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Nearly 6 in 10 public primary school principals lead at least one prekindergarten grade, but new research suggests training and support for integrating early-childhood and elementary education tends to be thin for administrators.

In forthcoming research, Michael Little, an assistant professor of education and public policy at North Carolina State University, surveyed a representative pool of 520 head and assistant principals in that state who administered at least one age level of pre-kindergarten in their schools. Nearly 80 percent of the principals said they considered it a “very good idea” to house preschool programs in the elementary school, and about 75 percent believed the programs should be integrated academically with other grades in the school.

However, fewer than half of the principals said they were familiar with standards for early learning in the state, and a little more than a third said they regularly included pre-K teachers in professional learning communities in their schools. About 45 percent of the principals said they only visited their schools’ pre-K programs once or twice a week.

Little found that children whose principals had taken early-childhood leadership courses as part of their preservice training had higher kindergarten math and literacy performance levels than those for students of principals who hadn’t had such training. The average student whose principal had actually taught in early-childhood education before becoming administrators had academic performance that was about 17 percentile points higher than the average for a student whose school leader didn’t have early-childhood experience.

However, Little found in prior research that only 5 percent of principal-preparation programs require a course on early-childhood education, and only 20 percent even covered the subject in other courses.

“That’s a big problem,” he said.

“When that [pre-K] program is located in an elementary school building, the principal can shape the conditions, what that program looks like, how it falls on the academic versus developmental debate,” Little said. “They can also set conditions for vertical alignment. And so principals do have a role to play in shaping pre-K effectiveness.”

Principal leadership has become particularly urgent since the pandemic, according to Gracie Branch, the associate executive director for professional learning at the National Association of Elementary School Principals. Pandemic disruptions have led to both lower school readiness for incoming preschool and kindergarten students and slower academic progress for students in older grades, which has put more pressure on principals to increase academic interventions.

“Content is critically important and we know that, but we really want to make sure we incorporate the art and play, because that’s such a big part of early childhood,” Branch said. “When you think of early childhood, you want it to be fun and joyful and uplifting.”

Principals who have had experience as early-childhood educators, Little noted, are more likely to support play-based learning and other developmentally appropriate practices in early grades, as opposed to using worksheets or other didactic teaching approaches.

And more child-friendly practices in early grades can boost academic gains. For example, in a separate forthcoming study previewed at a recent meeting last month of the Society for Research in Education Effectiveness, University of Virginia researchers observed more than 1,500 mostly low-income students across 117 pre-K classrooms and 289 kindergarten classrooms. They found 63 percent of the children experienced significantly more direct instruction in literacy and 76 percent more math instruction in kindergarten compared to pre-K. But 60 percent of students also had significantly fewer individual interactions with their teachers than they did the year before, and the drop in one-on-one teacher-student interactions was associated with lower performance in letter-word identification, applied math problems, and math concept understanding in kindergarten.

Instead of desks in rows facing the same direction, she has different kinds of furniture for students to sit in. There are wobble stools, benches, a sofa, and even a porch swing. She has a sensory wall, stuffed animals, whiteboard tables, and spaces where students can blow bubbles, color, and journal.

“Anytime someone comes in here, I’m like, ‘I know it’s a little crazy,’” said McMaster, who has been teaching at Horizon Academy West in Albuquerque, N.M., for 19 years. “But it’s fun, and the kids are enjoying it.”

McMaster didn’t buy all the furniture and supplies using her own money. Instead, she got them from people funding the projects she submitted to crowdfunding site DonorsChoose.

McMaster’s classroom funding approach is not unique. Teacher donation requests for supplies to help students develop their social-emotional learning skills and improve their mental health have almost doubled since 2020, according to data from DonorsChoose.

Schools have been putting a much greater emphasis on social-emotional learning and student wellness in the past few years to help curb the growing concerns about mental health problems, behavioral issues, and the life skills students need to succeed in school and future careers.

There’s been a steady increase in the number of project submissions for social-emotional learning resources, according to data provided to Education Week by DonorsChoose.

For the school years ending in 2020 and 2021, there were about 45,000 and 47,000 requests submitted, respectively, for social-emotional learning resources. The 2021-22 school year saw the largest number of requests so far for that category, with 71,960 projects.

And so far this school year, there have been nearly 25,000 project submissions for social-emotional learning resources.

Project submissions for resources in the “health, sports, and wellness” category—which includes mental health, health and wellness, and fitness—have also steadily increased since the 2019-20 school year:

McMaster’s goal with the projects she’s submitted to DonorsChoose was to help create an engaging classroom environment and to make sure her students had “resources to help them feel calm and soothed.”

“At the end of the day, you can’t teach anybody anything if they’re not in the mindset to learn,” McMaster said. “So I started looking at how I could create different spaces in the room that would be a draw whether ... you’re having a good or bad day.”
Research has shown that students need to feel secure and emotionally stable in order to learn and perform at their best. The types of skills that students learn in SEL lessons include managing emotions and making good decisions—skills that contribute to a healthier learning environment.

Tonya Coats, a 2nd grade teacher at Rustic Lane Elementary School in Riverside, Calif., has also been using DonorsChoose to request SEL-related supplies.

“I feel like art supplies have been a major way to foster that positive mental health relationship with kids,” Coats said.

“It’s been a great way to help them explore their creativity. It gives them a moment to breathe,” especially with the push to fill the academic gaps, she added.

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