Abstract. Head Start, public school preschool, and preschool
special education teachers were surveyed to investigate their beliefs
concerning the importance of various developmental skills and abilities.
Teachers were presented with 54 items representing different skills and
abilities and asked to rate each with respect to how important they
thought it was for preschoolers to learn. The items represented three
hey domains of early functioning: social-emotional, language and
literacy, and early math. A comparison of teachers' mean item
ratings indicated that teachers in all three groups felt that the
social-emotional items were more important for preschoolers to learn
than were the language and literacy and early math items, which were
rated similarly Preschool special education teachers placed a slightly
higher premium on social-emotional functioning than did Head Start
teachers. The results are discussed in terms of their relevance for
teacher education and providing programming for young children.
Knowledge of child development traditionally has been viewed as a
core component for designing activities and evaluating curriculum in
early childhood education (Biber, 1984; Bredekamp, 1987; Charlesworth,
Hart, Burts, & DeWolf, 1993; Hyson, 1996). In addition, a
considerable body of research indicates that teacher beliefs influence
decision-making in the classroom (for reviews, see Fang, 1996; Pajares,
1992; Shavelson & Stern, 1981). The present study combines these two
important influences on early educational practice by investigating
teachers' beliefs concerning the importance of different
developmental skills and abilities that emerge in early childhood.
Due to the considerable speed and interrelated nature of
development during early childhood, early childhood educators tend to
approach their mission from a more holistic perspective than do
educators of older children. This philosophy of educating the whole
child has led early education theorists to emphasize the importance of
addressing children's social and emotional needs as well as their
cognitive and physical ones (Biber, 1984; Hendrick, 1996; Hyson, 1994;
Ramsey, 1991). Echoing these sentiments, the current dominant approach
to early education (i.e., developmentally appropriate practice) stresses
that education practice should be tailored to fit the developmental
level of the children being served (Bredekamp, 1987; Bredekamp &
Copple, 1997). This approach argues that the educational outcomes that
teachers focus on should change with children's developmental
level, and it cautions against introducing academic content so early in
the educational process that children have not attained the requisite
devel opmental skills and abilities to allow comprehension of that
content (Bredekamp & Shepard, 1989; Elkind, 1987; Katz, 1994). This
early introduction of academic content is not only believed to be
ineffective in terms of longterm learning goals, but also leads to
increased levels of stress in children (Burts et al., 1992; Burts, Hart,
Charlesworth, & Kirk, 1990), and likely has a negative impact on
their dispositions towards learning and the development of their
self-conceptions, especially those concerned with their abilities as
learners (Katz, 1994; Katz & Chard, 1989).
Early childhood teachers' beliefs about educational practice
are shaped both by the training they receive (Brown & Rose, 1995;
Schoonmaker & Ryan, 1996) and by their personal experiences working
with children in the classroom (Williams, 1996). Examining these beliefs
is important because research indicates that teachers' beliefs
influence classroom practice. Measures of teachers' beliefs related
to developmentally appropriate practice have been found to be related to
their use of instructional methods that are consistent with that
approach (Charlesworth, Hart, Burts, Thommason, Mosley, & Fleege,
1993; Oakes & Caruso, 1990). Similar relations between
teachers' expressed beliefs and classroom practices related to
literacy instruction (Wing, 1989) and children's play (Spidell,
1989) also have been observed. Despite these findings linking
teachers' beliefs to classroom practice, it should be noted that
this relation is often less than isomorphic, and that some studies
report considerable inconsistency between te achers' expressed
beliefs and the teaching methods they use (Sharp & Green, 1975;
Verma & Peters, 1975). Part of this inconsistency can be attributed
to the fact that teachers do not always feel free to put their beliefs
into practice because of constraints that they feel are imposed on them
by administrators, parents, and the demands of standardized testing
(Brown & Rose, 1995; Hitz & Wright, 1988). Insufficient
professional training also may contribute to the observed inconsistency
between teachers' expressed values and classroom practice, because
teachers may not always have the skills and abilities they need to bring
their beliefs to fruition.
Knowing more about how teachers rate the importance of various
developmental skills and abilities is crucial for several reasons.
First, it helps researchers and policymakers consider how other factors
affecting the early childhood classroom, such as administrative
directives and assessment issues, either support or conflict with
teachers' beliefs. Second, in that teachers tend to emphasize those
skills and abilities that they consider important, knowing what those
items are can provide us with valuable insights into teacher decision
making. Third, policymakers and educators can highlight particular areas
of teacher education and training programs, based on teachers'
beliefs concerning the importance of various developmental outcomes.
