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 to manage and regulate their emotions—one of the most important skills needed for success later in school. In these programs, children learn about the world around them and others through play. This type of play is child-focused and helps children experience learning as a pleasurable activity and makes them eager to do more of it.
As Dr. Pieper says, “. . . we must avoid focusing on tests and drills, which leave children worse off by eroding their curiosity and love of learning. Playful learning with teachers who understand children and welcome all feelings is necessary to make universal Pre-K valuable.”
Is Your Child Comfortable at School?
Sometimes just securing a spot for your child in a preschool program seems like a challenge. Once you do, it can be a huge relief. However, it’s important to assess your child’s reaction to the experience.
Most children have days when they just don’t feel like going to school but if your child regularly complains about going, feels sick before but not after school, continues to have a difficult time separating from you, or begins to have regular nightmares or trouble sleeping, you should find out more information to determine the cause of these signs of unhappiness.
Start by learning more about your child’s relationship with his teacher. If the teacher seems harsh or doesn’t seem to be a good fit with your child, see if it’s possible to change classrooms. Perhaps there is a teacher who takes a more positive approach to regulating students’ behavior.
If your child’s teacher is warm and positive toward him but his unhappiness continues, it’s possible that he might not be ready for school yet. In these instances, your child may benefit from waiting another year before starting school. You may also consider enrolling him in a program with a gentle separation policy that allows parents to be available until children are comfortable being in the classroom with their teachers and other children.
If you believe that it would be best to wait, be sure to take responsibility for this decision and not burden your child with it. Of course, this route has its challenges, especially when you need to find alternative child care. However, your efforts will be well spent if you can spare your child from concluding that school is a place that makes him feel miserable.
So, although there are many considerations for parents regarding selecting a preschool program for their child, a child’s happiness with being there can guide their decisions and help them make adjustments as needed so that the experience is truly beneficial for their child.
As the psychologist Alison Gopnik states, “Maybe ‘preschool’ is a misnomer—the programs don’t work because they teach specific school skills. Instead, the crucial ingredients may be caring adults and a chance to play—fundamental parts of good early childhood programs, large or small, private or public. Other research suggests that care and play don’t make you better at doing any one particular thing. Instead, they make you more robust and resilient, better able to deal with the unexpected twists and turns of fate. And, ultimately, that may be the best path to success.”*
Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999.
Smart Love Solutions for Early Childhood, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Smart Love Family Services, 2012.
The Lasting Benefits of Preschool, Susan Pinker, The Wall Street Journal, October 22, 2020.
Let the Kids Learn Through Play, David Kohn, The New York Times, May 16, 2015.
*Preschool’s Sleeper Effect on Later Life, Alison Gopnik, The Wall Street Journal, May 27,2021.