What is the importance of psychology to a preschool teacher?

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Developmental psychology is the study of patterns of normative development across the lifespan. Early childhood education often focuses on a subset of developmental psychology called discontinuous development. In discontinuous development, the lifespan is broken into stages based on either age or behavior. There is no consensus on whose theory best explains reality, but the work of some psychologists, like Jean Piaget, is far more ubiquitous than others’s in educational and medical contexts.

I’d recommend that you look into Piaget’s stages of cognitive development and consider how they apply to early childhood education. We’ll look briefly at another prominent developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson, whose first three stages are of greatest concern to preschool teachers. These are (1) Trust vs. Mistrust, (2) Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt, and (3) Initiative vs. Guilt. In the first stage, a child’s dependence on—and trust in—their mother is tested by separation from her. The preschool teacher applies psychological research to help their students learn to expand their trust to both them (the teacher) and their new classmates, their environment, and the larger world.

In the second stage of development, the child develops a sense of autonomy and independence coupled with feelings of shame and self-consciousness. The preschool teacher with a background in psychology knows that autonomy should be supported—food and clothing preferences generally emerge in this stage—but the child will still need a caregiver to help them learn how independence is sometimes restricted by context. The teacher knows that the ego is fragile at this stage and denying a child’s autonomy can lead to shame and doubt. Because negative self-reflection in childhood has lasting consequences, preschool teachers benefit from psychology classwork that helps them guide their students through these experiences.

In the third stage of development, which typically lasts from ages 3 to 6, children learn appropriate ways to assert control over situations. They try new things, tell others what they want to do, and develop a sense of purpose. Children who are not allowed to show initiative, either because their parents are authoritarian or their social interactions with other children leave them feeling ridiculed, may demonstrate feelings of guilt. The preschool teacher with a psychology background is able to recognize and intervene when children need help exploring their limits.

The role of the mother is implicated in many of Erikson’s developmental theories and in most other psychologists’ developmental theories. It’s important to note that families are more diverse than ever, and preschool teachers will need to navigate situations that are not always covered in the literature (and what is in the literature is often worded in problematic, exclusionary ways). Rather than a set of rules for classroom application, psychology provides preschool teachers with a concept of psycho-social needs that are often seen in children younger than six. Some stages may overlap, some children may stay in a stage longer than expected or advance faster than their peers, but all preschool-aged children benefit from adult support and understanding during their vulnerable formative years.

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Nobody would suggest that one needs to be a specialist in psychology to be a preschool teacher, but some background in psychology, especially developmental psychology, would be helpful. This is because so much of pedagogy (the study of teaching and learning) is based upon developmental psychology. In short, it is important to understand how children's minds develop, emotionally, cognitively, and behaviorally, so that we can tailor instruction to meet their needs. This is important at every level of education from pre-K to post-secondary, but it is perhaps most important at the preschool level, where kids are becoming socialized and beginning to gain basic educational skills such as reading and speech that are crucial to their future development. In fact, a basic familiarity with developmental psychology is useful not just for early childhood teachers, but for coaches, babysitters, and parents as well. I have linked to a scholarly article that deals with this very subject and provides an overview of recent scholarly work on developmental psychology and pedagogy.

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