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Implementing a balanced approach to learning

Implementing a balanced approach to learning

August 23, 2016 | By Ron Spreeuwenberg
This is a transcript of the Preschool Podcast, episode #6 "Implementing a balanced approach to learning”.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi I'm Ron Spreeuwenberg, Co-Founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things early childhood education. In this week's episode we delve into the Balance Learning Approach implemented in Primrose school franchises across the U.S. As the name of the approach states, the emphasis of the curriculum is on balance including the balance of play based learning led by children's natural curiosity with guiding questions from educators to enable children to take their development to the next level. Our guest, Dr. Gloria Julius is the vice president of education and professional development at Primrose School, a forward thinking franchise based early learning organization with over 325 locations across the U.S. She also has over 30 years of experience as a teacher and leader in the Maryland Public School System. If you're interested in educational philosophies and approaches to curriculum then you'll want to stay tuned for this week's episode of the preschool podcast. Gloria how long have you been with Primrose.

Dr. Gloria JULIUS: Almost four years.

SPREEUWENBERG: Almost four years. And what role do you play at Primrose?

DR. JULIUS: I’m the vice president of education and professional development. So my team develops all the curriculum the training for the whole system. We work with people like Jackson Spalding as far as doing the content for Media and Marketing so on.

SPREEUWENBERG: For those that aren't familiar with Primrose Can you give us a little bit of background about the school?

DR. JULIUS: Sure. We are a franchise organization based in Atlanta. But we have schools all over the country we have over 325 schools. I think we're up to 327 I lose count because we're opening schools every couple weeks we're opening a new one. But I think we’re almost at 330 right now and all around the country coast to coast from New England to California and in between our biggest population probably in Texas and Georgia.

SPREEUWENBERG: Got you. One of the areas that I wanted to focus our conversation on was around the curriculum or the programming at Primrose. Every child care program has a unique approach. And I did a little bit of research on Primrose and you're using what's called a balanced learning approach. Can you tell me a little bit more about what that means?

DR. JULIUS: Everything in Primrose is about balance. So we call our early education approach the balance approach and first of all it starts with our belief statement that we believe who children are is as important as what they know. So we balance that character development and especially emotional with the academic intellectual creative, physical development. Then it start then it's a balance of research informed theories and approaches a balance of the traditional learning approaches, like Piaget, Montessori, Vygotsky. And we balance that with the best of modern wisdom, current research on the child brain development and that to me is very fascinating because now we can actually see into a children’s brain and that shows how babies understand and respond to adult peer interaction.

A lot of that is coming out of the University of Washington, Institute of Learning and Brain scientists under Dr. Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl the Harvard Centre by Jack Dr. Jack Shonkoff. So we’ve engaged early learning experts from across the United States to help interpret that research and then blend it into an exclusive curriculum that has a balance of this research. The second point for balance is that because we believe children learn best with a balance of purposeful play and train time from teachers that satisfy their natural curiosity.

Children need a time to explore on their own you know to look at their own world and their own interests and to satisfy their curiosity but we also believe that the children can only take their learning to a certain level on their own and need adults to ask the guiding questions like “what shape is this” or “ I wonder what would happen if” to guide children to eventually asking their own question as they are exploring. We also believe that adults need to be there to introduce new experiences to children with the company vocabulary that will expand their word and language development beyond what they might be able to do on their own.

And then the third piece for a balance is that balance among all different learning domains which I kind of referenced earlier with our belief statements in that we place just as much emphasis on the typical, the creative arts or the social emotional development and particularly that character development. And as we do on what would be considered a bit more traditional academics, that being language, math and these are intentionally embedded throughout the program they're not add ons. They're not ancillary programs. They're a part of the program that helped develop the well-rounded child.

SPREEUWENBERG: Interesting. So let me just start off touching on one of the first points that you made which is that you're using multiple approaches and what's the reasoning behind that. Are there certain benefits. It is quite unusual because usually you see a child care program that sort of like a more traditional daycare you see maybe a Montessori but you don't necessarily see very often someone that's doing multiple approaches across their curriculum. Why do you do that?

