Analysis of Two Early Childhood Education Settings: Classroom Variables and Peer Verbal Interaction

Article excerpt

Abstract. Descriptive and ecobehavioral analyses were used to explore the daily activity contexts in classroom settings reflecting two distinct models of early childhood education. Activity context, social configurations, teacher behavior, and child behavior were explored, with specific consideration given to peer verbal behavior as an indicator of social interaction. Twenty-four children between the ages of 3 and 6 years enrolled in a Montessori classroom and 26 children between the ages of 3 and 5 years enrolled in a traditional preschool classroom were observed over a 3-month period using the Ecobehavioral System for Complex Assessment of Preschool Environments (ESCAPE; Carta, Greenwood, & Atwater, 1986). Overall, activity context, social configurations, teacher behavior, and child behavior varied across settings in ways consistent with program philosophies. However, levels of peer verbal interaction did not vary significantly.

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Increasing numbers of children are spending at least part of their day in alternate care and learning environments. In 2005, 57% of children ages 3-5 attended center-based programs alone (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2007). The range of programs in which children may be enrolled is broad, and so, too, are the guiding philosophies and educational goals behind the programs (Barnett, 1986). Whatever the model, classroom environments for young children influence children's behavior (Odom, Favazza, Brown, & Horn, 2000). In each classroom, variable exist that can be grouped into physical, programmatic, and social environments (Nordquist & Twardosz, 1990). Variables in each of these categories may affect children's behavior. For example, research has demonstrated differences in children's social behavior under different environmental conditions, including type of toys available, group density, and length of activity periods (Brown, Fox, & Brady, 1987; Quilitch & Risley, 1973; Tegano & Burdette, 1991). To understand children's behavior and the impact of the environment, an examination of the ways in which children interact with their ecology is required.

Ecobehavioral analysis is an observational approach that focuses on the relation between child behavior and ecological variables (Greenwood, Carta, Kamps, & Arreaga-Mayer, 1990). As opposed to examining the global quality of an early childhood program and how it might affect child behavior (Dunn, 1993; Howes & Smith, 1995), ecobehavioral approaches address the interaction of people and ecological variables at a micro-level. Specifically, ecobehavioral approaches examine the extent to which an individual's behavior covaries with aspects of an individual's ecology, including materials, activities, and other individuals in the environment (Kontos, Burchinal, Howes, Wisseh, & Galinsky, 2002).

Previous applications of ecobehavioral analysis in early childhood have focused primarily on special education and regular education settings and how differences in classroom variables across those settings impact child behavior (Brown, Odom, Li, & Zercher, 1999; Kontos, Moore, & Giorgetti, 1998; McCormick, Noonan, & Heck, 1998). For example, Odom, Peterson, McConnell, and Ostrosky (1990) observed the classroom ecologies of special education preschool classrooms and early education classrooms to identify those activities most likely to encourage peer interaction. Results indicated that children in special education classrooms spent a substantial amount of time in gross motor, pre-academic, and snack activities, whereas children in early education classrooms spent more time in play, class business, and clean-up activities. In terms of social interaction, which was defined as peer verbal interaction, the base rate for children in early education classrooms was significantly higher than the base rate for children in special education classrooms. …