The Hidden Effect of Early Childhood Education Programs

I noticed a recent article on Wired Science entitled "How Preschool Changes the Brain." Of course, being interested in child development I was immediately intrigued. The article reviews several classic studies conducted over the past 30+ years investigating the long-terms effects of early childhood education programs (i.e., preschool) on children's academic and career outcomes.

As you might have expected, children who attend preschool (especially those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds) were more likely to graduate from high school, get better grades, stay married, and less likely to get arrested.

The Hidden Effect of Early Childhood Education Programs

Your first reaction to these findings might be to assume that preschool makes these children smarter. Maybe all the exposure to books, learning games, etc. really increase their intelligence. However, when you look closer at the findings, you see that the children's IQ scores remain relatively stable over time. Some kids' IQ may increase slightly in the years immediately following preschool but usually stabilizes near its original level later in life.

It turns out that what preschool really does is teach the life skills that are often much more important than IQ in determining one's success in life--skills like self-control, persistence, and self-discipline. So, after reading that, I felt the title of the article should be something more like, "How Preschool Changes Behavior, not the Brain." 

We have since learned that the best way these "soft" skills are learned is through play-based learning. This doesn't mean chaos or that kids are let loose to do whatever they want. It simply means that preschoolers learn best when are actively engaged in activities that are meaningful to them. What is meaningful to a preschooler? Playing with her friends, pretending to be dogs and cats, learning how to share and take turns.

Economists love these kinds of findings because it means tax-payers can get a lot of bang for their buck by investing in early childhood education programs, especially for disadvantaged children. In fact, the Wired article showed that, "for every dollar invested in preschool for at-risk children, society at large reaps somewhere between eight and nine dollars in return." Wow! I would much rather invest in preschool than prisons.

Reading this article reminded me of Ellen Galinsky's great book Mind in the Making in which she discusses the importance of teaching children crucial life skills like self-control. With all the emphasis on academic rigor and high-stakes testing, it's easy to forget that these life skills are equally, if not more important than book knowledge. 

Of course, all this emphasis on preschool doesn't mean we, as parents, cannot teach our kids these skills at home. There is nothing magical about preschool; it's just a scheduled, regulated environment that helps children learn these skills. Even if your child is in preschool, you would still have to reinforce these lessons at home. As far as the public sphere, however, preschool is a good investment in our nation's future.

Wondering what to look for in a play-based preschool? Check out this post that includes a FREE guide for what to look for on that preschool tour: The Secrets of Pre-K That Every Parent Should Know

Mind in the Making
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