Publicly funded pre-K programs enjoy broad public and political support, largely because of research suggesting that preschool graduates enjoy both short-term and long-term benefits, including improved academic and school readiness, higher graduation rates, and lower incarceration rates. Public preschool is also a financial benefit to lower- and middle-class parents, as quality pre-K can cost as much as a college tuition.
“We are at a really critical moment for pre-K in the United States,” said Suzanne Bouffard, an education researcher and author of the newly published book The Most Important Year: Pre-Kindergarten and the Future of Our Children. In 2016, enrollment in state-funded preschool programs reached an all-time high of nearly 1.5 million children in 43 states.
While Bouffard applauds the momentum to make pre-K more accessible, she said policy makers are not paying enough attention to what is happening in these classrooms.
“We need to look at how we do pre-K, not just whether we do it,” said Bouffard. Without this vision, not only will students be poorly served, lawmakers may ultimately say, “Well, we tried that, we funded it, and it didn’t work.”
“Quality,” she said, “really matters.”
The Most Important Year
Pre-K is a foundational year because, for most children, it provides their initial exposure to school and sets the tone for their educational career. “They develop certain feelings, perceptions, and ideas about school. It’s a great opportunity to get kids off on the right foot,” said Bouffard. Conversely, she noted, a sub-par experience in pre-K has the potential to create “enduring negative emotions about school.”
According to Bouffard, researchers have found that few pre-K are truly poor quality, and few are truly excellent. Most are stuck in the middle “with considerable room for improvement.”
She argues that many parents and lawmakers don’t know what to look for in a pre-K classroom — and that even elementary school administrators may not be well-versed in the distinct needs of this developmental age.
When Bouffard talks to parents, she tells them, “Don’t worry about a gorgeous facility. The most important things to look for is how the adults interact with children. You want to see them engage with children in a way that is positive, nurturing and genuinely curious.”
In fact, according to her research, the best pre-K programs are staffed by trained teachers who know how to build students’ self-regulation skills; nurture their creativity and curiosity; and foster an environment of playful learning.
Building Self-Regulation Skills
According to Bouffard, self-regulation — the ability to manage one’s behavior and emotions in a given situation — is the most important skill to foster at this age.
“Good pre-K programs effectively build students’ self-regulation skills that will help them experience success in pre-K and beyond,” said Bouffard. These classrooms teach children “how to be learners,” including how to deal with difficult emotions, how to pay attention, and how to be peers who listen to and interact positively with their classmates.
“You want to teach children how and why to behave. What to do instead of just what not to do,” said Bouffard. Effective pre-K classrooms teach self-regulation through songs and routines; picture prompts can remind children of the steps in a process. Skilled preschool teachers have strategies for redirecting student behavior and use language that provides instruction. “It’s the difference between, ‘Be quiet – I’m reading’ and ‘I know you are excited to share. Can you hold that and tell me after we finish story time?’”
Bouffard said that rewards and punishment are not effective tools because they do not teach kids how or why to behave. Rather, “it just emphasizes that you want them to do something.” Ironically, she said, “Kids who have the biggest struggle with self-regulation are those most damaged by these strategies.” When they are unable to earn the reward, they may feel frustration or shame or simply decide to stop trying.
Nurturing Creativity and Curiosity
Effective pre-K classrooms also engage students’ natural curiosity and creativity. In these classrooms, said Bouffard, you will hear teachers using open-ended inquiries such as:
- “How do you know that?”
- “How did you figure that out?”
- “Explain to me what you are doing.”
- “What do you think will happen if we . . . ?”
This dialogue between teacher and student focuses on the process of learning. “In pre-K everything should be process focused and not outcome focused.” For example, art projects should be more about exploring materials and techniques than about producing a replica of what the teacher made.
Fostering Playful Learning
Much of the public debate around early childhood education comes down to which matters more: academics or play. That’s a false dichotomy, said Bouffard. “Play is really the way that young children learn. It’s a way that they experience the world, and it engages them and helps them learn more deeply.”
Bouffard is concerned that the “skill and drill” approach to teaching academics is most frequently used in classrooms serving at-risk preschoolers, in an attempt to close the gap on school readiness. Unfortunately, these teaching methods can “turn young kids off to school and introduces the possibility of shame and anxiety. [Skill and drill] doesn’t teach kids the curiosity and critical thinking skills that they need to develop in early childhood.”
However, pure free play — an approach she hears advocated more frequently by wealthier cohorts — also misses the mark. “I hear a lot about just ‘free play classrooms.” But, Bouffard said, if it only involves setting out materials and not thinking about learning goals, there’s a real missed opportunity. For example, she said, researchers have found that children used more sophisticated language about building activity when they had a goal in mind.
What effective preschools aim for is “guided play” or “scaffolded play,” in which adults create a purposeful play environment that encourages student exploration. “For example, in setting up blocks, a teacher might put up pictures of buildings to inspire kids. They may ask students, ‘What are you doing?’ and gently push kids’ thinking by offering new information or nudging them to experiment,” said Bouffard.
Of course, the ability to find this balance rests with teachers. “Good teachers make it look really easy. That’s why it’s really important that we invest in teachers and give them the training to find that middle ground — to guide play without overly controlling it and to encourage kids to develop an understanding of letters and numbers without ‘skill and drill.’”
Investing in Teacher Training
As states and cities make a commitment to fund early childhood education, they must also invest in support and training for pre-K teachers, said Bouffard. “We need coaches or mentors for early childhood teachers, particularly in the first few years of their career.” Teachers also need support in the form of other specialists, especially in responding to students with trauma and special needs. She calls for more cooperation between state agencies to make sure pre-K students are set up for success: “This is a time when kids age out of early intervention, so a lot of kids at community-based centers aren’t getting the help they need.”
And it’s not just teachers who need research-based training: “Everyone involved in the fate of these kids needs to have information about what developmentally appropriate practices look like,” including principals, site-managers and lawmakers.
Bouffard hopes this “critical period” of expansion leads to a more systematic review of the early childhood education glide path. “Sometimes policymakers view pre-K as the answer for closing the achievement gap,” she said. “We need to think about our whole system of care from birth to school.”