Enriching classroom learning environments: What does it take?


Tuesday December 9th, 2014 Alpaugh, CA: Save the Children early childhood development program coordinator Victoria Beeson leads a parent-child group as part of the Early Steps for School Success program. Stebastin, 6 enjoys the story.

by Judie Jerald


A few years ago, I spent time visiting classrooms at an early childhood program in a poor, rural community in Arkansas. Save the Children ran this program because the former program lead had lost its funding. We knew improving the program would be a challenge and that a big part of that challenge would be developing a high-quality learning environment for children.

When I visited, I saw teachers and teacher assistants who were kind and caring with the children and respectful with the parents. They wanted to do a good job and with me there, they clearly wanted to do their best.

They had a recognized high-quality curriculum at their disposal which they said they did not like and did not know how to use.

It sat on the shelves.

The children spent their days being led in groups through one routine to another, with very little interaction or talking with the teachers. They lined up to wash their hands, lined up to brush their teeth, lined up to go to the bathroom, sat in a circle for long periods of time reciting and shouting out rote rhymes and songs together, lined up to go outside, napped and lined up to wait for the bus. One routine after another, with teachers talking at the children, not with them – and usually from a distance.

It was not an enriching learning environment.

I have seen beginning early education teachers who struggled with curriculum, lesson planning and classroom management, who over time became master teachers whose classrooms are like a finely tuned dance: well organized, child-centered, with smooth transitions, engaging content and rich conversations between teachers and children.

What contributes to the development of these teachers? How do they go from being inexperienced teachers to becoming highly effective teachers?

These teachers wanted to do a good job. But they did not have the knowledge and skills to implement a child-centered curriculum, and consequently, the only way they knew how to manage the children throughout the day was to control them by leading them from one non-learning routine to another. No one – teachers or children – seemed to be enjoying it much.

Two years later, I went back and visited those same teachers and early learning classrooms. The classrooms were rich with materials and children’s work. Children were working in small groups in learning centers with teachers in close proximity engaging the children in meaningful dialogue about what they were doing. I heard a lot of language between them. Circle group times were short and were mostly conversations about the theme the class was working on, discussions about a book being read and what they would be doing during that day. The learning activities were child-centered and individualized.

Previously, I had heard the teachers using loud voices to control behavior and had seen little individual interactions with the children. Now the children and teachers were engaged together in conversations throughout the day. Teachers were using the curriculum and showing creativity in developing study themes.

How did this transformation happen? What did it take?

I asked the early childhood manager, who is responsible for curriculum and staff development, those questions. She told me that the biggest hurdle was gaining the teachers’ trust.

She did that by frequently being in the classrooms, often for full days. She worked alongside the teachers, modeling teacher/child interactions, talking with children about what they were doing and demonstrating ways to implement the curriculum. She gave the teachers ideas, and they began to be willing to try new approaches. The manager and the teachers would reflect during nap time or at the end of the day. She would ask the teachers questions such as: “What do you think went well? What would you do differently tomorrow?” She might also say, “what if we tried this?” or “have you thought about doing it this way?”

She told me that through this positive feedback process and by regularly working in the classrooms coaching the teaching teams, the teachers began to trust her. With her guidance and support, they tried different approaches. When they saw how well it worked, it began to take root – there was a real change in their teaching style and content.

“It was all about the development of the relationship,” she told me. “By reflecting with them, listening and not judging them, they came to trust me and gain confidence in themselves.”

She knew real change had happened when the teachers began to own the curriculum and extend the themes. One teacher used the book, The Three Little Pigs, as part of the Buildings Study curriculum they were working on. The teacher brought in hay, purchased Popsicle sticks and brought in materials to make bricks. You guessed it – the children created houses of straw, houses of sticks and houses of bricks. It involved science, math and measuring, fine motor skills, art, reading and language – and it was fun!

There are some natural born teachers, I am sure. But most highly effective teachers are created when they learn and understand what children need, when they understand how to develop and use curricula and when they have quality, ongoing professional development opportunities.

Again and again, I have seen teachers develop and transform their classroom and teaching methods.  Every time, it involves a talented early childhood mentor/coach who has developed a trusting relationship with the teacher. It also requires supportive school leadership and peers who work well together. These relationships form the foundation from which high-quality learning environments are created and where wonderful things can happen for children.


Want to learn more about the importance of early childhood education? Judie will be posting a new installment to The Voice for Kids every month. In the meantime, join us to learn about ways you can advocate for high-quality early childhood education.

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Judie Jerald is the Senior Early Childhood Advisor for Save the Children Action Network. Before joining SCAN in January 2016, she served as the Early Childhood Senior Director for U.S. Programs at Save the Children, where she designed and directed the home-based Early Steps to School Success, a signature program for Save the Children that operates in 14 states. Before joining, Judie served as the National Director of the Early Head Start Program. Previous to that, she was the founder and director of Early Education Services, an umbrella agency that provides comprehensive services to young children and their families throughout Windham County, Vermont.