Preschool is an early childhood program in which children combine learning with play in a program run by professionally trained adults. Children are most commonly enrolled in preschool between the ages of three and five, though those as young as two can attend some schools. Preschools are different from traditional day care in that their emphasis is learning and development rather than enabling parents to work or pursue other activities.
Before 1960, the education of young children was primarily regarded as the responsibility of families within the home. As of 2004, most young children in the United States spend some portion of their days apart from their parents. Most attend some sort of center-based program prior to kindergarten. In 2001, 52 percent of three- and four-year-olds were in a nursery school or preschool program. The enrollment rate for four-year-olds in 2001 was nearly the same as the enrollment rate for five-year-olds in 1970. There are several factors influencing this dramatic change, including a rise in the numbers of mothers working outside the home, a decline in the size of families (leading more parents to turn to preschools as a social outlet for their children), and a growing desire to give children a head start academically. The higher the income and educational level of the parents, the more likely it is that a child will attend preschool. This correlation remains true in spite of increasing governmental support for programs targeting children in low-income households.
In addition to being called preschool, these programs are known by other names, including child care, day care, and nursery school. They vary widely in their setting, format, and educational philosophy. Preschools may meet all-day or half-day, either every day or just a few days per week. They may be sponsored by a church, operate as an independent non-profit, or run for profit. They may be part of the public school system or part of the Federal Head Start program.
Types of preschool programs
PRIVATE PRESCHOOLS Private preschools operate as for-profits, independent nonprofits, and programs sponsored by religious organizations. Most are part-day programs. Some so-called lower schools are affiliated with private schools and maintain an educational philosophy in accord with the parent institution. Though the margin is small, private preschools still claimed the majority of total preschool enrollment in 2001. The educational quality of private preschools varies from program to program. Regulation is primarily by state child care agencies, but the arrangement varies from state to state.
HEAD START Since 1965, the federal Head Start program has provided free education for young children in many low-income families across the United States. In 2000, Head Start served 11 percent of all three- and four-year olds in the United States. In 2001, Head Start reported enrollment of over 900,000 children, at a cost of roughly $7,000 per child. Head Start programs are available in all 50 states and are offered in a variety of formats, including both all-day and half-day programs. Some of them are held at the public school the child will eventually attend.
Since its inception, there has been debate about Head Start's effectiveness. Research has shown that children enrolled in Head Start enjoy immediate, measurable gains in cognitive test scores; however, researchers disagree as to the long-term impact. Some research has shown that Head Start has long-term effects on academic ability and success that do not fade over time. These effects include: persistent gains in achievement test scores, fewer occurrences of grade retention, and less placement in special education programs. Other long-term benefits include higher high school graduation rates and decreased crime and delinquency rates. As adults, Head Start graduates are more likely to get better jobs and earn more money. On the other hand, some experts believe the research shows that disadvantaged children in Head Start start off a step behind and never catch up. One of the primary concerns about the program is with its teachers, who only subsequently were required to have a two-year degree and who made less than half the average salary of a public school teacher. To help determine Head Start's effectiveness, a research project called The National Head Start Impact Study was underway as of 2004. It intends to follow between 5,000 to 6,000 preschool aged children through 2006 to determine if Head Start is effective and how Head Start works best for children.
PUBLIC PRESCHOOLS A growing number of states have started to fund preschool programs offered at public schools, called pre-kindergarten (or pre-K) programs. They may be administered by the local school board or by an independent contractor paid by the state. Like private preschools, they may operate for a full day or just half a day.
Most state-run preschool programs began like Head Start and focused their services on children with the greatest needs, either children with disabilities or children from low-income families. Most states in the early 2000s choose to have their prekindergarten programs serve children in low-income families or children who have other risk factors that place them at greater risk of school failure or educational difficulties. These risk factors may include having a disability, being a child of teen parents, or having limited proficiency in the English language. Georgia was the first state to have a universally available pre-K program, which was started in 1995. It is still the only state to make preschool available to all students. Other states, including West Virginia and Florida, are making long-term plans to move toward universal prekindergarten.
