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New Visions, New Voices: Future Directions in the Care and Education of Young Children

by Leslie R. Williams - 1989

This article outlines key issues in early childhood education related to (1) identification and characterization of the populations to be served, (2) definition of the goals of services, (3) preparation of early childhood specialists, and (4) optimal settings for delivery of service. (Source: ERIC)

In both summing up and looking ahead, Williams sets the parameters for answering four basic questions.. Who should be served? What should be our goals? How best can we deliver needed services? And how should we prepare early childhood specialists?

Every generation is concerned with the care and education of the young, and every generation of caregivers and educators has its visionaries. This generation is no exception. Poised at the beginning of a decade marking the end of one century and the beginning of a new one, commentators on the field of early childhood are finding that looking ahead has a special appeal. New times often bring fresh perspectives on enduring dilemmas, as well as a renewed sense of urgency to their consideration. At this moment, early childhood specialists are in a unique position to bring synthesis to the evolution of the field and to consider the dynamics of human growth and development, with an eye to the implications of such study for the future of early childhood in particular and for society in general.

Articles in professional journals focusing on the early childhood years now frequently note that public and private involvement with the well-being, nurturance, and education of young children is currently assuming unprecedented proportions in the United States. Much of todays professional engagement in early childhood concerns has arisen from distinctive histories, as a function of widely varying perceptions of the needs of the populations to be served.1 Other involvements seem to have come from acceptance of particular theoretical premises, or from the inheritance of more than two centuries of practice.2 In juxtaposition to these internal realities are the external inducements of changing demographics in our populations increasing cultural diversity, in a shifting composition of the work force with concomitant redefinition of the family, in rising numbers of young children in schools and caregiving arrangements outside of the home, and in increasingly severe teacher/caregiver shortages.3

The multidimensionality of the current activity in early childhood education and child care can give the impression of fragmentation of the field. It is not always easy to detect the emerging inner coherence that is leading to finer resolution of the issues underlying the fields rapid expansion. Much can be learned, however, from listening carefully to those who describe the multiple involvements of early childhood researchers, practitioners, and policymakers.

The authors of this special issue of the Record represent a sample of these voices, and their collected articles reveal some of the fields inner structures. Particularly telling are the debates around four classic concerns in the broader field of education applied to early childhood, namely, (1) identification and characterization of the populations to be served, (2) definition of the goals of the services to be provided, (3) delineation of optimal settings for delivery of service, and (4) preparation of the persons responsible for the study, nurturance, and education of young children.4 These considerations suggest emerging future directions of the field, as they underscore the potential for positively influencing childrens lives.


Identification of the populations to be addressed in the work currently revolves around the existence of limited resources. In light of the relatively low national priority given to the care and education of our children (in comparison with other items on the federal budget5), and a growing scarcity of early childhood practitioners, what characteristics should guide our decisions for intervention?

Moynihan and Edelman argue that disenfranchisement of large numbers of young children is occurring through both political and economic structures in our society. It is the children of the poor, the children whose primary caregivers are working or are otherwise unavailable to them for a large portion of each day, who are most in need of a high quality of service. Both authors indicate the barriers in existing legislation to access to early childhood programs. Both also point out the likely deleterious effects of lack of access on struggling families and on the development of individual children within them.

Schorr highlights another dimension to this concern by showing that the children for whom positive effects of early intervention have most clearly been demonstrated are those most likely to be at riskthe same children whose families have limited economic means, and who frequently have problems associated with poverty, such as unwanted pregnancies, inadequate or abusive parenting, family discord, or residence in troubled neighborhoods.

Comers examination of the effects of racism on the growth and development of young children and Moynihans demonstration of the influence of racism on policymaking add another dimension to the issue of intervention. In the United States ones chances of being at risk are greatly increased by being a child of color. Not only is access to services limited, but individuals who are within existing programs in schools are likely to experience negative reactions to their presence that have damaging effects on their sense of self, their efficacy, and their aspirations.

