL-BEING AND MOTOR DEVELOPMENT
Long-acknowledged as a cornerstone of early development and learning,
the physical well-being and motor development of young children has received
substantial attention in medical, educational, and developmental literature.
Much of this literature has focused on discerning developmental milestones,
often manifest as specific behaviors or capacities that indicate whether a
child's growth is "on target" with normal development. While a normative
focus is helpful under certain conditions, the Technical Planning Group has
sought to amplify the definition of physical well-being and motor development
by adopting a more inclusive approach one that does not define ability or
disability in terms of deviation from given norms. Rather, in the following
definition, the Group has tried to address the various conditions that affect
the trajectory of development and to broaden the conception of what is
considered in addressing the well-being of the nation's young children.
Healthy children enjoy a freedom that allows them to focus on or
actively engage in experiences crucial to the learning process. Conversely,
children with significant physical or developmental problems are forced to
accommodate to discomfort, dependence, or special arrangements. They may
develop a sense of being "different" from other children which can lead to
problems in adapting to the school environment and their special
circumstances or restrictions may inhibit their ability to develop an
appropriate level of independence (Shonkoff, 1992). Ill health may also lead
to increased absenteeism from school due to physical symptoms or medical
appointments, and this can exacerbate the problems associated with the
universal challenges faced by all children and the further obstacles
encountered by socially or economically disadvantaged children. For these
reasons, any amplification of early development and learning should commence
with attention to physical health and motor development.
Numerous researchers have attempted to identify the major
characteristics of health. By assimilating the overlapping variables
presented, as well as making accommodations for the wide range of "normal"
individual differences, physical well-being can be assessed in children using
three categories of criteria. The first category addresses children's
physical development, and includes: (1) overall rate of growth; (2) level of
physical fitness; and (3) body physiology. The second category addresses
children's physical abilities, including: (1) gross motor skills; (2)
finemotor skills; (3) oral motor skills; (4) sensorimotor skills; and (5)
functional performance. The third category addresses background and
contextual factors, focusing on the conditions under which development takes
place and including: (1) perinatal context; (2) caregiving environment; and
(3) health care utilization (Shonkoff, 1992).
I. Physical Development
Children's physical development can be measured against the following
Rate of Growth
A child's rate of physical growth is comprised of three measures:
height (linear growth), weight gain, and physical maturation. Normal growth
in these areas varies from individual to individual and covers a wide
spectrum. Growth abnormalities do exist, sometimes resulting from a
significant chronic illness, severe malnutrition, or a severe impairment in
the early caregiver-infant relationship (Dawson, 1992). Children with growth
abnormalities may feel or be perceived as different from other children, which
can lead to problems in adapting to the school environment. Furthermore,
growth deficits that are associated with chronic health problems can interfere
with children's ability to participate in physical activities, form
appropriate peer relationships, develop an appropriate level of independence,
and attend school regularly.
Stamina, energy, strength, flexibility, and percentage of body fat are
the major elements of physical fitness. As in adults, fitness among children
is affected by nutrition, illness, and lifestyle factors such as sleeping
patterns and level and types of physical activity. In this regard, a major
emerging concern is the lack of activity in many children's lives due to
over-reliance on television, video games, and other passive activities as
entertainment. Poor fitness resulting in reduced stamina and energy can
prevent children from participating in group activities and maintaining
attention to and interest in tasks necessary to the learning process. Though
few studies of the physical fitness of preschoolers have been conducted
(Poest, Williams, Witt, & Atwood, 1990), some research indicates that today's
children are less physically fit than were children twenty years ago
Another aspect of health and well-being is the optimal functioning of
the body and its organ systems. For example, a healthy respiratory system
supplies oxygen to and removes carbon dioxide from the blood in an efficient
manner; a healthy urinary system effectively extracts chemical wastes and
excess water from the blood; and a healthy musculoskeletal system supports and
protects the internal organs and makes possible appropriate voluntary and
involuntary movements. These and the other organs and organ systems may
function at a less than optimal level if affected by injuries, toxic
substances, infections, degeneration, or structural
Adverse conditions, including disease and disability, can inhibit
children's ability to take full advantage of the classroom experience. The
early prevention and identification of these conditions and the provision of
appropriate services are critical to minimizing deleterious effects on
Diseases. There are myriad common diseases such as diabetes, asthma,
ear infections, and respiratory allergies that can be debilitating for
children if untreated. Furthermore, long-term use of medications with
mood-altering properties by children with chronic health problems can
interfere with their ability to learn. For example, corticosteroids, commonly
prescribed for chronic inflammatory conditions such as asthma, possess known
mood-altering properties (Shonkoff, 1992). Malnutrition, anemia, or toxic
insults such as lead poisoning can also result in greater fatigue, increased
irritability, decreased motivation, shortened attention span, and deficits in
intellectual performance (Dienard, List, Lindgren, Hunt, & Chang, 1986;
Lozoff, Wolf, Urrutia, & Viteri, 1985; Oski, Honig, Helu, & Howanitz, 1983).
Similarly, these ailments can impede the development of motor skills if they
deny children the opportunity to engage in the activities requisite to
mastering a wide variety of physical movements.
Disabilities. The extent to which pain, discomfort, and/or functional
limitations associated with adverse health conditions affect a child's daily
functioning should be assessed. Hearing loss, poor vision, and disorders of
the nervous system can impede children's ability to receive or process
information. Neuro-motor disorders such as cerebral palsy can, among other
things, interfere with a child's gross or fine motor skills or his or her oral
motor skills. Persistent impairments can have a negative impact on children's
self-concept, sense of autonomy, and peer relationships, as well as resulting
in developmental and behavioral problems (Shonkoff, 1992).
II. Physical Abilities
Children's physical skills have traditionally been measured by four
types of motor skills: gross, fine, sensorimotor, and oral. These four skill
areas form the foundation for functional performance in a range of
age-appropriate activities. These skills develop through the interaction of
maturation and experience, and are influenced by level of parental
encouragement and guidance and available opportunities to practice such
Gross Motor Skills
Gross motor skills movements of the entire body or large portions of
the body include the abilities to walk, run, jump, and climb. Lags in the
development of gross motor skills can impact young children socially,
emotionally, and physically. Children with significant deficits are more
likely to be excluded from games which require these skills (Poest, et al.,
1990), and are more likely to experience problems in peer relationships,
self-esteem (Brown, 1982; Seefeldt, 1980), and physical fitness.
Fine Motor Skills
Fine motor skills require precision and manual dexterity (e.g., cutting
with scissors or fastening buttons). Researchers have identified a sequence
or progression of manual skills in infants and toddlers which begins with
touching and holding objects, proceeds to coordinating the thumb and fingers
in a pincer movement (Halverson, 1931; 1936), and progresses to more advanced
skills such as turning the pages of a book or filling a cup with cubes
(Landreth, 1967). Clearly, fine motor skills are essential to a successful
classroom experience in kindergarten and the early grades. Motor development
is known to proceed at varying and uneven rates, so young children should not
be excluded from school or retained in grade because they have not yet
mastered these skills.
Vision, hearing, touch, and kinesthesis are crucial determinants of
fine and gross motor coordination. Coordinated movement requires the ability
to use sensory information to guide motions. For example, considerable
visual, perceptual input is required in order for a child to kick a ball that
is rolling in his or her direction. The child must be able to distinguish the
ball from other stimuli, focus attention on it, determine his or her distance
from the ball, and assess the speed at which the ball is moving. All of this
information must then be coordinated to guide movement, and, as the movement
progresses, must continue to be coordinated with incoming perceptual
information. One of the key aspects of sensorimotor development for classroom
achievement is the development of eye-hand coordination, necessary for writing
Oral Motor Skills
The ability to suck one of many oral motor skills is the only
well-developed motor skill with which a child is born (Comer & Poussaint,
1992). Over the first few years, however, the child develops and refines
other oral skills involving the coordination of breathing with movements of
the vocal cords, tongue, lips, jaw, and palate to produce speech sounds
necessary for verbal communication (Tittnich, Bloom, Schomburg, & Szekeres,
Age-appropriate physical competencies (e.g., independent mobility and
bowel and bladder control) and the ability to perform age-appropriate tasks
which may involve a number of motor skills (e.g., dressing or feeding oneself)
are the two major measures of functional performance. Just as there are
variations in children's physical development at the time of school
entry,normal ranges in functional performance are also broad, varying
according to physical functioning as well as prior practice of specific
skills. In the majority of children, by the age of six or seven years, basic
motor skills are developed. However, children continue to improve the quality
with which they perform these skills, and they gradually integrate basic
movements into more complex sequences as they mature and practice executing
various movement patterns (Epenschade & Eckert, 1974).
III. Background and Contextual Conditions of Development
Physical well-being and motor development are dramatically influenced
by multiple individual, social, and environmental factors that can be divided
into three major components: (1) perinatal context; (2) caregiving
environment; and (3) health care utilization (Shonkoff, 1992).
