Caroline Cahuantzi has been with EdNavigator for three years now as our Operations Manager. But her background is in early childhood education, and she’s still passionate about the little ones. We sat down to talk toddlers, preschools, and how to get a four-year-old to help you clean up.
Tell us a little bit about your experience in early childhood education.
I always had an interest in education, probably because my whole family were educators. And I was drawn to the early years because of the opportunity to support the basic nuts and bolts of learning at the start of childhood. I feel like that's where you get the most bang for your buck.
When I first started teaching, I did my teacher residency in D.C. in a special education inclusion kindergarten classroom. Then I moved to New Orleans, where I worked as a kindergarten classroom teacher. And then I went back to D.C. and worked in a Head Start classroom. For me, the four-year-olds—that preschool piece—was the most interesting. They’re so new to the world. They're learning so many things all the time. And it was those everyday learnings and small moments that were the most exciting for me.
What are your must-haves for high-quality early childhood education?
A lot of time learning independently. Kids still need to move around and do things. They shouldn't be sitting at a desk all day. Learning in authentic environments, especially through center time, learning how to get along with your peers, and learning from your peers is huge for me. Sometimes, I had students who were having a hard time grasping a concept and I'd put them with a peer helper. It's unbelievable how much a peer can help a child's learning in ways that a teacher can’t, just because they're living that same experience and probably just learned this skill themselves. So, letting children steer their learning and learning with their peers is really critical at this age.
As a parent currently looking at preschools, I’m noticing that there are a lot of labels thrown around. I’m hearing “Montessori,” “Reggio,” “play-based,” “student-centered.” It’s hard to know what any of it means. What should parents really be looking for when they visit a preschool?
Sometimes it’s not even clear if a program is just using a label like that in the abstract, or if they’re actually following whatever approach they say they are. When you visit preschools, the first thing to look at is the children: Are they happy? Are they excited? They should be exploring, moving around, and working with each other. Every child is different and there's not one approach that will work for every single child. But when you go into a daycare or a preschool classroom, you want to ask yourself, if you were your kid-self, would you feel great being here? If it looks like organized chaos, that's probably about right.
How should preschool classrooms be supporting the building blocks of literacy and numeracy without drilling kids on the alphabet or something?
There is still room for some amount of sitting at a table. For example, in my classroom, every time my kids came in in the morning, they had to write their name. They could be sitting for five minutes doing that. But mostly literacy or numeracy in an early childhood classroom should be through time in centers throughout the day. So if we're talking about the letter C today, in the different centers, kids might be looking for items that start with the C. In the kitchen, there might be carrots, or there might be a cowboy hat in the dramatic play area.
It’s the same with counting. How many people are in this center? Let's say there are three people here, but we only have two chairs. How do we solve this? Or we might be counting out the forks or plates for snack time. They’re learning that one-to-one correspondence, which is when you tap or pick up an item you’re counting so you count each item one time. That’s a really important skill for them to learn, because it’s not intuitive.
When you’re visiting classrooms, you can always ask how these things are integrated. I find parents don't always want to ask, or they think early childhood education is this big thing and you guys know what you're doing. But it's really not that complicated in a lot of respects. Parents should always feel empowered to ask.
If parents don't have access to a high-quality early childhood program for their kids—for example, if the program they’re in feels more like crowd control, or if their kid is home with a family member—what can they do to supplement early learning?
One thing is giving them opportunities to play with other children. If there's a student who has been home with Grandma for four years, not really interacting with other kids, it can be overwhelming to come into a classroom with 20 peers. Finding opportunities to get that interaction is really key. Another thing is creating learning opportunities at home. I know this is definitely easier said than done. But with a young child, you're pretty much teaching your kid how to live in the world, right? Even with small chores that would be quicker to do yourself, if you’re taking the time and having your child help, they’re learning. And they always want to help. This is one thing that still amazes me about young children—how much they want to be doing what other people are doing.
For example, recently my mom was at my brother's house and she was cleaning up the Christmas tree needles. And my little niece wanted to help. My mom gave her a little broom and a dustpan. Did my niece really clean up anything? Probably not. But she thought she was doing it and she was learning so many skills in that moment. So just including your kids in everyday activities, whether it's folding the laundry, grocery shopping, cleaning up—and talking to them about what you’re doing.
Clearly, of course, sometimes you’ve just got to get out the door. But learning doesn’t have to be super complicated or require extra resources or fancy toys or whatever. Kids get excited about the littlest stuff. They just want to know what's going on.
Anything else you think parents of toddlers should know about early learning?
One thing that’s worth mentioning is in early childhood education, we talk about developmental domains. And children don’t go up equally in every developmental area. I would often observe that children who were really advanced on their letters or numbers or something needed the most support with their social-emotional skills. For example, I had a child who came into kindergarten knowing all his letters and sounding out words already, but he had no idea how to interact with a peer his age. So it’s not like everybody's on the same plane all the time. If your child is excelling in one area and slower to develop in another area, that’s totally normal.
Do you ever think you might go back into the classroom?
Not full time. But before I moved to California, I was teaching kids yoga. I'm actually a certified children’s yoga teacher, and it’s my favorite thing to teach. I think it goes with the piece of the classroom work that I loved, which was the social-emotional component, and then helping children develop their gross motor skills. So I may go back to teaching children’s yoga at some point. It’s definitely not off the radar.