I just started teaching Child Growth and Development at the local community college, and most of my students have indicated that they intend to some day work with children, in some capacity. The first few classes have been quite interesting for me, as I try to get know my students. Many do not yet have hands-on experience with young children, some have children of their own. Child development theories and research are new to ALL of them. And this is a required class for any person pursuing work with young children in any capacity.
As I’ve reviewed our text to prepare for class, I’ve tried to find ways to make the technical and sometimes jargon filled content more relatable and tangible. What I’m finding so fascinating is that as an experienced educator, I can easily identify caregiving practices that are linked to specific development theories. But for my students, who have little or no work experience with children, that connection is irrelevant. Not only is there a lack of application of course content in their day to day lives, there is a lack of connection to the importance of understanding child development and why it is a critical element for successful teaching and caregiving.
In my role as trainer and consultant, I am constantly reading books and articles related to child development and best practices. I still find new research and its application fascinating. I believe in the importance of lifelong learning, but I meet many teachers who believe that they have a degree, and that’s good enough.
For some time, I have been concerned about the general lack of understanding of child development that I see in many teachers, new and experienced. Expectations of children are not aligned with DAP or any type of developmental continuum. In these classrooms, I see kindergarten skills being practiced in a 3-year old classroom. When I ask a teacher how she chose a specific activity, or what resource she used, the answer is often “I’ve always done this.”
This brings me back to my challenge with my community college students. If there is no pertinent reference point for understanding child development in a practical way, then everything I teach this year will become stuff to learn for the test, rather than stuff to learn for success as a caregiver. The child development information from this course will soon be tossed aside at the start of a new semester and new classes. The textbooks will either be sold back to the bookstore, or will gather dust on the shelf.
I have to admit, when I was in college, I memorized the developmental theories for the test, and never looked at that information again. Until I needed it for real life work with children.
Now, I wonder if our teacher education system is set up backwards. If understanding child development and developmental theories are crucial to understanding and implementing best practices, shouldn’t we wait and teach this information when our students have some hands-on experience working with children?
Shouldn’t we focus on training potential teachers on communication skills, how to have a conversation with a child, and how to ask open ended questions to extend learning?
Shouldn’t we focus on relationship building skills, so teachers know how to observe children to build relationships, and how to create partnerships with parents, and how to work as a professional in collaboration with other colleagues?
Shouldn’t we focus on training potential teachers on how to observe in a functional way rather than in a clinical way? If our only experience with observation is to sit on the side of the room while in someone else’s classroom or caregiving setting, with no interaction with children, we never learn the skills of observing and documenting while engaging in play with children.
If we want teachers to focus on learning through play, shouldn’t we include understanding the fundamentals of play in our pre-service coursework? Shouldn’t we give new teachers the tools to explain all of the learning that happens when children are playing so they are not constantly battling the play vs. academics challenge? And shouldn’t we encourage new teachers to personally engage in play?
These are skills that all education professionals need to be successful, but so many pre-service training programs do not include them in their coursework. If we understand how to BE with children and how to build relationships with children, then the child development theories will start to make more sense. Then we can actually apply child development theories to support children’s play and learning.
New teachers and caregivers spend so much of their time figuring out how to make it through the day because we haven’t given them the skills to communicate and build relationships. So of course, the child development information gets tossed out the window.
Maybe it’s time to re-think teacher development, and focus on the power of play and the power of relationships, so we can start to recognize the importance of and value of understanding child development.