Finally, considering teachers' extensive clinical experience
interacting with children on a daily basis, knowing which skills and
abilities they see as important can help bring about valuable insights
about children and child development (Zimiles, 1993).
The present study investigates teacher beliefs concerning the
importance of a number of different developmental skills and abilities
by asking the question: "How important do teachers believe it is
for young children to master these skills and abilities during the
preschool years?" This question was addressed by surveying a large
sample of preschool teachers working in the midwestern United States.
Teachers were asked to rate the importance of children's mastery of
a number of skills and abilities relevant to social-emotional, language
and literacy, and early mathematical functioning. Since teachers who
have different training, work in different contexts, or work with
different populations may vary with respect to the value they place on
children's achievements in the three domains assessed, the authors
included Head Start, public school preschool, and preschool special
education teachers in the study, to examine whether teacher beliefs
varied by teacher type.
Surveys were distributed to a sample of 96 publicly funded
preschool programs located throughout a large midwestern state. The
programs were selected on the basis of their geographic location so that
teachers from urban, rural, and suburban/small town settings would be
represented. A total of 80 programs responded to the survey for an
overall program response rate of 83%. These participating programs
provided usable data for 470 teachers, with an estimated teacher
response rate of 74%. Number of years of teaching experience ranged from
less than 1 to 36 (M = 9.4; SD = 7). Additional demographic
characteristics of the sample, including the type of teaching program,
geographic location, level of education, and teacher ethnicity, are
provided in Table 1.
Programs contacted were asked to distribute the survey to all lead
classroom teachers currently working with preschool-age children. The
instructions on the survey indicated that the researchers were
interested in learning more about both children and their teachers. To
promote candid responses to survey items, participating teachers were
not required to give their names. In addition to requesting demographic
information, the survey presented teachers with 54 specific items that
described skills and abilities that young children might typically
display. Teachers were asked to rate how important they thought each of
these skills and abilities were for preschool-age children to learn,
using a 5-point Likert scale (1 = not at all important, 2 = somewhat
important, 3 = important, 4 = very important, 5= critically important).
The items represented three key domains of early functioning and formed
the following three scales: social-emotional, language and literacy, and
early math. Several items on each scale were a dapted from the preschool
scales of the MAPS observational assessment instrument (Bergan,
Sladeczek, Schwarz, & Smith, 1991). These MAPS items were then
augmented with a number of additional items designed to reflect
recommended practices in early childhood education (see Bredekamp &
Copple, 1997). The actual assessment items used by type of scale are
listed in Tables 3, 4, and 5. In addition to assessment items,
developmentally inappropriate "distracter" items (e.g., count
by threes up to 99) also were included in each scale to ensure that
teachers evaluated each item on a case-by-case basis. Each of the three
scales contained 5 distracter items and 13 assessment items, for a total
of 18 items per scale. The completed questionnaire was piloted with a
small group of teachers for wording and format, and modifications were
Teachers' mean ratings of the distracter items in each scale
were significantly lower than their ratings of the assessment items
across all three scales (ps < .0001). This differential rating of
distracter and assessment items indicates that teachers did indeed rate
each item on a case-by-case basis. Scale reliability was demonstrated to
be reasonably high by calculating Gronbach's alpha. Alpha
coefficients were .81, .85, and .88 for the social-emotional, language
and literacy, and early math scales, respectively.
Results were further analyzed using a 3 (teacher) x 3 (scale)
ANOVA, with scale treated as a repeated measure. Mean rating of items
served as the dependent measure (possible range, 1-5). The analysis
revealed a significant main effect for scale F(2,935) = 591.83,p
<.0001. Post hoc comparisons indicated that teachers rated the
social-emotional items (M = 3.83) significantly higher than the language
and literacy items (M = 2.9), t (935) = 29.85, p < .0001, and the
early math items (M = 2.9), t (935) = 29.74, p < .0001 (see Figure
1). Thus, while teachers rated the language and literacy and early math
items as important for children to learn during the preschool years,
they viewed children's mastery of the social-emotional skills and
abilities presented as being considerably more important.
There was also a significant teacher by scale interaction F(4, 935)
= 3.19, p < .01. Teachers' mean scores on the three scales by
teacher type are displayed in Table 2. Simple effects analysis indicated
that preschool special education teachers rated the social-emotional
items significantly higher than did Head Start teachers (Ms = 3.89, and
3.75, respectively), t (935) = 2.26, p < .05. No other differences
between teachers proved to be significant. Thus, while preschool special
education teachers placed a slightly greater value on social-emotional
functioning than Head Start teachers did, teachers in all three groups
rated the language and literacy and early math items similarly.
