Jie-Qi Chen, PhD, elected to NAEYC governing board

Erikson’s senior vice president and dean of faculty has approached her work over three decades with a cross-cultural perspective and deep knowledge of child development and early education.

Throughout her 30-year career, Jie-Qi has had one primary focus: improving the quality of early childhood education.

Whether working directly with children as a classroom teacher, conducting applied child development research, or improving teacher education and practice through her leadership roles at Erikson Institute, Dr. Chen has always strived to make sure all children have access to and benefit from high-quality, developmentally appropriate education.

As Erikson’s senior vice president and dean of faculty, Dr. Chen supports the faculty and staff to provide graduate students an education that responds to the needs of their chosen field: child development, early childhood education, or social work. And as founder of Erikson’s Early Math Collaborative, she has been at the forefront of a movement to help teachers of young children better understand and teach foundational math concepts.

Now, she has been elected to the governing board of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) as an at-large member, contributing her expertise to support early childhood teachers and promote high-quality early education across the country.

“Improving early education also means transforming the early childhood workforce,” Dr. Chen says. “Early childhood teachers are the least paid, least respected, and least educated professionals in the field of education. To elevate the status of the early childhood workforce, we must mobilize society — not just educators. After all, it does not matter what kind of technology we have or what a great curriculum we have. If we don’t have teachers who love children and provide a nurturing and intellectually stimulating environment, tools are just tools. Improving the quality of early childhood workforce is exactly what we do at Erikson, and is one of NAEYC’s goals.”

Dr. Chen recently discussed her long, influential career and her perspectives on early childhood education.

The importance of the early years

One of my earliest and most influential life experiences happened when I turned 17. I was born and raised in a big city in China, but because of China’s serious political turmoil at that time, high school students were sent to villages to work. The village I was sent to was very poor, and I was asked to be a teacher for the village school. My first students were a wonderful mixed group of kindergarten, first-grade, and second-grade children. The parents of these students were peasants who lived in the village. They were so poor that they had to sell their blood to get money to buy groceries. Despite their lack of money and resources, it was very important to them to send their kids to school. I was deeply moved by their dedication to make sure their children got an education. I will never forget my meetings with theses parents, they would say to me with determination and hope, “I want my children to know how to read.” They instinctively knew that these critical foundational skills — like reading —would pave the way for their children to have more opportunities as they moved through life.

To use a simple analogy, if you want to build a good house you have to have a solid foundation, and that is what we are doing during the early years.

There is endless research that indicates the early years have the strongest predictable power for development of a child’s knowledge and skills. If children have positive early experiences, there is a better chance they will see positive development and have better outcomes later in life. The early years, from birth to age 8, are a time when children develop certain dispositions, like the characteristics of being curious, exploratory, passionate, kind, and empathetic, as well as collaborative, persistent, and self-regulated. All these dispositions are really lifelong skills for anyone’s development.

A couple of years ago, I went back to the village in China where I was a teacher, and many of the same people still lived there, although their children had moved away. The village itself had changed a lot, but the people still remembered the things I did for their children. That is something I will never forget.

A cross-cultural perspective on early childhood

Because I spend much of my time in both the United States and China, my unique perspective is shaped by Western and Eastern cultural traditions.

From the Eastern perspective, particularly Confucian culture, the value of family is really ingrained in me. Individuals can have very different experiences from one another, but a common factor of all humans is that we have family. I’m not just talking about blood relatives. Family, in my mind, is really about how we work together to accomplish common goals. This idea affects my thinking about working with colleagues and students —we support one another. Their happiness is your happiness, and by the same token, your happiness is their happiness.

One Western influence to my thinking is about individuality: Individual rights and individual differences, and the idea that we must understand and respect those differences. I worked for many years with Howard Gardner, one of most distinguished professors at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who developed the theory of multiple intelligences. This theory claims that we are smart in many different ways and that there isn’t a single “intelligence quotient” to describe our cognitive abilities. For example, some people have strong linguistic intelligence or music intelligence and so on. We all possess different intelligences, but they manifest differently in each person. There are multiple ways of learning, doing, and succeeding, and we all have our strengths and weaknesses.

The Western and Eastern parts come together because I believe in working together to build on people’s strengths. In other words, we all work together to contribute to a common good but in very different ways.

China and the United States can learn a lot from each other. Chinese early childhood educators, for example, are interested in our child development research. America is doing a fairly good job to study what children know and how they develop. Based on this research, NAEYC proposed the idea of developmentally appropriate practice 30 years ago, and that has become a golden standard for early education worldwide.

In China, the teaching profession is rooted in the concept of family. Teacher collaboration is stronger than what we have here in America, particularly in terms of center- or site-based professional development. Ongoing professional development needs to happen in schools — that doesn’t happen enough in the United States. All teachers and administrators in a school need to work together and be committed to the same goal. Also in China, teachers in the public sector can advance to different professional rankings by meeting certain criteria, such as earning advanced degrees, participating in professional development sessions, engaging in action research, and assuming leadership positions. Your salary is determined by these criteria. That motivates teachers to climb the professional ladder. If you tell people, “I’m a master teacher,” they know what that means. It also builds parents’ confidence in their children’s teachers.

Reducing anxiety in STEM education

Around 2007, there was a meta-analysis of six longitudinal studies of academic skills among children in kindergarten through eighth grade. This analysis showed that early reading skills predicted later reading performance and early math skills predict later math performance. What was surprising, though, was that it found that early math skills also predict later reading performance — yet early reading skills did not predict later math performance.

Simultaneously, Barbara Bowman was the chief early childhood education officer for the Chicago Public Schools, and she asked me to survey her teachers about their curriculum. I worked with my colleague Jennifer McCray to designed a survey focused only on math, and we learned that a large proportion of teachers said that they did not like math yet still felt confident teaching it. Ninety-three percent of teachers said they wanted early math professional development. Both of these studies served as catalysts for creating Erikson’s Early Math Collaborative. We responded to the research findings and needs of teachers.

A hot topic in early childhood circles today is STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math. When I discuss this topic, I stress the importance of “ABC”:

  • A, attitude — A positive attitude toward STEM activities and eagerness to participate.
  • B, belief — The belief in yourself that you have the ability and disposition to develop the skills and ability to becoming a scientist, mathematician, engineer, etc.
  • C, confidence — The confidence to work through difficulties and make an effort to complete STEM tasks.

These ABCs are formed in the early years. We see too often that adults have anxiety toward STEM, because in the early years their own “ABCs” were not fostered. Children are naturally curious about the world, but it is their environment that makes them believe they are not good or they cannot do something. Research shows that teachers pass STEM anxiety to their students, which affects performance in these subjects.

There is a cultural belief, particularly in Western countries, that intelligence is an inborn trait that is inherited from parents. We also have believed that STEM subjects are harder to learn than humanities. In reality, all children can learn these subjects if we provide education that is developmentally appropriate, helping them to develop big ideas in STEM disciplines that are suitable to their level of understanding and thinking.

When the Early Math Collaborative works with groups of teachers, the goal is to understand foundational mathematics concepts. But there are many ways we reach individual teachers, such as hands-on experiences, storytelling, math talk, and conceptual analysis. There are multiple ways to reach the same destination, and there is a parallel process in working with children. We want them to learn challenging concepts, but the way each child learns can be different. It could involve singing, writing, drawing, or dancing.

The Early Math Collaborative recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, and as the founder, I am extremely proud of the work we have done and the impact we have made. Every single person who started with the Collaborative is still here — nothing makes me more proud and gratified than this. That is why we are so strong. Together, we have developed a shared understanding of foundational mathematics. That is what family is about — we’re connected through this common goal, to change the field and change people’s ideas of what early math is about so we can better help their children.