A few recent preschool related articles

First is the Brookings Institution’s write up on new research into Tennessee ‘ program. The author also tackles misleading statements regarding previous research,  including Tulsa’s program.

Second,  good discussion on universal pre-k on the Freakonomics blog. They seem to have come to the same conclusions I have.

Third is the YWCA Tulsa’s recently released report on “Child Care in Crisis”.  I am looking for an online link. The center just ended its forty year program due to rising costs.


Technology and Literacy: Are Screen Time Restrictions Necessary?

What happens when you give a toddler an iPad?

A quick Google search reveals the following:

So, not very helpful.

Screen time restrictions

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently set out new guidelines on screen time for kids, based on a comprehensive “family media use plan” and intended to counter “nearly round-the-clock media usage” (an affliction their parents probably share as well).  Parents, specifically, are asked to discourage the use of media during bedtime and meal times. The guidelines also reiterate earlier recommendations to limit screen time to only 2 hours a day for children older than 2, and to ban screen time for children younger than 2.

What do we do? Personally, I’m on the very liberal end of the screen time spectrum, although in general we do fit within AAP guidelines regarding television usage (and no screens during mealtime, especially — but that’s more of a ‘social skills’ lesson than worrying about their brains). But there are many, many days my daughter goes over that 2 hour TV limit, a fact I don’t usually admit as it distresses me.

As for the iPad, it is often in easy reach.  What has occurred in our family is the iPad is just another toy (with only educational games loaded on), which has greatly demystified it and has led to decreased use.

Do I monitor the number of hours she’s on an iPad? No more than I monitor how long she’s been doing any indoor activity — because in general my ideal is that my children spend their days outside.  Other than that preference, I treat, say, an electronic puzzle on the iPad no differently than her physical puzzles. And this is the disconnect I have with many of my fellow parents, who like the AAP treat all screen time the same. I fret about TV usage. I don’t fret over other electronics.

Am I in the wrong? Is it harming my daughter to be doing puzzles and educational quizzes on the iPad?

The Atlantic explored that issue last April.  The author pointed out the 2011 AAP report on media use by children indicated the issue was with ‘passive’ screen use, not necessarily those interactive apps. But parents and experts remain wary.

I wish I could just quote the entire article here, because I found myself nodding at all her points. She illustrates the tension between wanting our children to benefit from the digital age — they are, after all, “digital natives” — and wanting our children to explore and grow and learn in the way most play-based education experts recommend, by real experiences in real places. Not virtual places.

On the one hand, parents want their children to swim expertly in the digital stream that they will have to navigate all their lives; on the other hand, they fear that too much digital media, too early, will sink them. Parents end up treating tablets like precision surgical instruments, gadgets that might perform miracles for their child’s IQ and help him win some nifty robotics competition—but only if they are used just so. Otherwise, their child could end up one of those sad, pale creatures who can’t make eye contact and has an avatar for a girlfriend.

Norman Rockwell never painted Boy Swiping Finger on Screen, and our own vision of a perfect childhood has never adjusted to accommodate that now-common tableau. Add to that our modern fear that every parenting decision may have lasting consequences—that every minute of enrichment lost or mindless entertainment indulged will add up to some permanent handicap in the future—and you have deep guilt and confusion.

Yeah, that’s basically where I am.

So is every minute of screen time a ‘minute of enrichment lost’ or ‘mindless entertainment’? And how does brain chemistry change while staring at a screen?

The TV analogy

As  many articles point out, there is a dearth of research regarding children and tablet/smartphone use. So the best information we have is what happens when children watch television.

One theory is that for all people, not just for children, staring at the TV amounts to watching a blank wall — the so-called zombie effect.  The support for that theory comes from a 1969 experiment by Herbert Krugman, which indicates television watching “numbs our left brain and leaves the right brain to perform all cognitive duties.” In addition, psychophysiologist Thomas Mulholland found that just 30 seconds of watching TV activates alpha waves in your brain, which leads to more receptivity to suggestions.

