Preschool teachers' beliefs concerning the importance of various developmental skills and abilities.
Article Type:
Statistical Data Included
Preschool teachers (Surveys)
Child development (Surveys)
Early childhood educators (Surveys)
Kowalski, Kurt
Pretti-Frontczak, Kristie
Johnson, Larry (Basketball player)
Pub Date:
Name: Journal of Research in Childhood Education Publisher: Association for Childhood Education International Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2001 Association for Childhood Education International ISSN: 0256-8543
Date: Fall-Winter, 2001 Source Volume: 16 Source Issue: 1
Government Agency: United States. Head Start programs
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

Accession Number:
Full Text:
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 made accordingly.


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; Hyson, 1994).

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 2.74, respectively).

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, & Odom, 1995).

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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[Graph omitted]
Table 1

Description of Participants

                             Teachers Providing Data
Category                          n             %

Type of Program
  Head Start                     268            57
  Public School Preschool        58             12
  Preschool Special              144            31
Geographical Location
  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.
Table 2

Mean Scores on the Social-Emotional, Language and Literacy, and Early
Math Scales by Teacher Type

                                           Teacher Type
Scale                  Head Start   Preschool Special Education

                           M                     M
Social-Emotional          3.75 (*)             3.89 (*)
Language and Literacy     2.89                 2.84
Early Math                2.9                  2.88

Scale                  Public School Preschool

Social-Emotional                3.86
Language and Literacy           2.97
Early Math                      2.92

(*)Between teacher differences significant at p < .05
Table 3

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
 own behaviour
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
 have done
Understand the perspectives of       3.40  1.00
 other children
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.
Table 4

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
 write down
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
 familiar object
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.
Table 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
 evening activity
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.
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