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What is early childhood education?

Focusing on what you should be doing to accelerate healthy infant and early childhood mental health

Early Childhood Education

Infants and young children need access to a superior standard of, affordable early care and education, health and mental health, and family support services that are not available in all states.  States and communities must provide coordinated, well-funded systems of high-quality services for young children to support healthy development and foster success in school and life.

Early childhood education (ECE) aims to improve the cognitive and social development of children ages 0-5 years.(1)  Early childhood education interventions can improve all children’s development and act as a protective factor against the future onset of adult disease and disability.(2) Children disadvantaged by poverty may experience an even greater benefit because ECE programs also seek to prevent or minimize gaps in school readiness between low-income and more economically advantaged children.

Child Screening & Assessment

Screening and assessment provide valuable information about each child's interests, strengths, and needs. Screening gives a snapshot of whether the child's development is on track. Assessment is an ongoing process that includes observation and provides information about development over time. Systematic, ongoing child assessment provides information on children's development and learning. It helps inform curriculum planning, teaching, and individualizing for each child across all Early Learning Outcomes.

Early Childhood Development, Teaching and Learning
Teachers Guide Using Checklists

Supporting Materials

Observation: The Heart of Responsive Care

Observation informs individualization. It is the first step in providing the kind of individualized, responsive care for infants and toddlers that builds relationships, supports attachment, and promotes healthy brain development.

Why Observe Young Children?

There are important reasons why teachers, home visitors, and family child care providers observe infants and toddlers. For example, they observe to:

  • Learn about children to individualize care and learning opportunities; and to

  • Measure and track children’s progress in acquiring skills and concepts over time.

When care-givers or educational staff are intentional about observing children, they are better able to understand how children think, feel, and learn about the world around them. In turn, this helps them make good decisions about how to provide responsive, informed care. Individualizing care and tracking children’s progress make observation a powerful and informative learning tool. However, there are other reasons to observe that are also powerful and informative.

Observing to Understand Children’s Goals and Intentions

Respectful observation reflects a belief that young children’s behaviors have purpose and meaning and are worth attention. Teachers, home visitors, and family child care providers who believe that young children have goals and intentions ask themselves very important questions:



Why does this child do what he does?

What is he trying to communicate or accomplish?

How should I respond to support this child?


Observation becomes a tool to seek answers to these questions. It provides opportunities to take a moment to determine a child’s goal or intention before responding. Observing from a respectful point of view helps staff make important discoveries about children, such as what they are like as individuals, how they respond to other children and adults, what tasks are easy or hard for them, and how they convey wants and needs.6 These discoveries allow staff to be responsive to each child’s interests and needs.


Respectful observation and curiosity about what motivates children become particularly important when children’s behaviors are challenging to understand and manage. Infants’ and toddlers’ language skills are just developing, so their primary mode of communication is behavior. Even when they begin using words or sign language, their vocabulary for expressing themselves is still limited.


Although some children’s behaviors, such as physical aggression, biting, and tantrums, are troubling for both children and adults, these behaviors have meaning. For example, there are many reasons why a young child bites. She may be teething. She may want a toy that another child has. She may be hungry, tired, or even excited and happy. She may just want to know what an arm tastes or feels like in her mouth and then become fascinated by the “cause-and-effect” reaction that follows.


Structured observation of the behavior, including what happens before and after it occurs, what time of day it occurs, and who else is involved, provides clues about the child’s possible intentions and needs. Conversations with the child’s family provide additional information. A pattern of behavior emerges. Staff then match their responses to the child’s message (e.g., provide teething toys, make sure there are duplicates of toys, stay physically close to the child in situations that lead to biting, change the schedule for eating and napping). (3) 


Their observation approach described earlier is called the responsive process. This approach has three steps and may be used by program staff as well as family members:

Watch – Observe the child. Note what is happening, what causes the behavior, and what happens after the behavior occurs.

  • Ask – What does the behavior mean to the child? Family? Teacher or home visitor? Others?

  • Adapt – Decide what causes the child’s behavior and identify possible responses. – Try out one of the responses. – Watch the child’s reactions to see if a different response is needed.


Observing to Build Relationships With Children

Observation leads teachers, home visitors, and family child care providers to a deeper understanding of the child as a human being. In turn, this leads to a greater capacity to engage in a responsive relationship with the child. Relationships between caring, trusted adults and the infants and toddlers they care for provide the secure base that is the foundation for learning. When infants and toddlers feel safe with, connected to, and supported by the adults around them, they are more likely to explore and experiment. Observation also helps staff build relationships with children with whom they may not initially feel a strong attachment or emotional connection. It provides an opportunity to slow down, pay attention in a deliberate way, and look for things about a child that may not have been noticed before. Even in the most challenging situations, finding one new insight may be the means for opening the door to a deeper understanding of the child and the true beginning of relationship.


  1. Hahn RA, Barnett WS, Knopf JA, et al. Early Childhood Education to Promote Health Equity: A Community Guide Systematic Review. Journal of public health management and practice 2016;22(5):E1-E8.

  2. Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University - Early Childhood Mental Health.

  3. Early Head Start National Resource Center, Digging Deeper: Looking Beyond Behavior to Discover Meaning (online lesson series) (Washington, DC: Department of Health & Human Services/Administration for Children and Families/Office of Head Start, 2006), Lesson 1: Slides 3–5

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