Competency Based Early Childhood Learning

Competency Based Early Childhood Learning

They come in many shapes, sizes, and colors.   Some have experienced rich and interesting learning experiences at home, with movement, play, interactive language experiences, nature, safety, connection, and high-quality family routines.  Others have experienced less fortunate early childhood years, without secure attachments, safety and connection, good nutrition and rest, and without enriched learning opportunities.  These different patterns account for some of the differences in readiness for school when children begin preschool or kindergarten.

Additional differences in school readiness are based on the 12 month age difference amongst incoming students.  Gender is associated with different levels of language skills, visual-motor skills, and social readiness.  Different learning needs may be associated with varied levels of oral language development, second language learners, kids who have never owned a box of crayons, never used a scissors for projects, or never played a musical instrument.  Some neurodiversity rises to the level of diagnosis, but so much of the diversity amongst children when they come to school comes unlabeled.

And then they come to the typical school, that place in which all students are expected to be ready for grade-level content standards to be covered and tested in a time-limited learning system.  One-size-fits-all instruction and testing quickly sorts kids into winners and losers.  By the end of third grade, the last of the early childhood years, children have settled into patterns of learning that usually persist for life.

The National Assessment for Educational Progress has consistently found that about 34% of American students are at proficient reading levels by the beginning of fourth grade, leaving 66% reading at non-proficient levels as they move ahead into the upper grades.  Poor kids do worse on average, with only 20% of children who are eligible for free or reduced lunch reading proficiently.  In some poor, typically urban schools fewer than 10% are proficient at reading and math by fourth grade, and yet these kids are pushed forward by the demand of a one-size-fits-all educational model to work within a curriculum that was designed for kids who are fully proficient in the learning content and skills that were “covered” in previous school years.

Fortunately, there is an emerging alternative which embraces young learners with whatever learning needs they have: competency based learning.

Many universities are moving quickly toward competency based learning, following the lead of Western Governors University, Capella, and others.  New Hampshire and Maine led the way toward competency based high school graduation systems which replaced antiquated course and Carnegie credit requirements.

A small but growing number of early childhood programs in Michigan, Mississippi, and around the world are using the Essential Skill Inventories as a PK to Grade 3 competency framework.  These inventories identify the foundation skills which students must deeply understand and be able to use to allow continued progress toward higher levels of learning.    For these skills students will be given instruction at their personal level of readiness for as long as necessary to achieve complete competency.  If a student is not ready for a grade level skill or concept, it may be necessary to step back to a more basic level of learning.  The golden rule in a competency based system is to give the child what she needs, at her level of readiness, for as long as needed.

No more one-size-fits all.  The systems architecture for a competency based learning design offers a new model for learning.

As applied in the Early Learning Success Initiative, competency based learning recommends:

  • Students advance upon mastery, not time.
  • At the same age, all students are not alike in their experiences, rates of development, and learning readiness.
  • Students receive instruction and support based on need, not based on age or a pacing guide.
  • All students learn better when offered instruction at a level of challenge that allows for high rates of success.
  • Students work better in a community in which they feel safe and connected to others.

A competency based learning system is designed to embrace neurodiverse learners because neurodiversity is the norm.  Any notion that all students of the same age have exactly the same learning needs should have been debunked long ago.  During the early childhood learning years it is especially important to avoid pushing children into patterns of frustration and failure from which they may never emerge.

In the age of information, technology, and the rapid exchange of ideas, learning matters for all our students.  Competency based learning makes personalized learning the norm, allowing students to be successful learners and fall in love with learning, at their own pace and in their own way.


Bob Sornson is an award-winning author and international consultant whose work focuses on competency based learning, early learning success, and parent education. He works internationally with school districts, universities and parent organizations. His many books include Over-Tested and Under-Prepared: Using Competency Based Learning to Transform Our Schools (Routledge), Fanatically Formative (Corwin Press), and Essential Math Skills: Pre-K to Grade 3 (Shell Education). Contact