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Quality Pre-K is more than just academic content

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on September 12, 2012)

Parents and policy-makers share two broad concerns when it comes to young children from infancy to age 5. The first is the care and nurturing of the children, ensuring their health and well-being. The second has to do with developing their minds and preparing children for kindergarten and elementary school.

For a variety of reasons, families in the U.S. face a fragmented system of care and an often confusing array of preschool options. Young children from low-income families are at the greatest risk of getting off to a poor educational start, and educational researchers will tell you that we still lack a theory of change for how best to prepare children from impoverished environments for long-term school success.

My colleague, Professor Dale Farran, has studied many different pre-K educational curricula. With her fellow scholars at the Peabody Research Institute, she is currently conducting an evaluation of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program. According to Dale, policy-makers tend to fall back on concrete skills such as letter recognition, phonemic awareness (understanding letter-sound combinations), or counting as measurements of a given program’s success. While important, Dale’s research suggests that other qualities, especially a child’s ability to regulate their own behaviors and sustain concentration and focus may be much more important for long-term success.

These abilities can be encouraged by pre-K teachers and classrooms that share certain characteristics. Dale suggests that parents investigating a pre-K program should look for the following:

  • Positive teacher affect. For example, does the teacher smile often? Does she or he appear to enjoy the children and take joy in their learning?
  • Positive reinforcement. Does the teacher spend more time offering positive or negative comments about children’s behavior? When teachers are frequently disapproving, the teacher is the one regulating the child’s behavior, not the child.
  • Anticipation. Does the teacher foresee classroom problems developing and offer guidance or redirection before things get out of hand?
  • Rich activities. Does the classroom feature well-stocked centers with a variety of activities, including math activities in addition to storybooks?
  • Solo time. Are children allowed time for individual, imaginative play? When children play on their own, they build concentration and focus.
  • Time wasters. Are teachers efficient at moving students from one activity to the next? Says Dale, “It’s amazing how much valuable time can be lost lining children up to go to the bathroom, or go out to play, or to eat. Often the best-behaved children lose the most learning time.”

While pre-K programs like Waldorf or Montessori have real philosophical differences and their own merits, Dale notes that many pre-K curricula are largely transferable. Families that can be selective in their choices should be sure to gauge factors like those above.

Unfortunately, families that qualify for Head Start or state-funded pre-K may have fewer options from which to choose. Even so, family members should be sure to visit their child’s classroom on a regular basis to monitor quality of care and provide feedback to the teacher.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.