Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

Researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education have released the first three entries in a new series of one-page briefs called “Lead Early Educators for Success.”

The goal of the series is to provide early educators with the support they need to create high-quality learning environments for the children they teach.

The central theme of the series: Revisit assumptions. To this end, the briefs look at current polices and practices; outline common pitfalls; and present strategies for effective implementation of high-quality learning experiences.

The series — which will include a total of ten briefs — is being produced by Harvard’s Language Diversity and Literacy Development Research Group, headed by Nonie Lesaux, a Harvard education professor.

Brief 1: A New Era for Early Education and Care

This brief introduces both the challenges and the opportunities that currently exist in the complex landscape of early childhood education.

Despite the “aspirational and ambitious agenda for dramatic pre-K expansion” the brief warns, national and local policymakers can’t just dream up preschools. “For these unprecedented policy initiatives to drive substantially improved learning outcomes for all children, we need a new commitment to building and sustaining capacity in the adult early childhood workforce.”

Making substantial investments in early educators is crucial because they play “a transformational role in raising and educating the next generation and are a linchpin for our most vulnerable young children.“

This brief calls for creating a “Rigorous and Regulated (R2) Learning Environment.” In these settings, early educators would be empowered to “effectively address classroom pressure points, maintain a sense of emotional calm, and provide children with stimulating learning opportunities.”

A well-trained educator who could “create and experience this R2 learning environment” would be more likely to consult with her peers, feel more competent at her work, and remain in the profession.


R2 Learning Environment diagram. Courtesy of The Language Diversity and Literacy Development Research Group, Harvard Graduate School of Education.
R2 Learning Environment.
Courtesy of The Language Diversity and Literacy Development Research Group, Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Brief 2: The R2 Learning Environment

Citing the great strides that have been made in preschool quality, this brief explains how efforts to implement reforms can also have unintended consequences that hinder the creation of R2 Learning Environments.

For example, assessing preschool children can be a valuable practice: assessment data can “anchor improvement plans… to the population’s learning needs.” But if assessments become little more than “compliance driven exercises,” than this “reform” ends up being a barrier to creating an R2 Learning Environment. Instead of guiding instruction, assessments end up burdening teachers and provide little insight about how to tailor instruction to meet children’s needs..

Similarly, workforce development efforts have the potential to help educators grow and improve — but not if the focus is solely on completing a certain number of professional development hours — instead of on building educators’ skills and use of instructional strategies.

The brief also points to challenges in two other current areas of reform: maintaining staff-to-child ratios and following health and safety procedures. Solutions to these and other issues will appear in upcoming briefs.

Brief 3: The R2 Educator

This brief highlights four competency areas that R2 educators need to create a high-quality learning environment. The four areas are:

– executive function: including metacognition, planning and goal-setting, and multitasking

– emotional regulation: such as self-awareness, modeling stable emotions, and emotional management of self and others

– relational and interpersonal skills: such as empathy, understanding social cues, and managing conflicts; and

– talk for learning: a set of skills that includes asking open-ended questions, using praise and positive language, and using books to anchor learning activities

This brief also provides a short example of a preschool activity that references each of the four competency areas that the teacher uses.

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Delivering on the promise of high-quality early education requires a new commitment and strategic action. By empowering early educators to lead by taking these actions — and creating R2 environments — policymakers could vastly improve the early education of young children.