What Do Early Childhood Educators Wish their Leaders Understood about Child Development?

Peg Oliveira, PhD

May 2019 (Updated from 2017)

School leaders matter. In fact, research suggests principals have the second largest in-school impact on student achievement after teachers. With growth in the inclusion of public pre-k classrooms in elementary schools, beyond technical leadership competency, it’s increasingly important that elementary school leaders have a strong understanding of pre-K and early learning and know how to translate their skillset to their youngest students. Yet, many school principals, superintendents, and instructional leaders have little or no training in early childhood and feel unprepared to guide and evaluate teachers of young children. A 2015 survey of new principals by the National Association of Elementary School Principals found that only 1 in 5 felt well trained in “instructional methods and developmentally appropriate perspectives for early education.” The National Governors Association suggests that “Most states' principal preparation systems could be improved to better equip elementary school principals to evaluate pre-K through third-grade (P-3) teachers, support improvements in teaching and learning, and guide teachers in using curricula and assessments in the earliest grades.”

A 2016 New America scan found that only four states required elementary principals to have preparation in early language and literacy development; one additional state was in the process of making this a requirement. Only one state specifically included ECE content and experiences as part of its principal licensure process. Five other states at least require elementary school principals to take coursework covering child development.

As explained in the 2015 National Academy of Medicine’s Transforming the Workforce report, early childhood leaders and administrators “...need to understand developmental science and instructional practices for educators of young children, as well as [have] the ability to use this knowledge to guide their decisions on hiring, supervision, and selection of tools for assessment of children and evaluation of teacher performance, and to inform their development of portfolios of professional learning supports for their settings.”

Acting as a school leader means visiting classrooms, observing teachers, and providing useful feedback. Without adequate training in early childhood education, elementary school principals are challenged to provide high-quality feedback to PreK-3rd grade teachers operating in classrooms that, if developmentally appropriate, should look very different from a typical fourth or fifth grade classroom.

A 2005 National Association of Elementary School Principals report outlined what early ed principals should know and be able to do, but we wondered: “What do early childhood educators wish their leaders understood about child development?” Here’s what educators we spoke with, from Pre-K to 4th grade with an average 23 years of teaching, told us us.

  1. Kids grow along the same path, but at their own unique pace.
“Sooner is not necessarily better.”
“You can’t RUSH child development.”

Young children are constantly developing in all domains, including cognitive, physical, linguistic, and social-emotional development. This rapid change happens in a predictable sequence for all children. However, every child develops at differing rates, impacted by family and environmental factors. This means that chronological age can not be assumed to be a true predictor of developmental stage or ability. In other words, not all 5 year old children are ready for the same learning challenges.  

Asking a child to perform beyond their developmental capabilities can result in frustration and behavioral issues. Some children will figure out how to perform beyond their stage; but there are consequences to this rush. When we place developmentally inappropriate expectations on children, crucial opportunities for growth commensurate with the child’s actual stage of development are missed. For example, if children are asked to use sophisticated fine motor skills before more simple gross motor skills have been mastered, they will neither have the foundation for success at the fine motor challenges nor will they be afforded the opportunity to grow such gross motor skills most easily mastered in that critical period.

  1. The best neurobiological intervention is a safe relationship.

Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child states that “The early years are the most active period for establishing neural connections, but new connections can form throughout life and unused connections continue to be pruned. More importantly, the connections that form early provide either a strong or weak foundation for the connections that form later.”

Further, we know that certain areas of the brain are responsible for specific functions. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for executive function skills like self regulation and cognitive flexibility,  best predict academic and lifelong success. Children are not born with these skills;  they are developed over time through relationships and interactions with the environment.  

“Adults can facilitate the development of a child’s executive function skills by establishing routines, modeling social behavior, and creating and maintaining supportive, reliable relationships. It is also important for children to exercise their developing skills through activities that foster creative play and social connection, teach them how to cope with stress, involve vigorous exercise, and over time, provide opportunities for directing their own actions with decreasing adult supervision.

In a recent publication, Zero to Three echoes this concept urging practitioners working with young children to engage the child by “narrating the child’s ongoing experience of discovery and problem solving” as well as “engaging them in imitative play”.  Further research studies by economist and Nobel Prize winner James Heckman show that there is a significant return on investment when high-quality zero-to-five programs are implemented. Economists and researchers across the country are realizing quickly that investment in the right kind of programs and environments during the early years could change lives and our economy for the better.

  1. Guided play and developmentally appropriate curriculum produce stronger learners and better standardized test scores.

“The developmental windows of what is “normal” are WIDE at young ages.”

A play-based approach is one research-based example of investment in the “best” practices of learning that produce better results in the long run. Not just in increased standardized test scores, but in overall success in student productivity, love of learning, and development of self-regulation skills. This is because play based practices produce a pattern of learning instead of just acquisition of knowledge.  

According to experts Deborah Leong and Elena Bodrova, “Teaching children to play has to be as intentional and systematic as teaching literacy or math and at the same time must take a form very different from adult-initiated practices often used to teach these content-related skills.” Their studies have shown higher standardized test scores from children in classrooms with their Vygotskian play-based approach versus a traditional classroom. This research suggests that the innovative teaching techniques used in the project classrooms produced gains in children’s early literacy development beyond what was accomplished by the teachers in non-project classrooms.”

  1. Movement is Miracle-Gro  for the young brain.

Moving is necessary for physical, vestibular, visual, and cognitive growth, including executive function. Playing outdoors and physical activity promotes physical health, critical thinking, problem solving, risk assessment, conflict resolution, creativity and cooperation. Brain research confirms that physical activity can actually enhance the learning process. Eric Jensen describes six reasons to have students move more to learn more:  circulation, episodic encoding, a break from learning, system maturation, good chemicals, and avoiding the negatives of too much sitting. When we ask children to sit still for long periods of time, especially when direct instruction is the primary method, we are denying them the necessary environment for optimal growth.  This can lead to behavioral problems and impact academic outcomes.



1- Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. (2017). Brain Architecture. Available at http://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/brain-architecture/

2- Gesell Institute of Child Development. (2016). Brain Growth. Available at http://www.gesellinstitute.org/neuroscience/

3- Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. (2017). Executive Function. Available at http://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/

4- Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. (2017). Executive Function. Available at http://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/

5- Thompson R., (2016). What More Has Been Learned? The Science of Early Childhood Development 15 Years After Neurons to Neighborhoods. Zero To Three. 

6- Brown E., (Dec. 12, 2016). A Nobel Prize winner says public preschool programs should start at birth. Washington Post. 

7- Leong D., Bedrova E., (Jan. 2012). Assessing and Scaffolding Make-Believe Play. Young Children.

8- Leong D., Bedrova E. (Jan. 2001). Tools of the Mind: A Case Study of Implementing the Vygotskian Approach in American Early Childhood and Primary Classrooms. International Bureau of Education.

9- Jensen E., (Nov. 2000). Moving With the Brain In Mind. Educational Leadership.

brain growth education principal teachers young children

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