The Importance of Early Childhood Education
I teach pre-k. An often misunderstood profession, early childhood education is the most important learning time in a person’s life. What happens in a quality preschool classroom can affect everything from IQ to EQ. Children learn to regulate their emotions and navigate conflict. There are opportunities to problem solve and work individually and in groups. They are exposed to important pre-reading skills like rhyming, pattern recognition, and symbolic representation. It builds foundational math skills like one-to-one correspondence, concepts of more/less, bigger/smaller, and counting. Preschoolers learn to take pride in a job well done and how to show empathy towards people different from themselves. In short, preschool gives kids the foundation for not only learning, but also being a balanced human being.
The Rush to Kindergarten
The new year brings with it a flurry of applications for kindergarten. Parents start scrambling for spots in the best schools, usually with their eye on what track will guarantee college success. But in this rush towards the finish line, many miss the journey right in front of them. Parents view September 1st as some magic date that transforms their child into a future summa cum laude graduate. But just like every child walks and talks at a different time, children are ready for formal education at different times. Children who are not ready for kindergarten can become frustrated. They can lose their natural love of learning and exploration. But more importantly, they can get lost in the shuffle and miss vital skills. As children get older, these holes in their learning get bigger and create new holes. By middle school these children are struggling to keep up and burnt out from the constant treading of water while there peers swim past them. More and more preschools are offering bridge classes between typical pre-k and kindergarten. These are designed to support children’s development so that when they do begin kindergarten they are set up for success instead of tossed into the deep end to sink or swim.
So how do you know if your child is ready for kindergarten or needs another year?
I hate the term “holding a child back” or “redshirting”. No one is being held back. Rather children are being sent when they are ready. I have recommended that truly gifted children wait another year. It has nothing to do with a child’s potential and everything to do with their balanced developmental readiness. Would you hire someone with 20% less experience than an otherwise equal candidate? Probably not. For children, especially those born in the late spring or summer, they have 20% less time on this planet compared to their peers who turn 5 in the early fall. Looking at where a child is developmentally, instead of their age on an arbitrary date, is a better way to asses kindergarten readiness.
The 3 Tiers of Kindergarten Readiness
Children need a foundation of love and security. That’s where it all starts. But after that there are 3 criteria I use for assessing academic readiness, and you might be surprised by what’s not on my list.
A child is ready for formal education when they have a balance of social and emotional development, fine and gross motor maturity, and academic readiness.
Social and Emotional Development
I can’t stress this enough, if your child doesn’t know how to self regulate, they are probably not ready for school. Children need to know how to be bored, how to handle frustration without hitting, biting, or throwing a temper tantrum. They need to be able to follow directions and to problem solve. Kindergarten teachers will tell you that a child who can sit and listen, follow instructions, and handle conflict will do well in kindergarten.
Fine Motor Skills
In a world full of touch screens and kid’s youtube channels, more and more children come into my classroom behind in fine motor skills. We don’t color for hours or learn to tie our shoes anymore. The result is 5 year olds who do not have functional pencil grips or the ability to use scissors. This is a big one. Kindergarten is full of cutting, glueing, and writing. If a child is struggling to hold a crayon and fatigues easily they will quickly become frustrated in kindergarten. The window for developing a functional pencil grip closes around 6 or 7 and most kindergarten teachers do not have time to work with your child on how to properly hold a pencil. Imagine being asked to perform a task but having only half the tools to accomplish it. Now imagine being judged on that task. You would feel like a failure. Now imagine you spent the next 12 years working with the same tools and the tasks getting harder and more complex. In all likelihood you would give up. An additional year of preschool can give your child the right tools for the task at hand. Instead of going through school handicapped, they will be able to grow their skill set.
Everyone has that friend whose child was reading at 3. It’s easy to worry when your child doesn’t recognize all the letters of the alphabet yet or want to sit through sight word flashcards like the neighbor down the street. But language and reading is a much more complex process than simple decoding. The lightbulb moment for true reading happens at different times for every child and early reading is not necessarily an indicator of future academic success. In fact a better indicator lies in phonemic awareness in preschool. Can your child rhyme? Can they identify beginning sounds? Can they clap out the syllables in a word? These skills are far more important than memorizing sight words.
Ok let me get real technical for a minute. Reading is taught as bottom up processing. That means we break down a word into syllables and those syllables into phonemes. We teach children to sound out words. And that works, sort of. Until you realize how imperfect the English language is and how many rules are more like suggestions. There are a million subtle nuances to vowels alone. Toss in regional accents and sounding out words will only take you so far. There are a lot of “outlaw” words that don’t even try to play by these rules and have to be memorized. But you don’t have every word memorized. You don’t sound things out anymore. That’s because at some point your brain reached the magic tipping point and instead of learning to read in bottom up process, you are actually reading in a top down cognitive process. It’s the reason you can still read those Facebook posts with all the letters scrambled and 3’s for the letter E. Your child can memorize words, but that doesn’t mean they can think about them. Thinking about written language requires complex cognition. There are no memorization short cuts. So even if your child isn’t doing what the neighbor down the street is doing, that doesn’t mean they are behind.
Just like with language, real math is a much higher level cognitive process that requires some foundational understanding. Children need to count and sort, add to and take away from, and play with concepts of less and more. They need to understand what basic concepts like 2 apples + 2 apples = 4 apples. Because eventually they will be wrapping their brains around concepts like absolute value and dealing with huge numbers like trillion dollar deficits.
But Is My Child Ready?
Your child is ready if they have a balance of the 3 legs for academic success. A brilliant child who cannot self regulate or hold a pencil is not ready. A child who has great fine motor skills and self regulation skills but no interest in counting or can’t find basic rhymes will struggle. One more year to explore and mature can make a huge difference. The goal of raising children is not to outdo the neighbors. It’s not to get them into college. We should strive to raise happy and healthy human beings with a desire to go out into the world and make it better. That may include college. It may also include non-traditional education like trade schools, apprenticeships, and creative exploration. If your child doesn’t fit the mold and the only standard of measure is academics they will always fall short.
So stop worrying about how old they will be at graduation. Don’t compare your child to friends or siblings. Remember September 1st is not a magic date. See your child for who they are and were they are at. Trust your preschool teacher. Listen to your heart instead of the gossip on the block. Send your child when they are ready for the race and watch them run.