Adverse conditions around the time of the birth of a child can point to
increased vulnerability to physical problems. Children who have been
prenatally exposed to alcohol, tobacco, or drugs are at greater risk for
developmental and other health problems. Those born with low birthweight are
nearly twice as likely as their peers to suffer severe developmental delays,
congenital anomalies, cerebral palsy, autism, mental retardation, vision and
hearing impairments, and other developmental disabilities (Public Health
Service, 1990; Shapiro, McCormick, Starfield, Krischer, & Bross, 1980).
Furthermore, premature children score significantly lower than full-term
children on gross motor scales at age two and one-half years. This may be the
result of delayed physical and neurological development as well as
neurological damage due to complications of pregnancy or delivery (Cutler,
Heimer, Wortis, & Freedman, 1965).
There are numerous variables related to the child's environment which
can impinge on his or her health and motor development. Environmental risks
which deserve special attention include accident hazards, toxic wastes,
pesticides, lead, and other pollutants, drug ingestion, inadequate or
unhealthy water supplies, and violent crime. Many of these environmental
risks are linked to societal problems that require community action.
Parental behavioral and lifestyle choices that have immediate effects
on children's health as well as long-term implications for their developing
habits include smoking, drinking, illegal drug use, diet, dental hygiene,
exercise, and coping/stress management skills (United States Department of
Health and Human Services, 1981). Other important factors include the
internal cohesion and adaptability of the family unit, the availability of
external supports, the health of parents and siblings, and the age and
competence of parents.
Children from low-income families are particularly at risk for adverse
health conditions because their parents' lack of resources can interfere with
the ability to provide adequate food, clothing, and shelter. Such shortages
can deny children opportunities to engage in activities that would enhance
their motor development. Poor nutrition another variable hindering healthy
development is a condition that disproportionately affects children from
low-income families. United States survey data have measured factors
including the percentages of food energy from protein, fat, and carbohydrates
as well as nutrient intakes related to percentages of the Recommended Dietary
Allowances (United States Department of Agriculture, 1993). These data
indicate that most poor children are receiving adequate nutrition; however,
"advocates contend that the federal surveys do not measure hunger, and that a
substantial fraction of children in poor families go hungry fairly often.
There are some data indicating that poor children under 6 are more likely than
other children to exhibit signs of poor nutrition, such as growth retardation
and anemia" (Klerman & Parker, 1990).
Health Care Utilization
Inadequate prenatal care and the unavailability of systematic health
promotion and disease prevention services is another major risk factor. The
lack of access to and utilization of primary care services such as
immunizations and acute care services puts children at risk of developing
preventable conditions or having existing conditions needlessly worsened.
Underlying barriers to health care utilization include the inaccessibility of
adequate and affordable health insurance coverage as well as deficiencies in
the number, quality, type, culture, and language of health care providers in
Health care utilization poses a considerable challenge for low-income
families, who may not be able to afford services or secure transportation to
health care facilities. Preventive care and early detection may be
particularly inaccessible for poor families. "A substantial minority of young
children in low-income families have undiagnosed conditions that are only
discovered when they reach school . . . . Children with these conditions
could well benefit from earlier diagnosis and treatment of their disorders"
Relationship to Individual, Cultural, and Contextual Variation
The above definition refers to multiple contributors to variability in
the physical well-being and motor development dimension, among individuals,
cultures, and contexts. Indeed, similar health conditions and barriers to
physical development may have opposite effects on different children. Many
children with health problems are able to do well, and conversely, some
children with excellent health do not progress as rapidly in their
development. It has even been postulated that routine childhood illness may
have certain "benefits" for children facilitating emotional and intellectual
development, prosocial behavior, and the capacity for empathy (Parmelee,
1986). Shonkoff (1992) summarizes the diverse effects of health problems as
"Ultimately, the extent to which a child's developing competence and readiness
for school is influenced by health factors depends upon a complex interplay
among inherent adaptive capacities, the presence and severity of adverse
symptoms, and the quality of his or her caregiving and social supports. For
some children, ill health may be a major risk factor for poor school
adjustment. For others, the process of coping with the stresses associated
with illness may be a growth-promoting experience that serves as a source of
resilience and translates into positive adaptation."
The definitions of physical well-being and motor development offered
herein suggest the need to gather information from a wide variety of sources
in order to assess aspects of both developmental progress and the context for
development. It has become clear that both "objective" and "subjective" data
or perceptions are useful in developing a complete assessment of a child's
health. Objective data are relatively easy to collect but not necessarily
very informative. Subjective or descriptive data are informative especially
in determining the relationship between perceived health and the impact on
development but it is difficult to quantify, particularly due to the
individual's knowledge, interpretation, and cultural values. A variety of
methods can be employed to collect these data, including children's self
reports, parental reports, physicians' reports, administrative records,
laboratory tests, and others' reports of observed behavior.
While it is important to recognize that children fall into various risk
categories, the damage often associated with labeling children may be one of
the greatest risks to their education and development. Educators should seek
to optimize each child's growth and development, with high expectations for
all children regardless of prenatal conditions, family characteristics, and
In the area of motor skills and functional performance, there is a
critical need to move away from inappropriate assessment and labeling.
"Although norms help us to understand the approximate rate and nature of human
development, it cannot be emphasized too strongly that it is unwise to apply
group averages uncritically to any one individual case" (Liebert &
Wicks-Nelson, 1981). Not only is the development of children's motor skills
highly individualized, but it is often uneven. Therefore, it is imperative
that young children's progress within the school system not be unnecessarily
delayed because of a temporary lag in motor development or functional
The physical well-being and motor development of young children are
central to their entire early learning experience. Variation in rates of
development exist and are subject to environmental and biological influences.
Given individual variation and considerable work in this dimension, assessment
has taken many forms, including a wide variety of sources and eliciting both
objective and subjective information regarding children's health. Children
who deviate significantly from normative patterns of physical development may
possess strengths inother areas and demand close attention from schools and
other social institutions to maximize their learning potential.
DIMENSION II SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT
More elusive than variables related to physical well-being and motor
development, those related to social and emotional development have interested
scholars for decades. For example, in seeking to define social and emotional
development, the Head Start Measures Project noted first, that there is no
agreement on the particular characteristics that constitute desirable social
and emotional development, and second, that "any definition of the construct
and dimensions of Social-Emotional domains even more than with the other
domains entails selective judgments that are less guided by prevailing
theory or patterns of practice" (Mediax Associates, 1980, p. 66).
This difficulty exists for several reasons. First, attempts to define
social and emotional development require the delineation of characteristics
that are related both to social concept development and to social behavior
development (Carew, 1978) those characteristics that are comprised of
knowing and understanding social concepts, as well as those that are actually
manifest as behaviors or actions. Lacking appropriate measures to gauge
children's internal emotional states, social and emotional behavior has become
a proxy for social and emotional knowledge. We attribute social and emotional
states to what children do, not to what they know. The second difficulty is
that such attribution is made without sufficient regard for the demands of the
social and cultural environment in which the child lives. Bowman & Zvetina
(1992) note that competence is contextualized and highly variegated, depending
upon the individual's appreciation of the social setting and the behavior
called for in that setting. Understandings of the social and emotional
dimension, then, must include not simply what the child does, but what the
child knows and does with respect to cultural and situational variables
Despite the historic difficulty and the challenges associated with
codifying definitions of social and emotional development, scholars, teachers,
and practitioners recognize the intimate relationship between children's
social and emotional competence and overall achievement in school and in later
life. Moreover, they recognize that these domains, while understudied, may be
quite malleable and receptive to intervention. To that end, scholars have
turned their attention to examining social-emotional development, and although
still elusive, a consensual definition and potential markers are emerging.
Emotional and social development, though entwined conceptually and
practically, can and need to be separated for this discussion. Thus, this
report shall regard emotional characteristics as those that involve the
individual's feeling states regarding the self and others. In contrast,
social characteristics are those that involve the interaction of two or more
people, especially interactions with peers and adults. Social functioning,
then, refers to the interpersonal relationships and behavior that the
individual establishes with others.
I. Emotional Development
Scholars agree that the cornerstone of both social and emotional
development is children's self-concept. We consider self-concept as a part of
emotional development, because it involves the internal feeling state of the
child, though such a state is framed by children's social interactions.
Self-concept consists of the traits, habits, abilities, motives, social roles,
goals, and values that define how we perceive ourselves. Unlike self-esteem
which can be determined to be positive or negative (e.g., a positive sense of
self-confidence, a negative sense of self-worth) self-concept is regarded as
complete or incomplete, clear or diffuse.
For everyone, some parts of the self are more central and other parts
more peripheral, so self-concept also entails how we "weight" or attribute
value to the various dimensions that constitute the self. Further, dimensions
of self may be highly integrated or somewhat dissonant, suggesting that
self-concept may also be integrated or fractured. Finally, there is a
temporal dimension to self-concept, with some variables fluctuating over time
and others being more stable.
