Children’s experiences in the first three years of life influence how they develop, learn, and interact with their world. This period is marked by an extraordinary amount of growth, and sets the foundation for children’s future learning and ongoing development.
The Illinois Early Learning Guidelines are designed to provide early childhood professionals and policy makers a framework for understanding development through information on what children know and should do, and what development looks like in everyday instances. These Guidelines also provide suggestions and ideas on how to create early experiences that benefit all children’s learning and development. The main goal of the Guidelines is to offer early childhood professionals a cohesive analysis of children’s development with common expectations and common language.
During the process of developing these Guidelines, core principles were taken into consideration. All of these principles are integrated into the Guidelines, providing a comprehensive and appropriate look at children’s development. The core principles are:
Early learning occurs in the context of relationships. Positive and secure relationships are the foundation for children’s healthy development in all areas and provide models for future relationships they will establish. These nurturing relationships give children the security and support they need to confidently explore their environment, attempt new skills, and accomplish tasks. Children who have strong, positive attachments with important adults in their lives use these relationships to communicate, guide behavior, and share emotions and accomplishments. These meaningful interactions and relationships are essential for children’s development as they help them realize they have a meaningful impact on their world and the people around them.
Children’s development is looked at through four core developmental domains: social and emotional, physical, language, and cognitive. Children develop across these four domains at the same time, with each area of development dependent on growth in all the other areas. There may be times when children seem to focus on one particular area of development, while having little growth in another area. For example, a 12-month-old child who is concentrating on language may not display any interest in walking on his or her own. Then, a few weeks later, the child suddenly starts to walk. This is an example of how development flows, and while it may seem that they may “stall” at certain times, children are actually growing and learning in all of the areas at all times.
Stress is a common experience for all children. While positive and tolerable stress – such as moving to a new neighborhood, or parental separation or divorce – is all part of healthy development, toxic stress is detrimental to the developing child. Toxic stress includes physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, extreme poverty, constant parental substance abuse, and family and community violence. Toxic stress is attributed to prolonged activation of children’s stress systems, without support or protection from caregivers. Extended and repeated exposure to these stressors disrupts children’s brain development and impacts their overall development, with the possibility of lifelong negative health issues. However, because the brain is still growing during the first three years of life, the effects of toxic stress can be buffered and even reversed through supportive and responsive relationships with nurturing adults.
Children follow a general continuum as they develop, and each child will reach his developmental milestones at his own individual pace, and through his own experiences and relationships. Development is influenced by various factors:
Culture plays a significant role in how children develop, as it influences families’ practices, beliefs, and values for young children. Goals for children’s learning and development differ across cultures. Therefore, it is important for early childhood professionals to know, recognize, and respond sensitively to the multitude of cultural and linguistic variations that families and children exhibit. In order to support healthy development, it is important to provide culturally appropriate activities and experiences that are responsive to children from diverse backgrounds.
Children have varying developmental abilities and different learning styles that influence when and how they reach their developmental milestones. All children are unique and these differences are to be taken into consideration when caring for them. The structure of the learning environment should be tailored to varying abilities, and interactions between children and caregivers should be meaningful and appropriate. It is important to encourage acceptance and appreciation of differences in learning abilities and to partner with caregivers to align individual goals for children.
Temperament refers to the unique personality traits that children are born with. Temperament influences how children respond to the world around them, and how others will interact with them. Some children are outgoing and assertive and love to try new things. Other children are slower to warm up and need time and support from adults to engage in new activities. Adults need to be sensitive to children’s temperament and interact with children in a manner that supports their temperament to foster feelings of security and nurturing.
Birth order can influence children’s personality and how they relate with their family. Children each have their own unique personality traits; yet, birth order may have an impact on how children’s personality traits are expressed. For example, middle children may be more out-going and social because they have experience interacting with an older sibling. Or, youngest children may be more persistent because they may have to work harder for uninterrupted attention. These examples may not be consistent across all children, but it is important to note that all children have unique personalities that influence how they interact and develop. Birth order also impacts the caregiver’s role and how they parent and interact with each child. For example, there may be differences in how a caregiver approaches their youngest child, compared to their oldest child, due to increased confidence in their parenting skills.
Differences in abilities, language, culture, personality, and experiences should not be seen as deficits, but instead, be recognized as the unique characteristics that define who children are. The important goal early childhood professionals are tasked with during this age period is how to best support children’s diverse needs.
Play is often described as “a child’s work”; it is central to how children learn and make sense of the world around them. Play is often spontaneous, chosen by the child, and enjoyable. Play consists of active engagement and has no extrinsic reward. It is very important to highlight that play does NOT include television watching or games played on the computer or other technology devices.
Children use play to learn about their physical world, themselves, and others. Children use play to sort out their feelings and explore relationships, events, and roles that are meaningful to them. Play changes drastically in the first three years. For example, a six-month-old plays with an object simply by touching and mouthing it, an 18-month-old purposefully makes an object move in a certain way, and a 34-month-old uses language and actions while playing with an object. This example demonstrates how play becomes more complex to match and meet children’s developing abilities.
Absolutely! Parenting children is the most important job and one of the most challenging. All caregivers are tasked with developing and shaping the brain of society’s youngest scientists. Brain development in the first three years is extraordinary. While children’s brains are not fully developed at birth, the early experiences in their lives influence the rapid growth and development of their brain. Positive and nurturing interactions and experiences promote neural connections in the brain, which are essential for healthy development and growth. Caregivers are not only forming how children think through consistent, nurturing, and responsive care; they are also building the foundation for how children learn and interact with their world.
Who are the professional brain developers? Any person who is responsible for the care of children!
Within the Guidelines, there are varying references to caregivers, familiar others, attachment figures, and primary caregiver(s). All of these people impact children’s brain development. Below is a brief description of each:
Within the Real World Stories and Strategies for Interactions, there are examples and suggestions for how caregivers can promote healthy brain development in young children.
IEL is providing access to a PDF of the full 170-page printed version of the Guidelines:
This webinar provides a short overview of the Illinois Early Learning Guidelines for Children Birth to Age Three. It also provides a tour of the resources available on the Illinois Early Learning Project website that can support the use of the guidelines in practice and at home.
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