children with disabilities (6)

Children start developing STEM concepts and skills when they are babies and they know more about STEM than you think. 

 

mythbuster logo 

Hsiuwen Yang's headshot

By Hsiu-Wen Yang,  PhD 

Postdoctoral Research Associate at STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMIE)

Chih-Ing Lim's headshotby
Chih-Ing Lim,  PhD.
Co-director of the STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMIE)

 

Myth #1: STEM is only for older students or gifted children, and it is too difficult for young children or children with disabilities to understand. 

Fact: ALL children, regardless of disability, culture, race/ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic status, have the capacity to engage in STEM learning.1,2 In fact, children start developing STEM concepts and skills when they are babies and they know more about STEM than you think.3,4 For example, babies begin by exploring the world using different sense.5 Then, they start making sense of cause and effect through play, observation, or trial and error, which lays the foundation of later STEM thinking skills and problem-solving skills. Also, several researchers have highlighted that toddlers may understand the fundamental aspect of counting, and spatial understanding years earlier than we thought.4,6

High-quality STEM learning experiences and opportunities pave the way for later success in school and in the workplace.7,8 Recognizing that children can start learning the fundamentals of STEM concepts at such a young age, it is important to ensure that young children with a wide range of abilities and from a variety of social backgrounds have access to and can fully participate in high-quality STEM learning opportunities. Children with disabilities often demonstrate a lower level of achievement in STEM not because they cannot learn STEM but because they have fewer STEM opportunities in their home or school.9 By the time children are in high school, participation of children with disabilities in STEM courses is very low.10

Taken together, these sources of evidence tell us that young children with or without disabilities can learn STEM and should not be denied opportunities to high quality early STEM learning experiences.

 

References

  1. Clements, D. H., Guernsey, L., McClure, E., Bales, S. N., Nichols, J., &  KendallTaylor, N. (2016, May  31). Fostering STEM trajectories: Background & tools for action. Paper presented at the Eponymous Meeting of New America, Washington, D.C.  https://www.newamerica.org/educationpolicy/events/fostering-stemtrajectories/https://www.newamerica.org/education-policy/events/fosteringstem-trajectories/
  2. Sarama, J., Clements, D. H., Nielsen, , Blanton,  M., Romance, N., Hoover, M., . . . McCulloch, C. (2018). Considerations for STEM education from PreK through grade  3. Retrieved from Education Development Center, Inc. website: http://cadrek12.org/resources/considerations-stem-education-prek-throughgrade-3
  3. Center for Childhood Creativity at the Bay Area Discovery Museum (2016). The Root for STEM success: Changing early learning experiences to build lifelong thinking skills. Retrieved from: http://centerforchildhoodcreativity.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2018/02/CCC_The_Roots_of_STEM_Early_Learning.pdf
  4. Wang, J. & Feigenson, L. (2019). Infants recognize counting as numerically relevant. Developmental Science, 22: e12805. https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.12805,
  5. Gopnik, A., Meltzoff, A. N., & Kuhl, P. (2000). The scientist in the crib: What early learning tells us about the mind. New York, NY:  Harper Collins.
  6. Uhlenberg, J.M., Geiken, R. (2020). Supporting Young Children’s Spatial Understanding: Examining Toddlers’ Experiences with Contents and Containers. Early Childhood Education Journal. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10643-020-01050-8
  7. Duncan, G. J., Dowsett, C. J., Claessens, A.,  Magnuson, K., Huston, A. C., Klebanov, P., . . . Japel, C. (2007).  School readiness and later achievement.  Developmental Psychology, 43(6), 1428–1446. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.43.6.1428
  8. Duncan, G. J. & Magnuson, K. (2011). The Nature and Impact of Early Achievement Skills, Attention Skills, and Behavior Problems. In G. J. Duncan and R. J. Murnane (eds.), Whither Opportunity: Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children's Life Chances. (PP. 47-69). New York, NY: Russell Sage.
  9. Institute of Medicine (IOM) and National Research Council (NRC). (2015). Transforming the workforce for children birth through age 8: A unifying foundation. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  10. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CDRC). (2018). STEM course taking. Retrieved from: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/stem-course-taking.pdf

 

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At the STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education (STEMI2E2) center, one of the first tasks we did was to take a look at what kind of research evidence exists in STEM learning and young children with disabilities. We conducted a scoping review and found that a majority of the references were related to children of preschool age (3-4 years old). Very few discussed infants/toddlers and children with disabilities.

Christine Harradine's headshot

By Christine Harradine, PhD

PD Specialist at the STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMIE)

One of the first tasks we did when we started our work a year ago was to take a look at what kind of research evidence exists in STEM learning and young children with disabilities. We conducted an extensive review of the research – called a scoping review – to see what we could find.  We searched 102 different sources such as databases, direct searches of journals, reports, conference proceedings, master’s theses, presentation transcripts, films, and dissertations) with 20 search terms.  This yielded 1,407 unique references, which two-person teams independently reviewed for exclusion based on age and topic. We ended up with 486 unique references, which we categorized in several ways.

The scoping review found that the vast majority (92.6%) of these 486 references were related to children of preschool age (3-4 years old). Very few discussed infants (1.9%) or toddlers (1%). 

We also wanted to know if these 486 references covered young children with disabilities. We allowed the search to cover STEM learning in all early care arrangements (e.g., home, child care, preschool, Head Start, etc.) for all children with and without disabilities, ages birth to five years. Only 6% (n=29) of the references we found referred to children with disabilities. 
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Perspectives: Inclusion Right from the Start

Meet Alex, a fifth-grader, who found math challenging when he was younger. But now is acing Math classes with a little help from a calculator and lots of encouragement and support from people who believe in what he CAN do.