Emotions do not exist in isolation; indeed, emotional development is
contoured by a variety of situations that frame our affective responses and
our sense of self. Primary emotions include joy, fear, anger, and grief;
emotions pertaining to sensory stimulation include disgust, delight, and
horror; and emotions that pertain to self-appraisal include shame, pride, and
Early parent-child interactions are an important influence on
children's emotional development. Children initially learn to express and
interpret emotions through interactions with primary caregivers. In infancy,
caregivers influence emotional development by the extent to which they provide
emotionally arousing stimuli at appropriate times, reinforce and encourage
emotional displays, and respond to subtle variations in the child's
expressions. As children mature, positive regard, love and support without
strings attached are key for healthy emotional development (Rogers, 1961).
Self-efficacy the belief that one can successfully accomplish what
one sets out to do is another important aspect of the emotional well-being
central to the confidence to undertake learning at home and school (Bandura,
1977). Where young children are concerned, positive emotions and feelings of
self-efficacy are evidenced even among low-performing children. Young
children tend to optimistically over-estimate their abilities (Stipek &
Tannatt, 1984). Such unrealistically positive self-esteem tends to shield the
very young as the realities of the external world are integrated into the
child's emerging self-concept.
Children's ability to express their feelings appropriately is
considered crucial to their overall health, behavior, and well-being. Such
expression may manifest itself as the ability to communicate one's attitudes
and feelings effectively, which involves possession of the knowledge and
skills to communicate verbally and non-verbally.
Beyond expression of their own feelings, children's sensitivity to the
feelings of others also characterizes emotional well-being. Inherent in this
characteristic is the ability to comprehend the feelings of others and the
ability to communicate sensitively to others. Factors related to such
sensitivity include children's understanding that their actions affect others,
the ability to praise others, their acceptance of others' differences, their
avoidance of ridiculing behaviors, and demonstrations of empathy toward
children in pain. Empathy is the ability to participate in the feelings or
ideas of others, to feel bad about their unhappiness and good about their joy.
In order to develop empathy, a child must be able to feel attachment to
another person and must care if that person is hurting. The development of
empathy, and corresponding guilt and shame when one harms or fails to help
another ensures prosocial behavior and altruism, even and preferably in the
absence of external rewards and punishments.
II. Social Development
The ability to form and sustain social relationships with adults and
friends is central to children's preparedness for school. Such ties are
grounded in children's earliest relationships with parents and families, and
are strengthened by the social supports experienced by the child and family
dyad (Howes, 1992). In general, where perceived social support is higher,
behavior problems are lower and social adjustment greater. For example,
children who report a warm relationship with at least one parent are less
likely to act out than children who do not have such a relationship (Rutter,
1979). Parent-child relationships also socialize children's orientation
toward school. Parents who have had positive orientations toward school are
more likely to socialize their children to expect a positive school experience
than those who have not (Howes, 1992).
While such experiences may frame children's social behaviors, their
interactions with adults including teachers are usually malleable over time.
Understanding the nature of children's social relationship with adults
involves chronicling their ability to communicate with adults and their
ability to understand and identify adult roles.
Children's social interactions with peers are another crucial component
of their social development. Indeed, children who at the end of the
kindergarten year were considered to have made a positive adjustment to school
also had more friends in the classroom, were able to maintain these
friendships, and had established new friendships over the course of the year
(Ladd, 1990). Conversely, poor peer relationships correlate with child
aggression, poor social skills, and lack of empathy for the thoughts and
feelings of other children. Problematic peer relationships in the early years
also are related to later emotional and mental health problems, school
dropout, and delinquency (Harter, 1983; Marshall, 1989).
Moreover, peer socialization influences children's attitudes toward
school and learning. Studies of older children, for example, suggest that
children's attitudes regarding school achievement change to match those of
friends (Brown, 1989). Ladd and Price (1987) note that children who enter
classrooms with familiar peers experience more positive attitudes toward
school and lower levels of school avoidance. Howes (1988) found that
preschool children who changed child care centers with familiar peers as
opposed to moving alone were more socially competent.
Social competence with peers is considered to have two aspects (Howes,
1988): (1) the social skills necessary to cooperate with peers, and (2) the
ability to form and sustain reciprocal friendships. Establishing the social
skills to cooperate with peers implies understanding the rights of others, the
ability to interact with others without being overly submissive or directive,
the ability to distinguish between incidental and intentional actions, the
willingness to give and receive support, and the ability to treat other
children as one would like to be treated. It involves the ability to balance
one's own needs with those of others in group activity (National Center for
Clinical Infant Programs, 1992). Such characteristics emerge when the child
is emotionally secure with parents and teachers and is open to approach others
with expectations of positive and prosocial interactions.
The formation and maintenance of reciprocal friendships the second
component is characterized by mutual acceptance and preference. Such
relationships serve multiple functions for children, including the provision
of opportunities for affection, intimacy, companionship, and instrumental
support and help. According to Vygotsky (1978), the social context provides
the base for the construction of social and cognitive knowledge.
Behaviors associated with the formation and maintenance of reciprocal
friendships include those required for the establishment of cooperative
relationships, as well as the ability to listen to others' points of view, the
ability to provide help and support for friends, the desire to make friends,
and the willingness to solicit and act upon others' points of view.
Relationship to Individual, Cultural, and Contextual Variation
Social and emotional development, while always entailing the
characteristics mentioned above, cannot be understood as the mere amalgamation
of variables that pertain to the individual as an isolated entity.
Individuals vary by their cultural and situational backgrounds and by an array
of constitutional characteristics such as affect, attention, motor activity,
and temperament. We know that temperament among normally developing
youngsters varies dramatically and that children demonstrate markedly
different resiliencies. Some children are able to avoid stressful outcomes
from circumstances that negatively and profoundly affect others. Internal,
biologically-driven forces and external, cultural, and contextual forces
collide to buffer and mediate the development and mix of social and emotional
Social and emotional development must be understood as cumulative,
contextually driven, and based on the interaction of the multiple
characteristics or variables discussed above. Social and emotional
development is contingent upon the match between: (1) children's feeling
states and their social knowledge; and (2) the expectations of the social
situation in which they find themselves (Bowman & Zvetina, 1992). Mismatches
occur when developmental criteria and expectations for individual performance
are overly narrow, too prescriptive, or devoid of understanding of culture and
context. A failure to consider the meaning of a child's actions or emotional
responses in the context in which they developed may lead to profound
Variables associated with emotional and social development can be
defined; the report has asserted that, for example, various emotions joy,
fear, anger, grief, disgust, delight, horror, shame, pride, guilt are framed
as a result of the individual's interactions in various situations over time.
Patterns of emotion help to shape a youngster's self-concept the aggregation
of traits, habits, abilities, motives, social roles, goals, values, and status
that define how humans perceive themselves. Children's emotional development
is also related to how youngsters express their own feelings (verbally and
non-verbally) and how they manifest sensitivity and empathy to the feelings of
others (i.e., their understanding of how their actions affect others, their
ability to praise others, and their acceptance of others' differences). The
development of empathy, leading to guilt and shame when one's actions harm
others, is a crucial aspect of emotional development.
Social development is the ability to form and sustain social
relationships with peers and adults. Variables associated with social
development include cooperation, understanding the rights of others, the
ability to treat others equitably, the ability to distinguish between
incidental and intentional actions, the willingness to give and receive
support, and the ability to balance one's own needs with those of others.
Social development also includes the creation of opportunities for affection,
intimacy, and companionship, as well as the ability to solicit and listen to
others' points of view. Indeed, according to some, the adequacy with which a
child gets along with other children may well be the single best predictor of
adult adaptation (Hartup, 1991).
DIMENSION III APPROACHES TOWARD LEARNING
Closely aligned with, but less well-defined than physical, social, or
emotional development is the dimension associated with how children approach learning. Gaining currency in recent years, "approaches toward learning" is an umbrella term covering a range of attitudes, habits, and learning styles. Although the research base of this dimension is small, imprecise, and less codified than that of the other dimensions presented, this report offers an
amplification of thinking about the term in an attempt to engender discussion
and encourage dialogue around the dimension.
It is important to consider approaches toward learning, because first,
the mere acquisition of knowledge, skills, and capacities is an insufficient
criterion of developmental success and an insufficient measure of program
accomplishments. Children must be inclined to marshall such skills and
capacities. For example, possession of a capacity does not necessarily mean
that it will be used; children have the capacity to listen, but may or may not
have the disposition to be listeners. Second, a narrow focus on skills as the
end-product of education may undermine the disposition to use the skills.
Katz (1992) notes that early drills in reading while potentially imbuing
certain reading skills may actually quash children's desire to be readers.
Our analysis suggests that approaches to learning are influenced by
predispositions that may be inborn or may be inculcated very early in the
child's life. Such predispositions may reflect: gender, temperament, and
cultural patterns and values. These predispositions may be present at birth
and set the stage for how children approach learning situations their
learning styles. Learning styles are composed of aggregated variables that
characterize ways of responding across situations. Learning styles, in
contrast to predispositions, are malleable and include variables that affect
how children attitudinally address the learning process: their openness to and
curiosity about new tasks and challenges; their initiative, task persistence
and attentiveness; their approach to reflection and interpretation; their
capacity for invention and imagination; and their cognitive approaches to
Gender, temperament, and cultural patterns and values all predispose
children to different approaches toward learning.
