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  • Amoriza Gunnink

Defining quality in early childhood programming:

Process and structural features that impact young children’s development

The search for high quality educational programs and environments begins in early childhood. Stakeholders in early education, namely parents, educators, administrators and the government, seek to provide the best possible start for children. Benchmarks of quality are difficult to standardize as quality measures reflect the varied and often contradictory values and priorities of these stakeholders. Prioritizing outcomes and defining quality standards must be grounded on the dependent variables of children’s achievement and educational outcomes. Research consistently shows both process and structural features such as individualization, class size, educators’ professional qualifications and an academics or language rich environment (Kamerman 2000; OECD, 2012; Lambert et al., 2006) prove impactful for children’s social functioning, academic or cognitive achievement and development (Lambert et al., 2006; Pesner-Feinberg et al. 2001).

Process Features: Individualization & Class Size   


High quality educational environments take into consideration individualized student attention, class sizes and teacher/child ratios. Small group or class sizes, especially in the early years, predict individualized attention and a greater frequency of quality interactions between children and teachers. Class size is also predictive for facilitating opportunities for interactive dialogues. High quality care, defined as warm, positive and respectful interactions and responsiveness to children, supports positive attachments and social development and functioning of children (Lambert et al, 2006; Bridges, 2007; Barnett and Lamy, 2013). Sensitive caregiving, therefore, results in teachers providing positive and steady feedback as well as emotional support to children in addition to more time and focus on educational tasks (Lambert et al., 2006). Moreover, the dialogical relationship that develops also provides a forum for teachers and children to reason through problems, to inquire and negotiate curriculum resulting in children’s growth in cognitive problem-solving, inquiry, verbal skills and social maturity (Carter and Welner, 2013; Bridges, 2007).

Similarly, teacher-child ratios and the availability and presence of more qualified educators in the early childhood classroom increase the potential for frequent, individual and meaningful interactions that are promotive for greater cognitive performance in children as well as opportunities for collaboration amongst staff in curriculum development and implementation. More educators in the class also ensure safer environments and supervision of children (OECD, 2012b).

Structural Features: Educators’ Professional Qualifications and Academic/Language-rich Environments

Individualized attention goes hand in hand with the quality of the teaching staff as predictors of student success and achievement (Carter and Welner, 2013). Higher staff qualifications in early childhood education and care do impact the effective implementation of a program’s curricular framework, children’s educational outcomes and the quality of services provided through the knowledge, skills and competencies transmitted by qualified educators. Generally, higher education and qualifications are associated with higher pedagogic quality in the early childhood field. Educators bring more content knowledge to the classroom and thus display a better understanding of child development and learning. They are responsive and attentive to children’s needs and show competence in effective communication with young children. Higher qualifications can create the potential for effective lesson planning as well as higher quality praxis, and rich, stimulating environments (Kamerman, 2000; OECD, 2012b; Unesco, 2006; Lambert et al., 2006).

A focus on “academics” and a language-rich environment (as opposed to mere play) is also a predictor for student outcomes and success (Lambert et al., 2006; Barnett and Lamy, 2013; Rimm-Kaufman and Ponitz, 2009). In a meta-analysis research study conducted by Lambert et al. (2006), it was discovered that academic programs prepare children in the short term with academic skills while cognitive-developmental programs impacts primarily on language and social development. Child-centered and academically rich learning experiences (Rimm-Kaufman and Ponitz, 2009) boost children’s language and social outcomes and support children achievement and high scores in early math skills at school entry and therefore a combination of these two in pedagogy appears most effective (Barnett and Lamy, 2013). Sustained effects were noted as children continued to display higher grades in middle school (Chambers et al. 2006; Bridges, 2007).

In summary, early childhood educational institutions and organizations seeking quality program offerings must target both process and structural features to impact educational outcomes for students. Structural features outlined as the professional qualification of educators and the academic or language-rich environment concern measures of classroom practices that impact directly on educational gains in language and academic skills. Process features such as individualized attention and teacher-child ratios, on the other hand, impact the quality, dynamism and stability of teacher-child relationships and interactions, fostering social and cognitive skills development in young students.


Barnett, W. S. and Lamy, C.E. (2013). Achievement gaps start early: Preschool can help. In Carter, P. and Welner, K. (Eds.). Closing the opportunity gap: What America must do to give every child an even chance (p. 98-110). New York: Oxford University Press.

Bridges, M. (2007). Which children benefit from preschool? In Fuller, B. et al.(Eds.) (2007). Standardized Childhood: The political and cultural struggle over early education(189-226). California: Stanford University Press.

Carter, P. and Welner, K. (2013). Building opportunities to achieve. In Carter, P. and Welner, K. (Eds.). Closing the opportunity gap: What America must do to give every child an even chance (p. 217-227). New York: Oxford University Press.

Chambers, B., Cheung, A. and Slavin, R. (2006). Effective preschool programs for children at risk of school failure: A best-evidence synthesis. In Spodek, B. and Saracho, O. (Eds.). Handbook of research on the education of young children, (p. 347-359). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Kamerman, S. (2000). Early Childhood Education and Care: An Overview of Developments in the OECD Countries. International Journal of Educational Research, 33, p. 7-29.

Lambert, R., Abbott-Shim, M. and Sibley, A. (2006). Evaluating the quality of early childhood educational settings. In Spodek, B. and Saracho, O. (Eds.). Handbook of Research on the Education of Young Children, (p. 457-475). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.

OECD (2012). Starting strong III: A quality toolbox for early childhood education and care, Paris: OECD Publishing.

Peisner-Feinberg, E. S., Burchinal, M. R., Clifford, R. M., Culkin, M. L., Howes, C., Kagan, S. L., et al. (2001). The relation of preschool child-care quality tochildren’s cognitive and social developmental trajectories through second grade. Child Development, 72, p. 1534–1553.

Rimm-Kaufman, S. and Ponitz, C. (2009). Introduction to the special issue on data-based investigations of the quality of preschool and early child care environments. Early Education and Development, 20(2), p. 201-210.

Unesco (2006), Strong Foundations: Early Childhood Care and Education, UNESCO Publishing.


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