Can I note something here? I haven’t read either study, so the same quotes are really being repeated over and over again on various websites.  And, incidentally, most of those websites are a bit alarmist and focused on conspiracy theories.   Calling on all scientists — help here please.

There are indeed indications the alpha waves are not caused by television per se but by the screen itself — the screen flickering, specifically. Which brings me to two questions: 1.) Is reading on the Kindle also bad? Or is it not because there is no screen flicker? 2.) If reading on the Kindle is not bad, does it follow that playing an app on a tablet is also not subject to this ‘alpha wave’ problem?

I’m going with the theory that the zombie/alpha wave effect isn’t applicable to the iPad. The AAP has been criticized for not distinguishing between passive and interactive screen use – even when considering children under 2, for whom the data show passive screen use is very unhelpful and perhaps even harmful. We simply don’t have any peer-reviewed studies on whether interactive screen use for even under 2-year-olds is harmful or helpful.

But for kicks, let’s explore the TV-watching/passive media thing a bit further. Does TV turn you into a zombie?

Not so, say many experts.

Consider the concept of ‘stickiness’, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point. Shows such as Sesame Street may actually improve literacy and shows such as Blue’s Clue’s may improve cognitive thinking. Why?

Research in the 1980s began the work of nullifying the ‘zombie effect’ by focusing on how kids learn and how to help them retain what they see on the screen (hence, the ‘sticky’ effect).  Fewer screen cuts and linear stories assist in that endeavor — something Sesame Street tried to emulate. And then, in the 1990s, Blue’s Clues introduced ‘the pause’:

Steve asks a question and then pauses for about five seconds to let the viewer shout out an answer. Small children feel much more engaged and invested when they think they have a role to play, when they believe they are actually helping Steve and Blue piece together the clues. A longitudinal study of children older than 2 and a half showed that the ones who watched Blue’s Clues made measurably larger gains in flexible thinking and problem solving over two years of watching the show.

So TV, at least for those over 2.5 years old (under that age, they may not be able to cognitively comprehend what they are seeing on screen), may actually produce positive effects. One can probably assume physical activities and exploration is better, but TV is not necessarily ‘the boob tube.’

A 2007 study …suggests there’s even less reason to be paranoid about TV. This time, researchers looked at what kinds of shows kids watched. They found that toddlers who watched entertainment shows saw an increased risk of developing attention-related problems five years later (and an even greater risk if those shows were violent). Kids who watched “educational” TV shows exhibited no greater risk.

So how do we ensure our kids are watching the ‘right’ kind of television? Focus on what type of show they are watching (‘educational’ TV isn’t always beneficial, just because there is some sort of lesson at the end.) Shows that promote interaction (Blue’s Clues and SuperWhy are my favorites for this), are more likely to at least have some sort of educational benefit. In fact, SuperWhy taught my daughter her lower case letters. She was about 18 months old — I don’t say that to brag, but to point out that with some children, TV isn’t even horrible for the under-2 set. Know your child.

(Note that despite the early plaudits for Sesame Street, later research does indicate very young children actually do not learn much from the program because of its ‘magazine’ format with multiple vignettes.)

Engaging your children with the television they are watching is also key — especially if they are watching more traditional cartoons (like the ones my daughter loves on Disney Jr).  Repeat what they are seeing on screen and reinforce the lessons on the show.

We can extrapolate, therefore, that the same rules apply to iPad use. Angry Birds may not be the best choice for a toddler (an older child may benefit from the problem-solving aspect of the game). An app that has puzzles, or encourages a child to trace her letters, or has Elmo talking about numbers and asking questions, probably is ‘less bad’.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) reiterates this is a well-researched 2012 policy statement jointly issued with the Fred Rogers Center at St. Vincent College. “Throughout the process of researching and writing this position statement,” they begin,
“we have been guided by the legacy of Fred Rogers. By appropriately and intentionally using the
technology of his day—broadcast television—to connect with each individual child and with parents and families, Fred Rogers demonstrated the positive potential of using technology and media in ways that are grounded in principles of child development.”

But reading a book is better, right?

