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In San Antonio, Texas, elementary school principals get hands-on coaching and advice from early childhood experts during visits to pre-K classrooms. In Alabama, principals can attend a unique leadership academy to learn about how to support teachers working with young children. In Minnesota, a series of workshops offered across the state aims to educate school leaders and teachers on child development and pre-K through third grade work.

A 2015 survey found only 20 percent of early-career principals in schools with pre-K classrooms felt “well-versed” in early ed

These are just a few of the promising efforts identified by New America, a Washington-based think tank, in a series of reports that detail the need to better prepare principals to work with young learners—and that also highlight some potential solutions. Research shows there is a clear need for this: A 2015 survey found only 20 percent of early-career principals in schools with pre-K classrooms felt “well-versed” in early ed; and a 2017 nationwide scan by New America found in most states, principals start without “the knowledge and skills they need to best serve young students.”

Experts say this is partly because early childhood education is not often taught in principal preparation programs. In most states, licensure requirements for principals do not require early ed knowledge or experience. Instead the programs are set up to prepare principals in a “general way” to work across grade levels, said Laura Bornfreund, director of early & elementary education policy at New America. “A lot of principals come from upper elementary or secondary,” Bornfreund said. “They’re not really exposed to content on child development, younger kids or how to support teachers who are working with younger kids.”

“Principals have a complex job and there’s no way for them to know everything about every grade level and every subject level in their building. But what’s most important is that they have an understanding of child development.”

But that can have an impact on pre-K classrooms and students, especially if a principal is unable to identify or coach teachers on developmentally appropriate teaching for young children. A principal may walk into a pre-K classroom and see “chaos” or what they perceive to be poor classroom management, Bornfreund said, when in fact children are learning through play.

As public pre-K programs expand in elementary schools, experts say principals will increasingly need a better understanding of the early years, including age-appropriate academic expectations and discipline strategies. “Principals have a complex job and there’s no way for them to know everything about every grade level and every subject level in their building,” Bornfreund said. “But what’s most important is that they have an understanding of child development.”

Here are some of the key takeaways from New America on how states, districts and preparation programs can better prepare principals to work with young students:

  • In-school coaching and walkthroughs of early ed classrooms: this practice helps principals see early ed teaching practices in real-time and discuss those practices with an early ed expert.
  • A range of school leadership training opportunities: In Minnesota, principals can choose from a variety of programs, including a free online course and in-person workshops.
  • Early ed topics in principal prep programs: The University of Illinois at Chicago requires every student to visit elementary schools and pre-K classrooms to learn more about the early years. Illinois State University requires all aspiring principals to create an early childhood school improvement plan during their coursework. Experts say adding in these requirements ensures that all aspiring principals start their careers with at least some exposure to pre-K.

For more recommendations and a deep dive into San Antonio, Alabama and Minnesota, check out the full report here.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!

This story about principal training programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Jackie Mader is multimedia editor. She has covered preK-12 education and teacher preparation nationwide, with a focus on the rural south. Her work has appeared in the The Denver Post, the Sun Herald and...

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