Research tends to find that public preschool programs (public schools and Head Start) exhibit a greater effect on children than do private preschools. One of the reasons is public school programs provide the same quality of services whether children are rich or poor, while private provider quality is lower for children from lower-income families. It may be an issue of getting what a parent can pay for. Most of the long-term research on the effects of preschool focuses on low-income children. There is very little data on any long-term benefits for middle-class children.
Qualities of a good preschool
According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, the types of teaching activities and classroom emphases that contribute to a high-quality early education for children include the following:
- opportunities to learn persistence when working at tasks, direction following, and good listening skills
- focus on language and literacy skills, as well as interactive book reading
- emphasis on teaching children problem-solving skills
- helping children expand their knowledge and increase their vocabulary
- opportunities to learn beginning skills involving the alphabet, numbers, and spatial awareness
- focus on scientific thinking skills as well as information about the everyday environment, the world, and how things work
- emphasis on teaching early literacy and mathematics through a variety of activities and projects
- opportunity for preschoolers to engage in music, art, and dramatic play
- educational program in which parents are involved and have opportunities to watch and take part in classroom activities
Advantages of preschool
Many children who attend high-quality preschool programs have their lives changed for the better. In the first five years of life, children acquire the basic capabilities that prepare them for later success in school and life. Many studies show that high-quality preschools improve achievement, behavior, and school readiness for economically disadvantaged children. Follow-up research with these same children shows that they earn more money, experience more stable home lives, and become more responsible citizens than they would have if they had not attended preschool. Children who attend preschool are better prepared to enter kindergarten, both academically and socially. Whatever their format, preschools offer parents and children typical benefits. A good program can help children develop their gross and fine motor skills , improve their language and communication abilities, and exercise their creativity .
Disadvantages of preschool
The greatest academic and social progress seen in preschools is in children from deprived backgrounds. However, few programs have the quality necessary to bring about the benefits promised. The costs of a high-quality program can be far greater than the costs of education at some public universities. Most children in preschool, however, are not disadvantaged, and some researchers believe the same gains can be had at home by providing educational toys , games and books for the child. In some preschools, the emphasis on groups might mean that children will not receive the individual attention they require. This is a particular risk if the preschool does not follow the National Association for the Education of Young Children's recommended teacher-to-child ratio of no more than ten preschoolers per staff member. One-on-one instruction is an advantage parents will not likely find in any preschool. Opportunities for playing with other children exist in churches, clubs, and other outlets, where the child can learn social skills. Some believe that what children need most is lots of play and free time and close interaction with their parents, something that may be compromised if the child is away from home for long periods of time. Another disadvantage is that some children experience acute separation anxiety , indicating that they are not yet ready to make the transition to the preschool environment. Many programs also expect the child to be toilet-trained, a milestone that not all children have achieved at the preschool age.
When selecting a preschool for their child, parents should be aware of certain problems or warning signs that might make them decide to look at a different preschool provider. These problems or warning signs may include:
Head Start —A federal program started in 1965 that provides free education for young children in many low-income families across the United States.
Preschool —An early childhood program in which children combine learning with play in a program run by professionally trained adults.
- negative reactions from other parents
- inattention to established rules and regulations (Schools should have clearly established written guidelines for everything from operating hours to managing emergencies.)
- lack of a sick-child policy (The preschool should require both staff and children to have current immunizations and regular checkups.)
- indicating they are hiding something, schools that balk at parents dropping by unannounced
- schools that either have no structure whatsoever or a structure that is inflexible
- lack of age-appropriate activities and toys
- an underqualified staff
- large class sizes
- dirty, unsafe facilities
- an expired license
- schools that promise to put a child on an academic fast track (These highly structured, intensive preschool academic programs create inappropriate expectations from children and may cause emotional stress.)
