Early Childhood Process Skills in the Classroom

Jean Piaget describes four stages of children’s thinking. During each stage, children’s thinking evolves as they construct an understanding of people, objects, and real life experiences. Between the ages of 6-8 most children move from pre-operational to concrete-operational thinking.

Pre-Operational Thinking: Children rely principally on sensory experience for reflecting and acquiring knowledge. Their perceptions are based on first hand experiences. They tend to be more interested in “the process” than “the product.”

Concrete-Operational Thinking: Children begin to classify in terms of hierarchical relationships (e.g., both fish and birds are animals). They explore objects visually rather than manually. Most first and second grade children have the capacity for abstract thinking as long as it pertains to something they have directly experienced. They are able to make comparisons with their own experiences. Although they learn best through concrete experiences, they can utilize books as an additional source of information. While these children have a deepening ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality, they enjoy pretending and acting out stories.

Many factors influence a child’s ability to acquire critical thinking skills, and all of them have a profound impact on the child’s perceptions. Some include:

  • child’s culture
  • child’s community type
  • structure of the child’s family
  • child’s ordinal position
  • number of siblings in the family
  • locations the child has lived
  • child’s experiences
  • economic position and stability of the child’s family
  • child’s health
  • child’s exposure to stress, violence, or abuse
  • disabilities faced by the child

It is important to understand child development and to recognize each child’s individual characteristics and cultural background when planning learning activities that enable children to “make sense of their world.” Children develop the skills necessary to solve real life problems and become better prepared to think for themselves when they are exposed to experiences that: 1) spark interst and curiosity, 2) integrate learning experiences, and 3) structure their thinking. As children gain confidence in their ability to reason, check, build connections, make representations, and communicate their ideas with others, they assume more responsibility for their own thinking.

Planning integrated units based upon developmentally appropriate process skills enables teachers to teach core concepts in far greater depth and with natural connections between content areas. Process skills by nature are cross-curricular and promote reading, writing, and math concepts. The following process skills are emphasized in the early childhood classroom.

  1. Symbolization—Students use symbols to represent an idea
    Teachers readily identify students who are responding to symbols in the world around them. These students recognize symbols such as the school bell, a whistle, or a secret word. Upon entering school, children learn to identify their name as a symbol for them. They also learn that numbers are used as symbols for age, quantity, and ordinal positions. Later, students learn to write equations as symbols for real life problems and to make models or drawings of actual items and drawings representing the sequence of events.
  2. Observation—Students use senses to learn about something in detail
    In kindergarten, students learn to use their five senses to make observations and to use sense-enhancing tools to enrich their observations. Content vocabulary grows as students identify the properties of objects (color, shape, size, texture) and their changes over time. Observations are further enhanced as students measure and use numbers to describe observations accentuating natural math connections.
  3. Description—Students verbally portrays attributes of an object, person, scene, or event
    As students orally describe their observations, content vocabulary increases. Students learn to use accurate details and to compare similarities and differences. Detailed descriptions are strengthened as children pause frequently to orally describe attributes as they make drawings or label pictures.
  4. Prediction—Students describe expected event or outcome based upon evidence
    Recognizing and extending patterns are prerequisite skills for prediction. Students will make simple predictions based on prior knowledge and observable evidence. They should show reasoning when creating and defending their prediction. In language arts, students enjoy citing evidence in the text or illustrations with sticky notes. Students learn to collect data in order to communicate their reasoning with others. This data may take the form of graphs, tables, Venn diagrams, or graphic organizers that facilitate drawing conclusions and making predictions based upon evidence.
  5. Data Collection and Interpretation—Students gather and organize information, and explain the meaning or conclusion drawn from the facts
    Students gather data systematically and record it in an organized way (charts, real/symbolic graphs, content webs, KWL charts, interviews, etc.) Students describe and compare data in their own words. As students learn to interpret data, they explain the meaning or conclusions drawn from the facts they have collected. Students use appropriate information in making inferences and are able to distinguish essential from nonessential information. Students communicate ideas based on prior knowledge as well as observations, and they show reasoning skills in creating and defending inferences.
  6. Investigation—Students seek information about a subject
    Interest and curiosity are wonderful attributes found in the successful early childhood classroom. The Big 6 format provides an excellent training ground for teaching students how to investigate topics interesting to them. Students are encouraged to ask questions and discuss observations with other students. Children suggest ideas for experiments, topics for research, and resources to acquire more information. Mentors, books, and technology are helpful in gaining information and investigating possible relationships. In the early childhood classroom, students learn to observe and record information systematically. They use senseenhancing tools, measuring tools, field guides, and resource books. In addition, they learn how to consult experts.
  7. Classification—Students arrange objects into groups with common attributes and label each group
    Students show readiness for classification activities as they are able to identify similarities and differences in attributes. They learn to identify attributes of an object. Soon students are sorting objects according to those attributes. Later they classify objects by their attributes in multiple ways. Students form sub-groups and enjoy generating names for sorting categories.
  8. Segmentation and Blending—Students separate or join parts of a whole, or place parts in a sequence
    The ability to segment and blend is essential to both literacy and mathematical development. Students need many opportunities to segment objects into parts (e.g., identify parts of the body, parts of a word, or parts of set). Students will learn to use ordinal numbers as they sequence a task into steps or describe the first and last sounds heard in words. The ability to join parts of a whole is an essential skill when combining sounds of letters to make words or combining sets to form a sum.
  9. Problem Solving—Students generate a strategy to work out a solution
    Problem solving is a critical thinking skill in every content area. Students will learn to identify a question, problem, or conflict. They will generate potential strategies to work out a solution, try out the strategy, state the results, and then evaluate the outcome.
  10. Form Conclusions—Students identify the main idea, generalize results, or retell events
    Students use prior knowledge of context to give explanations as to why they think something has happened or why they agree/disagree with the explanation from someone else. In language arts, students will establish relationships between the characters, text to self, and text to text. As students mature, they are able use information in other situations and to discuss potential alternatives.

*Refer to the Process Skill Planning Form (pdf) for help planning integrated units based on developmentally appropriate process skills.

Additional Information

© 2003, Elementary CORE Academy, Utah State Board of Education, Utah State University. Artwork created by Nancy Bittner