Early Learning > Academics

Head Start pushing for more math and science instruction


Teacher Maro Mirzakhanyan works with a group of students engaged in math activities at a Pacific Clinics Head Start preschool in Glendale. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

Teacher Maro Mirzakhanyan works with students on math activities at a Pacific Clinics Head Start preschool in Glendale. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

In response to mounting evidence that acquisition of math concepts at an early age is a strong predictor of academic success later on, some Head Start programs in California are making a big push to improve the level and quality of math instruction that they offer to children from 2- to 4-years-old.

“Math sometimes gets put to the side and it’s unfortunate because the children need to have these skills,” said Judy Cashell, the academic leader of a group of Head Start centers in southern California who is leading a charge to boost teacher training in math and science.

Cashell, inspired by the research showing the importance of early math for young children, has led the push for the inclusion of math instruction for the 514 children who attend the four centers she leads in Glendale, Altadena and Pasadena run by Pacific Clinics. Cashell has also worked to organize regional training conferences in math and science instruction for Head Start teachers throughout California.

The conferences represent a shift within Head Start toward a more academic curriculum encouraged by the Head Start Act of 2007, which raised academic standards for local programs across the country. While the federally funded preschool programs for children living in poverty has worked on early academic skills with its students since it was first created in the mid-sixties, the 2007 law has given local programs a new focus on bolstering literacy and math skills.

Theory in practice

The kind of math instruction Cashell would like to see at work in all Head Start programs was on display one recent morning at one of her centers in Glendale. Preschooler Pierre Megerdchian, 4, sat at a low table and stretched a rubber band onto a blue plastic board studded with short pegs. Looping the rubber band around four of the pegs, Pierre created a rectangle and held it up to show his teacher, Mora Mirzakhanyan.

“What is the name of the shape?” Mirzakhanyan asked Pierre, who speaks Armenian at home and limited English at school, where many of the teachers also speak Armenian.

Pierre picked up his peg-board and ran across the room to point at a blue felt rectangle affixed to a board holding various other geometric shapes. “That!” he called out.

“Right, a rectangle,” Mirzakhayan said. She asked Pierre to create another shape. He changed his rectangle to a square, then moved on to fashion a pentagon, checking each new shape against the felt ones on the board.

Pierre Megerdchian, 4, holds up a square he's created with a rubber band and a peg board during math time at his Glendale Head Start preschool. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

Pierre Megerdchian, 4, holds up a square he’s created with a rubber band and a peg board during math time at his Glendale Head Start preschool. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

Learning the names of shapes and how to create them – helping build important math vocabulary – is just one of many math-related activities available at the Glendale center.

Students can also sort and count colorful plastic bears, match the number of apples on a cardboard tree to the number displayed on the bottom, or build increasingly tall stacks of blocks. Though these activities may sound basic, the math curriculum at many centers is characterized more by rote counting or by singing songs designed to introduce students to numbers rather than hands-on activities designed to teach math concepts. For example, sorting plastic bears into equal groups may seem like a fun game to students, but it also lays the basis for understanding multiplication. Sorting 20 objects into four groups of five provides a foundation for learning multiplication in later grades.

Critical skills

Providing Head Start teachers with tools to improve math and science skills for the children they teach, all of whom are living in poverty, is critical, Cashell said. Nearly 112,000 California children who live below the federal poverty line are enrolled in Head Start. And in many cases, their teachers have a minimal background in math.

Very little math education is required for preschool teachers before receiving their certification or degree. Most required classes in early childhood programs focus on literacy and social and emotional development, according to a recent report on early math in California by researchers at Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley.

“Many early childhood educators have difficulty with the general math community college requirements, lack confidence in their own math skills, and are reticent about teaching the subject,” the report said.

Douglas Clements, a professor of early childhood education at the University of Denver who has done extensive research on early math, said classes on teaching literacy and social emotional skills are an important part of an early childhood educator’s training, but they shouldn’t overshadow classes on math instruction.

“I understand how hard teachers are working and how dedicated they are,” Clements said, “but through no fault of their own, because of the poor math education they received, we don’t do very well in math in early childhood classrooms.”

To build on teachers’ skills, Cashell said her teachers have enrolled in training programs offered by the national Head Start organization and have worked closely in the past with the nearby Children’s Center at CalTech in Pasadena, which builds its whole program around math and science. To bring what she and her teachers have learned to a broader audience Cashell and a few of her colleagues have organized several STEM – Science, Engineering, Technology and Math – training conferences for Head Start teachers.

