The preschool years are when the child as a person – as someone with a coherent set of characteristics – first emerges. Substantial brain development has occurred before this period, and while the brain will continue to develop, development will not be quite as rapid. Children become selves during these years, capable of acting with purpose, but doing so initially by drawing on learning they have internalized, for good or ill, from earlier. They are now able to a more active part in their own learning, which presents both opportunities and challenges. The abilities of children, the relationship with their parents/caregivers, and the out-of-home settings where they learn all affect development, arguably in equal measure. This differs from what happens before (when parents matter most) and after (when out of home settings increasingly matter more) the preschool period.
Young Children’s Abilities
Children develop cognitive, motor, and noncognitive skills during this developmental stage, with consequences for their lives in the long-run. Noncognitive is a catchall for social, emotional, and character skills children need in order to learn in the broadest sense of the term. Cognitive skills involve abilities with words and numbers, and those abilities can be broken down into more refined subcategories, such as number composition and decomposition and expressive and receptive vocabulary. Motor skills have to do with gross and fine body control. Social and emotional skills involve abilities in forming and managing relationships with adults and peers.
The character skills needed for learning, independent of IQ, are a set of attributes directly or indirectly associated with what are called executive functions of the brain. These functions involve such abilities as holding information in mind and using it, pausing and thinking before acting, and adjusting appropriately to change. Executive functions, which might be thought of as the brain’s traffic control system, underlie a number of child behaviors found to be associated with school success and to be teachable, such as flexibility, reflectivity, strategic problem solving, vigilance, persistence, and response to novelty and error. Not surprisingly, these same behaviors tend also to be positively associated with social competence.
Kindergarten teachers rate self-control and attention – executive functions – as more critical for school readiness than the content (e.g., math, literacy) knowledge children learn in preschool. Children from families facing adversity, such as low income and family violence, are more likely to have poorer executive functions, which put them at greater risk of falling progressively farther behind from one year to the next of school. Externalizing problems, or acting out, that develop early in children due to adverse conditions predict lower levels of self-control during preschool and beyond. The evidence is fairly persuasive that abilities like self-control, attention, and persistence can be positively and enduringly influenced during the preschool years, the Perry preschool model being a good example. Indeed, research suggests that these noncognitive attributes may be the chief mechanism through which effective preschools change, to the extent they do, the life trajectories of less advantaged children.
While executive functions are not often explicitly addressed in preschool curricula, research has shown these abilities are capable of steady improvement. They also feed into the development of social skills, which studies have found to be significantly related to the development of academic skills and vice versa. All in all, it appears that interventions designed to explicitly and effectively support the development of all three types of skills – academic, social, and executive (recognizing that the distinction among the three is not always precise) – will have a higher likelihood of enabling young children to be ready for kindergarten.
One of the strongest predictors of children’s competence in preschool is the level of stress their mothers experience. Among the most significant factors in this stress is mothers’ relationships with family and friends, particularly partners. Mothers with intact family relationships have been found to show more respect for their child’s autonomy, to be better at structuring learning tasks, and to be more confident in their interactions with their children. Mothers who go from less stable to more stable relationships with other adults during a child’s earliest years tend to become better mothers, leading to a reduction in their child’s susceptibility to problem behaviors. If the key developmental task during the preschool period is guided self-regulation that later becomes internalized in the child, then it follows that children who have higher quality interactions with their mothers may, as a result, acquire a foundation for later competence despite adversity.
Maternal stress is strongly associated with attachment security, the nature of the bond that forms between mother and child. Problematic forms of attachment include resistant (in which the child is easily distressed and difficult to comfort and which is associated with lack of maternal competence) and avoidant (in which the child does not want to be comforted and which is associated with maternal rejection, lack of affection, and lack of interest). Disorganized attachment is a newer classification assigned to children in which the mother behaves in incoherent and threatening ways, creating confusion for the child. This type of attachment has been associated with severe types of long-term pathology in children.
Maternal sensitivity or responsiveness in a child’s first year predicts the nature of attachment that a child brings into the preschool period. Research has shown that parent-child relationships characterized by hostility, low levels of warmth, and low levels of involvement can have long-term negative consequences for a child’s physical and socio-emotional well-being. Consistent negative mothering from 3 to 6 months of age predicts progression to consistent, mutually angry and hostile mother-child interaction by preschool and eventually conduct problems following the child into elementary school. It is the negativity of mother-child interactions during preschool which is the strongest precursor of future difficulties. By contrast, children with more secure attachment during the preschool period tend to be more socially engaged and more likely to exhibit social, emotional, and cognitive skills that contribute to peer acceptance.
Out-of-Home Education Settings
Evidence suggests that acquired math skills by the end of preschool may be more predictive of later educational achievement than reading skills and attention. Preschools that devote intensive time to learning early math concepts may, in particular, have a positive impact on children from homes where pre-academic stimulation is low. Such programs may be less effective with early literacy, which may depend more on additional support in the home environment. Yet, studies indicate that on average preschool teachers devote about twice as much time to early literacy activities than to early math activities.
In general, longer duration preschool programs have not been shown to produce significantly better effects on educational outcomes. Possibly, this is because curricula and activities do not fully capitalize on skills gained early in such programs. A key exception is that, compared to children in one-year preschool, those in two-year programs have been less likely to receive special education later. While the results for duration have been mixed, the evidence is clearer that full-day attendance generates higher rates of developmental progress, especially for children with greater needs, than does half-day attendance. Interestingly, preschool programs specifically designed for children with special needs have not been shown to support the development of the academic skills necessary for kindergarten.
The evidence has also been mixed on the relationship between the quality of early learning settings and educational outcomes. Structural measures of quality, such as staff qualifications, teacher-child ratios, and family partnerships, have tended to show a weak association with improvements in measured child learning and behavior. What appears to matter more are the qualities of the interaction between teacher and child. Teacher warmth and responsiveness and the focus and depth of instruction appear to be needed to positively affect the development of school readiness skills. For example, the consistency with which teachers provide emotional support has been found to be significantly related to academic and social outcomes in preschool. Such interactional qualities may be more likely in settings that adhere to structural quality standards or expectations.