There seem to be differences in opinion regarding how much the role of
gender affects how children approach learning. On the one hand, much data
affirm that there are few significant differences in the cognitive development
of young males and females, although there are different maturation and
developmental rates. However, parental and teacher expectations frequently
vary by gender, and, in practice, stereotyping by gender is prevalent. Gender
has been shown to influence both attitudes toward subjects (e.g., mathematics)
and attitudes about one's own abilities, which can influence how one
approaches a task. For example, boys and girls differ in achievement
motivation and in their attributions for success and failure. While it is
difficult to separate innate differences from those caused by socialization,
it is clear that gender is an important influence on predispositions toward
Current work on temperament suggests that it may be a predisposition
for learning, because temperamental variations can influence the way
individuals think, perceive, understand, judge, and solve problems. Indeed,
temperament influences the manner in which individuals exhibit their
competencies and understandings. Like gender, temperament has a genetic
dimension, but how the influence of temperament functions as a predisposition
to learning is culturally and contextually influenced. The effect of
temperament depends on how parents respond to the child, the nature of the
child's larger environment and culture, and the child's unique set of
experiences (Thomas & Chess, 1986). For example, shyness though a
temperament has been regarded in some cultures as a disability, rather than
a stylistic variation of normal behavior. As a result, expectations for shy
children may vary, causing them, in turn, to approach learning and social
situations in ways that are shaped by their shyness and the cultural and
contextual expectations attendant to it. Clearly, some temperamental
characteristics influence how children approach and are predisposed to
Cultural Patterns and Values
Cultural patterns and values predispose children to learn in different
ways. For example, in some cultures children are encouraged to learn by
engaging actively in dialogue with their parents; in other traditions,
children play a more receptive role, listening quietly to parents'
instructions and guidance; in still other cultures, children learn through
observation, imitation, and non-verbal communication (Chang & Sakai, in
press). Cultural variation may affect children's work styles, including their
comfort working independently or socially (Little Soldier, 1992); it may
affect the way children approach immediate experience and the nature of the
interpretations (imaginative versus realistic) they render; and it may affect
children's distractibility or ability to focus, and their action versus
reflection orientation. Such stylistic variations must not be perceived as
deficiencies, but as equivalent strategies.
Culture also influences children's predispositions for different
learning modalities the way they prefer to approach learning tasks with
some youngsters learning more easily by manipulating concrete materials,
others by talking through a problem, and others by using visual
representations to comprehend its nuances; indeed, some children work best
when presented with a changing array of problem-solving formats (Boykin,
1977). Such affinities (Wolf, 1992) or predispositions are associated with
differences in the way individuals process information.
II. Learning Styles
Gender, temperament, and culture combine with other variables to affect
children's learning styles, or the manner in which children go about the
process of learning. Although children may be predisposed to one style or
another, based on temperament, gender, and cultural background, learning
styles are malleable and may change with time or vary depending on the
context. The term learning styles has been used to encompass both
motivational, attitudinal variables and cognitive styles in approaching
problems. These learning styles include: (1) openness to and curiosity about
new tasks and challenges; (2) initiative, task persistence and
attentiveness; (3) a tendency for reflection and interpretation; (4)
imagination and invention; and (5) cognitive styles.
Openness to and Curiosity about New Tasks and Challenges
Wolf (1992) notes that in infancy, thought and exploration are social,
but largely dyadic. That is, children gain and extract information from
limited sources and use knowledge in limited ways. But as children mature,
they extend their capacities to plan, to imagine, and to wonder; they move
from the immediate worlds of the here and now, to the worlds of what might be.
Some children approach knowledge acquisition and learning tasks with an
eagerness to know, a sense of inquisitiveness, an interest in pursuing the
novel or unknown. They gain information by persistent examination of facts or
by verbal inquiry, usually characterized by a playfulness of spirit. In
contrast, others approach learning with no special keenness to know, with an
uncritical and unquestioning acceptance of knowledge as a constant. How
children approach learning whether they are inquisitive or accepting,
exuberant or passive is a style of learning.
Initiative, Task Persistence, and Attentiveness
Initiative is the ability to develop and follow through on plans. In
order to complete a task successfully once initiated, task persistence and
attentiveness are required. One must be able to attend to a task over time
and to concentrate attention on an issue or a question across time and across
obstacles. As children mature and face the demands of formal learning
environments, the need to adhere to a task despite interruption grows.
Children who are not distractible and are attentive to tasks, to adults, and
to peers and who are inclined toward diligence of purpose generally fare
better in the formal school setting.
Reflection and Interpretation
Reflection on events and experiences and the propensity to draw out
lessons for future use are important qualities for the developing child. More
precisely, diagnosing difficulties, teasing out alternate solutions, and
discerning agreements and disagreements are components of children's widening
set of reflective strategies. The ability to step back, to "repair" one's
meaning when the message gets scrambled, to understand mistakes, to have
theories about them, and to distinguish accidents from mistakes are components
of learning to learn. Such reflection and interpretation, sometimes referred
to as the "socialization of thought" (Wolf, 1992), includes the capacity to
seek models, absorb information, and work through alternate possibilities.
Imagination and Invention
Closely aligned with curiosity, imagination, and invention are learning
styles associated with the ability to form images of what is not actually
present, to extend conventional thinking beyond the known, and to combine
previous experiences to form new ideas. Various cultures accord different
weight to the ability to imagine and invent, with some cultures elevating and
others denigrating the value. Such differences also frame American education.
On the one hand, the nation's educational system rhetorically accords value to
imagination and inventive learning styles; on the other hand, such creativity
is often constrained by the realities of daily classroom regimes. Wolf (1992)
appropriately notes that cultural variation demands that we develop our
indices of symbolic activity and imagination with extreme care. She suggests
that in a world where diversity (including classroom cultures) is often
masked, conceptual distinctions fail to recognize that idealized pictures of
what should be often accompany notions of normalcy.
Cognitive style refers to why children approach learning. For example,
some children are more field-independent than field-dependent and vice versa.
A field-independent style, as proposed by Witkin (1962), involves a tendency
to separate details from background and to analyze information. Such a style
has been shown to be an important predictor of success in schools in the
United States. Field dependence, although negatively related to school
performance in the United States, appears to be positively related to
interpersonal competencies. Other cognitive styles relate to how children
process information. Some youngsters learn better by listening and repeating
information orally, while others learn by observing and processing written
Further stylistic distinctions include: using broad versus narrow
categories for information; tending to evaluate alternative solutions versus
responding quickly to the first reasonable answer; and trying to see a task in
the widest possible perspective versus beginning with a narrow focus. Perhaps
the most important finding from the large body of research on cognitive
learning styles is that children are most likely to achieve when tasks and
teaching styles match their learning styles. This leads to the conclusion
that a variety of teaching styles and tasks are necessary to meet children's
Relationship to Individual, Cultural, and Contextual Variation
Perhaps no other dimension is so subject to individual variation as
approaches toward learning. In part, such variation owes itself to
differences in parental child-rearing practices. It is from parents through
instruction, guidance, modeling, and responses to children's initiatives
that children learn how to confront tasks. For example, parental
child-rearing practices influence children's perceived locus of control that
is, whether they believe that they have control over events in their lives or
that they are helpless, with other sources controlling their fates. Perceived
locus of control can be an important determinant of how children confront
difficult tasks in the classroom and other settings. Parental practices,
including nurturance, showing protective concern, using predictable
discipline, and setting predictable standards, have been shown to be related
to the development of a sense of internal control (Marquis & Detweiler, 1985).
Despite rhetorical acknowledgement of the importance of individual
variation, however, approaches toward learning have traditionally been
examined within the context of "averages" and middle-class samples. Such
interpretations have had the undesired consequence of legitimizing conformist
behaviors and dispositions, and condoning "preferred" learning styles. For
example, rather than appreciating a variety of styles, some conventional
curricula continue to favor visual rather than auditory learning styles. By
advancing approaches to learning as an essential dimension, this report
underscores the need to accord importance to individualization and the value
Approaches toward learning comprise the least understood, the least
researched, and perhaps the most important dimension. Because approaches
toward learning frame the child's entire being and are at the core of
social/emotional and cognitive interactions, the dimension warrants more
serious attention. This report suggests that predispositions and learning
styles influence the way the child both thinks about and acts upon learning
opportunities. Predispositions are genetically and culturally embedded early
on and are linked to gender, temperament, and cultural patterns and values.
Learning styles include both cognitive variables and variables that reveal how
children approach the learning process their openness to and curiosity about
new tasks and challenges; their task persistence and attentiveness; their
approach to reflections and interpretation; and their capacity for invention
and imagination. Historically, American education has valued certain learning
styles over others, without fully recognizing the way in which culture affects
learning style. Future work in this dimension will need to identify a
continuum of learning styles where all are accorded value and all are given
opportunity for development.
