The 5 Key Theories of Educational Psychology in Early Childhood Education and Care

Understanding Educational Psychology in Early Childhood Education and Care

If you’ve ever been curious about why children behave the way they do, or how they acquire new skills and knowledge, you’ve dipped your toe into the waters of educational psychology. This is a scientific field that studies how humans learn in educational settings, the effectiveness of educational interventions, and the development of our teaching methods.

Now, when we focus on early childhood education and care, understanding educational psychology becomes even more critical. Young children are not just small adults; their brains work differently. If we hope to educate and guide them effectively, we need to understand these differences. Education is defined as:

“a journey of acquiring knowledge and skills through structured teaching, independent exploration, and direct experience.” A child’s brain, due to its plasticity and potential for growth, is a fertile ground for this journey. Let’s delve into understanding the major psychology theories applicable in this regard.

Psychology is defined as:

the scientific study of the mind and behaviour. In the sphere of early childhood education and care, the subfield of educational psychology makes this study particularly pertinent. Here, the discipline ventures into understanding how children learn and what can promote or hinder their learning and development. To unwrap this, educators draw on various educational psychology theories. Each one sheds light on a different facet of a child’s excursion through early learning.

Educational psychology then means much more than understanding how children learn. It’s about uncovering the ways that we, as educators, can meet the diverse needs and preferences of each learner to create an inclusive, engaging learning experience that recognises and respects each child’s unique perspectives and abilities.

The Importance of Educational Psychology Theories in Early Childhood Education

So, why then are educational psychology theories so crucial in early childhood education and care? These theories help early years educators understand how children think, learn, and interact with their surroundings. They provide a framework for stepping into the shoes of a young one to appreciate the world from their perspective. Armed with this understanding, we can guide children better and help them navigate their own educational journey.

The value of these theories extends beyond the classroom. They can help parents, caretakers, and those in contact with children create supportive environments that stimulate optimal development.

Before we aim to explore the main theories in educational psychology, as they relate to ECE, let’s summarise them, to give you a brief understanding of what each one entails:

1. Behaviourism: Learning through Pavlovian principles

A theory wrought by Ivan Pavlov, behaviourism adopted in early childhood education focuses primarily on observable behaviours. Children are observed as they respond to certain stimuli, showing they’ve learned and thus, have been conditioned. This theory states that learning occurs through reinforcing or rewarding behaviours, or through punishment to deter them.

2. Cognitive Development: Piaget’s exploration into a child’s mind – Educational Psychology

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget mapped the journey of cognitive development, shedding light on how children perceive the world around them. Piaget argued that children go through specific stages of cognitive growth, each defined by unique intellectual capabilities. Early education can support cognitive development by fostering an environment conducive to exploration and question-asking. Interested in developmental psychology? Want to learn more on developmental theories through case studies and practical examples? You will love this 1 hour professional development course with a certificate, 90% subsidied for TeachKloud readers, here.

3. Constructivism: Children as Active Participants

Constructivism puts the child in the driver’s seat. It posits that learning isn’t a passive event but an active process where children construct their own understanding of the world through experience and reflection. In an educational setting, this might involve problem-solving tasks, independent exploration, and hands-on activities.

4. Social Learning: Observational Learning and Modelling

Children are social creatures. They learn from and model their behaviour after others, particularly significant adults in their life. Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory underscores this, suggesting that observing others can be a powerful way to learn new behaviours. This theory encourages the creation of a positive learning environment where appropriate behaviours are demonstrated and mimicked.

5. Multiple Intelligences: The Spectrum of Intellect

Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences presents an expansive understanding of intelligence, far beyond basic intellectual measures. It acknowledges that children learn and express their knowledge in various ways, including linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic intelligence. This highlights the importance of diversifying teaching strategies to cater to each intelligence.

In the realm of early childhood education and care, these educational psychology theories function as guideposts. They help us navigate the landscape of a growing child’s mind, constantly adjusting to their developmental needs and learning styles. Ultimately, their careful and mindful application can set children up for a lifetime of successful learning.

Now, let’s explore each of the above theories in more depth.

Behaviourism: Shaping Learning Through Reinforcement and Punishment – Educational Psychology

Behaviourism is a perspective on learning that focuses on observable behaviour. In essence, it involves the correlation between a particular stimulus and a resultant behaviour. According to the Behaviourist school of thought, the learning process is predominantly influenced by external factors. As someone responsible for fostering young minds, understanding this theory can help you better shape your teaching methods and environment.

