Personal and Environmental Factors That Influence Early Childhood Teachers' Practices

Article excerpt

This study focused on the relationship between teachers' beliefs and practices. Specifically, it examined whether teacher-directed (behaviorist) and student-directed (constructivist) beliefs supported or inhibited teachers' use of developmentally appropriate practices. Developmentally appropriate practice is interactive instruction based on children's individual needs, interests and strengths. Four early childhood teachers in distinct educational settings were interviewed about their teaching philosophies and observed in their classrooms. In addition, the principal and one of their colleagues were interviewed about the school climate. The results of the study revealed that teachers' personal beliefs were a greater determinant of their practice than environmental factors such as support from colleagues and principals. Recommendations for reconciling teachers' beliefs and practices are discussed.

Many leaders in early childhood education formally endorse developmentally appropriate practice (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Charlesworth, 1998a; 1998b) and support specialized training for teachers of young children to ensure the implementation of these practices (ACEI, 1997). Developmentally appropriate practice is described as instruction that allows children to be active partners in a learning program that is based on their individual strengths, interests and needs. In addition, children are encouraged to be selective about a range of activities and materials that are offered in a meaningful context. In a review of studies on developmentally appropriate practice, Dunn and Kantos (1997) found that children in traditional and developmentally appropriate programs show similar gains in math and reading achievement. However, unlike traditional practice, developmentally appropriate practice has positive effects on children's social and emotional development. Children in developmentally appropriate programs are more confident about their skills and motivated to learn than children in traditional programs.

While there is agreement among early childhood professionals on the philosophies that support developmentally appropriate practice, there is disagreement as to whether the field should mandate a set of universal guidelines for early childhood programs (Lubeck, 1998a; 1998b). There is such extreme variance among the social and cultural contexts of early childhood programs across the country that it is doubtful that one set of guidelines can be applied to all settings. Thus, to some it's more preferable for early childhood educators to construct their own guidelines for practice and curriculum based on the particular needs of the students in their program.

Despite the controversy over universal guidelines, when interviewed or surveyed most teachers will report beliefs that are consistent with developmentally appropriate practices. However, their practices in many cases, do not reflect their beliefs (Pelander, 1997). In some cases teachers are in transition, they are learning to change their practices to be consistent with their beliefs or they are adapting their developmentally appropriate practices to their social context (Nelson, 1997; Nelson & Smith, in press). Teachers who have been most successful in overcoming environmental constraints in implementing developmentally appropriate programs give credit to personal factors such as seeking out specialized training in these methods through pursuing degrees and certification in early childhood education and attending educational conferences and workshops (Goffin & Day, 1994). They also tend to believe that they have control over their work and their teaching will have a significant impact on their students (Macmillan, 1999). Other research shows that environmental factors have an effect on teachers' practices. Successful teachers tend to be in supportive environments where their developmentally appropriate practices are encouraged by their colleagues, administrators and the parents of their students (Rust, 1993; Vander Wilt & Monroe). …