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preschool classroom ideas
Laila Webb, 5 and Reezahnny Veiga Rodrigues, 5, add to the model of their home city they and their classmates have built in their Russell Elementary preschool classroom. Reezahnny is especially keen on showing visitors the traffic jam she has added. Credit: Lillian Mongeau

A new study published this month in the journal Child Development, found that eight key teacher actions can make the difference between a mediocre preschool classroom and an excellent one.

A team of Vanderbilt University researchers spent two years gathering the data used to prove that these actions worked. Dale Farran, the head researcher, says the project was a direct result of the disappointing results of her previous research, a multi-year study published in 2015, which showed that Tennessee’s state preschool program had no effect or in some cases a negative effect on participants by the time they reached third grade.

“I got obsessed these past three years with ‘how do we make it better?’” said Farran, the associate director of Vanderbilt’s Peabody Research Center. “It wasn’t acceptable to me to just say, ‘We found these outcomes.’ Do you just say ‘we found these outcomes’ or do you roll up your sleeves and try to do something about it?”

Farran decided the only ethical answer was to do something about it, so she said she was thrilled when the superintendent of Nashville Public Schools approached her a few months after her initial report and asked for help improving Nashville’s program.

Related: Preschool education: Go big or go home?

“Do you just say we found these outcomes or do you roll up your sleeves and try to do something about it?”

Researchers partnered with the principals, teacher coaches and teachers in three different Nashville early learning centers. They collected data on teacher actions and student achievement across 26 preschool classrooms. All of the participating teachers were certified in early education, held bachelor’s degrees and were paid on par with K-12 teachers. Each classroom also had an assistant. There were a maximum of 20 students per classroom. The study ran for two years, from 2014 to 2016, and covered a total of 840 children.

The partnership, at times, was fraught. Not all of the teachers were excited about the multiple observations and feedback sessions with researchers, Farran said. She said that she and her fellow researchers came to realize that teachers faced competing demands on their time, which made it hard to take in all of the data being foisted on them. To address that issue, the research team narrowed its focus on the eight classroom actions they found had the largest effect on student success.

Here’s the list, dubbed “The Magic 8” by the principals of the three Early Learning Centers they studied:

  1. Reduce time spent in transition. Time moving from one activity to another is time when children aren’t learning or engaged, which also increases the likelihood of negative behaviors.
  2. Improve level of instruction. Asking children open-ended, inferential questions and asking them to reflect on what they’ve learned or make predictions based on what they know improves student retention of new material and better prepares them for kindergarten.
  3. Create a positive climate. Using positive language to reinforce desired behavior rather than disapproving of specific student actions has a positive effect on children’s ability to self-regulate.
  4. Increase time teachers listen to children. Children whose teachers spent significant time listening to them showed a stronger grasp of math concepts, letters and sight words. Children who spoke more frequently also had stronger self-regulation and vocabulary skills.
  5. Plan sequential activities. When children participated in activities that followed a logical order, like completing a puzzle or writing a message, they engaged in higher level thinking, which improved their problem-solving skills.
  6. Promote cooperative interactions between children. Children who worked often with peers were more involved in classroom activities, had better language skills, and were better at self-regulation.
  7. Foster high levels of child involvement. Children are better at reading comprehension, vocabulary and math when they are actively involved in an activity, like when a teacher asks them to answer questions or make predictions about the book she’s reading.
  8. Provide math opportunities. Children who take part in multi-part math problems and discuss math concepts are better prepared for kindergarten and early math success, which is a strong predictor of late elementary school achievement.

Farran remains committed to furthering the practical application of these eight concepts. In addition to using the list to design a more streamlined teacher feedback and education system at the three early learning centers, these eight concepts have now been adopted by the City of Nashville as part of their High-quality Start for all Plan, championed by Nashville Mayor Megan Barry.

Barry’s plan calls for program improvement first and expansion to universal access second, a position Farran endorses. Expanding access without improving quality could do more harm than good, she said. “Our goal right now for 4-year-olds should be to get them interested and engaged in learning,” she said,” and to remember they’re only four.”

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Letters to the Editor

4 Letters

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  1. I find it really odd, that with all the research out there about the importance of play, this wasn’t actually addressed in the study. Numbers 1, 3, 4, 6, and 7 could directly be addressed by … play. And with appropriate training, play time can help implement 2 and 8. We need to be thinking about the real contexts in which children learn, and teaching to those contexts. Preschool should not be about pushing them into developmentally inappropriate contexts like traditional sit-and-listen schooling. As a behaviorist, I’m all about measuring, outcomes, teaching specific skills, and structure. But guess what my first training are for new therapists: research-based play strategies. (I have a published lit review and a one page hand-out for anyone who’d like it.)

    Education is the answer. Oh yeah, what was the question? How about what can we do to help save our children that become teenagers, that become adults/parents (not always in that order), and need good paying employment to support their anticipated lifestyle.
    We start in pre-school, Head Start and Jump Start Programs. We need to teach life lessons as a part of the curriculum. Let them do things, let them learn. They will learn and retain what they learn, when things made sense. This will apply all through life. When they see that reading and math will help with the things that they want to do, they will learn to read and read to learn this works for math as well.
    Older kids (Boys and Girls) need to have all types of projects that they can see happening and that they can participate in i.e. ALL TYPES of – automotive, motorcycle, bicycle, racing, construction, art, welding, wood working, cooking/food service and many more. These are all interchangeable and relatable, all people can work together. These are things that they can take pride in, projects that work together and not be a “sellout to the man”. These things need to be seen and available for them to participate in, NOT forced on them.

  3. I have done a lot of this in the classroom already. It is nice to have a refresher. With all learning I do agree with it needing to be in a fun way. I also think that having to sit and listen even for a short circle time is a must. While preschoolers are three, four and five years old they also have to get in practice for kindergarten. In the classroom we have even made letter recognition and letter sounds fun. Making it more childlike and care free is definitely the best way to learn and to teach.

  4. I agree with the finding of what promotes learning. Using preschool as an undisciplined waiting room for kindergarten is shameful but what many have become. You MUST have documented best practices to optimize teaching and learning.

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