Reinforcement and punishment are two key concepts in behaviourist theory that are used to shape behaviour. It’s based on the premise that actions followed by desirable outcomes (reinforcements) are more likely to be repeated, whereas actions followed by undesirable outcomes (punishments) are less likely to reoccur.

Behaviourism serves as a driving force in the classroom, notably in shaping desirable behaviour and discouraging acts of disobedience or disruption. By allowing teachers to selectively reinforce rewarding behaviours and punish undesirable ones, schools can create a positive atmosphere conducive to active learning.

For example, in the simplest of forms, a teacher might reward a student for raising their hand before speaking (positive reinforcement) or correct a student interrupting class by briefly isolating them from the group (negative punishment). By linking these consequences with the student’s actions, the theory suggests that the child will associate their actions with these outcomes thereby learning what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour in the school environment. Do you think these are beneficial, do you agree with this theory?

Let’s summarise the main experiments and theories in behavioursm!

Operant conditioning, an important aspect of Behaviourism, relates to the learned response to performing certain actions. The idea, developed by B.F. Skinner, suggests that a student can be conditioned to perform or avoid specific behaviours based on the response they get. For instance, if a student receives praise for drawing a good picture (positive reinforcement), they will be inclined to repeat such activities.

Pavlov’s Dogs is a popular behaviorism experiment. Devised by Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, this theory investigates the role of stimuli in evoking a specific response. Pavlov reasoned that dogs salivated when food was present. He then paired the food with the ringing of a bell. Over time, the dogs began to salivate with just the ringing of the bell, which meant this neutral stimulus (bell) had become a conditioned stimulus.

This learning process is known as classical conditioning: an automatic response to a previously neutral stimulus after repeated associations with another stimulus. The asset of this experiment in educational psychology is its demonstration of how we can learn to respond in certain ways through repeated associations in our environment.

Behavioural Conditioning in Education

Beyond Pavlov’s dogs, how does this relate to early childhood education and care? Behaviourism asserts that all behaviours are learned through interaction with the environment. It suggests that anything children can do, they have learned to do. In a classroom, this might mean rewarding good behaviour or right answers to promote repetition, or discouraging negative behaviour with appropriate sanctions.

The Little Albert Study – 1919 

The “Little Albert” experiment is a significant study in the field of educational psychology and a crucial example of classical conditioning. Conducted by John B. Watson and his graduate student, Rosalie Rayner, in 1919, the experiment aimed to demonstrate that emotional responses could be conditioned or learned.

Initially, ‘Albert’, a nine-month-old boy, showed no fear of a white rat. However, Watson and Rayner began pairing the sight of the rat with the loud sound of a hammer hitting a steel bar behind Albert’s back. The loud noise, naturally, frightened Albert.

The conditioning continued until Albert showed fear at the sight of the rat, even in the absence of the noise. Thus, fear had been conditioned; Albert had ‘learned’ to fear the white rat.

Thorndike’s Cats and the law of effect – 1898-1905

Edward Thorndike formulated the Law of Effect in 1898 after his puzzle box experiments with cats.

In his experiments, Thorndike placed cats inside puzzle boxes and observed their behaviour. When a cat performed a specific action that opened the box — for example, pulling a lever or pushing a button — it was allowed to escape and rewarded with a morsel of food. Through this process of trial-and-error, the cats eventually learned which actions resulted in them escaping and receiving a reward. Thorndike’s meticulous observations led to the formulation of the Law of Effect.

The Law of Effect 

Simply put, the Law of Effect states that responses that lead to satisfying consequences are more likely to be repeated, while actions leading to unsatisfying outcomes are less likely to occur again. In other words, behaviours followed by rewarding outcomes are strengthened, but behaviours followed by discomfort or unpleasant results diminish over time.

This empirical law is at the heart of behaviourism. It underscores the fundamental role of reinforcement (reward) and punishment in shaping behaviour — a concept that has had a significant impact on a variety of disciplines, including early childhood education and care.

The Skinner Box

B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) was an American psychologist known for contribution to behaviorism.

Contributing further to the field of behaviourism, Skinner proposed the theory of operant conditioning – a learning process through which behaviour that’s followed by reinforcement (reward) is strengthened and hence, is more likely to happen again. Conversely, a behaviour followed by punishment is weakened and less likely to recur. His work has had a profound impact on our understanding of behaviour and its influence on learning and development.

