National Center for Children in Poverty: How Preschool Teachers Can Begin Closing the Achievement Gap

The NCCP Advises Preschool Teachers

Early childhood education teachers face critical challenges when educating children from low-income families. In order to close the achievement gap between poor and wealthy preschool and elementary students, the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) recommends specialized professional development for teachers who work in high-needs schools.

National Center for Children in Poverty: Teachers must be prepared to meet the needs of preschoolers from low-income households

Because children from low-income families typically enter preschool with reading and math skills that lag far behind those of their peers, “Closing the achievement gap depends greatly on using an intentional curriculum and providing teachers with the kinds of professional development and support that can help them more effectively promote early literacy and math skills in the context of nurturing and emotionally supportive classrooms,” said Curtis Skinner, PhD, director of Family Economic Security at the NCCP.

Teacher education and an intentional curriculum help close the achievement gap

An intentional curriculum is content driven, emphasizes active engagement with children, includes attention to social and regulatory skills, and is responsive to cultural diversity and children just learning English, said Dr. Skinner.

To better understand the benefits of an intentional curriculum for low-income preschool and elementary students, he recommends “Promoting Effective Early Learning: What Every Policymaker and Educator Should Know,” published by the NCCP and Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Research also shows that teacher behavior and classroom quality are best when teachers have a bachelor’s degree and specialized early childhood training at the college level.

Evaluating students for social, emotional and behavioral issues caused by living in poverty

Children from low-income families are also more likely than their peers from higher-income families to suffer from social, emotional and behavioral problems. “The Devereux Early Childhood Assessment (DECA) program is based on research on promoting resilience and reducing risks for young children,” said Dr. Skinner. “The DECA helps teachers assess and then change the classroom learning environment to promote relationships, self-control and initiative as core tools for school readiness.”

“Social, emotional and cognitive learning are all interconnected in young children,” he continued. “Classroom-based strategies to help children master social and emotional skills have been linked to reading ability.” Detailed strategies for teachers can be found in the NCCP publication “Resources to Promote Social and Emotional Health and School Readiness in Young Children and Families: A Community Guide.”

Helping students by helping parents: Teachers can work with administrators and counselors to provide support and resources to low-income families

Building relationships with students’ families and acknowledging their needs can result in more parental involvement at school and higher overall investment in their children’s education. Teachers should first speak to school administrators and others who may have knowledge of the family’s circumstances.

“Joined by a school counselor, if possible, the teacher should arrange a meeting with the parent or primary caregiver to discuss the child’s experience at the school and tactfully provide information about nutritional programs (such as food stamps, WIC, and food pantries) and other income and work supports that may be available to the family,” said Dr. Skinner. “It may be helpful to include this nutritional information as part of a community resource packet for the family, including job training, educational opportunities and recreational activities.”

Educating parents on their rights in the workplace

Educators can also help parents who are struggling to find employment as well as those who are making below minimum wage or working unpaid overtime. Undocumented immigrants often experience these types of workplace abuses, said Dr. Skinner, and are often unaware of their rights or reluctant to challenge their employers for fear of losing their job or being reported to the immigration authorities.

“Parents in these circumstance are probably best advised to discuss the problem with trusted community-based organizations, immigrant/worker mutual aid groups or legal aid organizations,” he said. “Teachers should inform parents that they are protected by federal wage and hours laws irrespective of their immigration status.”

Income-insecure students can thrive if schools know how to help them

“Teachers must be sensitive to the special challenges children in these circumstances confront and provide the additional supports they need, including using an intentional curriculum and developing strategies to promote social, emotional and behavior learning,” concluded Dr. Skinner.

Erin Flynn Jay is a writer, editor and publicist, working mainly with authors and small businesses since 2001. Erin’s interests also reach into the educational space, where her affinity for innovation spurs articles about early childhood education and learning strategies. She is based in Philadelphia.

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