The Competence Model

By Karen Robinette, Head Teacher, and Beverley Hartman, Head Teacher and Director of the Bing Institute

Edith Dowley, the founding director of Bing Nursery School, called upon teachers to consider the children in our programs as “honored guests.” Her ideas on how to accomplish this have permeated every aspect of the program, curriculum and culture at the school since its beginning in 1966. This one simple phrase challenges us to accept and value children for who they are and to focus on their competences rather than highlight their deficiencies.

The effects of shaping school into a place where children are respected, accepted and viewed as competent—now known as the competence model of teaching—start even before children enter Bing. They begin when prospective parents first tour the school to learn about our philosophy and program offerings. The school values parents as capable partners in the development of their children. This lies in sharp contrast to the tendency at some schools to view parents as the root cause of any problems that arise.

Once a child enters the program, the school takes further steps to solidify this collegial relationship. For example, a developmental history meeting takes place between the teacher and parent to give the teacher a more complete understanding of the new member of the classroom. This dialogue forms the basis for the child’s positive entry into the program. For example, learning a child’s play interests at the developmental history interview will assist the teachers who prepare the curriculum and environment. If a teacher knows that Paulina loves animals and is a good caregiver to them, the teacher will capitalize on Paulina’s interests by inviting her to assist with the care of the classroom pets. This focus on each child’s competences will likely smooth the transition into the school setting.

It is essential for teachers to establish a trustworthy and safe bond with each child in the program. Relationships form the foundation for all that can be done to support young children in their introduction to group life and early education. Often, teachers are a child’s first friends at school. Teachers can build on this relationship to let children know that we respect them and accept them as they are. We want each child to feel full membership in the group. This forms the basis for an inclusive model where everyone is valued and accepted. As Fred Rogers, the creator and host of the children’s television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, so eloquently stated: “People can like you exactly as you are.”

The overall philosophy at Bing is play-based and child-centered and is designed to meet the developmental needs of young children. The concept of children as “honored guests” is apparent when children enter the classroom and are each greeted warmly by a teacher, as one would when greeting a special guest in the home. The environment is prepared thoughtfully too, as one would expect the space to appear for an “honored guest.”

Dowley designed Bing to offer a safe and stimulating environment that highlights the competences for all children. Her intention was to enable freedom of movement and freedom of choice. When planning and guiding activities at Bing, children’s safety came first and foremost, and still does. Dowley planned for the spaces to accommodate a range of abilities and was a visionary in making the school handicapped accessible, even before laws were enacted requiring this feature. The play yards that Dowley configured reflect her desire for the learning environments to give back to children some of the qualities of life that modern society has tended to take away. For example, a natural setting that included expansive spaces, adequate time to explore the environment and to enable freedom of movement and freedom of choice for the young child.

The classrooms at Bing are all equipped with furnishings and materials that fit the scale of a young child’s body for ease of participation. Specific areas within the environment are designed to promote a particular activity or use of material. For example, the block areas are carpeted and feature shelves of organized unit blocks. Each area of the indoor and outdoor classroom environment is organized to provide opportunities that follow children’s typical play interests, promote skill development and embody the school philosophy. The visual plane is designed to allow the child to see the full range of options from just about anywhere inside or outdoors.

Children need ample time to become invested in the array of materials, activities and social experiences available. An “honored guest” is not rushed, but given the chance to become invested in what interests them. During children’s extended, uninterrupted play, they engage in ways that integrate their physical, social, emotional and cognitive domains. Their capabilities are evident as they gravitate toward opportunities that reveal their interests. For instance, a child may have a depth of knowledge in a particular area, such as trucks. That child may become the “resident expert” in all matters relating to trucks and may be sought out by others who have similar interests and seek to learn more. It is gratifying to be acknowledged for the competences that we possess.

The play-based, child-centered curriculum at Bing uses open-ended, basic materials such as blocks, clay, paint, sand and water. These are materials that do not have a prescribed use. Children begin to use these materials as soon as they enter the classroom and become more skilled with repeated opportunities to explore them. The nature of these materials allows for risk taking, challenges and experimentation. These materials build upon a child’s strengths, interests and abilities and focus attention on what they can do.

Teachers often encourage a child’s participation by capitalizing on the child’s interests—smiling and inviting the child by name to engage in an activity they’re curious about. Specific comments about a child’s work also support children’s efforts. For example, rather than saying “That is a nice painting,” more specific feedback such as “I see you are making brush strokes vertically, up and down on the paper,” demonstrates that the teacher is attending and noticing the child’s competence at the easel.

Showing children that they care about their opinions is another way teachers honor them and support their development. Asking children open-ended questions, those that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer, encourages focused thinking and discussion. When teachers and parents assume this role of a caring adult, they help children gain pro-social behaviors—such as caring about others.

The value of the Competence Model is that it gives each child, as “honored guest,” membership and acceptance within the group, allows trust and respect to flourish between adults and children as well as between the children themselves, and promotes play, engagement, skill development and learning opportunities.