Skinner also introduced the concept of ‘schedules of reinforcement’. This refers to strategies of enforcement in which the frequency and timing of reinforcement vary. It includes fixed-ratio, variable-ratio, fixed-interval, and variable-interval schedules – strategies that have found substantial application in different fields, including early childhood education and care.

The Notion of Positive and Negative Reinforcement

At the heart of operant conditioning lie two main tenets – positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement refers to presenting a motivating item or event after a behaviour, encouraging its repetition. For instance, rewarding a child for finishing their homework with time on their favorite game.

On the flip side, negative reinforcement involves the removal of an undesirable item or event after a behaviour, likewise promoting its recurrence. Imagine driving in any car without a seatbelt – the irritating and persistent beeping sound stops as soon as you buckle up, thus negatively reinforcing the behaviour of wearing a seatbelt.

It is crucial to note here that negative reinforcement is not punishment – it is intended to increase good behaviour, not decrease poor behaviour.

Implementation of Behaviourism in Early Childhood Education – Educational Psychology

When it comes to applying behaviourism in early childhood education, there are a variety of strategies educators can employ:

Positive and Negative Reinforcement

An understanding of reinforcement, in its positive and negative forms, aids educators in actively influencing a child’s behaviour. Positive reinforcement might involve praise or rewards for good behaviour or successful learning outcomes, while negative reinforcement is the removal of an undesirable element following appropriate behaviour.

Use of Punishment

Punishment, both positive and negative, forms part of the Behaviourism theory. Positive punishment may involve mild reprimands or loss of privileges in response to inappropriate behaviour. Negative punishment might be the removal of a favourite toy or activity. Remember, it’s essential to ensure punishments are appropriate and not detrimental to the child’s emotional health.

Structured Learning Environment

In behaviourism, a structured learning environment is key. This may include clear rules and expectations, a routine, and consistent responses to certain behaviours. From knowing what to expect, children can learn to predict consequences and alter their behaviour accordingly.

Note: While Behaviourism offers valuable techniques, it should work in conjunction with other theories for an all-encompassing approach to early childhood learning and development.

Cognitive Development: How Children Think and Learn – Educational Psychology

When it comes to understanding how children think and learn, the cognitive development theory, largely explored by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, takes centre stage. This theory, at its very core, prioritises the child’s mental growth and the stages they navigate through as their thinking evolves, paving the way for understanding, knowledge and learning.

Piaget’s cognitive development theory breaks down into four critical stages:

1. Sensorimotor Stage (0 to 2 years)

This is the first stage in a child’s cognitive development, according to Piaget. During these years, infants and toddlers learn primarily through their senses and motor activities. They begin to grasp the idea of object permanence—understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be seen, touched, or heard.

2. Preoperational Stage (2 to 7 years)

During this stage, children start to develop language and use symbols to represent objects. Children at this age tend to be egocentric, meaning they usually see things only from their perspective. They aren’t capable of logical reasoning yet, but they can use pretend play, make-believe, and imitate others.

3. Concrete Operational Stage (7 to 11 years)

At this stage, children’s thinking becomes more logical and less egocentric. They can comprehend concepts like conservation, reversibility, and cause and effect. In doing so, they start to grasp that the quantity or amount of something doesn’t change even if its appearance differs.

4. Formal Operational Stage (12 years onwards)

This is the ultimate phase of cognitive development. Here, youngsters can think abstractly and reason logically. They’re capable of hypothetical and deductive reasoning, and they can understand complex issues and situations.

Understanding these stages and applying them to teaching strategies can immensely benefit the child’s intellectual growth. Just remember, each child develops at their pace and may not strictly adhere to these stages’ age boundaries.

Constructivism: Encouraging Active Learning and Problem-Solving Skills – Educational Psychology

Constructed on the belief that knowledge is not passively received but actively built up by the learner’s experiences and ideas, constructivism invites children to be part of their learning journey. Widely accepted in early childhood education and care, the theory promotes independent thinking, active learning, and problem-solving skills in young learners.

From the constructivist perspective, understanding comes from interacting with the environment and reflecting on these experiences. A child’s learning, therefore, integrates new information with prior knowledge, leading to a continually evolving understanding of the world.

You, as an educator or parent, might have noticed that children often learn better when they actively explore their environment and interact with real-world challenges. That’s constructivist learning in action, your child is building their understanding through experience and reflection.

