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Research: Characteristics of a High Quality Learning Environment

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If decades of early childhood research have taught us one thing, it’s that early learning is a crucial investment in the well-being of families and communities. If those decades have taught us a second thing, it’s that the quality of children’s early learning experiences makes a huge difference in whether this investment pays off.

The national early learning landscape is a mix of programs that get exciting results for children, those that fall short of expectations, and everything in between. Understanding the differences between those successes and disappointments is critical.

Last year, with support from the Thornburg Foundation, I set out to identify the characteristics of high-quality early learning environments in New Mexico. In particular, I looked at early learning programs that serve a high proportion of children who are from low-income families or are English language learners. I chose sites where these children went on to have third-grade test scores that were higher than their demographics would seem to predict.

High-quality early learning does not happen by magic, and excellence is not a mystery. By building a concrete understanding of what effective New Mexico programs have in common, we can help other programs adopt these practices. And by replicating these practices, we can build an ever-larger community of early learning programs that place New Mexico’s most vulnerable children on a pathway toward success.

I visited these sites to see what they might have in common. And although the sites had enormous differences in geography, structure, and the students they served, they shared these qualities:

  • Programs were engaged with New Mexico PreK and in many cases with FOCUS, the state’s pilot effort to improve the quality of child care. These programs actively benefitted from state professional development, used New Mexico’s Early Learning Guidelines as a basis for their programs, and spent much of their classroom time in guided play. This allowed children to explore their environments while adults asked open-ended questions and encouraged learning one-on-one or in small groups.
  • Educators described their workplaces as warm and supportive. Many said their programs felt “like family,” and that their program directors treated them with professional respect. Some provided low-cost benefits like flexible scheduling and scrubs to wear, which is especially critical in a low-wage profession where many educators earn minimum wage and do not receive benefits.
  • Perhaps as a result of this warm culture, directors reported they had low turnover, particularly among lead teachers who had often worked at their centers for more than a decade.
  • Successful programs used a variety of curricula, and many did not use formal curricula but instead created thematic units based on children’s interests. Examples included robots, cars, and firefighters.
  • Educators changed their classrooms regularly, to ensure students would have new and interesting things to interact with. One educator described using the environment as “a third teacher.”
  • Programs were intentional about family involvement in ways that matched their particular contexts. In some communities this meant hosting family literacy nights, and in others it meant providing flexible transportation services to parents cobbling together their child’s day through a combination of child care, Head Start, and other programs.
  • Many programs were committed to dual language instruction, with books, songs and classroom labels in both English and Spanish. When children spoke a different language, educators embraced it, asking children to teach others the words for colors and common objects.
  • Educators emphasized the importance of social-emotional learning, and of making young children feel successful in school by focusing on their strengths.

Read the Full Report

-Hailey Heinz is a researcher and policy analyst at the University of New Mexico Center for Education Policy Research.  

We will periodically invite guest writers who are experts along the cradle-to-career spectrum to provide content. Contact us if you are interested. 

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