DR. JULIUS: It goes into what I would talk about that we truly believe that different children have different styles of learning. So a Montessori approach is great for these children who have that independence and strive to learn on their own. But there are children who need that structure who need to be Scaffolded like Vygotsky. So we believe that that blend and that balance among all of the different types of researchers; we just put it together in a unique way. So that we can address any child and any style. Because there are parts of our day when the children are alone, and that would be kind of a Montessori type of program.

Then there are parts of our day when teacher for lack of a better word structuring learning to introduced concepts and experiences that they might not get on their own. To present that vocabulary that rich language that children need. But again, unless they hear it from adults or an older peer or someone who's had more experience, they would not naturally learn it on their own. We believe “the best of all” and incorporate those into our unique approach that will address any style of learning for the children and take them to the highest level they can possibly go.

SPREEUWENBERG: OK that's interesting. So do you think it's fair to say that every child benefits from all the different types of approaches in some way shape or form. But maybe there's a certain style that is really most suited to their learning style and that's really beneficial to them I guess is what you're saying.

DR. JULIUS: Yes, with everybody, even as adults we all have our way of approaching our learning and in effect that's not the standard approach to learning. And so it's a trial. Teachers will learn this by observing the children in the classroom. OK how do they approach in this situation how to approach something that is unfamiliar to them and you know do they ask a lot of questions or do they try to learn on their own, are they seeking guidance or are they confident to go out and satisfy that curiosity and a teacher will observe these children and then they will adapt their approach based on the research that we've given them and based on the curriculum that we've given them to help each child develop using their strengths to go to the next level and learn new material.

SPREEUWENBERG: And one thing I think that we see quite often is a director of a child care program wants to show the parents all the good things but not necessarily the overall and true experience of what's happening in the classrooms every day.

DR. JULIUS: Yes, with everybody, even as adults we all have our way of approaching our learning and in effect that's not the standard approach to learning. And so it's a trial. Teachers will learn this by observing the children in the classroom. OK how do they approach in this situation how to approach something that is unfamiliar to them and you know do they ask a lot of questions or do they try to learn on their own, are they seeking guidance or are they confident to go out and satisfy that curiosity and a teacher will observe these children and then they will adapt their approach based on the research that we've given them and based on the curriculum that we've given them to help each child develop using their strengths to go to the next level and learn new material.

SPREEUWENBERG: Right. So this sounds like a very sensible approach. I like the idea of a balanced approach. One of the things that jumps out to me though is that it does seem like it might be challenging as an early childhood educator to implement something where the children are exploring and using their natural curiosity as you say and then giving them guiding questions to push them sort of to the next level of learning. How do you enable your early toted educators up Primrose to be able to do that effectively in the classroom?

DR. JULIUS: It's a combination of the way we write our curriculum. We have a lot of what we call job embedded professional development written right into the curriculum, teaching tips on how to videos and suggestions on you know when to ask certain questions or how to approach a child at a learning center to not interrupt their flow or thinking that your actually supporting and moving forward. So training and professional development is something that we pride ourselves in at Primrose. From the orientation of teachers where they have a minimum of 30 to 40 hours of training before they even leading a classroom. A lot of it id health and safety but a lot of it is how do you interact with children so that you are not disturbing and are enhancing and moving it to the next level, helping them with their learning. Constantly helping teachers through mentoring or coaching. Every school has someone on the leadership team who is considered what we call an education coach or someone who works with the teachers and observes the teachers and coaches and mentor them to be able to know when those opportune times are occurring. They may be able to point them out in the classroom and what do you do during that time.

SPREEUWENBERG: I like the aspect of having that education culture mentor because I think the training part is really important. As you say but then also sort of the ongoing coaching and mentoring I think is also pretty key.

DR. JULIUS: Right. That's how they really are able to apply it. And you have online learning to we have face to face you know, staff meeting professional development days, and so on that we guide them from our level, we gave them the content and then the leadership team delivers those to the teachers and teaches them. If you don’t know how to apply it, there is what we call the “book learning” and you can have all the book learning in the world, but if you don’t know how to apply it in real life situations, what good is it. So that’s where the coachers come in, the coaches help the teachers to see, this is what we learned in the class, or that staff meeting and this is what it looked like in the classroom and let me help you maximize that enough to optimize the approach.

