Preschool Matters Today

Rethinking the Numbers

February 17, 2017
Jim Squires, Ph.D.

There is general agreement on the key features that contribute to high-quality, effective education programs. These features or “quality standards” (Barnett et al., 2016) can be viewed as necessary but not sufficient, in part because they are interdependent, one reason that some have referred them as “essential elements”  (Minervino, 2015). These research-based elements have found their way into national and state program requirements, state licensing regulations, quality rating standards, accreditation criteria, and teacher licensure standards.

Two areas of common agreement stand out as being ripe for additional research and reconsideration—group size and adult-child ratios. Group size standards tend to vary based solely on the age level of children enrolled (i.e., six infants, 10 toddlers, 20 preschoolers) and the same holds true for adult-child ratio (i.e., 1:3 infants, 1:4 toddlers, 1:10 preschoolers). These standards consider the developmental expectations of typically developing children based on age, and maximum limits to ensure appropriate, individualized interactions for supporting children’s growth and learning. Still, they neglect a very important reality.

Not all four-year-olds are the same. They bring different attributes which impact their learning abilities, regardless of age. Special health needs, disabilities, social-emotional challenges, living in poverty or with toxic stress, cultural and linguistic differences, and other factors are known to potentially interfere with children’s ability to fully engage in and benefit from early learning environments, even programs many consider to be high-quality. Similarly, not all four-year-old classrooms are identical. A class composed of 20 typically developing, upper-middle income children presents a different scenario than a class of 20 four-year-olds where two have physical disabilities, four are English language learners, two exhibit severe emotional stress, and half live in poverty. Fortunately for children, many of the challenges posed by such factors can be mitigated by having unhurried, differentiated interactions with highly-skilled professionals, but it requires more of the teacher’s time to individualize and interact with diverse needs children.

Research on group size and adult-child ratio has been extensive and generally conclusive, however scant evidence examining these elements through the lens of diverse enrollment in inclusive classrooms can be found. In my opinion, policies or guidelines for maximum group size and adult-child ratio requirements should not ignore the realities of inclusive early childhood classrooms where more intensive intervention and individualized interactions are needed. School funding policies recognize increased costs associated with higher need children through weighted per-child funding. Perhaps it is time for group size and adult-child ratios for inclusive early childhood classrooms to take a second look. Policies should not be based on conjecture or opinion, however, which points the arrow in the direction of needing stronger research for policy to keep pace with reality and science.

If and when research supports variable group size and adult-child ratios based on classroom composition, we would be wise to rethink our numbers and actions. We may see recommendations for smaller class size and improved adult-child ratios, and consider formulaic parity allowing programs to serve fewer children in inclusive settings with reduced adult-child ratios without financial penalty. The students and teachers in the classroom should drive the educational environment rather than the square footage of the space or pushing the limits of regulations.

Additional research is needed to support any changes in class size and ratio limits, especially for our increasingly diverse, inclusive classrooms. Still, we should never lose sight that the key to successful early learning is for every child to unhurriedly interact with and learn from excellent, responsive teachers, every day.


Dr. Squires, a senior research fellow at NIEER, conducts research on national early education policy and practices, focusing on prekindergarten through third grade with an emphasis on school readiness. His work at NIEER involves monitoring trends in early childhood policy, regulation, and funding across several target states; serving as a liaison to states to collect data for the annual State Preschool Yearbook; and providing technical assistance. He also serves on the leadership team for the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO).