By the age of three, children start taking an active part in their own learning. They begin acquiring the specific cognitive, motor, and social-emotional abilities that prepare them for the educational demands of elementary school. No longer just taking things in, by this age children are engaging their environment. So, conditions in that environment affect what and how well they learn.
In addition, what might be thought of as the brain’s traffic control system, otherwise known as executive function and self-regulation, develops rapidly during this time and is critical to learning. Executive function consists of the abilities to hold information in mind and use it, pause and think before acting, and adjust appropriately to change. Learning activities that support the development of these functions and self-control are as important as teaching children about words and numbers and boosts the benefits of subsequent education.
Young children exposed to the stress of family disadvantage are more likely to have less developed executive functions and cognitive and social-emotional skills. When these challenges are not addressed, less advantaged children are more apt to enter elementary school behind other children and have difficulty catching up.
The Quality of Early Education
High quality preschool or child care is regarded by scientists as among the most effective options for helping less advantaged children be ready for kindergarten. High quality comes from positive relationships between teachers and children, engaging, well-organized classrooms/centers, and instruction that teaches children to think. Research demonstrates that such programs are capable of having a positive, enduring impact on educational and life success, with favorable consequences for the economy.
Of the roughly 8,000 Sangamon County children ages three to five, an estimated 2,000 (25 percent) are less advantaged. Existing programs, including Early Start, which is Springfield Public School District’s Preschool for All program, and the eight Head Start sites in the county, appear to reach about two-thirds of this population. Among these programs, four have achieved the state’s “gold” (highest) standard for quality. There are many more that have yet to reach this level.
Recommendation 7: Sangamon County should assure that all less advantaged children are enrolled in high quality preschool or child care during the two-year period preceding their entry into kindergarten.
Studies show that a crucial ingredient in high quality preschool or child care is full-day participation in a developmentally appropriate curriculum. Full-day attendance produces higher rates of developmental progress, especially for children with greater needs, than does half-day attendance. Best estimates indicate that around 80 percent of children locally in preschool or child care participate in full-day programs (although the proportion of these children who are less advantaged is not known).
Recommendation 8: Preschool and child care programs should strive to provide full-day service for all less advantaged children in the county.
Connecting with Parents
An effective preschool or developmental child care program is not a substitute for effective parenting. Programs and parents are complements. They need to be governed by a strong inter-relationship, where teacher/professional caregiver and parent work in close collaboration for the benefit of the child.
At this point in life, children are still spending large amounts of time with their parents and families, and are heavily influenced by what happens at home. Mothers who are chronically stressed by lack of income or other troubles may have more difficulty being effective allies with preschools and child care providers in supporting the development of their children.
Consequently, taking extra steps to enable mothers to do more to support the early education of their children could be a wise investment. To this end, the home visiting that has proven to be effective in the very earliest years of a child’s life may, on a reduced scale, be a useful component of high quality preschool and child care. Existing home visiting programs, such as Parents as Teachers, which is operated by District #186, could play a highly valuable role as a complement to preschool education for less advantaged children.
Recommendation 9: Preschool and child care providers in the county should experiment with using home visiting in a more systematic way to help parents reinforce at home what their children are learning in preschool or child care.
An important by-product of making more use of home visiting in this context is to strengthen relationships between less advantaged parents and the teachers and care-providers tasked with educating their three to five year old children. Less advantaged parents often, themselves, have limited education and may lack the confidence and ability to interact effectively with professional educators. Meeting parents on their “own turf” can help lower social barriers and generate the conditions under which parents and teachers may be more likely to find common ground.
Common ground may be especially reachable in developing learning activities that promote the use of executive functions (as described above). While most formal preschool curricula do not explicitly account for executive functions, many of the activities included in such curricula are consistent with what is known about how executive functions mature. Imaginary play, storytelling, songs and games that encourage movement and control, matching and sorting activities, and puzzles all foster the use of one or more executive functions. These activities can be done in both the classroom or center and at home, and in many cases do not depend on parents’ education level.
Recommendation 10: Steps should be taken, as necessary, to educate preschool and child care providers about the role of executive functions in early child development and the types of learning activities that can be used to enhance the development of these functions.
The Importance of Pre-School Math
Another area where preschool curricula and the developmental programs of high quality child care providers may need strengthening is in the time and attention devoted to teaching pre-academic math skills. Research has found that math skills upon entry into kindergarten are as or more predictive of subsequent success in elementary school than reading skills and self-regulation. While the extent to which math is currently addressed by preschools and child care providers in the county is not known, data from national studies indicates that preschool teachers devote twice as much time to early literacy activities as they do to math activities. There are evidence-based preschool math curricula that could be used to supplement the existing curricula in local preschool programs.
Recommendation 11: Preschools and child care providers should, together, examine available math curricula to see if there is one or more that could be used as a cost-effective supplement to the existing curricula in these programs.
Tracking Children’s Progress
The expected, immediate result from preschool and early child care is that children will be ready for kindergarten. Unfortunately, there is no hard consensus among scientists about how to define and measure kindergarten readiness. Currently, through the Ready to Learn initiative of the Community Child Care Connection and the United Way of Central Illinois and Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln, a developmental screening tool, called the Brigance, is being used by a large number of preschools and child care providers in the county as a measure of readiness for kindergarten. While there are other, more sophisticated screening instruments, the Brigance has the virtues of being easy to use and inexpensive, and it captures, in general, the relevant domains of development.
Elementary schools would likely benefit, however, from more complete information on the children who will be enrolling in their kindergartens. If less advantaged children are served by an early home visiting program like the Nurse-Family Partnership and then participate in preschool or developmental child care for two to three years, elementary schools ought to have more information to go on than just Brigance screening scores, in order to have a complete picture of each child who will be entering the classroom.
Recommendation 12: Local preschools, child care providers, and home visiting programs should collaborate with elementary schools in developing a system that would allow collecting more complete data on children’s developmental progress from birth up to their enrollment in kindergarten.