Yes. Even for a toddler, who can’t read, having a live person reading to them is much better than  some book being read on an iPad app — a phenomenon known as the “video deficit”.

So what happens when you read? Words may stimulate parts of your brain not directly related to language processing. Think olfactory associations and texture. The brain does not necessarily distinguish between the ‘experiences’ gained reading and the experiences of real life — in contrast to what the conventional wisdom is with television.  This effect is reproduced even when a child is not physically reading.  A 2010 research study done on preschoolers indicates stories read to them elicited similar results.

Does that mean watching television is automatically the opposite of reading? Perhaps not. The same 2010 study found the same effects occurring when preschoolers watched movies, but not television — perhaps, the researchers surmise, because parents are more likely to watch movies with their children and talk to them about the story lines.  Mark down another vote for engaging with your children while they are watching TV.

What about imagination? Again, we have the conventional wisdom that reading engages one’s imagination, while television does not, because one does not have to imagine the pictures already playing in front of you on the screen. However, it is possible that with moderate levels of TV viewing, children will engage in imaginative play related to what they saw on screen.

The keys to literacy

Television, therefore, does not automatically inhibit literacy, and therefore perhaps neither does the iPad.

However, although a television program or interactive app can do well in teaching phonics, those programs and apps likely will never replace the adult interaction needed to really promote literacy.   What else do you need? Phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Consider a 2010 literature review looking at the most effective ways to put preschoolers on the path to reading. The study argues (as I have in the past) that even the most ‘high-quality’ programs will not teach the essential components to literacy unless the teacher has had specialized instruction on how to promote vocabulary in disadvantaged children:

Reese and Cox (1999) tested the effects of a researcher implemented storybook reading intervention tailored to children’s initial levels of language skill, finding
that children who heard and discussed storybooks with vocabulary matched to their own knowledge levels outperformed their peers on the Peabody
Picture Vocabulary Test-Revised (PPVT-R, 1981). Most recently, in a randomized control study, Wasik, Bond, and Hindman (2006) provided Head Start
teachers with intensive training in book reading and other literacy instructional practices to extend book reading vocabulary, resulting in children making significant
gains on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-3rd edition (PPVT-3, 1997) over the preschool year as compared with peers whose teachers did not participate in the training intervention. Thus, teachers’ conceptual and procedural knowledge appears
to be a key factor that determines whether or not instruction will promote children’s vocabulary skills.

As conventional wisdom indicates, the best and well-designed app cannot exclusively replace an adult’s ability to teach.

Want smart kids? The best thing you can do, according to The Chronicle, is to have books in the home.

The study was conducted over 20 years, in 27 countries, and surveyed more than 70,000 people. Researchers found that children who grew up in a home with more than 500 books spent 3 years longer in school than children whose parents had only a few books. Also, a child whose parents have lots of books is nearly 20-percent more likely to finish college.

For comparison purposes, the children of educated parents (defined as people with at least 15 years of schooling) were 16-percent more likely than the children of less-educated parents to get their college degrees. Formal education matters, but not as much as books.

But what does that mean? And are we screwed now that everyone is using a Kindle?

Well, first, it does indicate even parents with lower levels of education or lower poverty levels can create educated children by having books in the home. Of course, hopefully we’re not stupid enough to think the mere act of buying books is going to jump little Johnny’s IQ or guarantee him a college degree. Yes, the very act of buying books means education is important to the parents, but the key, points out a fellow evidence-based parent, is creating a  “scholarly culture” in the home. The presence of books just reflects that type of integrated wrap-around educational parenting.

Having your children notice how much you read is likely a good way to promote that scholarly atmosphere. I’m sure reading on the Kindle won’t hamper that, as one can assume the Kindle is mostly used for reading. Now, I myself read on the Kindle app on the iPad, so it may not be as obvious to my kids. But I doubt they are going to grow up not realizing that I’m a reader.

So even if my kids watch a bit more TV than recommended, education is just a holistic part of our lives. We’re always explaining and teaching and learning, and our parental conversations are geeky arguments that often end in consulting Wikipedia or doing some sort of math equation.  Some television for my children likely is not going to cause significant harm.

