Peek into PK: The Power of Choice


Recently the Early Childhood Center, comprised of the Pre Kinder 3 and 4 sections, started implementing multi-aged groups. We sat down for a chat with ECC Principal Alida Garcia de Paredes to learn more about what makes early learning at ISP unique.


pe classCaption: Students shake things up with Ms. Sharon during physical education.


Why did we choose to start implementing multi-age groups in early childhood?


Upon reviewing our programs there was a feeling that there were more opportunities for social-emotional growth and learning. This is the main focus of our program. Our four-year-old students were looking for leadership opportunities, but these were limited due to the fact they were all the same age. One mother even remarked to me at the end of PK that their child was already behaving like a teenager, exercising agency, and looking for opportunities to lead.


Looking at students' progress we observed that the incoming 3-year-old students were taking up to 8 weeks to adapt to life as a student i.e. learning routines, rituals, how to make choices, regulate emotions, etc. This meant we were spending almost a whole quarter working on adapting to the rhythm of life and learning.


We continued our research on best practices in multi-age programs where students have the opportunity to interact with students of different ages throughout the school day.


Additionally, our current director, Mrs. Viki Steibert, and our Director of Teaching and Learning Shawn Colleary, had worked with such programs.   Shawn implemented a multi-age group approach at a school in China. In fact, he was able to work with two programs, a regular PK 3 and PK 4 program and a program that had multi-age groupings. This gave him a unique understanding of the added value of this approach.


The idea behind these approaches is that a community (like a family) is created in the classroom, where, just like a family, the older students help the younger students learn how to navigate their world. Just like with siblings in family this results in the younger child often learning things quickly because they are following the modeling of an older student. The result is a win-win, where both students learn and progress by virtue of being in the same classroom.

Why is the early childhood curriculum at ISP unique?


The best way to explain this is with an example. In the past, we would do something called the letter of the week. It was the core of our program. Students would learn A is for alligator, learn to write the letter, and then what other words start with A.


But this approach proved to have its limitations. So we moved to the creative curriculum (CC) which is a mixture of different philosophies. CC also has excellent components like choice areas and studies. It also takes into consideration the student as an individual helping us, teachers, understand growth and progress in different areas of learning. Even this approach had its limitations, and they began to seem restrictive. That is when we started looking at Reggio, and we fell in love.


We knew we couldn't do the full program, so we created a Reggio inspired program. This helped us transform our set up to an indoor learning choice areas and outdoor learning choice areas. Students have a number of choices inside and outside the classroom. Outdoor learning allows students to leave the classroom during the day which also allows them to interact with other students from other classes, further enriching their learning experience.




Our focus on social-emotional learning continues to strengthen. What we are trying to achieve is to emulate real life in a community for our students. Every day you will see other people, be in different places, navigate from one to the other, make choices, negotiate, regulate your emotions, make difficult choices etc. To take this further, now that we have our POD divisions (a POD or group color is assigned to every family at ISP), students go beyond their classroom cohort for activities like working on an Art Project in our Atelier and Innovation Lab.Our students also work on PODs during the Spanish classes.  Helping students understand the broader world outside their classroom.


How are the arts integrated into the early childhood curriculum?


This has been quite exciting. Informed by our best practice research we continue to sharpen our focus on arts integration through dance and music. The little ones experiment with light, sound, paper, clay and other materials, not as fundamentals to memorize, but as experiences to help them understand the world around them. Last year I watched in delight as the students watched a video about a band conductor, then drew lines with colors to show the conductor's movements as they perceived them, making art from the movements they observed.  The reason integration is so important is because this is how students see the world. Everything is interconnected and in a relationship with something else. So while they don't perceive subject divisions or areas they are able to touch on all of them through powerful and memorable experiences.


What makes learning in the ECC unique?


We focus the program on learning that will apply to their everyday life. For example, when we learn our names in the ECC, we are learning the alphabet by what resonates with us more powerful, not necessarily a specific order or arbitrary word. Learning takes on meaning when we build a relationship. So learning that A is the first letter in my name, is a way of making a memory but not necessarily like memorizing the alphabet. There is a deeper connection there to the learning. Therefore there is more retention of the learning. So they build their vocabulary and understanding of letters through the experience of learning more about their name, rather than the letter of the week.


We are constantly reviewing our practice through our analysis we also realized that we were not providing enough opportunities for our students to gain Spanish vocabulary. We decided to change our Spanish class program so that when our 4-year-old students do their studies, they will also learn the vocabulary in Spanish, helping them make a stronger connection to what they are learning.


How are you noticing the impact of implementing these approaches?


It has been amazing to hear feedback from teachers like the Librarian Ms. Munoz. Who said how pleased she was to see 3 and 4-year-olds together who are confident and clear on their routines, like how to get in and out of the library for example. Already we can see that the three-year-olds are benefiting from having the 4-year-olds to set the example. Another interesting moment came from a 4-year-old showing a 3-year-old how to correctly pick a choice area during choice time. They are learning so much by resolving this on their own.


This is just one example but we are confident the benefits will demonstrate that this is the correct approach. Part of the success is due to the fact that we looped the classes. Meaning that the teacher in PK would get a new group of 3-year-olds, but would keep her previous students. Another advantage is that the teacher knows the developmental progress of her returning class, allowing the teacher to focus on helping the 3-year-olds adapt to their new experiences as they start the first chapter of their student life.


Why is choice so fundamental in education at an early age?


Choice is fundamental because choice is at the heart of social-emotional learning and development. When you have to choose, you have to exercise self-control, you might not be able to go where you want to for example. So then you will have to learn how to negotiate with a friend so you can go to that choice area. Here choice teaches us a lifelong lesson about patience and self-control, but also empathy and compassion, and the importance of negotiation.

These are seeds of critical thinking and the learning attributes students will need to successfully navigate the future choices.