Understanding the Concept of Intentional Teaching in Early Childhood Classrooms

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What Is It?

By definition, to be intentional means to act purposefully with a goal in mind and to have a plan for accomplishing it. Intentional teaching means that teachers act with specific goals in mind for the children in their care and set up the environment accordingly. Intentional teachers have a vast understanding of child development. They must also have a wide range of instructional strategies and know which strategies work best to teach which academic or developmental concept.

Strategies for the Early Childhood Classroom

Many early childhood educators believe that children learn best through child-guided activities, where the children are free to explore and manipulate materials and acquire skills through their own experiences. While this may be true for many early childhood milestones, intentional teaching in early childhood classrooms also hinges on the belief that a fair amount of adult-guided experiences are necessary. In adult-guided experiences, teachers set up experiences where they present information, model skills, and guide the learning toward a specific academic goal. A good balance must be struck between these two types of learning.

Mastery of any skill usually comes from a healthy dose of each type of classroom experience. It is almost impossible to create a lesson plan that includes intentional teaching techniques because most of the teachable moments in a classroom must be observed as they are happening.

  • For example, two children are exploring a bucket of beads. They spontaneously make the decision to split the beads in half between the two of them. Experts in intentional teaching in early childhood will spot this as a teachable moment and step in to moderate. The teacher may watch while the children try to split the beads evenly by eyeballing their piles. If the children are not satisfied by this, the teacher may suggest that each child count the number of beads in his pile, giving guidance when necessary. She will provide help as the children need to add or subtract beads from each pile.

It is not possible, nor is it recommended, to plan every lesson with an adult-guided teachable moment. It is possible, however, to have several short activities strategically placed in your lesson plan that will mostly likely produce opportunities for adult-guided teachable moments.

  • For example, a morning “sign-in” routine for the children will provide an opportunity for a teacher to interact with each child one on one. A good sign-in activity might be creating something for the children to vote on, perhaps a name for a class pet. As each child enters the classroom, guide the child into choosing his favorite name from a narrowed list of three or four. Have the child “cast her ballot” by inserting a Popsicle stick with the pet name on it into a shoe box. After each child has voted, bring the filled shoe box to your morning large group circle time. Create a chart with the pet name choices on it. Remove each vote from the shoe box one at a time, and make a mark in the correct place on the chart for each vote. Have children help you with counting the votes, making the marks, and deciding on a winner based on the number of votes.

Adult-Guided Versus Teacher-Directed

The vocabulary used when discussing intentional teaching techniques includes the phrases “adult-guided” and “child-guided.” How does this differ from the more traditional vocabulary of “teacher-directed” and “child-centered”?

  • Child-guided means that the activity will proceed primarily along the lines of the child’s interest, with strategic support by the teacher. In other words, the child is steering the ship, and the teacher is only there to make sure the ship does not capsize.
  • Adult-guided activities proceed along the lines of the teacher’s goals, but will not be successful without active child participation.