The implication of these arguments is that the populations to be addressed most immediately are those in danger of being lost to our society, the children whose families cannot yet derive full advantage from the economic, political, social, and educational systems of our country. This approach accepts (even though it does not agree with) the reality of limited budgetary allocations and seeks the most effective possible use of existing resources.

In counterpoint to acceptance of the position of trying to do more with less is a drive by other advocates toward expanding the resource pool. In her presentation of child care and early childhood education as a unified service model, Caldwell looks toward redefinition of the scope and province of public education. In her vision, public schools should not only expand the age span of the children they serve but the hours of service, making available to all children a high quality of care and education.

Such an approach implies fundamental changes in the existing structure of public schools, changes that would require, among other elements, increasing sensitivity to diversity of characteristics in the children and families served. Rusts examination of the dynamics of change reminds us again of the profound influence of sociocultural context (e.g., sets of beliefs and expectations within a community, existing educational practices, issues of power and control in resource allocation, and the professional images of early childhood educators and caregivers) in the consideration of such a reorientation of priorities.

There is another reason why reorientation of public priorities toward increased support of early education and child care may be important. That reason concerns what we are beginning to discover about the nature of the young child as a learner. Lees reassessment of the literature on perspective-taking in young children strongly suggests that even the very young construct knowledge of the world through perceptions of the social and physical contexts in which new information appears. By extension, we can speculate that from infancy onward, children are peculiarly sensitive to the subtle messages conveyed in social exchange, and, even more than we previously surmised, are likely to be negatively affected by such configurations as inconsistent care, disrupted attachment bonds, racial discrimination, or developmentally inappropriate teaching methods. Lack of attention to the needs of young children and their families now, in this time of rapid social change, may have serious repercussions in the future.

If, indeed, childrens psyches are so permeable to social and societal constructs, then the issue of increasing cultural diversity in the populations served in child care and early childhood education settings also assumes greater significance. Difference in childrens opportunities due to their socioeconomic status has already been pointed out. The negative effects that may result from uninformed response to conflicts between the home culture and the culture of the school or center (for example, in expectations for the childs behavior, ways of acquiring knowledge, or modes for expression of approval) have begun to be explored only relatively recently.6 Differences resulting from culture are still frequently confused with those occasioned by socioeconomic class, leading to the assumption that their resolution is entirely economic or political in nature. Yet many cultural differences (such as observance of particular religious practices, languages spoken, or aesthetic ideals) may cut across social class and must be addressed through other means. Moreover, we now know that difference does not necessarily mean deficit, and that effective interventions can result from leading from strength.7 Reexamination of educational goals, design of culturally sensitive settings for early learning, and preparation of caregivers and teachers to utilize cultural differences constructively in the teaching and learning processes are all possibilities for future interconnections between home and school.

Still another aspect of the issue of the populations to be served is definition of the needs and capabilities of infants and consequently, of the nature of their inclusion in the study, research, and practice of early childhood. The fact that in this collection of articles, only two authors specifically mention infants, and then only briefly, suggests that infant study and practice remains a specialization within the field. Originating from a combination of studies in psychology and clinical practice, work in the area of infancy has tended to focus on either support of children and families at risk due to problems of substance abuse, deprivation, or stressful life-style, or on the reinforcement of early learning through parenting skills and attitudes.8 Still, increasing numbers of infants are now in group-care arrangements, and the work of Brazelton, Stern, Provence, Axtmann, and others, indicate that even very young children are able to benefit from intentionally prepared settings that foster interpersonal interactions with peers and adults, as well as engagement with a rich physical environment.9 It is probable that future development in the field will see a greater integration of the concerns of infant study and practice.


The issue of goals is closely tied to definition of the populations to be served. The determination of the content of child care and early education programs has inspired one of the longest debates in the field. Caldwell notes that the original schism between child care and early childhood education arose from the conception of different purposes for different populations. Children from families whose financial resources were limited were understood to need custodial programs to safeguard their welfare while their parents were at work. On the other hand, children from more affluent families (where, it was assumed, one parent remained at home) were seen as benefiting from educationally oriented programs, usually of only a half days duration. Schisms of this sort, historically not uncommon in the field of early childhood,10 expressed a deeper tension between opposing views on the nature of the fields study and practice. The controversy might be better understood if it is seen as moving back and forth across two intersecting axes, between values and science11 and the individual and society,12 as shown in Figure 1.


