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Starting with Their Strengths: Using the Project Approach in Early Childhood Special Education

reviewed by Suzette Kelly - April 18, 2012

coverTitle: Starting with Their Strengths: Using the Project Approach in Early Childhood Special Education
Author(s): Deborah C. Lickey & Denise J. Powers
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807752347, Pages: 176, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com

“Are we writing plans for what we are teaching or for the children’s learning?” “Is there a difference?” (p. 1). Deciding what to teach and how to teach in early childhood classrooms has been debated and researched for decades. Starting with their Strengths: Using the Project Approach in Early Childhood Special Education is a look at using a strengths-based approach to create authentic learning opportunities for children. The authors provide evidenced based information on strengths-based learning, with guidance for teaching from this approach. In the strengths-based approach children are viewed as competent learners. The stated purpose of the book is to “challenge the idea that young children learn best by completing certain activities that have been planned and prepared solely by a teacher who then transmits that information to the children” (p. 1).

Lickey and Powers begin by exploring the possibilities of strengths-based learning from their experiences as early childhood special educators. The key principles for strengths-based learning are explained with vignettes of classroom practices. The principles presented by the authors are: understanding and respect for children’s differences, supporting children in their ability to connect with others, self regulation, and allowing children’s interests to guide and inform teachers’ planning.

To understand and respect children’s differences, Lickey and Powers outline the process of identifying each child’s strengths. With the understanding that early childhood teachers are pressed for time, the authors explain the importance of teachers being armed with an understanding of their incoming children. They present strategies for learning from families, learning from a collaborative team, and for creating systems of information. The authors draw on the work of researchers in the field of early childhood special education. The research literature supports the authors’ use of a trans disciplinary team, as this ensures the best interest of the child.  The trans disciplinary team includes family, educators, therapists, social workers, medical personnel, psychologists, and administrators. Identifying children’s strengths results from the collaborative effort of the team, as they “assess, plan, and implement what is best for the child” (p. 29).  

Lickey and Powers explain how teachers can glean information by taking time to observe children. systematically Teachers need to be keen observers of children in order to support them in their ability to connect with others, and enhance their self-regulation. To support the process of observation, the authors highlight the crucial role of paraprofessionals in schools. Observation of children provides early childhood special educators with somewhat of a blueprint to guide the documentation process, which draws from the theoretical frame of Malaguzzi’s preschools in Reggio Emilia, Italy. The authors explore the use of documentation to determine skills and children’s concept knowledge. “Information provided by the child’s IEP does not necessarily provide teachers with the needed information about the style of learning or level of skill development of a particular child” (p. 61). The use of portfolios as an alternative assessment supports the strengths-based approach to teaching, and enhances children’s role as active participants in the learning process.

Throughout the book, the construct of the child as a competent protagonist undergirds the activities and ideas presented in the classroom vignettes. Creating the environment to support emotional regulation is an important feature of the strengths-based approach posited by Lickey and Powers.  The practice of helping children to explore a myriad of emotions and create emotional connectedness is explained with examples from the classroom vignettes. Children’s emotional connectedness is the catalyst for skill development; Lickey and Powers explain that the information gleaned from parents helps teachers to create a welcoming environment before children arrive at the school or center. Starting with children’s strengths requires opportunities for self-regulation, which is essential to children’s development in all domains.

Lickey and Powers do not attempt to promote a chaotic, free for all learning environment, but one that is guided by a flexible teacher with intentionality and insight. Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence framework, Vygotsky’s social learning theory, and Dewey’s active engagement with the social world are strong influences on the authors’ promotion of development through strengths and interests. The authors outline the planning process to guide teachers’ noting of children’s interests and providing support for children’s interests to blossom.

Lickey and Power’s book is well grounded in the early childhood inclusion research literature base, especially the notion that less developmental discrepancy exists between preschool-aged children with disabilities and their same age peers (Odom et al., 2004). With this in mind, the reader does not get a sense that children with typical development are left out of the strengths-based approach to learning. Starting with their strengths has implications for typically developing and atypically developing children alike.

Teachers spend a great deal of their time planning for children’s learning. The book is timely in this era of increased focus on accountability. The authors do not present the emergent curriculum as a quick fix for more traditional prescriptive curricula. They take readers through the process beginning with the emergence of children’s interests, deciding what topics to pursue, and planning the project.

The central theme of intentionality permeates the authors’ discussion about enhancing children’s thinking and representation of great ideas. Teachers are intentional in providing provocations and embedding learning goals and objectives in an emergent curriculum. “The project approach as one aspect of strengths-based process permits the adults to spend less time creating materials…and more time embedding learning into their interactions with the children” (p. 132).

The authors draw from their own experiences as early childhood special educators, and the questions they grappled with as they attempted to plan within a project-based curriculum. They highlight the process as a journey, where teachers allow themselves the space to learn along with the children. The affordances for both teachers and children are noted. In Starting with Their Strengths Lickey and Powers focus on the needs of children and the enriching benefits for families, educators, school systems, therapists, and the community as a whole.

“Preschools are institutions that both reflect and help to perpetuate the cultures and societies of which they are a part” (Tobin, Hsueh, and Karasawa, 2009, p. 225). One weakness of the text is the lack of appeal to socio-cultural issues in early childhood special education classrooms. The strengths-based process with an emphasis on project based learning may be viewed as a Reggio inspired initiative. Early childhood is a cultural construct, and any adaptation of curriculum approaches should address the socio-cultural contexts of children, families, teachers, and schools. The target audience of the book needs to be aware of socio-cultural issues and how they play out in the approaches we adapt for classrooms.

The authors use language that appeals to the target audience of practicing teachers, early childhood and special education undergraduates, and policy makers (who are not necessarily interested in much of the early childhood or special education jargon). The strengths-based process is clearly defined and outlined with evidenced-based examples that practicing teachers and students of early childhood can use. The book also adds to the literature base about project based learning with specific emphasis on early childhood special education. Lick and Powers have provided resourceful reading for early childhood and special education students, who continue to grapple with the issue of what to teach and how to teach.


Odom, S. L., Vitztum, J., Wolery, R., Lieber, J., Sandall, S., Hanson, M., Beckman. P., Schwartz, I., & Horn, E. (2004). Preschool inclusion in the United States: a review of research from an ecological systems perspective.  Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 4 (1), 17–49.

Tobin, J., Hsueh, Y., & Karasawa, M. (2009). Preschools in three cultures revisited. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 18, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16759, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 5:46:39 PM

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About the Author
  • Suzette Kelly
    Shortwood Teachers' College
    E-mail Author
    SUZETTE KELLY is a full time instructor in the department of Early Childhood Education at Shortwood Teachers' College, Jamaica. Her teaching assignments at Shortwood included courses in child development, behavior management, integrated curriculum, and early childhood pedagogy. Before her tenure at Shortwood she taught at the primary level (first and second grade) and was also the administrator for a basic school (Jamaican community school for 3 5 year olds). Suzette is a Fulbright Grantee for 2009-2011. She is a graduate assistant within the Childhood Education and Literacy Studies department at University of South Florida. Her research interest is in the area of special education for early childhood and the integration of information and communication technology in Jamaican kindergarten/and or basic school classrooms, exploring the intersection of technology, pedagogy and content knowledge.
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