Getting children ready for school: whole-child or skill-targeted?

Getting children ready for school: whole-child or skill-targeted?

By Elaine Lau, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

The education children receive in their early childhood has been shown to have long-term impacts on their achievement in school, career and even physical health at the later stage of life. Jenkins and her team explored how the design of preschool curricula (including the content and style of instruction) would influence children’s school readiness – measured by their skills in literacy, math, and socioemotional domain at the end of preschool.

By evaluating 11 early childhood education curricula funded by the Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research (PCER) Initiative Study, the team was particularly interested in comparing the effectiveness of the whole-child approach, which is widely adopted in most preschool classrooms in the United States, with the skill-targeted curricula in preparing children for promotion to elementary school education.

  • Whole-child approach:
    With an emphasis on child-centered active learning, the approach encourages children to interact independently with the equipment, materials, and their peers during learning rather than having explicit specific academic skills targets
  • Skill-targeted approach:
    Specific activities aimed at building up the targeted skills are laid out in the curriculum while still allowing for child-directed activities

The team made the following observations:

  • Children from skill-targeted curricula gained more cognitive skills than children from the whole-child curriculum;  
  • Skill-targeted curricula were capable of meeting their target of enhancing children’s specific skills, as observed in both literacy and mathematics curricula – children’s achievement in either skill was significantly better in comparison to their whole-child peers;
  • Although whole-child curricula produced better classroom process quality (in terms of teacher-child interactions and the classroom environment, overall instructional quality, etc.), children’s school readiness was not elevated.

In conclusion, curricula with a focus on specific school readiness skills appear to be more successful in boosting children’s literacy and math skills in comparison to whole-child curricula, which leads the authors to suggest policy efforts need to focus more on developmentally-appropriate, skill-focused curriculum design and move away from the comparatively ineffective whole-child approach.

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