Parents considering sending their child to preschool should investigate several different ones and consider many factors before choosing one. However, parents should realize that in spite of the potential advantages, preschool may not be for every child. Parents can be assured that there are alternative ways of introducing their child to early academic skills and social activities.
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Deanna M. Swartout-Corbeil, RN
Most children begin their formal schooling at the age of five or six. Many children, however, have experience with organized educational programs before that time. Indeed, these "preschool" programs are quite popular in today's society. This article briefly reviews the history of preschool programs in the United States, differences in the philosophies guiding such programs, their impact on children's development, cultural differences in preschool programs, and finally the movement toward inclusion of children with special needs in preschool.
History and Demographics
Preschool programs began in earnest in the United States during the first quarter of the twentieth century. The philosophical foundations for these programs can be traced to the belief, popularized during the seventeenth century, that early childhood is a unique period of life during which the foundation for all subsequent learning is established. The early programs often began informally and involved the efforts of women who took turns caring for each other's children. The first public preschool program began at the Franklin School in Chicago in 1925 with the support of the Chicago Women's Club.
The popularity of preschool as an option for young children increased dramatically after the 1970s. In 1970, for example, only 20 percent of three- and four-year-olds participated in organized education programs. In 1998, approximately half of all children in this age range attended a full-time pre-school program. The increasing popularity of pre-school has been fueled in part by an increase in the number of women entering the work force as well as by a belief among many parents and educators that children need early preparation for elementary school.
There are many different types of preschool programs, from those that strive to accelerate the academic progress of children who are otherwise developing at a normal pace to those that attend more to the social and emotional needs of the children. Such program differences often reflect deeper philosophical differences in beliefs about young children and the goal of preschool. Such differences can be seen by considering two programs currently popular in the United States: the Montessori approach, which has a long history in this country, and the Reggio Emilia approach, which is relatively new to this country.
The Montessori approach was developed in the early twentieth century by Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator. In this approach, children are allowed choices and opportunities to pursue their own interests by moving freely from one activity center to another; the activities available to children, however, are designed to foster cognitive growth rather than social or emotional growth. In fact, Montessori teachers encourage preschoolers to work independently and to persist at challenging cognitive tasks, while minimizing interactions with peers. Teacher interactions, too, tend to be minimal, with teachers serving mainly to model ways in which children can use curricular materials.
The Reggio Emilia approach was started in 1945 in Reggio Emilia, a small community in northern Italy. It emerged from the efforts of parents who sought high-quality care for their children and educator Loris Malaguzzi, who provided the philosophical foundation. Proponents view the preschooler as highly competent and as inherently curious and social. They further see development as resulting from the child's active involvement with the physical and social worlds and from repeated experiences that provide the opportunity for reflection and for constructing increasingly more flexible representations of those experiences. In practice, this philosophy entails the use of group projects that evolve according to the children's interests, an emphasis on children communicating their ideas to others, and children learning to express ideas through multiple media. Perhaps the hallmark of this approach is the extensive support and collaboration of the community, including parents and the government.
Impact of the Preschool Experience
There are both advantages and disadvantages for children who attend preschool compared to children who do not. Advantages include more collaborative interactions with peers, increased social competence, and greater expressiveness. Disadvantages include less compliance with adult demands and heightened aggressiveness toward peers. It is important to recognize, however, that the extent and nature of the impact of preschool may depend on a number of factors, including the length of time in the program, the child's family environment, and the particular characteristics a child brings to the program. Most important, however, is the quality of the preschool program. High-quality programs, for example, have been found to foster language development, whereas increased aggression may be more likely for children in low-quality care.
Developmentally Appropriate Practices
What makes a program "high quality"? High quality is defined by a number of factors, including a low child-teacher ratio, adequate physical space, a staff whose members are highly experienced, and a wealth of play and curricular materials. Most importantly, however, high-quality programs are defined by developmentally appropriate practices.