DIMENSION IV LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT
In comparison with the other dimensions, language development and the
dimension that follows cognition and general knowledge are more often
associated with conventional definitions of early learning and school success
in general. Therefore, it could be assumed that these dimensions of early
learning and development should be the easiest to define. Two problems arise
from this assumption, however. Too often, these important dimensions are too
narrowly and simplistically defined and measured, with too little attention
given to the range of variation in manifestations of language development and
cognitive development. In addition, previous definitions of language
development have not sufficiently addressed the way in which English language
competence is acquired by children whose primary language is other than
English. Rapidly changing demographics demand that this issue become an
integral part of any discussion of language development as a dimension of
early learning and development in the United States.
Language ability is a highly valued dimension of early development and
learning as demonstrated by a survey of kindergarten teachers (Boyer, 1991)
who identified language as the area where most "unready" children had
difficulty. The ability to communicate competently with other people is
essential to function effectively within and across the broad range of
activities that characterize everyday life. Children need to be able to use
language as a tool for communication to express their own thoughts and
feelings to others and to receive and interpret communications from other
people. Language plays an equally crucial role in providing symbols for
concepts a role fundamental for cognitive development.
By definition, language development is the acquisition of linguistic
forms and procedures, and social rules and customs for acts of expression and
interpretation. Such knowledge has three essential components: content
(meaning), form (structure), and use (function). These components of language
are formally called semantics, syntax, and pragmatics (Bloom & Lahey, 1978;
Crystal, 1987; Lahey, 1988). In acquiring language, children learn words and
structures that articulate ideas to be shared with others in their community
and ways of using those words and structures to influence the ideas and
actions of other people. Both the forms of language and the ways of using
them are mutually agreed upon by the community of language users that is,
they are "conventional." As such, the language development dimension is
closely tied to development in the social-emotional dimension.
The outward manifestations of expressive and receptive language
speaking and listening are only a part of the process of language
development. To interpret the communications of others involves the cognitive
dimension of language in which the message received is evaluated in relation
to the knowledge that is already stored in memory. This means that children
use their language for accessing the knowledge they already have in order to
gain new knowledge. Most people understand this cognitive dimension of
language when they realize that they have little memory for events that
occurred before their third or fourth year of life that is, before their
language ability was sufficiently developed. In short, language is crucial
for conceptual development and thinking.
Such rich language development (for expression and interpretation)
requires much more than the acquisition of vocabulary and grammar. Listening,
remembering, following directions, noting details, understanding the main
idea, and other skills associated with success in school are ways children use
language for interpretation figuring out what someone else (often the
teacher) has in mind. Explaining and describing are what children do when
they use language for expression, to communicate their own thoughts to others.
Researchers use the term "communicative competence" to describe the
complex set of skills encompassed in human language use (Hymes, 1972). These
skills include: (1) knowledge of the physical and sociocultural setting in
which communication occurs; (2) knowledge about persons and their social roles
within settings; (3) knowledge of the goals of interaction among persons; (4)
skill in performing sequences of acts involving language to successfully
communicate (achieve goals); (5) knowledge of the range of affective elements
in communication (non-verbal communication, tone); (6) knowledge of the
grammatical structure and meanings of words used in written or spoken
language; (7) knowledge of the norms of communication that is, the rules or
standards for marking social relations in communication; and (8) knowledge of
genre the structures or forms that communication takes such as story, formal
speech, or casual conversation. These components of language development are
interrelated and overlapping; skill in one component influences and is
influenced by ability in another as well as by past experience and
The broad area of language can be divided into many categories, but at
least two are particularly highly valued: verbal language and literacy.
Children develop both as they use them in interaction with other people in
purposeful activities in their communities. Much of the development of verbal
language and literacy occurs through interactions with more experienced
language users who support the child's linguistic development. When children
tell stories, parents frequently ask questions to help them structure the
tale, and when parents read books with their children, they allow the child to
participate increasingly until he or she is capable of carrying out the
activity without support. More specific definitions of verbal language and
I. Verbal Language
Below is a summary of some of the commonly accepted behaviors that
children develop and learn in the domain of spoken language. It is important
to note that by age five, children have not mastered adult forms of language
(Crystal, 1987). It is also important to note that these skills should not be
viewed as prerequisites to school entry the refinement of skills is to be
seen as a shared task of schools, families, and communities.
Listening (e.g., increase the ability to discriminate and identify
sounds; process sounds to formulate words and meanings; attend to and follow
Speaking (e.g., increase the ability to produce a broad range of
sounds; gradually develop and apply grammatical rules; increase clarity of
pronunciation and speech)
Social Uses of Language context-specific determinants of appropriate
language (e.g., use language as a tool to get services and objects, express
emotions, get and give information; use language pragmatically [functionally]
and as part of social conventions and manners, saying, for example, "please,"
"excuse me," etc.)
Vocabulary and Meaning (e.g., increase the number of meaningful words
understood and used; explore and discover meanings of words and sentences;
know relational terms that refer to spatial [in, over], temporal [before,
after], and other types of relationships; use complex sentences that link
simple sentences, usually in terms of sequence [and, then] or causality [so,
Questioning (e.g., develop questioning ability, from what to where,
when, why, and how)
Creative Uses of Language (e.g., listen attentively to stories, songs,
and poetry; play with rhyming sounds and words; develop and tell a story)
II. Emerging Literacy
Closely related to the verbal language domain is the literacy domain,
especially for young children. Literacy begins to develop before children are
formally taught to read and includes the whole act of extracting meaning from
printed symbols, not merely decoding printed words. Early storybook reading
is important for the development of literacy, because it allows children to
learn how to listen, remember, and ask and answer questions. It also teaches
them that words have specific meanings, and they begin to develop an
understanding of the structure of stories. Although early exposure to books
and reading is beneficial, children are also exposed to the printed word and
begin to develop an understanding when they encounter food product labels,
clothing labels, traffic signs, and television commercials. As they begin to
explore the written system in a variety of social situations, they begin to
discover its inner workings how meaning and print connect. Children also
engage in storytelling and sociodramatic play in which stories and roles
must be negotiated with others thereby learning about the structure of
stories and laying the groundwork for later literacy.
Some of the emergent literacy competencies that are developing in young
Literature Awareness (e.g., show interest in various forms of
literature; recall familiar stories)
Print Awareness (e.g., be aware of print permanency [text remains the
same from one reading to next]; be aware of the connection between the text
and the telling of the story; assign verbal labels to familiar letters; assign
sounds to letter combinations; recognize own name in writing)
Story Sense (e.g., be aware of the sequence of a story [beginning,
middle, end] and permanency of story sequence)
Writing Process (e.g., produce ordered scribbling [circular movements
on paper]; produce writing configurations [a circle or an X])
Many such lists of language and literacy competencies could be produced
to define language development. The length and diversity of such a sample
list only partially reveals the complexity of the construct. Language
abilities allow a child to participate in acts of expression and
interpretation that are necessary for other areas of learning and cognition:
to read, write, solve problems, and acquire the knowledge related to other
school subjects. Language knowledge underlies children's growing ability to
interpret and express new knowledge of the world and to exchange information
that is increasingly decontextualized and explicit. These skills provide the
foundation for participating successfully in activities and accumulating more
abstract knowledge about the world.
Relationship to Individual, Cultural, and Contextual Variation
As mentioned above, two important aspects of children's language
development are variation and complexity. In terms of variation, children
differ in the language forms and structures they have acquired at any point in
time and in the rate of mastery over time. One of the most influential
findings in contemporary research on language acquisition has to do with the
individual differences among children from very similar cultural and social
backgrounds. For example, the rate of language acquisition varies
considerably. Children can take from several months to several years to
master various aspects of language. Children learn words and the form of
language not only to express their ideas about persons, objects, and events,
but also to meet personal and cultural objectives as determined by the group
within which they are socialized. Therefore, it is not surprising that
considerable research can be cited to demonstrate that cultural differences
exist in the way children acquire and use language (Blake & Bloom, 1992;
Within the United States, we have many varieties of English that share
linguistic features with standard American English, but that also have
distinctive features that set them apart for example, different patterns for
the use of language forms (Crystal, 1987; Sattler, 1992; Shuy & Staton, 1982)
and different distributions of language functions as a result of their social
uses (Brice-Heath, 1988; Hale-Benson, 1986; Miller, 1982; Potts, 1989.) Such
a complex perspective on communication is very important in understanding and
defining language development. For example, interacting with a teacher in an
instructional activity at school requires a very different set of
communicative competencies and sometimes an entirely different language
than a child uses when interacting with a parent at bedtime or playing a game
with another child at home. The same child's language development could look
very different depending on the setting.
An expected outcome of different socialization experiences is
discontinuity between the schooling experience and the everyday experiences of
culturally diverse children, as is apparent from the examples cited above.
