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Introduction: Penka Kasabova’s wisdom

Today I have been asked to speak to you about “different children”. In thinking about this topic, I wondered what Penka Kassabova might say about it. So I looked back at the (so far) small part of her book that has been translated into English. Indeed, she does have something to say that is still relevant today.

First, I would characterize Penka’s pedagogical beliefs as spiritual at their core. In Jacky Comforty’s film The Optimists, a remarkable documentary about the survival of the Bulgarian Jewish population during the Second World War, Penka tells us that “… first you must have love” in order to teach well. It seems Penka translated that love into her teaching methods in order to reach each and every child.

From this foundation of love, and with the goal of reaching each child, Penka’s methodological advice for her Headmistresses was often truly visionary, and included a balance that we strive to achieve in Kindergarten and preschool centers and classrooms today: “…try to cope w/the problems of each single child and the group as a whole”. PK, bottom p. 10.   This attention to the individual within the context of the group extended towards all children, even those who were “difficult” and were the hardest to reach, such as restless, “unruly”, or misbehaving children.(insert quote) When a child misbehaved, Penka believed that we must first try to understand the reasons for it rather than simply punishing the child.

While Penka strove to educate all children first by understanding each and every one, she held very strict criteria for those she would train to be the children’s teachers. When she returned from her studies at the National Kindergarten College in 1928, Penka adapted the Stanford-Binet intelligence test and administered it to her young applicants. She also included a test of creativity (insert quote), perhaps knowing that her teachers would need to reach children of all different ability levels through inspiring them in different ways, from the very talented to those with significant challenges. Penka was also very aware of the importance of good “temperament” in the person of the Headmistress: “…the first and most important feature of a Headmistress…” was “…joy and gaiety” (p. 16).

A Contemporary View from the United States: Early childhood policy

Today, we see some degree of overlap with Penka Kasabova in the criteria used in hiring preschool teachers in the U.S., but the first criterion is typically state certification. It is generally obtained by completing a course of university study which includes student teaching. After that criterion is met, however, other subjective factors are considered. A quick survey of Kindergarten teachers at Baker Demonstration School, a model K-8th grade school that is affiliated with National-Louis University, shows that they believe the most important qualities in a “Headmistress” or teacher are… (insert results from Baker). The Director of the Baker School mentioned primarily valuing … (insert Director results) in his teachers.

Teaching at a Kindergarten/preschool level is crucial to a child’s future growth and development as a productive member of society. Elizabeth Klark, Penka’s predecessor and mentor, knew this. She once told Penka that “…the prosperity of every single person is the best way to ensure the prosperity of the whole world”. Yet as important as it is, our U.S. preschool teachers typically rank last on the pay scale for all teachers from K-12th grade. One way we are seeking to change that ranking is through disseminating recent early childhood research findings in public policy arenas, such as in our state and federal governments.   Results from neuroscientific studies compel us to look more seriously at the influence of early childhood programs. These studies employ neuroimaging techniques to measure physiologic changes in a child’s brain while performing certain activities. Penka probably wouldn’t be surprised at the results, which support her contention that (insert quote on cost)

A Contemporary U.S.View: the importance of recent neuroscientific findings

First, a look at the neurological development of very young children is instructive. It tells us that the quality of their activities and relationships throughout the day literally help to shape the neural pathways in their developing brains. In typical development, children first experience a massive proliferation of neural connections at the synaptic level, and then, through a process of neural pruning, these pathways become more efficient in communicating among various parts of the brain. (insert DANA cite; role play with a small group how the synaptic connections work).

Regarding social-emotional development in very young children, several neuroimaging studies have given us powerful information about the importance of the adult caregiver in the development of positively and negatively flavored emotions. How we are with children is very important, even when we don’t feel like being with them at each moment (insert Dawson study results on depressed moms and their infants; contemporary research going on now). Perhaps Penka knew this when she stressed that (insert joy/gaiety quote here).

The quality of the group setting is perhaps equally important as that of the individual caregiver. In the Kindergarten-preschool setting, we now have beginning neuroscientific evidence that tells us about the stress levels that young children experience in the particular center or school setting they go to each day. Such stress levels are neasured through taking samples of saliva from children’s mouths. One major stress hormone, cortisol, can be measured in this way (insert Nelson/Gunnar study and ongoing research). 

A Contemporary U.S. View: Implications for including all children

Current progressive pedagogical views on teaching and learning in the U.S. point to the inclusion of all children in the Kindergarten and preschool classroom. Penka would probably support this view. However, this is easier said than done! Many Kindergarten-preschool directors are not equipped to serve these children well. For example, some children who were born after nuclear accidents (e.g., the Chernobyl disaster) suffer from a prenatal interruption in neural migration (insert picture and information). Other children suffer the effects of heavy maternal alcohol drinking (insert FAS/FAE picture and basic information)and/or drug usage (insert crack cocaine information on prenatal development and resulting learning disabilities) Even when there is no known prenatal “insult” (i.e., maternal/fetal injury or illness), children still come to our centers and classrooms with a variety of physical, learning, and social-emotional issues. Following Penka’s wisdom, we must strive to serve all of them, and to include them fully in our global society.

Implications: challenges for the Kindergarten-preschool teacher

While it is important to discuss various kinds of children and the problems or challenges they present, it also then makes sense to speak about specific barriers and supports to learning and social-emotional growth and development in the Kindergarten-preschool setting. First, as for specific kinds of children and how we might think about including them, I have brought a chart/list of basic categories of disability (and talented children) and features of children possessing them (insert list of kinds of disability, talented child challenges- discuss).

Second, how do we change the curriculum to support the learning of all children, regardless of the type of learner they are when they come to us? (insert Child-ready Checklist for Early Childhood Programs) we will be effective if we can first build partnerships with parents and families, and if we can build school/center teams which include parents. There are some specific ways to do so that have been developed in the United States (insert from Curriculum on Inclusion). There are ways to ensure a safe and healthy environment (insert sample of self-assessment checklist). There are ways to arrange the environment for learning so that the message for all children is one of access to materials that promote exploration, interaction, and that nurture creativity. (insert sample checklist; give specific child examples, as time) There are specific, positively framed steps to guiding children’s behavior (insert example questions). If and when that doesn’t work, there are self- assessment approaches to help you figure out an appropriate plan of action for dealing with the behavior of a particular child within the group setting (insert Action Plan steps).

(As time, add in facilitating cchildrens’ communicationand positioning young children to be part of the group.)


Penka Kasabova was a visionary who embraced the best in her positive regard for children and their leaning. She implemented ways that her teachers in training could believe in themselves, and could grow in their own development soas to foster the creativity and delight in learning for all their children. We can do no less!