Developmentally appropriate programs have five characteristics. First, these programs attempt to facilitate not only cognitive development but also social and emotional development, focusing on areas such as learning to take turns, learning to respect others, and feeling good about one's accomplishments. Second, these programs allow children to develop at their own pace and to pursue their own interests. Third, these programs allow children to control their own learning by relying on discovery and exploration rather than on drill and practice or other teacher-controlled activities. Fourth, developmentally appropriate programs provide activities matched to an individual child's current level of functioning, with the aim being for the child to participate in activities that require skills just slightly in advance of those already in the child's repertoire. Finally, developmentally appropriate programs have a realistic academic orientation—one that introduces some basic academic skills but without attempting to push children too far academically.
Developmentally appropriate practices have been shown to lead to positive child outcomes. In a study by Luigi Girolametto, Elaine Weitzman, Riet van Lieshout, and Dawna Duff, for example, the researchers found that preschoolers talked more and in more sophisticated ways when their teachers used developmentally appropriate language (e.g., open-ended questions, utterances that followed rather than redirected the children's attention) rather than developmentally inappropriate language (e.g., commands and test questions, which reflected the teacher's "agenda" rather than the children's interests). There is also evidence that preschool programs designed to "speed up" children's academic progress, which are by definition developmentally inappropriate, lead to a number of undesirable outcomes, including less creativity, a less positive attitude about school, and no lasting positive impact on academic performance.
Cross-national comparisons conducted in the late 1990s raised concerns about declining achievement for students in the United States, especially as compared to students in Japan and other Asian countries. In making such comparisons, it is important to recognize that any nation is a diverse collection of cultures, philosophies, and educational practices. Ignoring such diversity can lead to stereotyped conceptions of another country's or culture's educational practices. It is possible in some instances, however, to identify a modal, or most popular, educational philosophy or practice for a particular country. This makes it possible to compare countries in terms of these modal philosophies or practices, provided that one is careful to avoid over generalizations.
Many people in the United States mistakenly believe that Asian students typically participate in highly academically oriented preschool programs. In fact, American preschools are more likely than are programs in Japan or other Asian countries to have the goal of providing children an academic head start. The majority of Japan's preschool programs, for example, are organized around the goal of teaching children to work as members of a group. This entails fostering persistence, concentration, and a willingness to forestall individual rewards. In Japan, instruction in reading and writing during the preschool years has traditionally been seen as the province of the family and occurs largely at home. In contrast to the group orientation of many preschools in Japan, preschools in the United States stress independence and self-confidence. Interestingly, there is evidence of an increasing trend toward providing an academic head start to preschoolers in Japan, although this often leads to clashes between educators and families who have more "traditional" values.
Inclusion of Preschoolers with Special Needs
In the 1980s and 1990s, there was an ever-increasing emphasis on educating children with special needs (e.g., learning disabilities) alongside typically developing peers in the "regular" classroom rather than in separate, "special" classes that enroll only children with disabilities. Although mandated by federal laws and regulations, this move toward inclusion has been controversial. Nevertheless, there has been considerable research documenting the potential benefits of inclusion at all levels of education, including the preschool level. These benefits are not typically seen on standardized measures of achievement but rather on social and cognitive behaviors within the classroom. Moreover, these benefits are seen for typically developing children as well as for children with special needs. Inclusion, however, may not alleviate all the problems of children with special needs. For example, children with cognitive disabilities in inclusive classrooms participate in fewer social interactions with peers and have fewer friends than do typically developing preschoolers in the same classes. It is important to recognize that there is considerable variability among inclusive preschool programs in both their educational quality and the extent to which there is an active attempt to fully include children with special needs in the "life" of the classroom. Not surprisingly, educational quality and the nature of the inclusive practices affect the outcomes for preschoolers with special needs.
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