Chih-ing lim's headshotby
Chih-Ing Lim,  PhD.
Co-director of the STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMIE)

In my blog post on September 19, 2019, I discussed the disparity in STEM learning opportunities for children with disabilities. We know from research that teaching and learning early science and math is associated with later achievement. We also have research that tells us that preschool mathematics knowledge predicts adults' earning potential (Geary et al., 2013). Given all these, why do we continue to deny children, especially those with disabilities the opportunity to develop their STEM knowledge and skills?

Meet Alex, a fifth-grader, who found math challenging when he was younger. But now he is acing Math classes with a little help from a calculator and support from people who believe in what he CAN do. In Alex’s own words, he shared, “I'm so lucky to be surrounded by people who believe in me and support me. I just wish every kid with a disability can have the same opportunities and experiences as me.”

Watch Alex in action. 

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At the STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education (STEMI2E2) center, we are developing and validating learning trajectories for science, technology, and, engineering. At the same time, we are improving existing trajectories for math. Why are learning trajectories critical to early childhood educators? Learning trajectories help educators understand how children think and learn about STEM topics and at the same time, how to support progressions in child thinking and learning.

About the Authors
Douglas H. Clements'' headshot Douglas H. Clements, Ph.D.
Dr. Clements received his PhD from the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Previously a preschool and kindergarten teacher, he has conducted funded research and published over 500 articles and books in the areas of the learning and teaching of early mathematics and computer applications in mathematics education.

Julie Sarama's headshotJulie Sarama, Ph.D.
Dr. Sarama received her PhD from the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Dr. Sarama has taught secondary mathematics and computer science, gifted math at the middle school level, preschool and kindergarten mathematics enrichment classes, and mathematics methods and content courses for elementary to secondary teachers. She designed and programmed over 50 published computer programs, including her version of Logo and Logo-based software activities (Turtle Math™, which was awarded Technology & Learning Software of the Year award, 1995, in the category "Math").

WHAT ARE LEARNING TRAJECTORIES?

Research-based learning trajectories include three parts:

  1. a goal,
  2. a developmental progression, and
  3. teaching.

The goal is grounded in content knowledge of the topic (for example science, technology, engineering, or math). To reach the goal, children learn each successive level of thinking in the developmental progression. Children move through the progression via teaching designed to build understanding and skill that enables thinking at each higher level. Teaching includes the environment, interactions, and activities. At the core of learning trajectories is children’s thinking and learning. So, their educational experiences are sure to be developmentally appropriate.

EXAMPLE

For example, we know that most young children learn to keep one-to-one correspondence up to about 5 objects in a line before they learn that the last counting word tells how many in the set the counting, and only later how to keep one-to-one correspondence in unordered sets of objects. This is just a small section of the developmental progression for counting illustrating how it can help sharpen our observation skills and help us plan informal and more intentional activities.
As this example suggests, learning trajectories are well developed in mathematics (and some non-STEM fields such as literacy). But we are also learning how children develop and understanding of science and engineering concepts. So learning trajectories can guide teaching in all STEM domains.

PRACTICE POTENTIAL FOR YOUNG CHILDREN WITH DISABILITIES

For early childhood educators, assessing, understanding, and teaching with learning trajectories based on the developmental sequences described here is especially important for children with disabilities. Children with disabilities might be operating at levels different from their peers. They may be at quite different levels in one topic (say, counting) than others (such as geometry). Because learning trajectories offer several “ways into” important topics like arithmetic (e.g., counting, subitizing, partitioning), children can build on their strengths. At the same time, they can make developmental progress in other topics. Also, learning trajectories’ levels are broader ways of thinking (e.g., to get to the next level), rather than narrower skills. So, children can both learn and show competencies in each level using a variety of modalities and representations. Most importantly, learning trajectories can be aligned with formative assessment and the Individualized Education Program (IEP) or the Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) process.

Most early childhood professionals agree in general with the notion of “meeting each child where they are.” But, in STEM fields especially, few have been supported in understanding a developmental (formative) path that:

  1. describes and explains where children’s level of thinking is,
  2. what the next challenging, but achievable, level is, and
  3. how to support, children, including making accommodations and modifications for
    those with disabilities, to accomplish their goals.

 

Formative Assessment
(Strategy) 

Learning Trajectories
(Technique)

Where are you trying to go?

Goal

Where are you now?

Developmental Progression

How do you get there?

Teaching (activities)

 

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Children can develop the foundations for STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) learning right from infancy. Yet children with developmental delays and disabilities are especially denied opportunities to learn STEM.  By the time children get to high school, the disparity in STEM learning is very obvious (see chart below).  Data from the Department of Education show a large disparity in enrollment in STEM courses between high school students with (IDEA) and without a disability.

Chih-ing lim's headshotby
Chih-Ing Lim,  PhD.
Co-director of the STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMIE)

For us as a field, this presents opportunity for improvement in early childhood STEM learning. We know preschoolers’ free play involves STEM skills as they explore patterns and shapes; engineer with various materials; and explore scientific concepts. Even infants and toddlers’ exploration of the world around them is STEM-related — as they experiment with concepts of cause and effect, shapes, and experience with their senses. We also know families are children's first and longest lasting teachers. Families are more likely to implement and use intervention practices when they understand the benefits. Yet, how do we move the dial more toward including young children with disabilities in STEM learning? One way is to center instruction around learning trajectories or developmental progression. We’ll talk about the process more in future posts. Doing so focuses practitioners’ attention on children’s thinking and learning rather than their memberships in diverse groups (e.g., racially, ability). Using learning trajectories also helps avoid perceptions that can negatively affect early childhood STEM teaching and learning.


US department of education data that illustrates the percent of high school students enrolled in STEM courses

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Technical Assistance Specialist at STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMIE)
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