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.

What does rigorous PreK look like–and what can I do to support it?

Rigorous instruction, in PreK and beyond, supports children to reach learning targets and expands their cognitive capabilities. Rigorous PreK helps close achievement gaps—as we discussed in our first blog.

So, what does rigorous instruction in PreK look like?

Let’s Take a Look

First, let’s start by comparing two brief video clips of PreK instruction.

Both teachers are focused on math measurement, specifically estimating/measuring volume. This learning objective is aligned to the Virginia Learning Standards for Grade Three Measurement 3.9: “The student will estimate and use U.S. Customary and metric units to measure…liquid volume in cups, pints, quarts, gallons and liters”. But you’ll see that how they teach this content to 4-year-olds is quite different across the two clips.

As you watch, ask yourself, which clip shows more rigorous instruction?

Clip A (1:09) :

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

Clip B (1:30):

*Click to play video in new tab
Source: Erikson Math Collaborative

Now keep in mind what you saw in these two clips as we walk through some key features of rigorous PreK instruction.

3 Key Features of  Rigorous PreK

#1 No matter how good a lesson looks on paper, children must be actively engaged to benefit!

Four-year-olds need frequent opportunities to move, interact with others, and touch interesting materials.

Source: istock.com/X-star

You may have noticed that in Clip A, materials were available, but not accessible – children weren’t having hands-on learning experiences. [Note: Maybe the teacher was about to do that, we just didn’t see it in the clip.]

In Clip B, children were manipulating the materials, freely talking to each other and the teacher. Engagement was consistently high during this play-based instruction.

Oops, we said PLAY! Is that a bad word?

Source: istock/YiorgosGR

The teacher in Clip B facilitated the play (that children were clearly enjoying) and turned it into a teachable moment. Why is that important?

We need to keep in mind that young children have limited capacity to stay still and listen passively. Have you ever observed a teacher begin a lesson on a high note, but then lose children’s engagement as the lesson goes on (past 10, 15, 20, minutes)? Maybe you see children getting restless, off-task, disruptive?

When children are manipulating interesting materials (especially materials chosen by them), not only do they absorb more of the content, but they are less likely to show challenging behaviors.

So finding ways to keep children actively engaged—using hands-on materials, questioning, or movement opportunities— is an essential component to rigorous instruction.

#2 Learning should be contextualized — connected to their real world!

Learning happens most effectively when new content is connected to prior experience and knowledge.

Children need to understand teachers’ learning targets in their own terms. Then they need active engagement with hands-on materials and real-life experiences to fully comprehend and remember the content.

Source: istock/ matka_Wariatka

As we saw in Clip B, the children are primed to understand volume as the teacher connected this learning objective to their play at the sand table. The teacher facilitated their learning by relating it to their actions (filling up the buckets and comparing which is “bigger”).

Whether teaching happens in large or small groups, learning centers, transitions, or routines, children should be learning in the context of real-life experiences.

Worksheets or flash cards won’t cut it.

How will you know when it’s working? Children will be talking and making connections to their lives. Again, there’s that active engagement.

#3 Instructionally supportive interactions are necessary to build children’s thinking, skills, and knowledge.

Students need to learn facts—but facts alone are not sufficient to build depth of knowledge that can be applied to real world situations. If we want school to teach children to be good thinkers, creative problem-solvers, persistent learners—drilling facts won’t get us there!

A smarter approach is to focus on effective instructional interactions, which provide children rich opportunities to think deeply, answer challenging questions, receive feedback on their learning, and develop their growing language skills.

Source: istock/kali9

We saw this happen through questioning and discussions facilitated by the teacher in Clip B. She asks children a series of thought-provoking questions, including “how do you know it’s bigger?” They respond and a back-and-forth dialogue ensues. We can see children using their math thinking and language skills.

Studies show that when teachers engage in moderate to high quality instructional interactions, children show significant gains in math, language, and literacy.

The bad news: Most PreK classrooms—even K-5 classrooms— studied around the nation have low levels of quality instructional interactions.

Source: http://curry.virginia.edu/uploads/resourceLibrary/CLASS-MTP_PK-12_brief.pdf

The implications: We have some real work to do to improve instructionally supportive interactions.

So which clip above demonstrates more rigorous instruction?

Clip A looks good in some ways: the teacher clearly focuses children on learning objectives. The materials (water, buckets) are interesting and children are outdoors—not sitting inside doing worksheets. (This teacher clearly put effort into planning this activity!) The teacher even asks children prediction questions—like: “How many do you think will fit?” However, we see limited child engagement and lacking evidence that children are gaining a deeper understanding of what “volume” means.

Clip B hits all 3 features of rigor: #1 Active Engagement, #2 Connection to real life, and #3 Instructionally supportive interactions. Because of this, we’d predict that students in Clip B would remember more and have a deeper understanding about volume (with regular teacher-student interactions like this across the day.) Think about how powerful these moments are for children’s school readiness!

What can I (as an administrator) do to support rigorous instruction?

Action Step #1: Challenge assumptions

Like ‘learning happens best in large group’ or ‘play isn’t REAL learning.’

Maybe this is a philosophy in your schools for older children in later grades, but encourage your team to look at what’s working for your 4- to 8-year-olds.

A few resources on the topic of play in early childhood are worth mentioning: This article by VPI+ partner Marilyn Rice reviews the role of play in early childhood, including how teachers can facilitate play intentionally to promote thinking (like we saw in Clip B.) This NAEYC article nicely summarizes research showing the need for both play-based learning and direct instruction in PreK. Even children 5 years and older benefit from a balanced view of how children learn best. This EdWeek article by Dr. Daphna Bassok delineated how Kindergarten can—and should—be both developmentally appropriate and focused on rigorous instruction. It’s not an “either/or” scenario – it should be “both/and.”

