Rigorous Pre-K Part II: Fostering Active Engagement for 4- & 5 -Year- Olds

In the last post we introduced 3 features of rigorous PreK instruction: (1) children are actively engaged, (2) learning is contextualized, and (3) teachers have instructionally supportive interactions.

In this post, we’ll dive deeper into Feature #1: Active Engagement.

Active Engagement is a critical condition for learning. Research has found that academic achievement occurs through engagement, yet one study found that preschool children were disengaged 1/3 of the time  (e.g., wandering, waiting, not engaged in any activity)!

Administrators who observe older grades are used to looking for signs of engagement, like students raising hands, answering questions, and sustaining attention during group and independent work.

But what does Active engagement look like for young learners across the day: whole/small group, learning centers, transitions?

Let’s Address Some Common Misconceptions


Common Misconception: Young children should sit quietly and raise hands as directed during extended whole or small groups.

Reality: Young children actively engage in groups through on-task talk, movement, and enthusiastic participation, including–but not limited to–raising hands. Young children may be moving or fidgeting more than older children, but this movement can actually help children maximize their learning. Children show more engagement when provided frequent opportunities to move, talk, and manipulate materials and are more likely to sustain attention across brief groups (under 15-20 minutes).

Take a look at this video clip (1:40) of children showing active engagement through movement in whole group:

*Click to play video in new tab
Source: Office of Head Start


Common Misconception: Young children should quietly rotate through pre-assigned centers at a brisk pace.

Reality: Children get the most out of centers when they are using materials and having rich interactions with teachers and peers. More complex active engagement can be demonstrated by children creatively using materials, coordinating play with peers, or persistently problem-solving. A classroom of young children engaged in learning centers may sound “loud,” but if the noise comes from on-task talk with teachers and peers, we’d say this is a good sign!

Note: You may be surprised that young children show higher engagement with tasks and peers in free choice than in teacher-directed activities. So observing how children engage with self-selected materials and peers during extended learning centers is worthwhile.

Take a look at this video clip (0:53) of children actively engaged with materials, the teacher, and each other in a math center:

*Click to play video in new tab
Source: Office of Head Start


Common Misconception: Transitions are most effective if children are silently walking in line, hands to themselves as directed by the teacher.

Reality: Learning time is maximized when transitions intentionally incorporate opportunities for children to engage in embedded activities. Actively engaged children will not just follow directions — they will be doing something related to learning objectives, like moving and/or talking on-topic as they transition.

Note: A common argument is that transitions must be silent to prevent distracting others. That does apply at times, but we want minimize those kinds of passive transitions, given that transitions and routines have been found to take about 1/3 of a typical preschool day! We want make sure children aren’t losing precious time to practice language, math, social and other skills.

Take a look at this video clip (0:32) of children practicing counting as they walk up the stairs:

*Click to play video in new tab
Source: Office of Head Start

What can I do?

  1. Self-assess: How do your expectations for young children’s engagement match the “common misconceptions” and/or “realities”?  Share your comments.
  2. Observe for children’s engagement in your next classroom visit. If you don’t already have a tool that’s working for you, here’s a simple checklist that includes “look fors” and ways to analyze patterns in engagement.
  3. Use resources to support improvement in 1 area of need. Below are 3 scenarios of child engagement challenges with suggested resources. Do any fit your observations and analyses of engagement patterns?

If children have low active engagement in…

Whole or small group: consider helping the teacher plan shorter activities (under 15-20 minutes) and increase opportunities for children to move, talk, and manipulate materials. This Inservice suite on Giving Children Responsibilities provides a video and helpful Teacher and Supervisor resources that may be useful.

Learning centers: consider helping the teacher assess changes to materials. This Inservice suite on Materials to Support Learning provides a video and helpful Teacher and Supervisor resources to help teachers select and provide children access to interesting materials.

Transitions: consider helping the teacher plan how to embed learning opportunities. Many curricula offer specific strategies; for example, Creative Curriculum offers a 10-minute YouTube video on making the most of transitions. Also consider revising your school/center’s policies/schedules to minimize the number of transitions, especially ‘silent’ ones. For example, some VPI+ school administrators have reduced time children spend in hallways by making changes such as serving lunch and holding “specials” in the classrooms.

What’s next?

A deeper dive into Rigorous Instruction Part III: Contextualized learning.

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