Early Education: Beyond the Headlines

I posted this Babble articlethe other day about early education in our country and it prompted me to really think about this issue and how the media portrays it. As with any attention-grabbing journalism, the author pulls you in with an opening line that is bound to get your attention:

The way we middle-class, degree-holding types typically think early childhood education should work is the following: read books early and often, talk often to our babies and make frequent eye-contact, enroll the little one in the best preschool we can afford around the 3rd birthday, start Kindergarten between the ages of 4 and 6, panic if son/daughter cannot read or write during that first school year.

Then, of course, the author goes on to question all of the above assumptions that we “middle-class, degree-holding types” believe. Clearly, the author knows the fears of every middle-class parent and knows how to get their attention. When you really consider the substance of the story, however, you find that there is really nothing new here in terms of academic research. As one of my ever-so-observant child development colleague, Lisa Sunbury, pointed out, much of this research is well-circulated among early educators, but perhaps not much among the average parent.

At the end of the day, the article is basically arguing that play and conversation with adults, not rigorous academic schooling, is what sets kids off on the right foot educationally. Like with many media stories, however, this is not the dichotomy that is presented. The phrasing of the article makes it sound as if you have the choice to either: (1) stay at home with your child and converse with them constantly or (2) put them in a preschool or other child care arrangement and have them suffer the ill-effects. Um, no, I don’t think that is the choice here.

As with most issues, the choices and possible outcomes faced by parents are neither that simple, nor that easily categorized. Yes, the research clearly shows that it is important for children to converse with adults and for adults to try to answer their questions (even the seemingly endless 3-year old ones). Most parents, however, do have other responsibilities. Many have outside jobs, most are shuffling older children to school; we all have chores and adult responsibilities of life. This means that some of sort of child care arrangement is necessary for most young children, even if it is just a few hours a week.

So the question usually is not whether you put your young child in some sort of early education program, but what kind and how often.

As with many things in parenting, it seems that balance is the approach most supported by the research in early education. While children can learn from exploring on their own, they do often need some adult guidance on how things in the world work. This is often the source of all their questions in the preschool age—the “what’s, why’s, and how’s” all help them understand the complex world around them. Because of this, it is important for parents and teachers to try to answer these questions, even if you don’t really know the answer.

The opposite extreme we have seen in recent years, however, is the pushing of an academic, adult-led curriculum into the preschool age group. Research continues to show that this is problematic, especially for long-term academic success of students. Sure, you might be able to push a 4-year-old to learn to read, but does that really matter if by middle school they hate reading? This is what some research is beginning to show, like this study which found that 4-year-olds who attended an academic-focused preschool were more likely to have lower grades by sixth grade than those who attended a more child-centered preschool.

So, as opposed to what the media portrays, I think the question of early childhood education is not, “preschool vs. no preschool” or even “completely child-led learning vs. teacher-led academics.” It’s a much more nuanced approach that includes a good dose of adult (and peer) interaction to help kids understand the world, but not too much adult pushing of academic “drill” or worksheets that can diminish kids’ innate desire to be learners. 

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