By Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor
When my oldest son entered preschool, his social skills were, to put it kindly, underdeveloped. He has a forceful personality and at home he only had to contend with doting parents and a toddler brother who was happy to let him create all the games and play the starring roles. He was a little bossy and very stubborn; he wore a Spiderman costume and thundered around the house, brandishing sticks and other weapon-like items at pets, babies, and other innocent bystanders.
At preschool, he loved every day and came home exhausted from racing in the yard, playing dress-up, painting, listening to stories, and messing around in mud and sand and tubs of flour. He also learned how to take turns and listen to other kids, to wait for the swing, to share toys and sit still (sort of) during circle time. When he graduated from preschool, he could read just a little and he wrote his name in a highly eccentric fashion, but in all the ways that mattered, he was ready for kindergarten.
Already behind on the first day of school
Many families in the U.S. aren’t as lucky. From 2009 to 2011, more than half of 3- and 4- year-olds in the U.S. weren’t enrolled in preschool, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and when they show up at kindergarten they’re already behind.
Our understanding of the brain has increased exponentially in recent years and the latest research underscores the powerful effect of early experiences and stimulation on the growing brain. A quality preschool teaches kids valuable cognitive, emotional, and executive functioning skills at a crucial time in brain development. (Learn more about what constitutes a quality preschool.)
Benefits go on and on...
Children who attend preschool do better in kindergarten than those who don't but that’s not all: the positive effects of preschool go on and on. As Barbara Willer of the National Association for the Education of Young Children told C-Span, “[Preschool] helps determine the trajectory of success they will have later on."
Another recent study found that attending a quality preschool boosted test performance for low-income children well into middle school; researchers also found evidence linking preschool attendance to higher rates of parent involvement and maternal employment. A third, long term study of children who attended an early education program in Chicago found that 25 years later, participants stayed in school longer and had a higher standard of living, as well as lower rates of crime and drug use, than a control group.
Experts say that low-income children benefit most from preschool, but there are obvious advantages for all kids, including the valuable social-emotional skills that helped civilize my child.
An education fix that people actually agree on
There isn’t a lot of consensus out there about how to fix our struggling education system, but there is astonishingly little disagreement about the value of preschool. The Obama Administration vigorously supports it, and city leaders in San Antonio, New York, and other major cities are forging ahead with universal preschool proposals of their own.
What’s more, 30 states and the District of Columbia increased their preschool funding last year, according to Education Week — some by as much as 20 percent.
To be sure, the news isn’t all good. A study just released by the New America Foundation found that, while there have been gains in some areas, access to early education is still spotty around the country. The report also cites this disturbing stat: over 48 percent of all public school children in the U.S. now qualify for free or reduced price lunch.
One more important benefit to consider when it comes to preschool: it educates parents as well as kids. For one thing, it provides the first of many lessons in letting go. On my son’s first day of preschool, I hugged him goodbye and he raced off to join a gang of boys chasing each other around the play structure. As I watched him speed off without looking back, it dawned on me that I wouldn’t be there if he got hurt, or if someone said something mean. This realization stopped me cold and I might not have left at all if the preschool director, who had an unnerving ability to read minds, hadn’t told me gently but firmly, “He’ll be fine.” She was right then, and she’s still right, all these years later, as my son gets ready to head off to college. And it all started in preschool.Follow @CMMatthiessen