SPREEUWENBERG: Where do you think the education coaches spend most of their time with early childhood educators in terms of you know where they are struggling the most what's the most difficult part of implementing this type of approach?

DR. JULIUS: Well it's probably what the call cost management. Sometimes it's a case of just sitting back and observing the child and getting to know the teacher. Often I would just jump in and help the child. The challenge I think is we as adults tend to want to get in there and help a lot. And sometimes it's just sitting back and watching the child and knowing when you start asking those guiding questions and to take that learning to the next level and when do you just let the child discover and learn on their own. Because we are impatient creatures and it takes patience to be able to know the right time with that. The when you are what kind of questions. And we train the teacher to ask open ended kind of question for the children. So again that it takes that learning for the level it's not a yes no question it's not a you know a right answer. We want to open their minds and that and again see how do they think and that the teachers are trained in how to have powerful interactions with the children in a way that won’t affect the learning but will open their learning.

SPREEUWENBERG: Interesting. You mentioned you also do want to have aspects of some of these dual readiness skills like maybe math, reading, and writing. How do you effectively work that into your program while also maintaining this opportunity for play base learning and exploring?

DR. JULIUS: Well that’s done in several ways. We do, as I said earlier, we have that balance between what is the purpose of play with the children initiate their own time whether they're at learning centers, outdoor play, there are times when the children do get to choose what they want to do, but then we incorporate language and experiences that would be appropriate for that group. In our schedule we do have a structured time where the teacher is with a group introducing a concept for the day.

Our curriculum is very science based, so it is usually around a science concept. and then they do small group learning with the children where they are reading slowly through language and math with large group math, large group language. And that was where the teacher would read to them talk about the story that point out certain words were introduce letter and sounds in the context of what they're learning. So that's where that balance comes in. The teacher then introducing the concept that a child might not learn on his own. They do it in a lesson kind of way, but a play way. The lesson is either read aloud or some sort of play, something that the children are having fun and learning. It’s not a lecture, it’s not a drill, it’s not a worksheet.

And but it's done in a playful way that the way that they context of learning. And then they reinforce that throughout the day with the transition that they all have meaningful interaction they might bring in some vocabulary that they learned during their large group time so that the children can see how it related, that it is not just something they learn during a lesson, that there is an application and a reason why we learn this to function in our world.

SPREEUWENBERG: Interesting sounds great. On a bit of a side note but related do you find that licensing and regulations have much of an influence on your curriculum in programming or is that quite independent?

DR. JULIUS: Now that it had a great influence on our curriculum and in what we do in the classrooms. Because here in the United States, different states have different license they all run by the state. Because of safety and health, there are a lot of regulation that licensing requires that can sometimes prohibit certain material that we think are very exciting for children but because they might be choking hazards or because they might be have you know if they eat in they're toxic or whatever. And it's all about creating a safe environment which that is number one priority for so we you know we were looking at materials we start there. What materials are not ruled out or could create a safety hazard or health hazard for the children and so that often time comes from licensing.

SPREEUWENBERG: And what about assessments. What role does play for Primrose in terms of children's learning and development? Is there a big focus on assessments in sort of where children stand. And also is there some regulatory influence with that also.

DR. JULIUS: Assessments are built right into our program and are part of a balanced approach and it’s done more observationally, where the teachers will observe the children and record what level they are and then they communicate with parents this is what your child you know is able to do and given some suggestion. At the early childhood level in terms of regulatory requirements that comes into play more at maybe at pre-K pre-kindergarten kindergarten level where some states do have kindergarten entry requirement. So you know in every state is a little different and so for formal assessments that are required, there are only a couple of states that require them at our level. When you do get into kindergarten, we do have kindergarten in many of our schools, it is an optional program.

