A group of APA members interested in early childhood education have come together with one vision: creating a world in which every young child has equal access to affordable, high-quality early education and care.

And they know that there's a long way to go before it's a reality.

As members of the APA Working Group on Psychology in Early Education and Care, they're working to ensure that psychology has a place at the table in shaping the growing field of early education and care and to make sure that APA's many entities that deal with young children work together and with other national organizations.

"We know that psychologists have a long history of working with young children, but the convergence of a number of events has increased the need in this area as well as increased the opportunities and challenges," says Barbara Hanna Wasik, PhD, working group chair and chair of APA's Board of Educational Affairs.

Sweeping demographic changes in America have resulted in more children being cared for outside the home. The biggest factor is that an ever-growing percentage of mothers are entering the work force, especially since welfare-to-work legislation was enacted. While demand for preschool programs continues to increase, there is a drastic shortage of quality programs using developmentally appropriate practices.

In response to the growing concern of parents, advocacy organizations and schools over the dearth and expense of good programs, "most states now have some type of prekindergarten early childhood initiative and the number of these programs is growing rapidly," says Donna Bryant, PhD, a senior scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The reasoning behind these state initiatives, says Wasik, "is based on the importance of providing at-risk children a quality preschool environment that can promote their competence and reduce their later risk for school failure."

And as the number of programs increases, "There are many looking for guidance in making use of scarce dollars as effectively as possible," says Sharon Lynn Kagan, PhD, immediate past-president of the National Association of Educators of Young Children (NAEYC) and professor of early childhood and family policy at Columbia University.

The working group believes it's an opportune time for psychologists to provide guidance based on sound scientific research and theories.

"Very careful, longitudinal research in all aspects of child development has concluded that certainly what happens during the first five years of life is really critical to future performance and success," says Ruby Takanishi, PhD, president of the Foundation for Child Development and a working group member. "And since over 50 percent of kids from infancy are in some kind of care outside the home, the quality of those experiences and the individuals who care for and educate them is a whole area of social crisis."

Promoting quality programs

Recent findings from the "Cost, Quality and Outcomes Study," a longitudinal study of child-care center quality conducted by leading researchers, show that children who attended higher-quality preschool programs were rated by their teachers as having fewer problem behaviors, more positive peer relationships and better cognitive and attention skills through second grade. And the positive influences of a quality program were even more pronounced for children at greater risk.

However, the same study previously found that about 80 percent of preschool programs were of poor to mediocre quality. And for infants and toddlers, the numbers are even higher.

With so few quality programs available, there is inevitably unequal access to them. Takanishi describes the situation as a U-shaped curve: The affluent can finance child care and education privately, and the poor get public support; while those just above the poverty line and in the middle class have difficulties finding affordable, quality settings for their children.

"This puts them at enormous disadvantage with children who have had good preschool experiences," Takanishi says.

And, she adds that the push for accountability standards and testing in public schools "makes it even more important for a level playing field as they enter the schoolhouse."

For example, the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, passed by Congress in 1994, set the goal that by last year, every child would enter school ready to learn.

"Those goals have not been met," says Laura Barbanel, EdD, a member of the working group and APA's Board of Directors. "If we're to educate our children well, they need to be prepared to come to school. To be prepared to come into school, they need to have a good early education."

Where psychology can build

Psychology clearly has a role in quality early childhood education and care.

"This whole area is a wonderful amalgam of the various streams of psychology as represented by APA's directorates," says Barbanel. "It's a practice issue, a marketplace issue, a science issue, an education issue and a public interest issue."

These APA members and their colleagues (see box) suggest many areas where psychologists can contribute:

  • Defining quality. In concert with early childhood professionals, psychologists are needed to clearly define the components of a quality program. While structural aspects, such as teacher-child ratios, space per child in the room and accessible bathrooms, are important, program process--how teachers and children interact with each other--is equally important and much harder to measure.

"And that is where psychology can come in," says working group member Florence Rubinson, PhD, "to define and measure those variables that are more difficult to gauge." For example, the relationship between preschoolers and their teachers is different from that of older children. Very young children require more support, and the quality of those relationships is linked with their performance.

  • Designing appropriate programs. Psychologists need to continue helping design developmentally appropriate day-care, prevention and intervention programs. And as more schools envelop 3- and 4-year-olds, school psychologists can ensure that these early education efforts are not simply downward extensions of elementary school programs, but are firmly grounded in psychological research and theory to reflect the unique needs of younger children.

  • Improving assessment tools. As more children enter early education and care, there will be an increasing need to assess children for developmental delays and mental health needs.

