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Why Beginnings is the Leader in Early Childhood Education

Elizabeth Wilcox

Thirty five years ago, just before Dr. Donna Housman founded Beginnings School and Child Development Center, the government produced a bleak report called “A Nation at Risk” on the future of U.S. Education. Last month, one of the country’s leading think tanks, The Aspen Institute, published “From A Nation at Risk to A Nation at Hope”, a report that is far more hopeful, stating that we are at a turning point in our understanding of how people learn and what they need to thrive.

The report by some of the country’s most preeminent and respected voices in education and child development contains clear recommendations as to how we can better support children’s social, emotional and cognitive development which is now understood to underpin children’s academic learning and be foundational to lifelong learning, success and mental heath.

These recommendations align squarely with the principles on which Dr. Housman built Beginnings School and Child Development Center and its evidence-based emotional, cognitive and social early learning program, begin to…ECSEL . These recommendations, as reflected in Beginnings core founding principles, are:

  • Set a clear vision that broadens the definition of student success to prioritize the whole child.
    The report notes that this vision begins by articulating the social, emotional, and academic knowledge and skills that high school graduates need to be prepared for success in school, the workforce, and life. Likewise, Dr. Housman has long held that we have to view children’s education not just through the lens of building academic knowledge but we also have to teach children the skills they need to learn. Those skills include not only cognitive but also related social and emotional ones. And as neuroscience now tells us, the early years are the most opportune time to build this emotional, social and cognitive foundation for learning.
  • Transform learning setting so they are safe and supportive for all young people.
    Build settings that are physically and emotionally safe and foster strong bonds among children and adults, says the report. When Dr. Housman founded Beginnings, she designed the building in which the center now resides with creating a safe environment top of mind. Also vitally important to her was ensuring that the children felt emotionally safe and that principle is embedded not only in the layout of the classrooms but also into the ongoing training of teachers her school provides.
  • Change instruction to teach students social, emotional, and cognitive skills; embed these skills in academics and school-wide practices. 
    The report notes that we have to intentionally teach specific skills and competencies and infuse them in academic content and in all aspects of the school setting (recess, lunchroom, hallways, extracurricular activities), not just in stand-alone programs or lessons. That imperative is one of the many reasons that Dr. Housman’s evidence-based emotional, cognitive and social early learning program, begin to…ECSEL, is often referred to as an approach, as it is embedded into instruction in every aspect of the school day, whether circle time or outdoor time. That full school-day integration is also one of the many reasons her program works so well. 
  • Build adult expertise in child development.
    Ensure educators develop expertise in child development and in the science of learning. The reports goes on to note that such an approach will require major changes in educator preparation and in ongoing professional support for the social and emotional learning of teachers and all other adults who work with young people. At Beginnings, no such change is necessary. Since the school’s inception, teachers – many of whom have studied child development in graduate school – receive training in these important principles both at the start of the year and throughout it. Leading that training program is Dr. Housman herself, a clinical psychologist and noted expert in child development.
  • Align resources and leverage partners in the community to address the whole child. 
    The report recommends that we build partnerships between schools, families, and community organizations to support healthy learning and development in and out of school and that we blend and braid resources to achieve that goal. Dr. Housman has always believed that a child’s first teacher is the parent and at no age is this role more evident than in the early years when children’s brain growth is the most rapid and significant. Parent partnerships have therefore always been integral to the Beginnings program, both through ongoing communication or parental learning forums. 

  • Forge closer connections between research and practice by shifting the paradigm of how research gets done. 
    The report’s closing recommendation asks that we bridge the divide between scholarly research and what’s actionable in schools and classrooms and that we build new structures—and new support—for researchers and educators to work collaboratively and bi-directionally on pressing local problems that have broader implications for the field.

    Integrating theory with practice is a driving principle at Beginnings, which is the lab school of Housman Institute. Housman Institute is a training, research and advocacy organization in early childhood education that promotes the building blocks of emotional intelligence. Our team of graduate students support our ongoing training and ensure fidelity of implementation of our unique, evidence-based begin to…ECSEL program which is the only early learning program that has been quantifiably shown to improve the critical foundational competencies of emotional competence, self-regulation, empathy and other pro-social skills that research in child development and advances in neuroscience now identify as critical to lifelong learning, success and mental health.

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