This belies some of the alarmist research we’ve seen in the past.  As Farhad Manjoo recounts in Slate:

The most-cited study on the cognitive effects of TV on young children was conducted by a team led by Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician and director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital. The paper, published in 2004, examined the relationship between the number of hours of television that a child watched at ages 1 and 3 and the child’s score on a well-known diagnostic test of attention problems at age 7. The study found a significant relationship between these variables: The more TV that you watch as a toddler, the more likely you’ll have attention-related problems as a first-grader. The researchers reported that this relationship held up even after they controlled for various complicating factors, including parental substance abuse and socioeconomic status.

But, as Manjoo continues, the study suffers from good that old correlation versus causation problem.  Not only does the Seattle study only measure what happens when a child watches too much TV, but it doesn’t measure what type of shows they were watching, and — most relevant to the whole ‘parents are important’ bit:

 The study can’t establish a causal relationship between TV viewing and attention problems. This seems important: Some parents were letting their kids watch five or more hours of television a day. It stands to reason that these weren’t great parents—so maybe it was something about their parenting skills, and not the boob tube itself, that caused these kids to develop problems.

Christakis and other researchers have conducted several follow-up studies that seek to address some of these problems, and much of this research presents a less alarming story. In a paper published in 2009, Marie Evans Schmidt, a researcher at the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, looked at a group of children who watched slightly less TV than those in Christakis’ study. Schmidt also took into account many environmental factors that could shed some light on the effects that parents played in a child’s life, including whether and for how long a child had been breast-fed and the amount he slept each night. Instead of focusing on attention problems, Schmidt’s team analyzed the effects of TV on the child’s visual and motor skills. They found something remarkable: There was no effect. After controlling for environmental factors, each additional hour of television that a child watches at or before age 2 is not associated with any change in test scores at age 3.

Wow. Guess what? Parents matter.

This cuts both ways. Just as some TV and electronic use is likely to not have significant effect on my children due to the culture of the home, for others who do not emphasize the love of learning, no amount of ‘books in the home’ or the alternate ‘super educational iPad apps’ are going to change the course of your child’s life.

The siren call of ‘educational’

Case in point: Baby Einstein

We’ve already talked about the components of a truly educational television program as opposed to those that claim to be educational.  But still, programs such as Baby Einstein fool parents into thinking their very young children (read: under 2 years old) can benefit from television content, especially something as esoteric as Baby Einstein, which has really psychedelic pictures and images and classical music. But, according to Zimmerman, Chirstakis, and Meltzoff, exposure to “baby” DVDs among infants may lead to lower scores on a standard language development test, the Communicative Development Inventory.

There must have been quite some schadenfraude among the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (which issued a complaint to the FTC) when the Walt Disney Company, in response to the bad press, ended up offering a refund for all Baby Einstein DVDs/videos purchased between 2004 and 2012.

The most insidious of the claims belong to the Your Baby Can Read company (which has gone out of business due to the another CCFC complaint to the FTC).  The company, which sold complete packages of books, videos and flashcards for babies as young as three months old, claimed it helped parents seize the ‘small window of opportunity’ (again, we’re talking about babies and toddlers) during which a child has the best chance of learning how to read.

Yes, the baby and toddler years are very important to future reading success, but the answer, as we all know, is not memorizing flashcards — which is essentially what the program was about — but is instead vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary. And pretend play. And exploration. All that stuff.

Baby First TV is the latest in a long line of programs marketed to the under-2 set. However, at the very least, it does follow the rules of slow and linear storylines as well as ‘the pause.’ Can 6 month olds benefit from their programs? Perhaps not, and it is disingenuous to include them as targets for the shows. But toddlers very well could.

But even as parents become more savvy to misleading TV program marketing, we can still be led astray by the claims made by iPad app developers. (It’s interactive! It talks about shapes and letters! It has to be educational, right?)

