model or demonstrate skills, and use other teaching strategies in which they take the lead. Teacher-initiated learning experiences are determined by the teacher’s goals and direction, but they should also reflect children’s active engagement (Epstein, 2007). Ideally, teacher-initiated instruction actively involves children. Indeed, when appropriately supportive and focused, teacher-initiated instruction can lead to significant learning gains (French and Song, 1998; Howes et al., 2008). In practice, however, most teacher-initiated instruction is associated with the passive engagement of children (Pianta et al., 2005).
By contrast, child-initiated or child-guided means that children acquire knowledge and skills through their own exploration and through interactions with objects and with peers (Epstein, 2007, p. 2). Child-initiated experience emanates primarily from children’s interests and actions with support from teachers. For child-initiated learning to occur, teachers organize the environment and materials and provide the learning opportunities from which children make choices (Epstein, 2007). Teachers thoughtfully observe children during child-initiated activity, gauging their interactions and the provision of new materials, as well as reorganization of the environment, to support their continued learning and development.
During optimal child-initiated experience, teachers are not passive, nor are children entirely in control—although this ideal is not always realized in practice. For example, classroom observational research reveals that teachers tend to spend little time with children during free play (Seo and Ginsburg, 2004), or they focus their interactions on behavior management rather than on helping children learn (Dickinson and Tabors, 2001; Kontos, 1999).
In early childhood education, the term instruction is most often used to mean “direct instruction,” implying that teachers are entirely in control and children are passive recipients of information. The term is also used pejoratively to refer to drill and practice on isolated skills. Direct instruction is more accurately defined as situations in which teachers give information or present mathematics content directly to children. The National Mathematics Advisory Panel (2008) uses the term explicit instruction to refer to the many ways that teachers can intentionally structure children’s experiences so that they support learning in mathematics.
Throughout the day and across various contexts—whole group, small group, centers, play, and routines—teachers need to be active and draw on a repertoire of effective teaching strategies. This skill in adapting teaching to the content, type of learning experience, and individual child with a clear learning target as a goal is called intentional teaching (Epstein, 2007;