However, language is contextually based and influenced. When five-year-old
children were observed while they were engaged in neighborhood dialogues, no
differences were found in the linguistic abilities of black low-income and
white middle-income children. The structure of these children's dialogues;
the quality, complexity, and functions of the language they used; and such
things as concreteness and animacy of topics did not differ (Feagans &
Much of what has been said so far also applies to children whose
primary language is other than English. Yet the question of language
development and learning among speakers of languages other than English needs
careful consideration. Current research on second language acquisition
emphasizes the importance of children developing competence in their primary
language. A growing body of research demonstrates the dangers of introducing
English before primary language skills have been developed. For example, Wong
Fillmore (1992) documents cases of immigrant families in which children have
lost the ability to speak to their own parents when English language
instruction was imposed too soon. In addition, time is needed to acquire
communicative competence in a second language. Cummins (1981) finds that
while children with a primary language other than English may develop a basic
proficiency in English within two years of entering school, it takes five to
seven years to develop the kinds of decontextualized academic skills necessary
for school success in English. The development of competence in a primary
language is also important for cognitive development. Learning that takes
place in a child's primary language does not appear to impede the acquisition
of English; rather, instruction by means of the primary language in preschool
through the early grades promotes and develops the deeper cognitive and
academic skills that predict future success in the mainstream (Cummins, 1981).
In the case of children whose primary language is not English, the
challenge is to develop curricula and assessments that allow children to
demonstrate their true communicative competence, usually by producing more
extended segments of language. Concerning assessment, the research on
language development suggests that permitting children to use language to
explore meaning more freely in light of their experiences and interests
(during story-telling or peer-talk) can lead to better information about their
ability to perform in school. A truly sensitive assessment of any child's
verbal language would be capable of interpreting how his or her communicative
competence in activities at home and in the community match or mismatch (are
continuous or discontinuous with) the communication demands of activities
required in the school.
Children come to school as experienced users of language, but
children's language has been acquired within the contexts of their home and
community, within diverse cultural and linguistic environments. Children do
not acquire language skills out of context or despite a cultural milieu;
rather, language is embedded in that context. When the tasks, demands, and
interactions of a young child's everyday experiences are similar to and
continuous with those of the school, then the child's prior experiences
facilitate success in school. But when the child's experiences differ from
those encountered in school when they are discontinuous it is more
difficult for children to apply previously acquired abilities in school and to
acquire new ones. This means that educators need to be aware of and take into
consideration cultural and linguistic factors which influence children's
expression and interpretation when assessing young children's cognitive and
The research cited here and much more that could be cited raise serious
questions about assessing children's language within narrowly defined
contexts. Just as language is acquired because it is relevant to children's
experiences, assessment of language ability must be conducted within relevant,
meaningful conversational contexts. Existing language assessments are
inadequate to perform this task; current tests indicate what children do not
know about standard American English rather than what they do know about
language. Obtaining child language samples in naturalistic contexts would
broaden our understanding of how children learning various social dialects use
language for expression and interpretation. This information could be used to
build the connections needed between children's experiences and language, on
the one hand, and school experiences and language, on the other hand.
DIMENSION V COGNITION AND GENERAL KNOWLEDGE
The last dimension of early learning and development is perhaps the one
that is most frequently associated by the general public with schooling.
Parents often assume that there is a set body of knowledge (e.g., names for
letters and shapes) that children need to acquire before they can successfully
negotiate early schooling. In this regard, parents intuit only one aspect of
this complex dimension of early learning and development. The problem with
talking about knowledge is that there are many different, although
interrelated, kinds of knowledge that are acquired through similar, though not
identical, processes. Cognitive psychologists have used several category
systems to describe knowledge. For example, Piaget (1952, 1954, 1965)
describes physical knowledge, logico-mathematical knowledge, and
social-conventional knowledge. Vygotsky (1978) describes school-learned and
spontaneous or socially-constructed knowledge. Gardner (1983) identifies
multiple different ways that humans beings are capable of knowing about the
world. The "human intelligences" or ways people know the world are through
language, logical-mathematical analysis, spatial representation, musical
thinking, the use of the body to solve problems or to make things, an
understanding of other individuals, and an understanding of ourselves.
Information-processing theorists, in addition to studying the processes
necessary for acquiring and using knowledge, have identified other important
categories of knowledge that are crucial for early schooling. These
categories include knowledge of strategies for remembering information and
solving problems and knowledge about the regulation of thought processes
(e.g., knowing how and when to focus attention and ignore irrelevant
information). The general public's expectation limits the cognition and
general knowledge dimension to social-conventional knowledge such as the
names for colors and numbers when what children need is far more complex and
involves all types of knowledge.
Two influential theoretical perspectives on cognition are the landmark
works of Jean Piaget (1952; 1954; 1965) and Lev Vygotsky (1978). Each of
these theories assumes that knowledge results, at least in part, from
children's construction of their own understanding through their natural
ability to think about their actions and through their interactions with other
people, adults, and children. Piaget's theory emphasizes the construction of
knowledge from within the child as a result of an interaction between
children's own thought processes and their experiences in the physical and
social worlds. Vygotsky emphasizes the process of social construction of
knowledge with the interpersonal (language-related) dimension preceding the
intrapersonal competence is developed through language and through
interaction with adults and other children in everyday problem-solving
activities. Adults and capable peers provide a child with guidance and
"scaffolding," as well as support calibrated to the child's abilities,
decreasing as the child is increasingly able to take on more of the burden.
With such support, a child is able to perform tasks he or she would be
incapable of completing alone. According to Vygotsky (1978), the development
of higher order mental functions such as conceptualization begins in social
interaction that is, language use. This kind of learning is important
throughout life, but essential for children who need to test the mental
hypotheses they construct against the thinking of other people. Although
traditional assessments have focused on evaluating what a child can achieve in
isolation, this theoretical perspective suggests that a more effective
approach might be to examine what a child can achieve when performance is
supported by others, and to consider the types of support necessary for the
child to complete the task successfully.
Vygotsky and Piaget propose similar methods for classifying knowledge.
Vygotsky (1978) distinguishes spontaneous concepts from school-learned
concepts. Spontaneous concepts are those that the child discovers through
direct experience; these are the concepts that the child constructs mentally
without need of instruction from adults. On the other hand, school-related or
scientific concepts originate in the culture and represent the body of
knowledge from past generations. Vygotsky's school-learned concepts are
analogous to Piaget's socio-conventional knowledge, just as Vygotsky's notion
of spontaneous concepts parallels Piaget's view of construction of social
knowledge. Piaget describes three categories of knowledge: physical,
logico-mathematical, and social-conventional. They are defined here to
delineate this dimension of early development and learning.
The cognitive and general knowledge dimension of early development and
learning includes at least three different kinds of knowledge. The first is
physical knowledge, the second is logico-mathematical knowledge, and the third
is social-conventional knowledge.
I. Physical Knowledge
This is the knowledge of objects in external reality. The color and
weight of a ball and the fact that the ball rolls down an incline are examples
of physical properties that are in objects in external reality and are learned
by observation and experience with the objects.
II. Logico-Mathematical Knowledge
Logico-Mathematical knowledge consists of the relationships created by
individuals within their minds between objects, events, or people. This
knowledge extends beyond physical knowledge to establishing similarities,
differences, and associations. For instance, when a child sees a red bead and
a blue one and judges them to be different, the difference is an example of
logico-mathematical knowledge. The difference is not a part of the physical
properties of the beads themselves but is a product of the relationship which
the individual has created between the beads. Likewise, the individual could
construct a relationship of similarity between the beads if the variable under
consideration were size or weight. Logico-mathematical knowledge is the most
complex kind of knowledge and therefore the most difficult to describe and
assess. However, logico-mathematical knowledge is essential for children to
be able to perform mathematical operations and also to solve problems of all
kinds. As was indicated above in the discussion of language development,
understanding relationships is key to understanding the world and solving
III. Social-Conventional Knowledge
Social-conventional knowledge reflects the agreed-upon conventions of
society and the school-learned knowledge that could not be reinvented by every
generation of learners. For example, the conventions of the English language
are that there are 26 letters, including five vowels and 21 consonants, while
the Hawaiian language consists of 12 letters with five vowels. Other examples
of social-conventional knowledge are that December 25 is Christmas and that we
use the numerals 1, 2, and 3 and the words one, two, and three. The numeric
concepts necessary to make sense of these numerals, however, are examples of
These three types of knowledge are interrelated. For example, in order
to "read" the physical properties of objects such as color, the child must
have first constructed a classification system that discriminates objects
along this dimension (an example of logico-mathematical knowledge).
Similarly, we could not understand the statement about Christmas without
categorizing Christmas day in relation to all other days of the year.