There are two central sub-theories within constructivism: cognitive constructivism and social constructivism.

Cognitive Constructivism

Cognitive constructivism emphasises the individual learner’s construction of knowledge. It is built on Piaget’s theory of cognitive development that each child going through development stages will develop, organise, and use their ‘schema’ – cognitive frameworks that help them interpret their world.

This constructivist approach supports learners as they create meaningful interpretations of their world, through active involvement and interaction with their surroundings.

Social Constructivism

On the other hand, Social constructivism, derived from the work of Vygotsky, places more emphasis on learning as a social process. It states that learning happens when children engage in social activities and dialogue, and that learning and development are interrelated processes.

By participating in conversations and collaborative activities with more experienced individuals (like parents, teachers, or older peers), children can reach higher levels of performance and understanding than they could on their own.

Implementing constructivism in early childhood education and care can be incredibly fulfilling. You’ll see your children exploring their environment, asking questions, figuring things out for themselves, and applying their newfound knowledge in different contexts. Over time, this process nurtures independent thinking, enhances problem-solving skills, and prepares them for lifelong learning.

Implementation of Constructivism in Early Childhood Education

The implementation of constructivism theory in early childhood education primarily involves facilitating an experience-based learning environment. It’s a shift from the traditional method of rote memorisation to a more interactive setup, where children actively construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world around them.

What this means in practicality is that educational settings are crafted with rich opportunities for exploration and discovery, encouraging children to question, brainstorm, and get hands-on with their surroundings. Children are encouraged to make decisions, solve problems and think critically. This actively engages them in the learning process, shifting it from passive reception of information to active participation and interaction.

Tools used in a Constructivist Learning Environment

Constructivist teaching leverages a variety of tools to stimulate a child’s curiosity and promote self-learning. Important tools include:

Interactive Materials

These are the items that a child can manipulate physically. Examples include building blocks, puzzles, and arts-and-crafts supplies. By interacting with these materials, children gain a greater understanding of their environment and learn fundamental concepts such as shapes, numbers, and patterns.

Technological Tools

In today’s increasingly digitised world, various technological tools, such as tablets and interactive whiteboards, are being used to facilitate learning. These tools not only engage children but also provide a platform for them to explore and learn at their own pace. Technology can offer interactive games and applications that teach different subjects, fostering independent discovery and problem-solving skills.

Real-World Scenarios

A constructivist approach often incorporates real-world examples to make learning more relatable and effective. From field trips to shops for understanding numbers and money to nature walks for learning about the environment, real-world scenarios play a significant role in constructivist learning.

The Role of The Teacher

While the tools mentioned above are crucial in a constructivist environment, perhaps the most significant ‘tool’ is the teacher. The role of the teacher in a constructivist classroom is not just to disseminate information, but to guide students, stimulate curiosity, promote questioning, and facilitate problem-solving.

Social Learning: The Power of Observing and Modeling Behaviours – Educational Psychology

Next, lets examine social learning theory, also known as observational learning, strongly influenced by the work of psychologist Albert Bandura. This approach suggests that learning occurs through the observation and replication of others’ behaviour. You may have noticed this phenomenon when a child copies an adult’s action, such as sweeping the floor with a toy broom or “talking” on a toy phone. This is social learning in action.

According to Bandura, there are four components to learning through observation:

We see: 

First and foremost, according to Bandura, watching others is a key component of learning new behaviours. This process can happen unintentionally or intentionally, such as in a classroom when a teacher demonstrates a new skill or behaviour for students to imitate.

We retain:

Observation does not equate to learning on its own. We must also remember what we’ve observed. Memory is, therefore, a critical element in the learning process. Methods, such as repetition and revisiting the observed behaviours, are often used to ensure that what has been learnt is retained.

We recreate:

Subsequently, the theoretical knowledge gained from observing is of no use until we are able to put it into practice. Thus, the third step involves translating these theoretical observations into practical actions. With practice and persistence, the observed behaviour becomes part of our skills set, improving over time through constant repetition and refinement.

We are motivated:

Finally, motivation plays a crucial role in learning through observation. Without the desire or reasons to replicate a behaviour, our observations, memory and practice will be of no avail, as we fail to internalize the behaviour.

In conclusion, the framework provided by Bandura’s social learning theory guides how educators design and implement lessons, strategise reinforcement, and evaluate students’ progress. It reminds us that learning is not a singular occurrence but an ongoing process, focusing on feedback, reflection, and constant adaptation.

