Using evidence-based practice in early childhood education programs

Looking at research evidence can help us make wise choices for our children, in early childhood education programs and at home.

A recent national trend in education is the development of statewide standards of quality for early childhood education programs. The Michigan Department of Education has developed and refined our own early childhood education standards, revised in 2013. 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 text. We want to help families and professionals who work with young children to become more knowledgeable about these terms.

Michigan State University Extension will address the term “evidence-based practice.” This term is used in the Community Collaboration and Financial Support section of the “Early Childhood Standards of Quality for Infant and Toddler Programs.” It states, “Regardless of the source of the program’s resources, the components of high-quality early childhood programs are well established (e.g., well-qualified staff; evidence-based practices; include a major emphasis on relationships between children and adults in the program; maintain strong family partnerships, reflective supervision, ongoing professional development) and do not differ based on the program’s sources of support.”

In this context, as one practice among many that characterize a high-quality program, the term does not offer much in the way of making its meaning clear. In the Glossary of “Early Childhood Standards of Quality for Infant and Toddler Programs,” evidence-based practice is defined as “Designing program practices based on the findings of current best evidence from well-designed and respected research and evaluation (e.g., better understanding of preschool children’s mathematics capabilities as a function of recent research).”

Let’s expand on that definition so we can discover how it relates to the early childhood education profession. For a simple definition, we could use the strategy of breaking up the phrase into its component parts. Evidence means something factual, something that can be observed; information or data. The opposite of evidence is supposition or an assumption. It has to do with truth and validity. Practice, in this instance, is what we do, our behaviors and actions. So, putting the two together, we mean letting our actions be founded on facts, what we have observed, or data.

Using evidence-based practice is borrowing scientific procedures to determine what is really happening. You might think early childhood educators are already doing this and that it doesn’t need to be stressed; however, you might be surprised to learn that many of us use assumptions and opinions regularly.

For example, many of us assumed that until children are a certain age, 1 or 2 years old, having the TV on in the background makes no difference to the child because they are not watching it. I mean, what could a toddler get out of having Oprah on in the afternoon? Through research done in the last 10 years, evidence shows that toddlers act differently when the TV is on and when it is off. When the TV is on, they spend less time focused on play. The inference is that the TV interferes with their play. Hmmm!


What information do you use to make decisions about young children and their behavior? Looking at research evidence can help us make wise choices for our children, in early childhood education programs and at home. Of course, we can do our own research at times to discover specific information about specific children. When we observe and assess a child’s use of language, for example, we know more about whether or not that child is performing at a developmentally appropriate level. We can also look for reliable information from experts who have also studied children for more general knowledge of how they learn and grow.

The important thing about evidence-based practice is that we look for trustworthy information before choosing how to act, rather than relying on assumptions, myths or just habitual practice. Our children deserve it.

Here are more resources on evidence-based practices you may find useful:

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