What Every Teacher of Young Children Wishes their Principal Understood

Leading a school is complicated. As a former principal, I still remember the pressures of budgets, class sizes, curriculum changes, and the challenges of mentoring instructors and parents. I relied heavily on my early childhood background, averting many crises aided in my knowledge of  how children learn and grow and how attending to each learner’s individual needs positively affects the child, the classroom, and the entire school community.

There are many pieces to the puzzle that forms our educational system; but at the center of that complexity is, simply, a child. And yet, for school leaders, so much more attention is placed on the important but still secondary skills of management and finance. Less is placed on ensuring that leaders have a strong foundation in child development and learning. Five facts can guide leaders in making educational decisions and setting practices that will best benefit children and teachers.

  1. Kids grow along the same path, but at their own unique pace.

Young children are constantly developing in all domains, including cognitive, physical, linguistic, and social-emotional development. This rapid change happens in a predictable sequence for all children. However, every child develops at differing rates, impacted by family and environmental factors. This means that chronological age can not be assumed to be a true predictor of developmental stage or ability. In other words, not all 5 year old children are ready for the same learning challenges.  

Asking a child to perform beyond their developmental capabilities can result in frustration and behavioral issues. Some children will figure out how to perform beyond their stage; but there are consequences to this rush. When we place developmentally inappropriate expectations on children, crucial opportunities for growth commensurate with the child’s actual stage of development are missed. For example, if children are asked to use sophisticated fine motor skills before more simple gross motor skills have been mastered, they will neither have the foundation for success at the fine motor challenges nor will they be afforded the opportunity to grow such gross motor skills most easily mastered in that critical period.

  1. Relationships and play impact the brain.

Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child states that “The early years are the most active period for establishing neural connections, but new connections can form throughout life and unused connections continue to be pruned. More importantly, the connections that form early provide either a strong or weak foundation for the connections that form later.”

Further, we know that certain areas of the brain are responsible for specific functions. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for executive function skills like self regulation and cognitive flexibility,  best predict academic and lifelong success. Children are not born with these skills;  they are developed over time through relationships and interactions with the environment.  

“Adults can facilitate the development of a child’s executive function skills by establishing routines, modeling social behavior, and creating and maintaining supportive, reliable relationships. It is also important for children to exercise their developing skills through activities that foster creative play and social connection, teach them how to cope with stress, involve vigorous exercise, and over time, provide opportunities for directing their own actions with decreasing adult supervision.

In a recent publication, Zero to Three echoes this concept urging practitioners working with young children to engage the child by “narrating the child’s ongoing experience of discovery and problem solving” as well as “engaging them in imitative play”.  Further research studies by economist and Nobel Prize winner James Heckman show that there is a significant return on investment when high-quality zero-to-five programs are implemented. Economists and researchers across the country are realizing quickly that investment in the right kind of programs and environments during the early years could change lives and our economy for the better.

  1. Brains grow when bodies move.     

Moving is necessary for physical, vestibular, visual, and cognitive growth, including executive function. Playing outdoors and physical activity promotes physical health, critical thinking, problem solving, risk assessment, conflict resolution, creativity and cooperation. Brain research confirms that physical activity can actually enhance the learning process. Eric Jensen describes six reasons to have students move more to learn more:  circulation, episodic encoding, a break from learning, system maturation, good chemicals, and avoiding the negatives of too much sitting. When we ask children to sit still for long periods of time, especially when direct instruction is the primary method, we are denying them the necessary environment for optimal growth.  This can lead to behavioral problems and impact academic outcomes.

  1. Developmentally appropriate curriculum and PLAY produce stronger learners and better scores.

A play-based approach is one research-based example of investment in the “best” practices of learning that produce better results in the long run. Not just in increased standardized test scores, but in overall success in student productivity, love of learning, and development of self-regulation skills. This is because play based practices produce a pattern of learning instead of just acquisition of knowledge.  

According to experts Deborah Leong and Elena Bodrova, “Teaching children to play has to be as intentional and systematic as teaching literacy or math and at the same time must take a form very different from adult-initiated practices often used to teach these content-related skills.” Their studies have shown higher standardized test scores from children in classrooms with their Vygotskian play-based approach versus a traditional classroom. This research suggests that the innovative teaching techniques used in the project classrooms produced gains in children’s early literacy development beyond what was accomplished by the teachers in non-project classrooms.”

  1. Parents are their children’s greatest advocates and a team approach is best.

Parents and educators often have the same goals but can have very different views on the means. Mutual respect and trust is a necessity between administrators, teachers, and parents. When principals’, teachers’ and parents’ goals and means are aligned, the best interests of the child are served.


Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. (2017). Brain Architecture. Available at http://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/brain-architecture/

Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. (2017). Executive Function. Available at http://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/

Thompson R., (2016). What More Has Been Learned? The Science of Early Childhood Development 15 Years After Neurons to Neighborhoods. Zero To Three.

Brown E., (Dec. 12, 2016). A Nobel Prize winner says public preschool programs should start at birth. Washington Post.

Jensen E., (Nov. 2000). Moving With the Brain In Mind. Educational Leadership.

Leong D., Bedrova E., (Jan. 2012). Assessing and Scaffolding Make-Believe Play. Young Children.

Leong D., Bedrova E. (Jan. 2001). Tools of the Mind: A Case Study of Implementing the Vygotskian Approach in American Early Childhood and Primary Classrooms. International Bureau of Education.

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