The first fifty years of early childhood theory and practice were dominated by the Froebelian kindergarten, an educational program expressive of a highly elaborated value system. The work was inspired by a particular vision of the human spirit, and aimed at the reformation of society through inculcation of moral as well as intellectual training at an early age. By the turn of the century, the Progressive movement had achieved sufficient momentum to challenge the Froebelian kindergarten in the name of science. The rising tide of child study, and the derivation of early childhood practice from observation of individual childrens capacities and needs, eventually moved the field of early childhood away from consideration of underlying value systems.13 Developmental descriptions, psychodynamic perspectives, and behavorial theory each in turn became the dominant force influencing study and practice. These varying points of departure produced characterizations of the nature of the young child that had distinctive implications for practice. The common thread in resulting programs (in spite of the wide variety of their expression) was that they were all seen as representative of science.14

This movement reached its apogee from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s, when federal funding was available for the expansion of early childhood programs. A key feature of this funding, however, was that it was targeted toward a very specific population, the children of poverty. Much energy, therefore, went into identification of the needs of that group, viewed monolithically. The characterization of poor children as deficient in the skills and attitudes required for success in the existing school system led directly to the design of programs focused on rapid acquisition of those skills and attitudes. The goal of those programs was remediation of disadvantagement.15

In contrast to this emphasis was the curriculum development undertaken for more affluent segments of our society during the same period. There, the emphasis was on enrichment and extension of the childrens existing capabilities to sharpen our competitive edge in scientific and technological pursuits.16 Disenfranchisement and the question of what sort of education was to be available to whom reintroduced the question of values into early childhood study and practice, and shifted focus in some cases back from the needs of the individual to the good of society. Throughout the 1980s, the interplay between science and values and between the individual and society has continued its fascinating dynamic, shaping debate even as it moves the field toward increasing internal coherence.

The energy of the continuing discussion and the emerging synthesis of previously dichotomous positions are revealed clearly in the collected articles of this issue of the Record. Schorr, Lee, Haskins and Alessi, Caldwell, and Rust speak in their various ways to science, while not ignoring the sociocultural influences that are ultimately rooted in perception of value. Moynihan, Edelman, Comer, Fromberg, Magid, Bowman, and Kagan address issues of what effort is worthwhile in early childhood education and child care (a question of values), while acknowledging the importance of articulated knowledge bases for grounding study and practice. Moynihan, Edelman, Caldwell, Haskins and Alessi, Magid, and Rust wed values and science to a view of what is good for society as a whole; while Comer, Schorr, Lee, Fromberg, and Bowman are essentially concerned with the study and effects of practice on the development of individual children (though they clearly recognize the impact of social interaction on individual development).

Another aspect of the discussion around goals for study, research, and service in the field is that of appropriate content for early childhood programs. Much of the original concern about serving populations characterized as disadvantaged centered on discovering ways to change children (by inculcating repertoires of skills and attitudes related to later school success) to meet the existing expectations and structures of formal education. More recently, early childhood specialists have spoken persuasively to the converse of that position. They are looking for ways to change the schools and other early childhood settings to support the knowledge and skills children bring with them to the learning situation, reflect specific learning characteristics, and address the needs of their families.17

From that perspective, teachers/caregivers must assume more of a mediational role than a shaping or transmitting one. Through their observation of children at work and play, they derive the particulars of their practice, offering the learning materials and activities that are most likely to motivate children and encourage increasingly higher levels of accomplishment.

