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Critical Issue: Organizing for Effective Early Childhood Programs and Practices

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ISSUE: All programs in early childhood education are not equally effective in promoting the learning and development of young children. The overall effectiveness of an early childhood program is dependent upon several factors: quality staff, suitable environment, appropriate grouping practices, consistent schedules, and parent involvement. Decisions about these factors often are made early in the planning and organizing process for an early childhood program. These decisions have important ramifications because they affect the child, the family, the classroom, the school, and the community.

OVERVIEW: The benefits of early childhood education have been established through research and publicized nationally. Yet these benefits do not necessarily occur in every early childhood program. Schweinhart (1988) notes:

"Long-term benefits result only from high-quality early childhood development programs--ones characterized by a child development curriculum, trained teaching staff, administrative leadership and curriculum support, small classes with a teacher and a teaching assistant, and systematic efforts to involve parents as partners." (p. 7)

The planning and organization process for an early childhood program exhibiting these characteristics begins with the establishment of a task force of educators, parents, and community members. After identifying best practices in early childhood education, this group can help provide input on decisions regarding the details of curriculum, assessment, staff selection, school climate and environment, and parent involvement. Community collaboration is essential in setting goals and providing focus for an early childhood program.

When a community plans a new early childhood program or seeks to improve its current program, a series of questions need to be asked: Who will staff the early childhood program? How will the classroom look? What is the best way to group the children? What will the day be like for the children? What will be the role of parents? The answers to these questions are important in determining the quality of the program. Decisions made about the organization of the early childhood program must have a firm foundation in the growth and development of the young child. These decisions should be based on the following premises:

Using these premises as a foundation, planning and organizing for an effective early childhood program should emphasize five factors: quality staff, suitable environment, appropriate grouping, consistent schedules, and parent involvement.

The first factor in planning for effective early childhood programs is quality staff who have training and experience in teaching young children. The National Association of Elementary School Principals (1990) notes quality indicators in staff selection: "The staff is composed of people who have taken coursework not only in elementary education but in teaching young children" (p. 46). Specifically, teachers and administrators who work with young children should have a background in Early Childhood Education or Child Development; these courses of study emphasize child development, the learning style of the young child, and the need to develop partnerships with parents. In addition to coursework, teachers and administrators should have completed supervised training in working with young children. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (1991) has outlined recommended staff qualifications for various early childhood positions.

David BurchfieldDavid Burchfield, a first-grade teacher at Brownsville Elementary School in Crozet, Virginia, discusses the teacher's role in early childhood classrooms. [504k audio file] Excerpted from a videotaped interview with David Burchfield (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1992). A text transcript is available.

Early childhood teachers also need adequate time to focus on and interact personally with children and their families. If teachers are unable to spend time interacting with individual children, the benefits of their expertise will be limited. The teacher-child ratio and group size are important planning considerations. The younger the child, the more important it is to have adequate numbers of staff in the classroom. Appropriate staffing patterns will vary according to the age of the children, the type of activity, and the inclusion of children with special needs. Appropriate teacher-child ratios encourage the bonding of children and teachers. The National Association of Elementary School Principals (1990) recommends the following student/adult radios: 20:2 for three- to five-year-olds; 15:1 for six- to eight-year-olds; and no more than 15:1 for at-risk children.

A second factor in planning for effective early childhood programs is a suitable environment for the learning styles of young children. The National Association of Elementary School Principals (1990) notes:

"Children in the three-to-eight range acquire knowledge in ways that are significantly different from the way older children learn. Younger children learn best through direct sensory encounters with the world and not through formal academic processes." (p. 2) "Young children acquire knowledge by manipulating, exploring, and experimenting with real objects. They learn almost exclusively by doing, and through movement." (p. 8)

The physical environment--which includes the classroom setting as well as the outdoor setting--should provide opportunities for the children to explore and learn. An appropriate indoor environment can be created by subdividing a large classroom into learning areas or centers. The room arrangement of shelving and furniture clearly designates these centers and also provides a spacious area for group gathering. Furniture is child-sized, sturdy, and comfortable. Manipulatives, puzzles, and other learning materials are displayed on shelves that are easily accessible by small children. Decisions about the classroom design are made in the early stages of planning and should take into consideration traffic patterns, access to sinks and bathrooms, activity areas and quiet areas, a group meeting area, and a message center. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (1991) states, "The quality of the physical space and materials provided affects the level of involvement of the children and the quality of interaction between adults and children" (p. 43).

The outdoor setting also is important in early childhood programs. Children need space outdoors for play, exploration, and social interaction. Specific times during the day should be set aside for recess and outdoor activities. This time can be used for physical movement, climbing and playing on playground equipment, digging and planting, and individual play.

A third factor in planning for effective early childhood programs is effective grouping practices. Research indicates that nongraded, mixed-age grouping is particularly appropriate for young children (Gaustad, 1992). Within the classroom, teachers can use flexible grouping--ranging from whole class to small groups to individual work--to facilitate learning.

David BurchfieldDavid Burchfield, a first grade teacher at Brownsville Elementary School in Crozet, Virginia, discusses the grouping strategy he uses to promote a learning environment in his classroom. [247k audio file] Excerpted from a videotaped interview with David Burchfield (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1992). A text transcript is available.