"Assessment is very specialized in terms of children because, although many understand they are being evaluated, they have not yet acquired the behaviors necessary for compliance," says Rubinson. "We need to be careful, since development can occur in a sporadic way," she cautions, "that we don't begin to label these children so early and that we look at children on an ongoing basis."

Professionals need to be versed in the different kinds of tools--and the tools' limitations--used with preschool children. As a guide, Kagan highlights a set of assessment guidelines for young children tendered by the National Education Goals Panel "that deserve considered attention."

  • Meeting the mental health needs of children. Many early education teachers and staff are not well-prepared to work with children with social and emotional problems. Children with behavioral problems are often expelled from day care and end up in poor-quality settings, where their needs are still not addressed.

Working with families. As children are referred to psychologists, psychologists will also work with their families. They might even find themselves providing family services in the home as they reach out to families that might not be comfortable in other settings, Wasik says.

Psychologists have expertise in working with complex family dynamics, and are especially needed to work with culturally and linguistically diverse families, Rubinson points out. Psychologists can also assist staff in better understanding these complex family dynamics, adds Kagan.

"Young children's experiences should have some continuity between home and school in terms of culture," says Rubinson. "Preschool and early childhood centers need to be very cognizant of the cultures that children come from and need to make the transition as culturally continuous as possible."

  • Researching and applying the findings. "The last 40 years or so, the research of psychologists on the effects and influences of early experience and early intervention programs has really contributed very significantly to public policy and public investment in Head Start and preschool programs," says Takanishi.

But more research is needed. A recent National Academy of Sciences report, Eager to Learn: Educating our Preschoolers, calls for research that thoroughly examines the characteristics of programs that benefit all children; research that studies how programs can provide more helpful structures, curricula and methods for children at high risk of educational difficulties; and research on assessment of both children and programs.

Just publishing the research is not enough. "If it doesn't make its way into the actual pedagogical practice in early childhood programs," says Kagan of Columbia, "the research doesn't help children." That may mean a little extra work to put psychological research findings into language that nonpsychologists can understand.

  • Supporting professional development of teachers and staff. Early childhood experts all agree that there is a serious gap between the state of teacher education and compensation and what is needed to create high-quality environments. Few states require even a high school education for preschool teachers, for example. The Eager to Learn report recommends that every group of youngsters have access to a teacher with a bachelor's degree.

But the APA working group cautions that policy-makers and administrators will have to carefully think through the steps necessary to implement a degree requirement. Child-care workers are among the lowest paid workers in America, which would make it difficult for many to earn a higher degree, even with financial support. Such poor pay leads to high turnover and ultimately a shortage of good teachers. In the interim, psychology can advocate for expanded professional development opportunities for preschool staff and teachers.

Guidance to grow

The working group also encourages APA to think about guidelines for the growing numbers of professionals who work with young children and their teachers and families. Such guidelines would likely address the specialized knowledge and skills psychologists need to work in this field--training that most psychologists didn't get unless they specialized in early child development.

Psychologists should also recognize that "the model for working in preschool settings is different than working in the grades," says Barbanel. Psychologists have to work closely with the teachers and staff to integrate their work and may have to use methods not typical with school-age children.

And there's also the need for psychologists to work with the various therapists and interventionists who surround a child, from teachers to speech therapists and occupational therapists. Psychologists have the mediation and group dynamic skills to bring together these professionals and to work with parents in a productive way.

"We give a lot of lip service to collaboration and family participation, but I would like to see more collaboration among more professionals," says Rubinson. "The goals we set for children have to be more integrated. It's coming out with a picture of the whole child and what that whole child needs."

The working group also cautions that, while young children benefit greatly from high-quality care, it does not inoculate them against the effects of poor elementary and secondary schools, neighborhoods with limited resources and other socioeconomic difficulties.

"It's important to have high-quality early care and education," Rubinson says, "but it's not the only thing we need to do."

Further Reading

For more information on the APA Working Group on Psychology in Early Education and Care, contact Karen Anderson, PhD, (202) 336-5860.

  • National Research Council. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, D.C.: C.E. Snow, M.S. Burns, & P. Griffin (Eds.).

  • National Research Council. (2000). Eager to learn: Educating our preschoolers. Washington, D.C.: B.T. Bowman, M.S. Donovan, & M.S. Burns (Eds.).

  • National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. Washington, D.C.: J.P. Shonkoff & D.A. Phillips (Eds.).

  • Peisner-Feinberg, E.S., & Burchinal, M.R. (1997). Relations between child-care experiences and children's concurrent development: "The Cost, Quality, and Outcomes Study." Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 43, 451­477.