Overlook the ABCs. This Is What Preschool Academics Need Your Youngsters to Study
Deciding where to care for a child is an important decision for any family, and different centers and home care locations often advertise their ability to prepare a child for kindergarten. But what does it really mean to be ready for kindergarten?
The answers may not be what you would expect, according to experts. The best a child can learn at a young age is not the ABCs or counting to 20 or any of those other early memorization measures that have been associated with learning at a young age for so long. The main indicators of early learning come not from studying books, but from having strong relationships with their caregivers, where they build the socio-emotional learning skills that enable children to thrive in the classroom.
“There are three things kids need to learn at a young age: attention shifting, inhibitory control, and working memory,” said Tyson Barker, developmental psychologist and director of Early Childhood Precision, Innovation, and Shared Measurement (EC PRISM) at the University of Oregon. “Those skills were predictors of so many things.”
This means that children are able to pay attention to a teacher during distractions or control their impulse to grab a toy or push a classmate, and follow basic two-step commands (“wash hands, then sit down”). Barker and other experts note that this information may come as a surprise to parents who believe kindergarten readiness is expressed in numbers and letters – things that can be easily measured and compared – rather than softer, socio-emotional skills.
Today there is a better understanding of what a child learns from improvements in neuroscience, including non-invasive testing and observation. “We know that early brain plasticity and relationships are really important. What happens in early childhood affects later life, ”said Barker.
“We have had this nuanced realization that there are many skills that are not part of the traditional academic suite that are really critical to success in school,” said Rebecca Parlakian, senior director of programs at Zero to Three, a nonprofit Organization that focuses on early childhood learning. “We have started to move away from the teacher advancing knowledge instead of the teacher and child discovering things together.”
A shift towards academics, then back again
The initial shift towards academics in early childhood education was sparked by a report by the Reagan administration in the early 1980s on the failure of the current education system, recommending that states set stricter educational standards. These standards were later codified under No Child Left Behind, which was signed by President George W. Bush in 2002 and required more standardized tests for elementary school children.
“The way to improve test scores was to teach the test,” said Rebecca. Teachers began giving more direct, memorized instructions to children, and these methods seeped through into early education. Kindergarten became more academic and structured – away from playful learning – and pressure on preschool programs to prepare children for these environments increased.
But by 2010, a growing body of research had shown that children learn better through engaging play than through memorization. Around the same time, improvements were being made in neuroscience to find less invasive ways to study how the child’s mind worked. According to Rebecca, it was recognized that “babies and toddlers are not just shrunken kindergarten children. There are developmental differences to older children and they have a different approach to learning. “
So how do you know if the childcare option you choose for your family will provide the social-emotional learning necessary to keep your child on the road to success? One problem is that socio-emotional skills and relationships are difficult to measure when assessing the quality of an early childhood program. The lack of a comprehensive federal measurement system means that each federal state sets its own quality standards that are linked to reimbursement and access to resources. Experts say there is an ongoing discrepancy between how early care systems and facilities are classified as “good quality” and what science shows is most important.
“If we look at the quality frameworks we use, many of these standards are still geared towards cognitive development. We don’t have that many tools to measure social-emotional development, ”said Natalie Renew of Homegrown, an organization that works to improve the accessibility and quality of home care.
“Assessment results in Head Start and other quality systems are at stake,” said Natalie. “But there can be problems with justice.” For example, some assessment tools score well in classrooms if there are photos of children and their families in the room. For broadcasts in predominantly Muslim communities, taking or posting family photos is not culturally appropriate, explained Natalie. Without understanding this context, a program could be penalized for its quality assessment – leading to negative results for the student it serves, even though teachers do what is best for their socio-emotional development.
Renew believes that greater investment is needed in quality studies and research, particularly relationship quality, that takes into account feedback from parents, carers, and the community. “A good assessment tool and improvement system should tell programs what they’re doing well and build on that strength,” Natalie said. “It should reflect the work the program does and what their families value.”