We do through, do an external assessment at Primrose, we have an internal assessment, how well the children are learning our curriculum. But then pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, we do rely on an external assessment that is more commercial kind of assessment that is approved among many of our teachers as a teacher device, or a kindergarten assessment. But you can divide your kindergarten into effect. And that helped us to understand how well the children are applying what their learning at Primrose to the general expectations of the states. But it's a combination.

SPREEUWENBERG: Got you. And to me it seems like Primrose has a very progressive approach to early childhood education curriculum. Where do you see curriculum moving in early childhood education in the next like five to ten years. Is there certain trends that are happening right now?

DR. JULIUS: The greatest trend that I see, at Primrose, we do truly believe we are one leaders. So the way we’re developing curriculum right now with it being totally integrated and with that balance I believe others will pick up on that. Were you know others will pick up on that. But at the same time there are some trends out there and what I see, it’s more of a trend towards quality and trying to define high quality in early childhood no matter what curriculum we’re using or program, what is that high quality. It is exciting to me in many ways that we are finally looking at that, what does that really mean. But because we're not impatient again when it comes to research and trying to find you know what really does work for children. But just that they're talking about it getting a good president when they're having a commitment to that and then leading business leaders time to follow suit and that kind of starts with the research that James Heckman had done he's an economist and has come to a conclusion that for every dollar that we spend on early childhood education we save 7 dollars as these ch9ldren reach adulthood in welfare coast, prison costs, and other social funded programs that an education can prevent. So many of the business leaders, major organizations and corporations are now understanding that and starting to form foundations and put an emphasis on early learnings. That is really exciting to me.

I taught first graders highly experienced first graders. And again my four year old granddaughter. I mean she knows all her letters she knows her numerals. If I were call and say I know they're capable of learning a long time in a developmentally appropriate way. So like atmosphere. But it's fun to learn. And it’s not a chore. When danger comes, this is what worries me is when children are going into kindergarten or first grade and they're being tested and we talked about assessments earlier, they're being tested to see how many skills they have, and if they don’t have these skills they will be behind from the very beginning.

I believe that that instead of saying get children ready for school, because that's the definition is different wherever you go, let’s get our schools ready to receive our children. And rather than saying you’re behind if you don’t know your letters going into kindergarten, let’ see where they are and let's teach them in a way that they will learn and love learning. And that's what Primrose is about. We want children to learn, but we want them to love learning in the meantime, because once they are turned off from learning, you’ve shut the door and that concerns me greatly. That it's becoming a trend that just start them earlier start them earlier, yes start them earlier but with the right things. Let’s build language, let’s build experiences so that they have the background of knowledge that when they are reading a story or hearing the story they understand what it means.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah that's interesting. We recently posted an article about school readiness in preschool and it gathered a lot of comments you could really tell it was quite a hot topic amongst people. A lot of people touched on the point so you touched on here the way it looks like to me is almost like early childhood education recently has been making greater strides than school age programs in terms of what's being applied in the classroom at the preschool level. For example what you're doing at Primrose versus you know the K to 12 program?

DR. JULIUS: I believe that with the emphasis on early childhood education, is not just nationally, but internationally. There is opportunity for us to work together with the school age teachers to be a leader among the early education environment to help them understand what is developmentally appropriate for children. We all want to get to the same end and we're just looking at it on a different means and rather than pushing down to the preschool and saying you know your children you know need to do this to be ready for school. I feel that early educators and leaders in the early child early learning environment can help push up push back to the elementary school and say look you put together let's you know get the same. But we're looking at it from a different means but let's pull it together, we want to be early educators to provide a developmentally appropriate education and one experience for children so they continue to love learning and aren’t pressured so much. And yet the elementary schools are able to meet their goals as well with well-educated children.