Action Step #2: Look for the most important things in your observations

Examine the tool you use for observing classrooms.  Does it include indicators of positive instructional interactions? Is it providing useful data for guiding improvements to classroom rigor?

Virginia’s Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS), called “Virginia Quality,” will be used to collect CLASS-PreK observation data in every VPI+ classroom this fall (Fall 2017), which includes measurement of instructionally supportive interactions mentioned in Takeaway 3. If you are an administrator in these classrooms, you will have the opportunity to look at this CLASS PreK data and use it for program improvement and planning targeted PD.

Action Step #3: Create shared PD experiences so everyone works to improve academic rigor together

Talk with your preschool team — better yet, your PreK-5 vertical teams—to explore options for shared PD that gets at ‘academic rigor’ in developmentally appropriate ways (as explored above).

Know that there are great free resources available, like the Head Start 15-minute In-service Suites, which break apart effective teacher-child interactions and environments into practical, actionable steps that teachers and programs can use for improvement. You can find this resource and others in the searchable VPI+ Resources directory (tip: select “Teacher-child interactions (CLASS)” on the left side of the page).

Remember that although content-specific PD is useful, foundational aspects of instructional rigor cut across content areas.

Like we saw in the clips, effective instruction is more than just exposing children to content—it boils down to how it’s delivered through teacher-child interactions that support engagement, build knowledge and expand thinking skills.

What’s next?

Look out for our upcoming blog posts diving into the 3 features of rigor: active engagement, connection to the real world, and instructionally supportive interactions!

What can I do now?

Share your experience 

What is an example of rigorous instruction in PreK that you’ve recently observed in your school or center?

How do you plan to support rigor in your classrooms next year by challenging assumptions, cueing in on observations on supportive instructional interactions, or creating shared PD?

Add your comments

State Tests Are Here! Why Invest in PreK?

Obviously state tests take significant attention as an administrator. Stakes are high. Student achievement and growth are important metrics of your school’s performance. A lot depends on students’ scores in 3rd -5th grade.

It’s easy to pass by your preschool classrooms – children learning number concepts and how to share — and focus instead on the seemingly more pressing need to get third graders’ using algorithms!

Data Source: Harvard Center for the Developing Child

But research clearly tells us that paying attention to children’s experiences in PreK can have major consequences for them in 3rd grade and beyond. Lets look at 4 reasons why investing in PreK can help ensure better state testing outcomes — and a host of other long-term benefits
#1 Skills beget skills
Brain research shows that the first 5 years is the period of maximum cognitive growth—90% in fact!

Neuronal connections build from simple to complex. Early learning makes later learning more efficient.
If we want children learning more, more efficiently in later grades, we should pay attention to the critical period before age 5!
#2 Achievement gaps start early—but so can prevention
A recent study found that 1 in 3 children in Virginia isn’t ready for Kindergarten. The rate of Kindergarten readiness is even lower for children who experience poverty (almost 40% “not ready” in 1 or more learning domains).

*FRL= Free and Reduced Lunch
Source: Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Project, Fall 2014

As Kristi Kauerz of the National P3 Center cites: children at-risk can be developmentally delayed behind advantaged peers by 14-18 months at Kindergarten entry! There is evidence that these gaps begin as early as 9 months.

Source: istock.com/FatCamera

Yes, that’s depressing.

But, the good news is: achievement gaps can be successfully narrowed through quality PreK. Furthermore, early intervention in PreK reduces special education referrals through 3rd grade.

If we can reach children at (or before) age 3-4, why wait until they reach age 5 (Kindergarten) or 8 (3rd grade), when intervention is less effective and more expensive?

As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

#3 Effective preschool experience predicts 3rd and 8th grade achievement
A 2007 Virginia Joint Legislative report found that students who attended public PreK (VPI) had higher 3rd grade achievement than similar peers without PreK. A 2015 Virginia study found that children who attended VPI were more likely to have higher literacy achievement on state tests (SOLs) and less likely to be held back in 8th grade.

#4 Early Childhood investment pays off even in the long(er) run
Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman found such impressive returns for quality early childhood–including higher IQ, better health, lower crime, higher earnings — that this article referred to his research with this memorable title: “How Investing In Preschool Beats the Stock Market, Hands Down.”

Here is Dr. Heckman describing his work on the value of Early Childhood:

I’m ready to invest in early education. Are you?

What’s next?
As we’ll demonstrate in future posts, the quality of Pre-K matters. Future posts will detail what quality looks like – but if you want a sneak peek check out our searchable video library – with great examples of effective math, literacy, science and social skills teaching in preschool. To reap the impressive benefits demonstrated above, children need cognitively stimulating, emotionally supportive experiences throughout the day.

Your instructional leadership is critical to guide improvements that will maximize impacts for all students in your school (including those 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders!)

Let us know your thoughts below and look out for next month’s post: What makes “rigorous” PreK—and what can I do to support it? Subscribe, and we’ll make sure you don’t miss it.

What can I do now?

Call to Action:
Observe one of your preschool classrooms. Write down 3 things you saw that connected to your third grade learning standards. Make this a point of conversation in your next school-wide meeting/training.

Share your strategies:
What is 1 way that you support quality PreK in your school/program? We’ll use your comments to help share positive examples from across the state (and nation).