Moreover, within teacher comparisons of the means displayed in Table 2
indicate that regardless of the type of program they worked in,
teachers' ratings on the social-emotional scale were significantly
higher than their ratings on the language and literacy and early math
scales (ps < .0001). Thus, while preschool special education teachers
rated social-emotional functioning slightly higher than Head Start
teachers, all teachers valued this functioning considerably more than
they did language and literacy and early math. These results indicate
that with respect to the high value they place on social-emotional
functioning, the beliefs of the teachers in the three groups were more
similar than different. Thus, the general pattern of findings revealed
by the significant main effect for scale displayed in Figure 1 remained
robust across teacher type.
Teachers' mean ratings of the individual items that made up
the three scales are displayed in Tables 3, 4, and 5. An examination of
these data indicates that those items most closely associated with
traditional academic content received the lowest ratings. For example,
within the language and literacy and early math scales, those items that
involved writing letters or numbers were rated among the least important
for preschoolers to learn. That is, teachers' mean ratings for
"write a log, list, or story with some letters in it" and
"write numerals to indicate 10 or less objects" were only 1.86
and 1.69, respectively.
Correlation analysis revealed a low, but positive, correlation
between level of teacher education and mean score on the
social-emotional scale, r(447) = .l9, p <.05. Thus, as teachers'
level of educational attainment increased, so did the importance they
placed on the social-emotional skills and abilities presented. Level of
education was not related to teachers' scores on either the
language and literacy or early math scales. Teachers' years of
teaching experience was not related to teachers' scores on any of
the three scales presented.
In an attempt to counter what historically has been viewed as an
inappropriate emphasis on academic content in early education, theorists
and early childhood teacher educators have long stressed the importance
of promoting social-emotional functioning during the preschool years
(e.g., Biber, 1984; Bredekamp, 1987; Elkind, 1987). The high premium
placed on social emotional skills and abilities by teachers in the
present study suggests that those arguments have not fallen on deaf
ears. The results clearly indicate that teachers view preschoolers'
attainment of social-emotional skills and abilities to be critical.
Moreover, the low but positive correlation between teachers' level
of education and their valuing of these skills and abilities suggests
that information concerning the importance of social-emotional
development in preschool, likely encountered during teacher training,
has affected teachers' beliefs.
It is important to note, however, that the inservice teachers
surveyed in this study interacted with young children on a daily basis.
If this daily experience was incongruent with "expert" claims
about the value of social-emotional attainments for preschoolers, the
influence of these claims on teachers' beliefs might be expected to
decrease over time in the face of mounting counter experience. This
turned out not to be the case, since there was no correlation between
years of teaching experience and teachers' ratings of the
social-emotional items. Thus, the value of preschoolers attaining the
social-emotional skills and abilities presented appeared to be apparent
to both relatively new and seasoned teachers, a finding likely
influenced by the utility that these skills and abilities have for young
children learning to function successfully in group contexts (such as
school). The agreement demonstrated in the present study between
front-line working teachers and scholars in early childhood education
concernin g the importance of social-emotional development during the
preschool years provides important concurrent validation for the
necessity of giving that development a prominent role when considering
the design of early childhood curriculum (see Biber, 1984; Honig, 2000;
Interestingly, there were no significant differences in
teachers' mean ratings of the items on the language and literacy
and early math scales (see Figure 1). Furthermore, this similarity of
ratings held up across all three groups of teachers assessed (see Table
2). These findings indicate that on average, teachers in all three
groups viewed preschoolers' mastery of the items in these two
scales to be of near equal importance. Recall that teachers in all three
groups also rated the items in these two scales as less important for
preschoolers to learn than those in the social-emotional scale. This
response pattern suggests that preschool teachers in the present study
may have rated items based on the degree to which they associated them
with traditional academic content (e.g., reading, writing, and math).
This interpretation of the results is supported by an examination of
teachers' individual item ratings on the language and literacy and
early math scales. Items on those scales most closely associated with t
raditional academic content (e.g., those that involved writing letters
or working with numbers) tended to receive the lowest ratings.
The findings of the present study indicate that preschool teachers
make a distinction between skills and abilities traditionally thought of
as academic and those that can be thought of as precursors to academic
functioning, with academic skills being considered as considerably less
important for their students to learn. In addition, this distinction
appears to be robust across the three groups of teachers surveyed: Head
Start, public school preschool, and preschool special education.
