Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

Across the country, early educators face questions about how best to align early childhood programs with the academic rigor of the Common Core State Standards adopted by 46 states (including Massachusetts) and the District of Columbia. The answer, experts say, lies in developmentally appropriate practice and understanding what research tells us about how young children learn.

“We have to be careful that those standards, particularly as they extend downward, appropriately recognize these important social, communication, and self-regulation skills that are really as critical for kids’ learning in those early and later years as whether they know the alphabet,” Robert C. Pianta, the dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, tells Education Week.

For young children, this means play and art and hands-on activities. It means fostering social and emotional development and executive function as well as laying the foundation for literacy, numeracy, science and other academic areas.

“With young children, art and physical movement aren’t a frill,” Gillian D. McNamee, professor of teacher education at Chicago’s Erikson Institute, tells Ed Week. “They are the disciplines that offer resources for the expression and the development of ideas.”

According to a 2007 review of states’ policies published in the journal Early Childhood Research & Practice, all states have preschool guidelines that cover multiple developmental domains. “In the 2011-12 school year, 14 states rolled out the common-core standards for kindergarten, K-1, or K-2,” Ed Week reports.  “The federal Head Start preschool program for disadvantaged children has also felt the influence of the Common Core State Standards Initiative: It recently aligned its Child Development and Early Learning Framework with the Common Core.”

In 2010 the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted the Common Core standards and later adopted curriculum frameworks in English language arts and mathematics that incorporate the Common Core and include aligned pre-kindergarten standards. The pre-k standards were based on curriculum frameworks first published in 1995, as well as guidelines for preschool and kindergarten learning experiences.

The introduction to the commonwealth’s pre-k standards for English language arts provides a good description of how young children learn. “In this age group, foundations of reading, writing, speaking and listening, and language development are formed out of children’s conversations, informal dramatics, learning songs and poems, and experiences with real objects, as well as listening to and ‘reading’ books on a variety of subjects,” the introduction states. “The standards can be promoted through play and exploration activities, talking about the picture books, and embedded in almost all daily activities. They should not be limited to ‘reading time.’…  The standards should be considered guideposts to facilitate young children’s understanding of the world of language and literature, writers and illustrators, books and libraries.” (See “The Young Reader’s Journey”)

There are currently no plans for common national pre-kindergarten standards. “There’s no doubt that what goes on in early-childhood programs needs to be informed, shaped, and aligned with what students are going to start with in kindergarten, but there’s not a national plan,” Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a Washington-based organization that helped design the Common Core standards for English/language arts and math, tells Ed Week.

“It’s a pivotal time for early childhood,” Sharon Lynn Kagan, a professor of early childhood and family policy and a co-director of the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College, Columbia University, tells Ed Week. “Early childhood has got to rise to the occasion and really think hard about what its values are and what it wants to transmit.”

(Note: An earlier blog post examined questions raised by Erikson Institute President Samuel Meisels about the Common Core and young learners.)