While our children’s neurology hasn’t changed, our expectations for their behavior have. Children are now going to school at younger ages and spending more time on academics than ever before even though the research says that 1) this is not how young children learn best and 2) their brain structures cannot meet these high demands.
To be quiet, listen, and sit still are skills of the cortex, an area of the brain still heavily under construction for our toddlers, and even our tweens and teens. Yet we are asking our preschoolers and kindergarteners to sit in a seat with a pen in their hand and follow a rigid agenda to recognize sight words, write a sentence, and read.
With curricula like Common Core standards front and center, kindergarten has become more like a hard-hitting cyclone than a gentle breeze. The needle has moved from developing an innate love of learning through play to that of a performance-based regimen. Foundational skills to academic success, such as emotional regulation, are being bypassed and this comes at a cost that stacks with each subsequent year.
What happens if children don’t meet these expectations? Then there is something to “fix” or they are deemed as “falling behind,” requiring extra instruction in the name of narrowing the gap. For no children being left behind, there are many children who are being left behind.
This is not a problem of our children, but the structure and systems of the American schooling system. In our focus to improve school outcomes, there has been an increase in the pressure placed on teachers within the system to achieve results. This trickles down to the seats they serve. We have become conditioned to disvalue and overwork our educators and over-stress and dehumanize our children in the name of benchmarks and testing standards. But our kids do not have standardized brains, so why are we testing them as if they do?
The Research Says ...
So, the question is, does academic training in preschool and kindergarten have long-term benefits? It must if our system is built upon it, right?
While there are countless studies on this, the Tennessee Pre-K Program is the first well-controlled (and randomized) long-term study that has ever been conducted of a state-wide publicly supported preschool program in the US. The data for the study came from assessments made at various times in the children’s school career, from kindergarten through sixth grade.
Great effort went into designing this program. Unlike many other pre-K programs, the teachers had at least a bachelor’s degree plus an early childhood certification and paid on a par with elementary school teachers. The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) evaluated the curriculum early on and judged it to be among the best.
“The program provides a minimum of 5.5 hours of instructional time per day, five days per week. Classes have a maximum of 20 students and are taught by state-licensed teachers using one of 22 curricula approved by the Tennessee Department of Education.”
To be clear here, this is 5.5 hours of academic instruction for our four and five-year-olds! As a mom of a five-year-old … no way!
The results? The Pre-K group performed better than the control group on all academic measures at the beginning of kindergarten, but the control group soon caught up and, by third grade, the control group performed better on all academic measures than the pre-K group.
By third grade, those in the pre-K group were significantly more likely to have been diagnosed with a learning disorder and had a higher rate of school rule violations than those in the control group.
The advantages to the control group were even greater in sixth grade than in third grade.
- On all the achievement tests - which were in reading, math, and science - the control group scored higher than the pre-K group.
- Those in the pre-K group were 74% more likely to have been diagnosed with a learning disorder sufficient to require an IEP (Individualized Education Program) than those in the control group.
- Those in the pre-K group were 48% more likely to have committed a behavioral offense at school than those in the control group.
In short, this expensive, deliberately planned pre-K program caused reduced performance on all academic achievement tests, a sharp increase in learning disorders, and much more rule violation and behavioral offenses than occurred in the control group - all of which by 6th grade.
Understanding the Research
The next question may be, “Well why?” There are many possibilities. Here may be a few.
- Early academic pressure and labels can be a self-fulfilling prophecy and result in poorer academic performance. When children have educational experiences that are not geared to their developmental level or in tune with their learning needs and cultures, it can lead to feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and confusion.
- Early academic training can result in shallow learning of skills with a focus on doing just enough to pass but not deep enough to retain. This can interfere with subsequent learning because as the years go on, success on tests may depend more on real understanding.
- The pressures of early academics can lead to children feeling a rebellious attitude toward school. It becomes a “have to” instead of a “get to.” In addition, this can lead to a fixed mindset.
Another possibility could be not what was done in the pre-K program, but by what was not.
Four-year-olds need lots of time to play, create, explore, socialize, take initiative, figure things out on their own, and manage their emotions and behaviors. When time is spent on academics in lieu of these foundational milestones, their social-emotional skills remain immature. Studies have shown that SEL is pivotal in academic success. When academics “buts the line” and jumps before SEL, the implications stack throughout the child’s educational career.
For better long-term academic outcomes, research supports play-based preschools and kindergartens, using a mix of both free and structured play. Play attunes the brain and bolsters cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development.
When children engage in play-based learning, they rarely even realize they are growing their brain because they are so engaged in what they are doing. It feels like fun, not a chore.
It isn’t natural to a child when a teacher tells them to take out a pencil and sit still. Most young children seek to engage (or calm) the senses, dig in the dirt, climb and jump, stack blocks, build, paint, look at pictures in a book, play games like making and selling pretend ice cream, and more. This is how they learn.
The truth seems to be spelled out for us. Those things children learn without joy, they forget easily. And even more profound, when academics are pushed on kids too fast too soon in order to meet arbitrary milestones, it can have many adverse symptoms that affect their self-worth and mental health.
Children who feel well-supported to play and follow their interests, who are guided in emotional regulation and met with empathy and kindness - those we are gifted the freedom to learn in their own unique ways and in their own developmental time - are more likely to feel safe and supported. When children feel safe, they are able to learn.
And isn’t that what this is all about? Children learning?