The results discussed above are heartening, to the degree that they
reflect sensitivity on the part of preschool teachers to their
students' developmental needs. A growing body of empirical research
suggests that developmentally appropriate early education programs
appear to be more effective at engendering positive social-emotional,
motivational, and cognitive outcomes than are programs with a more
traditional academic focus (Charlesworth et al., 1993; Cohen, 1994;
Miller & Bizzell, 1983; Schweinhart & Weikart, 1997; Stipek,
Feller, Daniels, & Milburn, 1995). However, given the clear
bifurcation in teachers' importance ratings of the social-emotional
and cognitive skills and abilities presented in the current study, it
should be communicated to preschool teachers that children's
learning in these two domains is not a zero sum game. Recently,
Dickinson (2000) reported a negative correlation between preschool
teachers' strong endorsement of a social-emotional focus to
preschool and their students' performance on some indicators of
emergent literacy during kindergarten. This finding, along with the
present pattern of results, suggests that teachers should be made aware,
if they are not already, that the vigorous promotion of emergent
literacy and math skills, if done in a developmentally appropriate
manner, does not have to come at the expense of children's
social-emotional development. This information may lead preschool
teachers to place more value on the development of emergent literacy
skills such as phonemic awareness (e.g., "rhyme one spoken word
with another") and recognition of environmental print (e.g.,
"read a printed label or sign on a familiar object"), both of
which received relatively low ratings in the present study (Ms 2.52 and
The results of the present study clearly demonstrate that teachers
believe it is important for young children to attain social-emotional
competencies during the preschool years. It is not certain, however,
that teachers always have the skills and abilities needed to bring this
functioning about. Ironically, the teachers who placed the highest
premium on social-emotional functioning in the present study (i.e.,
preschool special educators) also may be the ones with the least access
to effective curricula and intervention strategies designed to promote
that functioning. A recent survey of early childhood special educators
reported a lack of intervention materials available to guide
teachers' instruction of social skills (McConnell, McEvoy, &
Odom, 1992). This lack of resources may contribute to what appears to be
a curious disconnect between the beliefs expressed by special educators
in the present study and evidence that suggests that Individualized
Education Plans (IEPs) often target children's academic skill s and
do not contain social-emotional goals and objectives, even for children
with social-emotional delays (Michnowicz, McConnell, Peterson, &
This apparent contradiction between what special educators
indicated they value and what previous work suggests they actually
target on IEPs may stem from the fact that these educators are uncertain
about how to turn their values into practice. Consider the task of
helping a shy child learn to express his feelings and ideas openly in a
group context, as well as the task of teaching that same child to
identify some of the letters in the alphabet. Which appears more
difficult? Simply pointing out instances of specific letters in the
environment and naming them could accomplish the second task. However,
such a straight-forward approach may not be feasible when trying to
accomplish the first task. For example, vigorously encouraging a shy
child to speak up in a group context might actually make that child feel
less in control of the situation and, as a result, more anxious and
withdrawn. In fact, initially accepting and respecting that child's
reserve might be an important first step in helping him develop the se
nse of control and security he needs to feel comfortable enough to voice
his feelings and opinions in a public area.
The above example illustrates that due to differences in the
domains, the avenues to influencing children's social-emotional
development are often less direct than those to influencing their
cognitive functioning. Thus, preschool teachers may be hesitant to
select social-emotional outcomes as explicit educational goals since the
attainment of these goals is often complex and uncertain. Teachers in
the present study clearly indicated that they believe it is more
important for preschoolers to attain the social-emotional competencies
presented than the academic ones. However, it is not clear from the
present results how much influence teachers believe they have on the
development of these various competencies.
Future research examining teachers' efficacy beliefs
concerning their potential impact on differing developmental outcomes
will be important in constructing a model to predict teacher behavior.
This information is needed because it is likely that teachers select
educational goals on the basis of not only what they believe is
important, but also what they believe they can accomplish. Thus, despite
having strong convictions concerning the importance of children's
social-emotional development during the preschool years, many teachers
(special education included) may not target social-emotional outcomes as
educational goals because they do not believe they have effective means
for bringing these goals about.
