Preschool: Ensuring a Positive Experience

Universal pre-K, which is an integral part of President Biden’s policy proposals targeting families, is currently getting much coverage in the media. These programs—also known as “preschool for all”—are a policy framework that gives all families with preschool-aged children the opportunity to voluntarily enroll their child in a publicly-funded pre-Kindergarten program in their community.

The movement to expand pre-K is bolstered by the well-documented benefits of early childhood education. Multiple studies show that going to preschool gives young children a strong start to all kinds of learning, not just academics but social skills, listening, planning, and self-control. Although the benefits of preschool are clear, not all preschool programs are designed the same way.

What can get lost in the conversation about preschool and its many benefits is an understanding of what the experience is like for a child. As such, there are actually many things for parents to consider when sending their children to preschool.

What’s the Goal?

When selecting a preschool program for your child, you should first consider what you want your child to gain from attending school. As explained in Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying you Child, by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D., “The object of preschool is not to teach your child specific facts, such as letters and numbers, but to teach her to like school and feel happy and competent there.”

Since starting school is an important life transition, it can set children up for future school success, build resilience, and foster self-regulation. If your child experiences a positive start to school, the more likely she will enter elementary school with optimism and confidence. A negative experience, however, could result in her disliking school and being less confident in her abilities.

Play vs. Work

In recent years, many preschool and even Kindergarten programs have moved to a more instructional approach to learning, with a focus on teaching specific lessons and using drill and practice exercises. The reasoning behind this approach is to help children avoid falling behind in critical subjects, such as math and reading, and never catching up.

This more instructional approach often replaces time that used to be spent in guided, active play, such as building with blocks, drawing, and imaginative play. Many researchers and educators now believe that there is little evidence that a more instructional approach improves long-term achievement. In fact, it may have the opposite effect, potentially slowing emotional and cognitive development, causing unnecessary stress and perhaps even making children less interested in learning.

Programs with a focus on social and emotional development, on the other hand, are widely considered the best way for young children to learn how