And it took a collective effort and I think it's going there, we hear a lot about play based, and we just have to convince the elementary leaders that you know let's work together on this and if we work together we will come to the same end. We all want the same end. And we just have a different means to get there. And I really believe that if we work together we can come to a conclusion that will benefit all children and keep them wanting to learn. Too many children are getting stressed out and high anxiety at a young age and that is up there you know children of 14 who want to commit suicide or you know get clinically depressed because they have been pushed and pushed and pushed beyond their capabilities. But they feel like they have to perform. And I truly believe you are a childhood is where we can make the greatest impact but we have to have the support of the next level as well.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah I think that's a really great point because not only in relation to school age programs but sort of all external let's call them external organizations external influencers who are telling the early learning sector early taught in educators what to do and how to do it. I think there really is an opportunity for leaders inside early childhood education to voice their views about the best way to do things or better ways to do things in terms of children's learning in development and curriculum and programming because there's a lot of knowledge there. This podcast focuses on in early childhood education and that's why I really want to touch on that point about people voicing their views who do have the knowledge and do have the experience in this space because I think they have great things to say.

DR. JULIUS: Right. And also to add to that I mean and you kind of alluded to it that even when you get to school age when you hit kindergarten first grade second grade children are still young children. That doesn't mean that you can stick them at a desk and give them worksheets. They still have that early childhood thinking and way of learning. It’s helping that the elementary age principal and teachers to understand children can still learn, but let's make it more childlike. Give them experiences that are a little more open ended and not so structured and you can do that with that balance. That's what Primrose's all about it's that balance that that offers both. And I see too often at elementary age and I was an elementary teacher an elementary school principal and so and we've been guilty as well. But now you know really now that the research is out there that said children really do best through play like experiences and having fun. They want to learn. And so let's help them continue to work to earn their natural curiosity and trying to put them in our box and they’re not little adults they’re children. And I think the research is showing that a child's brain develops much differently than a developed brain and we tend to want to think up in a little adult and they're not. I really would like to see us working together for the same end.

SPREEUWENBERG: And yeah absolutely. Grade 1 is really just an arbitrary time in a child's life. It's not like you can really flip a switch and say OK you're in a desk now and you need to take these tests. It's really that insensible.

DR. JULIUS: We're finding now you know collaboration and being a little more flexible about how we present material even at our universities and so on. You know that we learn best when we're actively involved in something. And so why would we do anything different for children.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah. Very cool. I just have a few quick questions before we finish off here today so the first one is you mentioned that one thing that you're quite excited about is the attention that early childhood education is finally starting to get because of great research like the one you mentioned where you know every dollar invested in early childhood in education results in a $7 return. And I know there was a similar study in Canada and I think it was eight in a dollar return to the country for every dollar invested makes so much sense to invest in early childhood education. What do you think we can do to help get the word out and help close this misalignment between the importance of early childhood education and the level of investment in early childhood education.

DR. JULIUS: I think it's just keeping the conversations going in and leaving some of the things that you're doing you know through the podcast and through media and the opportunity to really help people to understand the importance of it because I think became an educator because I felt I feel like no matter who you are you are dependent on your education to get to where you are.

And sometimes education gets a bad rap and it's not fair because it's like one bad apple lunch everybody. And there are great things going on out there at all levels and I mean what I was saying about elementary that not every elementary school but it just seems to be that I think in and so finding those wonderful programs that are the motto that are really making a difference and replicating it as much as we can it. And just again banding together as leaders to get the word out promotes that research in whatever way we can whether it's through the traditional media or social media whether it's finding those avenues to make that happen and educate our society because we tend to think education is the way we experience it as a child and current research is showing that it doesn't have to be that way in fact it should be that way.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah. I mean like you said just being part of that conversation and making sure it's moving along and you do your part is whoever you are in the early childhood education that space I think is really you know a good point. I know you mentioned U Washington in Harvard is influencing the curriculum at Primrose. Where are other places where you get the latest information or research about what's happening in early childhood education.

DR. JULIUS: We actually have engaged a group of experts who have done some research and then I keep on top of the research and they help us they advise us along the way to keep it on top of the Web. We just developed a formal partnership with The Zero to Three, and they curate most of the research. And so we communicate very much with them. They share what they have learned and then we can incorporate that. Well you their specialty is from birth through age 3 but they all go through age five very early childhood organization that curates a lot of that research for us.

SPREEUWENBERG: Interesting. I notice you're the three and they do some great stuff and have a lot of great resources.

DR. JULIUS: Thank you, Ron

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