In conclusion, the present results indicate that teacher educators
emphasizing the importance of children attaining social-emotional skills
and abilities in preschool are likely "preaching to the choir"
when they are talking with inservice teachers. Given the high premium
preschool teachers presently place on children's attainment of
social-emotional skills and abilities, it appears that what these
teachers may need now is concrete strategies they can use to facilitate
these abilities. To explore this potential need, future research should
investigate the degree to which preschool teachers feel equipped to
facilitate the social-emotional functioning they so value. Conversely,
the relatively low importance that teachers in this study placed on
preschoolers' attainment of early math and literacy skills and
abilities indicates that some persuasion to cover these areas more may
be warranted. That is, the importance of targeting emergent math and
literacy skills during the preschool years should be communicated t o
preschool teachers, along with methods teachers can use to bring these
skills and abilities about that are consistent with the needs of
children's early social-emotional development.
The authors thank the teachers who participated in the study and
the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier versions
of this paper. Support for this research was provided in part by a grant
from the Ohio Department of Education. Findings from this research do
not represent the opinions of the Ohio Department of Education or the
State Board of Education. Address correspondence to Kurt Kowalski, Texas
Tech University, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Box
41162, Lubbock, Texas 79409-1162.
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Description of Participants
Teachers Providing Data
Category n %
Type of Program
Head Start 268 57
Public School Preschool 58 12
Preschool Special 144 31
Urban 88 19
Suburban/small town 212 45
Rural 170 36
Level of Education
High school 117 26
Associate of Arts 73 16
Bachelors 166 37
Masters 91 20
Euro-American 422 92
African-American 25 5
Hispanic-American 7 1
Asian-American 2 0.4
Native-American 2 0.4
Note. Frequencies may not sum to 470 or percentages to 100%, due to
missing data and rounding.
Mean Scores on the Social-Emotional, Language and Literacy, and Early
Math Scales by Teacher Type
Scale Head Start Preschool Special Education
Social-Emotional 3.75 (*) 3.89 (*)
Language and Literacy 2.89 2.84
Early Math 2.9 2.88
Scale Public School Preschool
Language and Literacy 2.97
Early Math 2.92
(*)Between teacher differences significant at p < .05
Teachers, Rank-Ordered Mean Ratings for Social-Economic Items
Social-Emotional Items M SD
Learn to accept and express their 4.59 .64
anger in appropriate ways
Identify and talk about their 4.48 .66
Say positive things about 4.45 .74
Make choices and take 4.35 .78
responsibility for their
Play cooperatively with another 4.11 .83
child on regular basis
Solve conflicts with other children 3.77 .93
on their own without adult
Give sympathy to another child when 3.63 .90
they have been hurt
Ask permission before borrowing 3.61 .91
Share toys with a group of children 3.51 .92
on a regular basis
Say why they like something they 3.49 .98
Understand the perspectives of 3.40 1.00
Participate in activities when 3.30 .87
Help adults with simple tasks,
without being asked 2.77 .86
Note. Possible range for each item 1 to 5.
Teachers' Rank-Ordered Mean Ratings for Language and Literacy Items
Language and Literacy Items M SD
Chose books to "read" on their own 4.10 .95
by leafing through the pages and
looking at the pictures
Retell a familiar story 3.51 .88
Identify some of the letters of the 3.42 .98
alphabet, especially those from
their own name
Listen attentively to books that 3.35 .89
teachers read to the class
Dictate a story for an adult to 3.29 1.15
Predict that a story character who 3.10 1.11
is hugry will seek food
Introduce a friend to another 2.87 1.10
Read a printed label or sign on a 2.74 1.13
Tell a chronological story from 2.59 1.11
beginning to end, without
Rhyme one spoken word with another 2.52 1.01
(e.g., log, dog, frog)
Use compound sentences 2.33 1.00
Write a log, list, or story with 1.86 .98
some letters in it
Recognize where sentences begin and 1.81 1.02
Note. Possible range for each item 1 to 5.
Teachers' Rank-Ordered Mean Ratings for the Early Math Items
Early Math Items M SD
Sort objects into different groups 3.99 .81
Refer to familiar shapes (e.g., circle, 3.96 .91
square, triangle) by name
Explore part to whole relationships by 3.87 .95
fitting together simple puzzles
Arrange objects in order by size 3.76 .94
Identify a morning, afternoon, or 3.24 1.08
Compare the number of objects in two 2.99 1.04
Identify and talk about patterns in the 2.91 1.17
Count forward from a number >1 to find 2.64 1.25
out how many there are in a group
Indicate how many are left after taking 2.54 1.05
one from a small group
Add two small groups by combining the 2.25 1.06
groups and counting all the objects
Divide a group of objects in half 2.13 1.02
Understand the concept of voting (e.g., 1.71 .91
the most votes wins)
Write numerals to indicate 10 or fewer 1.69 .90
Note. Possible range for each item 1 to 5.