Multiple Intelligences: Recognizing and Nurturing Different Learning Styles – Educational Psychology

Howard Gardener proposed an intriguing idea that broke the long-standing paradigm of intelligence being a singular entity. His groundbreaking theory proposed that children (and adults) are not simply ‘smart’ or ‘not smart’. Instead, he suggested that there are multiple ways individuals can be intelligent, hence the concept of Multiple Intelligences was born. The five key intelligences Gardener identified are:

Gardner provided a means of mapping the broad range of abilities that humans possess by grouping their capabili-
ties into the following eight comprehensive “intelligences” (Armstrong, 2017).

These eight comprehensive intelligences do not exist in isolation, but interplay in powerful combinations that make each person unique in their learning style. This is especially relevant in early childhood, where development is rapid and individual traits begin to significantly emerge. These intelligences include:

Linguistic Intelligence: This refers to a child’s ability to think in words, utilise language to express and appreciate complex meanings, and effectively use language to achieve their goals. It’s easily noticeable in children who enjoy stories, like to read, write, tell jokes or debate.

Logical-Mathematical Intelligence: This is associated with reasoning, calculating, problem-solving and abstract, complex thinking. You’ll find this type of intelligence in children who easily understand numbers, patterns, and logical puzzles.

Spatial Intelligence: It is about perceiving the visual world accurately, performing transformations and modifications upon one’s initial perceptions, and being able to re-create aspects of one’s visual experience. Children with this type of intelligence tend to enjoy puzzles, drawing, and constructing things.

Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence: It involves using one’s body to solve problems or create products. These children are often strong in physical activities such as sports, dance or drama.

Musical Intelligence: This intelligence is about sensitivity to rhythm, pitch, and timbre. Children with high musical intelligence may be constantly singing, tapping their foot, or drumming their fingers.

Interpersonal Intelligence: It involves understanding people’s intentions, emotions, motivations, and their desire for social interaction. It’s prevalent in children who are leaders among their peers, empathetic, communicators and mediators.

Intrapersonal Intelligence: This relates to self-reflection and an inner understanding of oneself. Children with a high level of this intelligence are usually introspective, often focused on their thoughts and feelings.

Naturalistic Intelligence: This type of Intelligence is about understanding and nurturing the natural environment. It shines in children who are interested in animals, plant life and are aware of the nature around them.

Identifying these facets of intelligence in every child provides the opportunity to nurture their dominant areas while also developing the others. It ensures a well-rounded, confident learner who can work effectively in different environments, and with various materials and groups of people. The resulting prolific learning outcomes justify the integration of this theory in early childhood education.

Applying Educational Psychology Theories in Early Childhood Education and Care

After understanding the five major educational psychology theories, it’s important to apply these within the framework of early childhood education and care. This application combines theory with practical technique to create high-quality, developmental experiences for young children.

Let’s start with behaviourism. This theory, focusing on observable behaviours, can be applied within classrooms by incorporating structured rewards and punishments. Teachers can engage in behaviour shaping techniques, such as giving stars for completed tasks, to encourage positive behaviours while discouraging negative ones.

Next up is cognitive development. Remember Piaget’s stages? Those can be applied by providing age-appropriate activities to support learning. A teacher could provide hands-on activities or puzzles to challenge cognitive abilities and foster growth within the stages of cognitive development.

Constructivism allows for the application of more active learning and problem-solving techniques. Teachers can encourage children to question, explore, and solve problems, helping to build their critical thinking capabilities.

In line with social learning, educators can model behaviours and perform role-play scenarios with children, allowing them to learn novel behaviours through observation. For example, showing children how to negotiate toy-sharing conflicts or demonstrating manners during snack time.

Finally, using multiple intelligences theory, teachers can create diverse activities suited to varying learning styles. For instance, incorporating music, art, games, or even outdoor educational activities can cater to different intelligences, ensuring all children are engaged with learning in a way that’s most effective for them.

Through these ways, educational psychology theories transition seamlessly into everyday education practices. Applying these theories in a practical and applicable manner helps children develop important skills, grow emotionally, cognitively and socially, while fostering a love for lifelong learning.

P.S. Are you interested in developmental psychology? Want to learn more on developmental theories through case studies and practical examples? You will love this 1 hour professional development course with a certificate, 90% subsidied for TeachKloud readers, here.

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