Intentional teaching and parenting

What is the relationship between “intentional teaching” and the early childhood education profession or parenting preschool-age child?

Be intentional about the behaviors you model for young children.
Be intentional about the behaviors you model for young children.

A recent national trend in education is the development of statewide standards of quality for early childhood education programs. The Michigan State Board of Education has developed and refined our own standards, which can be found in the “Early Childhood Standards of Quality for Prekindergarten.” These standards are a comprehensive guideline for quality and provide detailed benchmarks of high expectations for all types of early childhood care and education programs. After a careful survey of the standards, we identified several terms that have not been used previously in many early childhood education texts. Our purpose in this article is to help families and professionals who work with young children become more knowledgeable about these terms.

Let’s address the term “intentional teaching.” Throughout the Early Childhood Standards of Quality for Prekindergarten, the term intentional is used. The concept of being an intentional teacher is referenced in various ways. Some examples are:

  • Intentional instruction and modeling.
  • Intentional arrangement of the environment.
  • Intentional learning experiences.
  • Intentional teaching of social skills; e.g., how to greet peers, how to take turns, how to wait for something they want, how to demonstrate care and sympathy.

In the learning environment, the curriculum is designed so activities are carefully and developmentally sequenced in keeping with individual children’s levels of functioning and comprehension. The teacher uses intentional teaching strategies to help children learn skills, habits of mind or information they cannot discover on their own.

Intentionality is a key component of a quality program, and this concept is also appropriate when talking about parenting. Parents are also able to be intentional about the environment they provide for their children.

Intentional teaching is explicit, purposeful or deliberate teaching; teachers use planning and goals in guiding children’s experiences. It can also incorporate teachable moments. According to the Early Years Learning Framework Professional Learning Program, “Intentional teachers act with specific learning goals in mind – both for aspects of children’s development in social and emotional, cognitive, physical and creative domains and for learning in the academic domains of literacy, math and science. Adults intentionally play roles in guiding children’s experiences and children have significant and active roles in planning and organizing learning experiences. It is not about saying at a particular part of the day I will intentionally ‘teach’ children something. It is about being intentional about what we provide across the whole day.”

What is the relationship between the concept of “intentional teaching” and the early childhood education profession?

Many early childhood providers and teachers unconsciously teach children concepts and appropriate behaviors every day. We engage children in learning concepts about a wide variety of topics such as language, science and math. We do this without thinking much about it and these concepts are blended into our classroom routines. For example, we provide materials for children to manipulate and play with every day. We know children need a wide variety of materials to explore. When we use intentionality in our teaching practice, we take note of the ways children use materials as well as the child’s developmental stage, and we plan activities that help the child move to the next stage. We can do this by providing additional materials to the basic materials, which will help guide the children to use the materials in a new way. For instance, it is common for many teachers to put an interesting or novel material such as a sea shell or a piece of bark in the science center for children to explore. An intentional teacher might see that children are having trouble noticing the details of a piece and add a magnifying lens to the activity, as well as photos of enlarged sections of the material. This teacher is helping children learn about the importance of detail and patterns in objects.

We also teach children about social and emotional skills. We teach them about themselves and how to relate to others. One way we do this is to provide structure to the child’s play. A common teaching tool we use is to set limits on what the children may do based on what is safe or what is comfortable for other people. For example, we might respond to a child who is flinging paint onto the floor by saying, “The paint needs to stay on the paper.” If we want to be more intentional about teaching a child about safety limits, we would also include the reason for the rules about using paint. We could add, “When you throw the paint on the floor, it makes the floor slippery and someone could slip, fall and hurt themselves. We want everyone to be safe. Now let me show you how we clean it up so no one slips and falls.”

Another thing we teach children is problem-solving. In a casual way, we might look at a lump of playdough that is too sticky and tell children we need to add more flour to it. If we want children to practice using their own problem-solving skills, we ask open-ended questions such as, “This playdough is too sticky – what can we do about it?” or “What do you think will happen if we add more flour?”

Perhaps your child or student is struggling with fine-motor skills. An intentional teacher or parent would first identify what is typical for a child of this age and then determine this particular child’s skill level. The next steps would be to provide materials that interest the child and would support growth in this skill. Let’s use Janet Pletcher’s son, Will, as an example and his lack of interest in writing or drawing when he was about 4 years old. Will enjoyed the dramatic play area, and this is where you could always find him. How might the intentional teacher or parent support and encourage Will’s writing and drawing development? First, we would look at the habits of this child. So putting writing tools on a table by the blocks is not going to fit the Will we know. We know he likes the dramatic play area, so what can we do in the area where he spends his time? A few examples of things that might be added to the dramatic play area to support Will’s growth and development include:

  • List-making materials.
  • A chalk board for drawing.
  • Materials that develop prewriting skills, like water and sponges to clean, tongs and play food to be moved from place to place, or a tablecloth children can draw on.
  • Real baby bottles, which children can take apart and put back together. This provides small motor activity.

I’m sure you have many more ideas. The intentional teacher is thinking about providing a rich environment for all the children and is able to focus on a particular child or children as needed.

Intentional teaching is not about saying at a particular part of the day I will intentionally “teach” children something. It is about being intentional about what we provide, model and do across the whole day. Children learn by watching and listening, and from the experiences and environment we provide. I remember visiting a home as a Head Start teacher. The parents were concerned their 4-year-old did not put away his toys. As I looked around the home and yard, it seemed that no one in the child’s environment was modeling putting things away. It is important to have realistic expectations for children, and Michigan State University Extension suggests helping them by modeling and teaching the things that will help them develop the skills they need to be successful in life.


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