This orientation has revitalized consideration of the whole child as the subject of study, research, and practice in the field. Representing a motif that has distinguished early childhood from elementary school practice during most of the fields history, this view of the indivisibility of a childs developmental needs, capabilities, and interests has clear implications for program content. Rather than short-term goals (achievement in subject areas alone, or isolated acquisition of formal skills), long-term goals (such as the development of social and emotional coping capacities, creative and critical thinking skills, and refined psychomotoric capabilities) define the content of the programs. The activities offered young children are designed to integrate subject areas, reflect childrens ongoing experience, and require the childrens direct engagement with the physical and social environments in which they are working. Paper-and-pencil tasks are introduced as natural outcomes of experimentation with objects, rather than as major vehicles for concept acquisition. Experiential rather than verbal verification is sought through individual and small-group activity around malleable and manipulative materials. Language is developed and extended in conjunction with such activity, rather than as a goal in itself.18

The implications drawn by Schorr, Fromberg, Caldwell, Haskins and Alessi, and Bowman represent these dispositions in several ways. Schorrs citing the characteristics of successful interventions highlights the importance of focus on underlying processes rather than on products as avenues to changing outcomes for children. Haskins and Alessis developmental model for early childhood centers embodies those characteristics, as Frombergs intellectual/experiential paradigm and Caldwells comprehensive model. Bowmans view of the appropriateness of integration of the subjective and reflective with the objective dimensions of knowledge reaffirms the role of experience in extending our capabilities as learners and as teachers. Transformation and evolution of socioemotional, cognitive, and psychomotor capacities become the goals of early childhood programs, rather than the reproduction of existing structures of knowledge.


With such a vision of the appropriate content for early childhood programs comes reconsideration of the settings conducive to its attainment. If form is to follow function, the structures of services offered must be reshaped to be expressive of the stated intents. The collected articles in this special issue of the Record point strongly to the likelihood that change must occur on several levels simultaneouslythe levels of national policy, local practice, and individual commitment.

Moynihan, Edelman, and Magid point out that both political and economic concerns dictate significant extension of the supports provided young children and their families, if we are not to lose a large proportion of our human resources in the coming years. Explicit recognition of the connections between nurturance of young children and their families and expansion of an increasingly capable national work force must result in stronger public and private engagement with child care and early childhood education. In short, the money must be found, and legislation backing the allocation of funds must be passed.

In regard to local practice, current discussion of optimal settings for delivery of services brings two thoughts immediately to mind. First, in contrast to consideration of the design of settings a decade ago, the emphasis now is on the intimate connection between the care and education of young children and broader societal patterns. Meeting the need for familial support through reconceptualization of the uses of space and time brings new parameters to the meaning of nurturance of the whole child.

Caldwell, for example, offers a template for restructuring public schools to reflect the learning styles and developmental needs of young children, while also responding to emerging societal needs. The articulation of programs for children from infancy through the elementary years speaks to the creation of a connection and continuity in childrens care and educational experience that might not otherwise be available in a society undergoing such rapid change. Magid suggests that employer-supported child care may have returns not only in increase in overall productivity for the parents, but in the stress relief for adults that may well enhance the well-being of their children.

At the same time, though, reflection in program design of changing societal structures may bring with it an inherent danger. Thoughtless reproduction of societal patterns may foster disregard for the learning characteristics and the physical and psychological needs of young children. Fromberg comments on the move to full- or extended-day kindergartens in the public schools with a cautionary note on loss of vision in the process. Expanded settings must reflect expanded goals. Rust urges that our professional consciousness be raised in regard to the dynamics of change so that we might avoid such a subversion of our purpose.

Local practice should be guided by what we are now beginning to know about the contexts of effective teaching, and young childrens development and learning. This rubric implies that networks for the exchange of information and insight must be refined and extended to encompass all regions of the country and of the world where innovation in practice is yielding outstanding results.19 Part of that linkage ought to bolster ongoing consideration of what constitutes quality in the delivery of service, and of the relationship between quality and the design of settings. Some of the excellent work already done in that area needs to be made more widely available, cutting across lines still drawn by program sponsorship.20

Attention to issues of quality, however, requires not only access to the most current information, but also individual commitment on the part of persons responsible for program implementation. Kagan offers a vision of the concerned person as enactor, as a person who can change unacceptable circumstances through informed and concerted action. Advocacy must become a stronger part of the professional repertoire of all those who create settings for the care and education of young children.