Planned in cooperation with a regional association for Head Start programs in California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii, the two-day conferences, which are open to any early childhood educator in California but primarily reach Head Start teachers, provide teachers with the opportunity to hear from and work with top experts.

Andy Alaverdyan, 4, counts blocks during math time at his Glendale Head Start center. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

Andy Alaverdyan, 4, counts blocks during math time at his Glendale Head Start center. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

At this year’s Region IX Head Start Association STEM training conference in San Diego – the third since 2010 – more than 400 Head Start teachers and administrators listened to presentations on how to teach math to 4- and 5-year-olds. Many of the teachers said they had never heard of most of the techniques, which included ways to teach counting that go beyond rote memorization, or how to create a simple physics experiment using ramps and marbles.

“It’s my first time seeing anything like this,” said Sebastian Shields, a lead Head Start teacher from San Diego. “It’s taking what we’ve been taught and changing it.”

Shields, who has just begun his second year in the classroom, said that his training didn’t include any detailed instruction on how to teach math. He said he’d mostly learned to sing songs that included math ideas with his students, such as “Ten Little Monkeys Jumping on a Bed,” where students count down from 10 as monkeys fall off the bed and bump their heads one at a time. While songs are recognized as a great mnemonic device for young children, Shields said he was glad to learn about some new techniques for teaching more specific math skills to his young students. He said he particularly appreciated the practical suggestions offered by Clements, who gave the keynote address and then led a small group session.

Simple steps

Clements recommended teachers take simple measures such as using small number words whenever possible so students can learn to associate quantities and numbers with everyday objects. Teachers should tell children to sit with their “two” legs crossed or to pick up the “three” toys left in the play area, he said. Research has shown that building such basic skills can help children perform better on counting and basic addition tasks and build stronger math skills in later years.

One of the earliest math skills children develop, Clements said, is the ability to quickly recognize the number of objects they are looking at without counting, a skill called “subitizing.” If a 4-year-old child is shown three blocks, she should be able to say “three” right away. This skill is a critical component of recognizing quantities and it provides the base for teaching children that certain words – such as “two,” for instance – correlate to specific amounts – two blocks – and aren’t just sounds memorized in sequence, Clements said. A simple way to give students these skills, he said, is to hide some blocks behind a screen, lift the screen for a few seconds, then replace it, and ask the child how many blocks they saw.

Head Start teacher Liana Guloyan shows off the hands-on math game she created to go along with the book "Caps For Sale" by Esphyr Slobodkina. Children can add and subtract hats from the peddler's head as they listen to the story. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

Head Start teacher Liana Guloyan created a math game for the book “Caps For Sale” by Esphyr Slobodkina. Children can add and subtract hats from the peddler’s head as they listen to the story. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

The STEM training conferences aren’t required for Head Start teachers, but Damon Carson, the vice president of the largest Head Start program in San Diego, the one Shields works for, said teaching more math and science in preschool is where Head Start is headed. It was easy for him to justify sending his staff to a conference that teaches concrete instructional techniques in STEM, he said.

“My hope is that the conference allows my teachers to think of new (math and science instruction) techniques and engage experts in the field,” Carson said. “We like to be on the cutting edge.”

Science sense

Back at the Glendale center, lead teacher Liana Guloyan said she had been a high school history teacher in her native Russia before immigrating to the United States and earning a bachelor’s degree in child development. Her introduction to teaching math to toddlers came several years ago from the classes offered to teachers, at Cashell’s encouragement, by the Head Start program.

Now, Guloyan said she finds math concepts and mini-science experiments everywhere she goes with her students. At recess one day, she said, her students noticed a passion fruit growing on a vine on the school fence. Guloyan wasn’t tall enough to reach the fruit, so she asked her students for ideas to make her reach longer. They first suggested she use a stick, but when that didn’t work, they suggested she lift up one of the children, who then picked the fruit.

“Then we brought it back to the classroom and cut it and tasted it and saw what was inside,” Guloyan said. “It was like a science experiment.”

Enhancing students’ natural curiosity by using the right terms and asking the right questions, as Guloyan did, is what is needed to take math and science instruction in preschool to the next level, Cashell said.

“I think there’s some pockets where there’s real strength around the country (in teaching early math) and it’s very promising,” Cashell said. “I think Head Start is ahead of the pack a little way compared to early childhood education at large, but there’s a real need for (math and science programs) to be developed in every Head Start classroom.”

Lillian Mongeau covers early childhood education. Contact her or follow her @lrmongeau.

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