A fourth factor in planning for effective early childhood programs is a consistent daily schedule. Dodge and Colker (1992) note the importance of consistency in the daily routine:

"Young children feel more secure when they can predict the sequence of events and have some control over their environment. They delight in reminding the teacher that 'snack time comes next' or telling a visitor that 'now we go outside.' In addition, predictability provides children with a rudimentary sense of time, as they begin to learn what comes first in the day, second, next, and last. A consistent schedule also helps build trust in the environment." (p. 37)

In addition to the daily schedule, plans should include decisions about the school's yearly calendar. Some early childhood programs operate on a 12-month basis, with vacations spaced evenly throughout the year instead of one long summer vacation. Some programs also have before- and after-school care as well as educational activities for parents and children during the evening.

A final factor in planning for effective early childhood programs is parent involvement. Schweinhart (1988) recommends that early childhood staff should form a partnership with parents through home visits, frequent communication, and a welcoming attitude toward volunteering and classroom observation. (Refer to the Critical Issue "Creating the School Climate and Structures to Support Parent and Family Involvement.")


ACTION OPTIONS: A schoolwide task force (composed of program administrators, teachers, parents, and representatives from community agencies that provide services for families with young children), administrators and superintendents, and teachers can take the following steps to develop effective programs and practices for young children:

Task Force:

Administrators and Superintendents:


IMPLEMENTATION PITFALLS: Many individuals are affected by decisions to change organizational components such as school schedules, grouping patterns, or staff selection procedures. These people may have questions and complaints when changes in programming differ significantly from the traditional school model. Changes in scheduling and grouping patterns (which might separate children from the same neighborhood) may cause problems for working parents. To ensure the cooperation of the schoolwide community, people should receive communications on the changes being contemplated and should be invited to become involved in the decision-making process.

If the school day is extended to include evening activities for parents and children or if the school adopts a 12-month calendar, teacher commitment and enthusiasm are essential. Teachers unions and other staff associations may be resistant to changes in teachers' hours, schedules, duties, and procedures for selection and hiring. To ensure their cooperation, these groups need to be involved and consulted when such changes are first being considered.

Changes in the calendar year, especially if a school adopts year-round scheduling, require changes in support staff (such as maintenance, warehouse, and secretarial services). New positions, such as before- and after-school care, require clear job descriptions. These jobs will need to fit into current classification systems of the school district for compensation scales and benefits, or new contracts will need to be designed. Transportation can be a major issue in changes in grouping and daily scheduling. Individuals responsible for scheduling buses need considerable lead time to make adjustments.

Teaching practices and classroom environments that are developmentally appropriate may require the purchase of classroom equipment and manipulatives. Current equipment may be modified, such as grouping together flat-topped desks to form tables. Some new equipment, however, may be required. If a concrete, problem-solving approach to math is initiated, teachers will need manipulatives such as Unifix cubes, Cuisenaire rods, or Math Their Way materials. A variety of materials and equipment--such as scales, rulers, graph paper, and tagboard--will be beneficial in learning centers. Parents, businesses, and civic organizations can be solicited to provide recyclable materials and scraps for concrete learning.

DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW: Some parents and community members may believe that changes in the organization of the school and the classroom are not desirable. These individuals are satisfied with their own educational experiences and want the same experiences for their children. Parents may see hands-on learning merely as fun and not relevant to the acquisition of school skills and knowledge. Some groups have advocated a return to the basics, which they feel emphasize drill and practice. Consistent with this viewpoint is the idea that young children need structured instruction in school skills, such as reading flashcards, doing workbooks, and listening for extended periods of time. These groups often are very vocal in their concerns about what they see as a lack of extensive practice in reading, writing, and arithmetic skills.

Some parents and community members may express concern that the school is taking over the role of the family when it provides prekindergarden experiences, especially if the schooling is a full-day program. Individuals with this concern may believe that the provision of early childhood programs in schools encourages both parents to work outside the home, rather than providing what they consider to be appropriate family care.

If the school provides on-site before- and after-school care, home providers and staff from child-care centers may view this day care as a competitor to their own programs.

Parents, teachers, and community members may be resistant to changes in the school calendar. Sometimes year-round schools experience resistance from families who use the summertime for extensive vacations and enrichment activities. Teacher groups sometimes join in this opposition. Tourism and leisure businesses often take issue with changes in the vacation periods. Open communication with parents, teachers, and community members helps ensure the focus on children's learning and development. Diverse points of view provide new information and outlooks. Communication can be increased if individuals with opposing viewpoints avoid the use of educational jargon.


Valeska Hinton Early Childhood Education Center, Peoria, Illinois

Stark County Early Childhood Collaborative Initiative, Stark County, Ohio


Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI)
11501 Georgia Ave., Suite 315
Wheaton, MD 20902
(301) 942-2443 or (800) 423-3563; fax (301) 942-3012
Contact: Marilyn Gardner, Director of Conferences and Marketing

National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)
1509 16th St. N.W.
Washington, DC 20036-1426
(202) 232-8777 or (800) 424-2460; fax (202) 328-1846
Contact: Pat Spahr, Information Services Director

National Association of Elementary School Principals
1615 Duke St.
Alexandria, VA 22314-3483
(800) 38-NAESP; fax (800) 39-NAESP
Contact: Gail Gross

National Early Childhood Technical Assistance System (NECTAS)
500 NationsBank Plaza
137 E. Franklin St.
Chapel Hill, NC 27514-3628
(919) 962-2001; fax (919) 966-7463

Valeska Hinton Early Childhood Education Center
800 W. 5th St.
Peoria, IL 61605
(309) 672-6810


This Critical Issue was researched and written by Judy Harris Helm, president of Best Practices Inc., an educational consulting firm in Brimfield, Illinois, and former coordinator of professional development at Valeska Hinton Early Childhood Education Center in Peoria, Illinois.

Date posted: 1997
Revised: 1999
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