The distinction between types of knowledge is essential for
understanding how children learn and how they demonstrate their learning in
various contexts. For example, many young children will break a cookie into
little pieces and proudly announce that they have more cookie than their
classmates. This is an example of the child's reliance on physical knowledge
(the cookie pieces look like more) in the absence of the construction of
logico-mathematical knowledge (the relationship stays the same because nothing
was added or taken away). As children mature, they acquire the ability
through repeated experiences to apply logico-mathematical knowledge to this
Likewise, children may be able to demonstrate social-conventional
knowledge of numbers by rotely counting up to 30 or higher, but not be able to
accurately count a set of objects if they do not have the logico-mathematical
understanding that each object must be counted in order and only once (i.e.,
understand one-to-one correspondence). Piaget describes the child's
construction of number concepts as the process of synthesizing two kinds of
relationships order and hierarchical inclusion. The concept of order is
necessary so that children do not count the same object over and over or skip
any objects. Hierarchical inclusion enables children to quantify a set,
realizing that "three" includes "two" and "one," or that "eight" encompasses
all the objects rather than the eighth object in a series. Sometimes children
who have not fully developed an understanding of numbers will count a set of
eight and when asked to "show me eight" will point
to the last object in the set. This behavior demonstrates that, for this
child, the words "one, two, three" are names of individual elements in a
series like "January, February, and March" rather than a numerical set. In
short, a child may demonstrate social-conventional knowledge of numbers
without demonstrating logico-mathematical understanding. (A complete
description of children's development of number concepts is available in
Kamii, 1982; 1985; 1989.)
Similarly, as Gelman & Meck (1983) have shown, just as a child may
demonstrate a social-conventional knowledge of numbers without demonstrating
logico-mathematical understanding, a child may have an implicit
logico-mathematical understanding of numbers and counting without necessarily
being able to demonstrate this understanding. For example, under certain
circumstances (e.g., when watching a puppet count), children as young as three
recognize that each item in a set must be matched with a different number
name, that number names must be used in a constant order, and that the last
number in a count is special, because it indicates the number of items in the
set. Yet these children are unable to count appropriately on their own. Such
findings force us to recognize that the level of logico-mathematical
understanding children demonstrate is dependent on the type of task used to
assess this knowledge.
These examples illustrate the challenge of assessing children's
cognition. As in the area of language development, defining and assessing
cognition is often oversimplified. First, the cognitive domain is usually
measured as narrowly defined social-conventional knowledge: what number is
this? what shape is this? Second, an assumption is made that the culturally
defined social-conventional knowledge of one group is or should be reflective
of the knowledge and experiences of all cultural groups. Social-conventional
knowledge is perhaps the most variant across cultural groups because it is the
most determined by exposure to specific cultural information. It is also the
most easily acquired form of knowledge (usually through direct instruction).
Lack of specific social-conventional knowledge should not be construed as lack
of ability to learn. Also, it is clear from the previous discussion, that at
least two dimensions of learning language and cognition cannot be
separated, because language is crucial for conceptual development and
Below are some of the cognitive competencies that young children
develop through interaction of the different types of knowledge:
Representational Thought (e.g., the ability to think about things not
present; to distinguish between real and pretend)
Problem-solving (e.g., the ability to experiment using different
strategies; relate cause to effect; interpret and generalize)
Mathematical Knowledge (e.g., the ability to put objects, events,
actions into all kinds of relationships; explore sequence, cardinal and
ordinal number properties; perceive sequenced events in time)
Social Knowledge (e.g., to be aware of self, family, and community; be
aware of physical environment and natural world)
Imagination (e.g., the ability to "formulate rich and varied mental
images, see beyond the obvious, or draw upon experience in inventive and
effective ways" [Jalongo, 1990, p. 195])
Such a list as the above immediately reveals the importance as well as
the interrelatedness of different kinds of knowledge.
Relationship to Individual, Cultural, and Contextual Variation
The above categorizations of knowledge and ways of learning are stated
generally as though all children learn in the same way. While it is true that
there are certain aspects of learning that can be generalized, recent
cognitive research is equally clear that there are considerable differences in
not only the rate at which children acquire knowledge, but in the ways in
which children learn, remember, and understand. Gardner's (1983) work
demonstrates that individuals differ in the strength of various abilities and
in the ways different intelligences are combined to complete different tasks,
solve various problems, and progress in various domains. Gardner's complex
view of intelligence, considered in light of the growing body of
knowledge on approaches to learning described earlier, begins to explain some
of the enormous variation that is observed in children's early learning.
In addition, as noted above, knowledge particularly
social-conventional knowledge is extremely dependent on cultural context,
and thus is subject to strong intercultural variation. Culture contributes to
the variance in children's development: (1) by providing specific contexts
for learning; (2) by determining how different contexts are related; and (3)
by regulating the difficulty of the child's role and the level of support
given to a child in performing a task (Laboratory of Comparative Human
Cognition, 1983). Culture determines not only the knowledge that is valued
and transmitted in children's communities, but also how children perceive
events and stimuli.
Caregiver beliefs and child-rearing practices are influenced by
cultural practices and have important consequences for children's cognitive
development. Caregivers shape the environments in which children grow up, and
the level of guidance and support provided for children at different ages as
they engage in different activities varies widely among families. In
addition, although widely ignored in most current assessments, it is clear
that children's abilities and understandings are frequently highly
context-dependent. Slight variations in a task may produce large differences
in the level of understanding demonstrated. Children's performance on new
tasks will depend on their familiarity with the context, which is highly
influenced by their cultural backgrounds. In contexts that are familiar,
where they can properly interpret the requirements of the situation, children
will demonstrate a high level of knowledge and understanding. When the
contexts are unfamiliar, however, children may respond in ways that adults
deem developmentally inappropriate and illogical. For example, Carraher,
Schliemann, & Carraher (1988) found that Brazilian street children who work as
vendors are able to perform relatively complex calculations in calculating
total costs of purchases and change due to customers, but cannot perform
written calculations for the exact same arithmetic problems in school.
Even a cursory comparison of the list of cognitive competencies
delineated above with the identified intelligences explains why those children
whose styles and ways of knowing more closely approximate the challenges of
school will appear to be more cognitively competent. Less obvious is the fact
that cultural preferences and patterns are reflected in these cognitive tasks.
For example, it is often assumed that the appearance of a strong
fantasy-reality distinction is a developmental task of the preschool period,
but in fact these behaviors are heavily culturally influenced (Wolf, 1992).
As we learn more about cultural patterns in approaches to learning, styles of
learning, and individual variation, we will gain greater understanding of the
ways that cognition and general knowledge are manifested by different
children. In the meantime, the operating premise should be that all children
can learn and that schools need to adapt to the individual needs, interests,
and learning styles of different children if all are to succeed.
The purpose of this paper has been to amplify the dimensions of early
learning and development used by the National Education Goals Panel to measure
progress towards Goal 1. In developing this definition, the Technical
Planning Group has responded to widespread concerns regarding the narrowness
of current definitions of "readiness," inappropriate methods of testing, and
the misuse of data that can cause unintentional harm to individual children.
By expanding the awareness and understanding of the multiple domains of early
development and learning and of the variability caused by individual,
cultural, and contextual influences, the Group hopes to stimulate a
reappraisal of our current methods of assessment, as well as our current
policies and practices concerning young children and their families.
This section examines issues that underlie this definitional analysis
and that must be addressed as a prelude to any reappraisal of our current
approach to early care and education. Then, the section identifies
preliminary implications of the Technical Planning Group's work for
assessment, practice, and policy. Finally, the section suggests specific
action steps based on these implications for future work in early development
Throughout this report, two underlying issues have repeatedly emerged.
First, though the immediate task at hand was to amplify the dimensions of
children's early development and learning with an eye toward the future
development of specifications that might be suitable for assessing the
construct, the Technical Planning Group strongly believes that child outcomes
should not and cannot be the sole measure of America's progress toward the
first Education Goal. While specifying desired child outcomes is a necessary
step, it is an insufficient approach. It must be coupled with a commitment to
examining social and institutional readiness to support children's early
development and learning.
To that end, the Technical Planning Group strongly urges that energy be
devoted to examining the readiness and capacity of the nation's schools to
receive young children. Moreover, the nation must examine the nature and
quality of America's health and mental health services to assure that adequate
pre- and post-natal care is available to all, that all children have access
not simply to immunizations but to on-going health care and adequate
nutrition, and that child abuse and neglect are eliminated. We should examine
what it will take for our education system to assure that young people receive
parenting education and support routinely, and that preschool children have
access to high quality programs. Family resource and support programs should
be widely available, offering parenting education, support groups, and
outreach to improve families' capacities to support their children's
development. America should examine its employment practices to assure that
all who are able have access to gainful, durable employment, and that
corporate policies support a nation attempting to enrich its commitment to
child and family life. In short, the Technical Planning Group is wrestling
with tension created by a nation that wants to be able to measure child
outcomes without according sufficient attention to the inputs necessary to
yield those outcomes.
The second issue permeating this report is related to both the drive
for standardization that is implicit in Goal 1 and the need for and
appreciation of the significance of individual, familial, cultural, and
contextual diversity. The report has called for a rethinking a
restandardization, of sorts of the essential domains of early development
and learning. Specifically, the report has encouraged a shift from a
primarily cognitive orientation to one that embraces multiple dimensions.