Professional repertoires will be only as good as the programs of preparation that engender them. If we expect to have a cadre of knowledgeable, reflective individuals who will guide and promote change with the best interests of children in mind, we must attend to the quality of teacher/caregiver preparation and to the licensure that follows.

Awareness of childrens extraordinary sensitivity to social contexts in their construction of knowledge (Lee), reflection on the quality and outcomes of ones own experience as a child (Bowman), and recognition of unconscious absorption of societal structures such as racism (Comer) must be addressed explicitly in programs of preparation as avenues to refinement of practice. These parameters may mean a total reexamination of the assumptions early childhood teacher educators have made regarding what are important skills and knowledge for novice practitioners.

For more experienced practitioners as well as novices, there are strong implications for refinement of their work in reassessment of the early childhood teacher/caregivers role as one of mediator. In the discussion above of appropriate content for early childhood programs, the image of mediator appeared a more accurate representation of actual functions than those of transmitter of knowledge or shaper of behavior. Rust and her colleagues have previously suggested that the familiar curriculum triangle of child, teacher, and content should be reconceptualized to a three-dimensional figure, with child, community (including parents), and administration at the three corners, and the teacher in the center negotiating content with the other three parties.21 I would extend that image further by saying that more than ever, early childhood specialists are becoming mediators between children and the increasingly complex sociocultural contexts of their lives, between parents and the school, between themselves and their colleagues, and between their own inner perceptions of what should be and what is. They are seeking guidance about how to proceed in this complicated negotiation, and it should be the responsibility of programs of preparation to provide such guidance.

Reconsideration of the content of programs of preparation begs a parallel focus on teacher/caregiver certification and licensure. Fromberg argues that the lack of explicit recognition of the specialized nature of the preparation of early childhood staff endemic in many state certification procedures must be remediated. If, as has been suggested above, programs of preparation incorporate new dimensions, then certification must take those dimensions into account. At a point in time when many states are resisting or giving only minimal attention to recognition of a specialization in early childhood, such a focus will require concentrated advocacy on the part of professional organizations to accomplish its end.


The current multiplicity of early childhood concerns can be partly understood by extracting themes from a representative collection of articles, as has been done above. A deeper level of understanding may come, however, by looking again at the breadth of the undertakings and by the search for appropriate language to voice concerns.

The articles in this issue underscore the fact that there is currently a rapid expansion in the vision of the possible in the field of early childhood, and a concomitant intersection of the concerns of young children with almost every dimension of society. Political, economic, educational, and social institutions are all profoundly affected by and have an impact on the nurturance of young children. What once in our history was considered essentially a private concern is increasingly becoming a public charge.

The communication of that charge in language that is publicly accessible and genuinely descriptive is becoming, therefore, more and more urgent. Early childhood specialists cannot allow their professional conversations to exclude those whose understanding and support of their undertakings will be critical to their success. A vocabulary and a style of communication must be developed that is both straightforward and powerful, avoiding jargon, yet encouraging precision in identification and discussion of our concerns.

As in any developing field, problems in precision of language stem from several sources. One difficulty in past work has come from over-reliance on the vocabulary of psychologya tendency that has led to an emphasis on individual development without consistent reference to the social contexts in which that development occurs. More recent movement toward incorporation of anthropological and sociological constructs into early childhood analyses has brought the opposite difficultyloss of focus on the individuals distinctive characteristics in favor of the group.

In a similar fashion, early childhood specialists and commentators have not always taken into account the value systems expressed in their discourse. Sometimes relying on anecdotal evidence alone for their claims, they have not always examined the lenses through which they have seen the incidents reported. In the interest of science, however, much of the richness of what actually occurred in a program, a classroom, or with individual children has also been lost.

This circumstance suggests that an important activity of the field will continue to be refinement of the expression of its distinctive perspectives, and articulation of those perspectives with those emerging in allied fields. Such refinement will be the clarifying medium for tomorrows visions.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 90 Number 3, 1989, p. 474-485
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 476, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 8:58:44 PM

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