Teacher prep programs largely overlook needs of preschoolers

Teacher prep programs largely overlook needs of preschoolers

(District of Columbia) Each year, thousands of preschool students get suspended for throwing temper tantrums or disrupting class, but few teachers charged with early learners are actually trained to handle misbehavior, according to new research.

Researchers at the National Council on Teacher Quality found that only 19 percent of programs ensure candidates can diffuse a disruptive situation in the classroom or effectively handle misbehavior from public schools’ youngest students.

They also found that in typical educator training programs, preschool content is overwhelmingly overlooked or only addressed briefly. In a common two-year program, for instance, language development might represent as little as 2 percent of the training time.

“While states continue to invest heavily in preschool, they too often overlook the quality of those preschools, and particularly their most important ingredient: the classroom teacher,” said Kate Walsh, president of NCTQ in a statement. “It’s no wonder that increasing funding for preschool has yielded such mixed results.”

Perhaps also not surprising are the high rates of disciplinary actions aimed at early learners, given that preschool teachers are being trained alongside of upper grade teachers. Given the likelihood that 3- and 4-year-olds will misbehave, researchers expressed worry that something so obvious would be left out of coursework for new teachers.

“This is concerning, especially in light of the alarmingly high suspension and expulsion rates for preschool children, and one would think learning what to do if a child is disruptive would be an essential skill so that teachers don’t have to resort to such extremes,” Hannah Putman, director of research at the National Council on Teacher Quality, said.

“You know that situations will arise where a child is being disruptive or acting out, and the teacher needs to have strategies in place to handle that, or prevent that behavior before it occurs,” she explained.

Advocates against suspension for young students say that children who act out more than usual may be from low-income families where they may experience highly stressful conditions at home that cause them to frequently misbehave.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost 20 percent of children lived in poverty in 2013.

Teacher preparation programs could help address issues regarding the behavior of students with trauma or high stress, but, according to Putman’s research, many programs spend very little time addressing preschool at all.

Nearly 90 percent of master’s and bachelor’s degree programs—often considered the gold standard for preschool teacher quality—certify candidates to teach toddlers all the way up to third grade or higher. In these cases, preschool preparation is commonly an afterthought, with an emphasis placed on older students, Putman said.

Prekindergarten classroom experience is also limited for many aspiring teachers, with only 30 percent of preparation programs requiring they student teach in a preschool setting. Twenty percent do not allow student teaching in preschools at all.

Due to the lack of time spent preparing new teachers for their earliest learners, many enter the classroom unprepared to instill a solid foundation in students’ language skills.

Read-alouds are a common practice in which teachers read the same book every few days, focusing on a different aspect, such as character emotions; vocabulary; and concepts of print such as title, author and illustrator.

According to Putman, it is also a technique regularly neglected in teacher preparation courses despite being an effective teaching method.

“Almost everybody knows how to read books to kids, but there have been studies that show when teachers have been trained on how to give ‘read alouds’ focusing on vocabulary and print concepts and other specific skills, their students do much better in building language and literacy skills,” Putman said. “But only one in five programs actually teaches about read alouds and expects candidates to practice them.”

Teacher preparation programs have faced intense scrutiny in recent years following numerous reports that many new recruits were leaving the profession within five years due, in part, to a lack of preparedness before entering the classroom.

In order to combat that lack of fundamental skills and experience in preschools, the NCTQ recommends preparation programs offer preschool endorsements, similar to current offerings for special education teachers, that allow candidates to get focused training for young learners.

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