Simultaneously, the Technical Planning Group's work strongly underscores the
need to respect individual, cultural, and contextual variability a stance
that demands flexibility, rather than standardization, in the interpretation
and utilization of the definitions. In short, the Technical Planning Group,
while understanding the complexity of the technical challenges associated with
defining and assessing early development and learning before us, is convinced
that new assessments are doomed to repeat past problems unless such efforts
are permeated by a conceptual orientation that accommodates cultural and
contextual variability in what is being measured and in how measurements are
constructed. Within the broad parameters of standardization, then,
flexibility and inventiveness must be brought to bear on the content and the
process of assessment.
Recognizing the above issues and the limitations of this report, what
are the implications that can be drawn to inform the approaches toward early
development and learning that are necessary if we are to undertake responsibly
the challenge of the nation's first Education Goal? The Technical Planning
Group offers suggestions bearing in mind that much fruitful work is already
underway in three categories: assessment, practice, and policy.
For decades, the use of norm-referenced standardized tests to assess
young children has been commonplace. In the late 1980s, however, through the
efforts of individual scholars, advocates, and teachers, along with support
from professional organizations, the liabilities of such practices were
uncovered. To modify the situation, alternative assessment practices were
promulgated, and efforts were made to distinguish between "assessment" and
Given the amplification of children's early development and learning
discussed here, plus the shortcomings of established testing methods, it is
essential that any assessment strategy take into consideration a number of
issues, such as the incorporation of multiple dimensions as well as cultural
and individual variability issues. In addition to abandoning testing
strategies that rely on single administrations, that are uni-dimensional, and
that fail to capture cultural variability,
assessment strategies must clearly distinguish the purposes of assessment. It
is not possible for a single assessment system or a single assessment
instrument to do all things. Instruments used to determine eligibility for
services should be different from both those used to collect national
accountability data and those used to make clinical judgments; moreover, data
derived from assessments and observations that will be useful for the
improvement of pedagogical practices are likely to be different from all
three. Furthermore, rather than the automatic administration of instruments
that may be inexpensive and readily available, more thoughtful data collection
plans that include input from families, teachers, and the children themselves
must be constructed. And rather than administering all assessments to all
children, such plans need to be developed with the understanding that, for the
purposes of monitoring national changes over time, sampling is sufficient.
In addition, greater attention must be given to addressing unresolved
conceptual issues, suggested above. First, amplification of the variables
associated with children's early development and learning actually poses
serious challenges for assessment. As we have seen, information is not
equally robust regarding all dimensions; indeed, in some areas it is woefully
weak. Consequently, far more scholarly work is needed to tease out variables
in certain domains.
Second, this analysis suggests that far more work is needed if we are
to make assessments responsive to the cultural variation that characterizes
all early development and learning. Heretofore, "cultural" sensitivity has
been expressed by simplistically making assessments available in children's
own languages or by showing sensitivity in the types of questions asked and
the nature of information solicited. While these factors are important, we
are now aware, for example, that cognitive processing is different for
bilingual children than it is for monolingual youngsters. We have seen that
culture profoundly affects how children approach learning, how they learn, how
they process information, and how they interpret ideas and behaviors to such a
degree that assessment procedures and instruments must not merely be
calibrated to accommodate such differences, but must be constructed from the
very core to embrace variation. There is a need for new ways of thinking
about multiple outcomes, and for the development of outcome continua that
fully recognize alternative expressions of valued outcomes.
Third, and despite the first two concerns, so much knowledge is already
available that if one were to construct an assessment that incorporated all
the variables presented and that represented sound principles of assessment
(e.g., periodic assessment by multiple parties), the time committed to
assessment would be enormous. Although the Technical Planning Group supports
the value of assessment, particularly as a tool for enhancing quality
classroom practice, the Group also demands sensitivity to the burden placed on
teachers, children, and families by assessment. Efforts must be undertaken to
collapse variables and to frame specific performance assessments so that
multiple information can be extracted from common or everyday experiences.
This analysis suggests that early development and learning must no
longer be regarded solely, or even primarily, as a cognitive issue. Knowledge
must nest within the full range of dimensions discussed, and must be
understood as a fully integrated component of early development.
Understanding that early development and learning consists of physical and
motor development, social and emotional development, approaches toward
learning, and language development in addition to cognition and general
knowledge has implications for the content of curriculum and for the goals
of early education (i.e., for what is taught, for how it is taught, and for
how knowledge is constructed).
Moreover, the discussion suggests that those who work with young
children should know the dimensions and understand how to translate that
knowledge into classroom practice. Achieving this sounds far simpler than it
is. Certification standards that drive college course offerings often do not
acknowledge the multiple dimensions of early development and learning.
Certification processes consistently devalue understandings of human
development (child and adult). In short, if practice is to be altered to
genuinely accord weight to the five dimensions, teacher preparation programs
must also do so. Further, new approaches to in-service training need to be
developed so that teachers and those who work with young children have access
to specialized training. Individuals who work with young children must be
well-versed in parent engagement and family support, as well as in the nuances
of pedagogy and its application.
The analysis suggests that to optimize early development and learning,
there must be a match between the nature of the child's learning environment
and the child. Contextual variables dramatically alter the trajectory of
children's early development and learning, suggesting that in order for
children to thrive, they must be in environments that foster rich
developmental experiences. In the most simple manifestation of this point,
classrooms where young children congregate may therefore feel and look
different from those of older youngsters. Constructing knowledge from
experience must be accorded value. Variation in the learning
environment must reflect cultural values and modes of interaction.
It is quite clear that the multidimensional nature of early development
and learning has serious implications for the enactment of policy, which has
so long been characterized by categorical funding and distinct programs. The
dimensions and the need for them to be integrated means that partnerships
among agencies in health and education, not to mention social services, need
to be fostered. In some cases, programs are already designed to be
multi-disciplinary; where they are not, linkages for referrals, for combined
planning, and for collaborative work can be developed.
Taking hold in local communities throughout the nation, such
integrative efforts also need support at the federal level. In some cases,
supports that enable cross-program linkages and service integration take the
form of waivers or exemptions from extant policy. In other cases, incentives
for collaboration are being incorporated into legislation. Whatever the
strategy, to attain the multi-dimensional outcomes presented herein, more
collaboration is needed at various levels.
By implication, the focus on children's early development and learning
suggests that policy emphases must begin well before the early years of
school. The challenge is that such activity needs coordination at the federal
and state levels. Currently, responsibility is dispersed among many agencies,
and between the public and private sectors. If the nation is serious about
meeting its first Education Goal, delivery mechanisms beyond what currently
exist will need to be considered. It is not simply the development of new
policies that must be accorded attention; it is the development of new
structures and new public will. It is to that end that this report is
Given the expanded definition of early development and learning
proposed in this report and the above implications for assessment, practice,
and policy, concrete action steps are proposed below to guide the development
and implementation of a revised approach to serving young children.
First, to nurture these five dimensions will require additional work by
researchers and local districts to observe, describe, measure, and understand
the dimensions. Far more scholarly work needs to be done to tease out
variables where current information is not adequate.
Second, assessments of the strengths and needs of young children
entering school need to reflect the five dimensions explained in this paper.
Currently, many local systems assess children's "readiness" by the use of
inappropriate testing methods that focus too narrowly on children's knowledge
of pre-literacy and pre-academic information.
Third, to help schools and teachers recognize the five dimensions
accurately, work is needed to develop ways to assess them in children whose
cultural backgrounds vary from that of the teacher. Children's early
development and learning always occur in a specific cultural context. That
context influences the ways in which the child learns to use language, the
specific knowledge he or she is most likely to acquire, and the ways in which
he or she approaches learning and other social situations. In the past,
individual and cultural variations in the expression of these dimensions have
been mistaken for deficiencies in the children. Important work needs to be
done to develop methods to recognize these dimensions accurately in children
from varying social and cultural contexts. Assessment procedures and
instruments must both be calibrated to accommodate such differences and
constructed to recognize and illuminate multiple expressions of outcomes on
Fourth, attention is needed in both policy and practice in order to
recognize that preparing children for school means helping them become
healthy, adjusted, curious, and expressive, as well as knowledgeable. As
schools laudably seek to raise education standards, some will be tempted to
begin academic instruction at younger and younger ages. In contrast, the best
way to reach high standards may be to attend to children's general well-being
and encourage teachers to provide learning environments and experiences rich
in opportunities to explore, rather than providing earlier formal academic
instruction. Increasing recognition that children learn by actively
constructing knowledge complements the understanding of the importance of all
Fifth, regarding the issue of teacher training and certification,
teachers need training to understand, recognize, and nurture the five
dimensions of early development and learning and the variety of ways in which
different children may demonstrate them. Such training can help them to
appreciate the educational strengths and needs of their students and to
translate that knowledge into classroom practice. In addition, teachers need
training in increasing parent involvement, educating parents, and in assisting
parents in supporting their children's development.
Sixth, to promote all five of these dimensions in children there is a
policy need to coordinate human service delivery among health, education, and
other social service agencies at the local, state, and federal levels. Such
policy coordination needs to reflect a shared commitment of communities to
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