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There are several driving forces behind the push to improve preschool education, according to Lombardi and Ross Thompson, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the
• the increase in the number of two-earner and single-parent households. More than 60 percent of the 19 million
• recent advances in scientific understanding of brain development, which has led to the realization that the early-childhood years are a crucial learning period; and
• growing recognition by policymakers that some children have more opportunities than others, and good early education should be part of an education system for all kids.
The National Picture
An emphasis on early learning is a priority of the Bush administration and an issue that has bipartisan support. Over the last decade, a wave of new and expanded preschool initiatives has moved throughout the
Overall, 70 percent of
In November 2002,
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the nation’s most influential organization of early-childhood educators, notes that things are moving in the right direction.
“We firmly believe that every child and family should have access to a quality preschool,” says Barbara Willer, deputy executive director of NAEYC. But Willer is quick to clarify what she means by this. “When people hear ‘universal preschool,’ they imagine the public schools all beginning at age 3, but that’s not the way it’s going to happen. Our public schools are overcrowded already.”
Coordinating with existing childcare providers to make preschool accessible for all children is a much more realistic goal, according to Willer. And she emphasizes that making sure that the existing programs are of high quality is still a central goal.
Merrow notes that the move toward universal preschool would bring the
“Preschools are available across
By comparison, in the
The Push for Academics
While educators wait to see whether President Bush’s promises of support for early-childhood education will translate into federal funding and expanded access, one thing is certain: the push for accountability and standards, a central theme of the No Child Left Behind Act, is having a marked effect at the preschool level.
“States are getting pressure from educators to develop school-readiness indicators that they can use to screen young children before they enter kindergarten,” says Lisa Klein, vice president of the Kauffman Foundation. More and more preschools are feeling the pressure to develop cognitively based formal curriculum because such an approach produces skills that can be easily measured (such as mastering color names, letters and numbers, etc.).
Setting academic standards, and making students accountable, may work at the elementary and high school levels, but early-childhood educators are worried about its effect on preschools.
“Unfortunately, the trend now for preschools is to create kids who can come out reading and writing and doing math,” says Klein. These are not necessarily bad things, she notes, but research evidence from the National Academy of Sciences and the Set for Success report has demonstrated that the best way to acquire those skills is to first have a really good social and emotional development base. What worries Klein is the trend toward emphasizing academic skills to the exclusion of social and emotional skills and development.
“Children are the eventual losers if we try to pit the mind against the heart,” Thompson agrees. “We need to recognize that both are important, and indeed, for minds to learn, the social and emotional preparation needs to be there too.”
Kindergarten teachers agree that their greatest challenges are often not the kids who don’t know their numbers, but the kids who lack the social, emotional and self-regulatory skills necessary to be in a classroom.
“It’s the kids who can’t sit still, who can’t pay attention, the ones who have a lot of trouble following directions,” says kindergarten teacher Michelle Shapiro. “Very often they also have trouble getting along with other kids.”
Shapiro’s observation reflects what studies have shown: that the element of school readiness that concerns practitioners most is children’s social-emotional and self-regulatory abilities – not their “academic” achievements.
Parents are concerned about these issues too. NAEYC reports receiving numerous phone calls from parents upset that the emphasis on academics is becoming overwhelming at some preschools, forcing them to withdraw their children and seek a more balanced environment.
A Balanced Program
In the face of this debate, how should parents go about choosing a preschool? The most important thing is to visit the school and see for yourself what happens there, Willer says. Approach the school as if you were a child and consider how your child would respond to the setting.
“You want the sense of an experience that is challenging, but reachable, not too easy, not too hard,” she says.
You can also see if the adults interact with the children appropriately, in a manner that demonstrates care for the child as well as a focus on learning.
Once Sherry Jankowski, mother of a 5-year-old daughter, had satisfied her needs in terms of location and hours, she found she had several choices.
“I looked for a school that was both nurturing and academic, that would strike a balance between learning and play,” she says. When she found this, Jankowski interviewed the director, took a tour and sat in on classes. She believes that it’s important to do all these things, and to check out the school more than once.
Katarina Holtje, an early-childhood educator and author of Start Them Off Right! A Parent’s Guide to Getting the Most out of Preschool, also sought out a balance of work and play as she researched a school for her 4-year-old son. “I definitely have no expectation that children should be able to read and write, coming out of preschool, although they should be exposed to these skills,” says Holtje. “I believe that learning should be fun, and it should always be done through play with preschoolers.”
For mom Linda Shaw, the quality of staff was one of the deciding factors when she chose a preschool program. She felt that it was crucial to find a likable person who was respectful of her twin daughters. As she puts it, “A good rapport with the teacher is the best thing you can have for peace of mind.”
Thompson also advises that a good preschool has well-trained teachers who are sensitive to what a young child’s mind becomes engaged in, and uses this as a learning opportunity, rather than creating a learning opportunity and channeling the child in that direction.
Reason for Optimism
As to the results of the ongoing debate over what children should be doing at preschool, Thompson is optimistic. “It’s wonderful that people are now looking at the early-childhood years as being so important,” he says.
But he adds a note of caution: “Kids simply don’t learn without the kinds of supportive relationships, and the self-confidence, and the curiosity, and the capacity to cooperate with others, that all learning involves.”
He echoes the concerns of many in the early-childhood community who want parents and policymakers to keep in mind, as access to preschool programs expands, that giving kids a solid social and emotional development has value in itself and is also the foundation for all future learning.
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Is your child ready for preschool? Take our quiz and find out!
Is your child ready for preschool? Take our quiz and find out!
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