Supporting Diverse Populations in Pre-K Classrooms

Teachers Weigh In

Research shows that high quality early care and education (ECE) can have positive impacts on young children’s learning, especially for dual language learners and children affected by poverty. Curricula and professional development programs that strengthen teaching practices are key to creating and maintaining high quality ECE. Yet there is limited evidence on how best to implement those strategies in a way that considers the diverse backgrounds of children in pre-K settings and may further strengthen ECE instruction. An MDRC research team recently led a project to learn more about how ECE curricula and professional development might be better aligned with the diverse demographics of children in pre-K.

The research team interviewed 18 preschool teachers in ECE centers that had participated in curriculum and professional development interventions led by MDRC. The teachers were invited to share their thoughts on the kinds of training and coaching they feel they need to implement and adapt curriculum models that are in sync with the lived experiences of their students – many of whom are from communities of color and experience high rates of poverty. What supports exist? What has been missing in current approaches? What changes can be made? Are there ways to help teachers better understand and connect with the backgrounds of the children in their classrooms and their communities, to provide a learning experience that builds off their strengths and assets? This post shares some of those teachers’ insights.

Teachers want to know about their students’ home lives.

Half of the ECE teachers said they recognize that home life plays an important role in children’s interests and learning, and they want to know more about each child’s situation so they can better support them in the classroom.

“When [school administrators are] screening [parents], they don't tell teachers then, ‘This child... [has] an IEP that needs this, or the family is going through this...or they're living out here.’ Basic things that we need to know of this particular child [are] not talked about until we…find out last minute…. It will help if we were to know [earlier]. Then it could be easier for us to address it."

For example, a better understanding of a child’s background and home life could help teachers understand if the child is developmentally ready for certain activities or is dealing with language challenges. One teacher explained:

"When we do the individual child plan, we keep in our mind that maybe he or she is behind with speak[ing] … or following two language[s], one at home and one at school…. Sometimes the kids, when they have two language[s], they don't want to talk that much. They are confused [about] which one they're going to pick. So we encourage the kids, when they are in the classroom, we always talk our one language, English. Then [they] can pick some words, some letters and numbers [to use]. And I always talk to the parents... [about] the language they use at home most of the time."

Teachers use books about different cultures in their classrooms, but they are less certain about other ways to highlight the diverse backgrounds of their students in the curriculum.

Some teachers said the curriculum they use does not have a strong emphasis on things such as race, ethnicity, culture, or language. At the same time, there isn’t a strong focus on this in the professional development training and coaching they receive. Not surprisingly, only a few teachers said they plan lessons or make adaptations to the curriculum with these factors in mind (for example, tailoring an activity to align with a child’s background). Still, some said they do use books as a way to talk about the backgrounds of their students. Said one teacher:

“I can read stories about, you know, culture. They can learn more [about how] to accept each other.”

However, another teacher noted that the opportunities for having these kinds of conversations in the classroom may be limited:

“When we talk about family traditions … we can kind of get full-fledged into race, culture, ethnic background, you know, just in the activities that we do within the classroom, the things that we request from home to be brought into school... [But] when we’re teaching something such as rhyming words, you know, it’s kind of hard to get those families’ involvement... into that type of curriculum…. It’s like, you know, how creative can you get with teaching rhyming words?”

Teachers may need support for some background-based modifications.

Most teachers said they focus their curriculum adaptations based on the children’s skill levels or interests, as is common in ECE. Although only a few said that they plan or adapt curricular activities with race or ethnicity in mind, language is a common, background-based adaptation that nearly half of teachers reported making.

"For my Spanish-speaking children that I did have last year... if it was words that I knew in Spanish, I would say [them] in Spanish or my assistant would tell them in Spanish.

This same teacher noted that some subjects are not conducive to classroom discussion.

"Regarding… family income…I never try to make that a thing in the classroom because... that's a touchy situation for anybody."

Since there is not an explicit focus on making adaptations based on race, ethnicity, or culture in the curriculum or professional development supports, this offers an area of growth for curriculum developers, trainers, and coaches. Some teachers said they were open to this additional support.

"They [the curriculum materials] could do more. Like [with] multiculture -- add more of that in there…. A lesson on more of dealing with different backgrounds and races."

Overall, the research team did not find that there was a strong focus on teachers adapting their curricula using a diversity lens. Still, some teachers expressed an interest in learning more about their students from this perspective -- additional information that could potentially inform their instruction.

This finding highlights an opportunity for curriculum developers, trainers, and coaches to intentionally and explicitly help teachers identify and support the individual strengths of the children in their classroom.

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The InPractice blog series highlights lessons from MDRC’s work with programs, featuring posts on recruiting participants and keeping them engaged, supporting provider teams, using data for program improvement, and providing services remotely.

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