As Lisa Guersey writes in Slate, only 2 percent of purportedly educational iPad/iPhone apps “allow for open-ended discovery and exploration,” according to a 2012 Australian study She further points out:

Some e-book studies at labs at Temple University and the University of California at Riverside—as well as a forthcoming report from the Cooney Center—show that the wow factor of the device and the presence of interactive “hotspots” on e-book pages may interfere with children’s ability to recall the story line of the book. This isn’t just a problem of electronics. Even traditional print-and-cardboard pop-up books can lead children at 2½ and 3 years old to learn less from the story than they would have otherwise, according to research at the University of Virginia conducted by Cynthia Chiong. Is all this interactivity more about attracting a child’s attention than teaching her?

Family media use

Certainly, with great power comes great responsibility. And so we return to the AAP’s most recent statement, which say parents need to abide by family media-use rules in order to model healthy behavior.  Much of the concern over tablets and smartphone use is the sense that children will immerse themselves in something virtual without noticing the physical world around them. This concept is advocated by Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of The Big Disconnect:

Parents are pulling away from family life, lost in their own smartphones and screens, leaving many children feeling neglected and lonely. The “digitalized life,” she argues, is taking its toll on us — altering the way children think and relate and pulling families apart.

“Stop bothering me, Baby J.  Mommy’s blogging about how to be a good parent.”

Want to have some ratings on the educational value of iPad apps? Check out Common Sense Media.

What I Really Wanted to Say Today

I had the pleasure today of being on Midday with Dan Rodricks on WYPR, Baltimore’s local NPR station. I’ll post the podcast as soon as it’s up. (Edit: Here it is. I start at the 36 minute mark)

But don’t judge me for the speed talking. I had about five minutes to make my case.

Naturally, I couldn’t make my case effectively, nor respond to the advocates of universal prekindergarten, one of whom was in the studio and on for the entire hour.

Here’s the bottom line: Preschool for everyone is not a panacea to fix all the educational ills in our states. The reason intensive programs like the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project worked is because they  didn’t focus on just educating the child.  They focused on the family and the community. It is a holistic approach to learning that we cannot just get by adding an extra grade onto formal schooling. If we are going to spend state resources, let’s please spend them on the most vulnerable of our citizens, the ones for whom just an extra grade of schooling will not have long term effects.

Look at the wonderful CAP Head Start Program and Educare. They focus on wraparound care. They understand the power of involving the parents.  And they still are struggling to have real long term results. How much could we do if we took all those valuable resources we have and boost that power, to create an intensive program that will approach the level of the Perry Preschool Project?

In terms of response to some of the comments:

Here’s what Margaret Williams of the Maryland Family Network and Professor Bill Gormley of Georgetown say (paraphrased, of course)

– Prekindergarten in Oklahoma has wonderful, across-the-board effects for children of all income levels and races. All students who go to PreK vs. students who do not have higher cognitive abilities on entering kindergarten

– The third grade ‘fade out effect’ does not immediately mean prekindergarten is a bad idea. In fact, children may come roaring back in high school and have wonderful cognitive and behavioral results.

— Maryland is already doing great with preK for disadvantaged children, so why not expand it to a universal program?

-PreK in Oklahoma exists because the voters and the business community wanted it.

Well, hello.

1. Prekindergarten in Oklahoma has wonderful, across-the-board effects for children of all income levels and races.

Short term effects fade out in the third grade (as we all acknowledged on the show). I’m not sure why we keep insisting Oklahoma’s program has fantastic results when the data do not support that. We can conjecture that the kids will close the gap in high school, but you cannot say that in the same breath in which we talk about the short term effects, because we haven’t studied that in Oklahoma.

2.All students who go to PreK vs. students who do not have higher cognitive abilities on entering kindergarten

Yep. And why don’t those higher scores persist? Because we are completely and utterly ignoring the power of the home environment. I am underlining and underscoring that point because it’s important. I want to put it in all caps and make it my title. We need wraparound, intensive care for our disadvantaged children.

  • Preschool benefits children from disadvantaged families far more than it benefits children from families that already provide the socio-emotional support, learning tools, and exposure to literacy as a natural and holistic part of child-rearing. Children in families receiving welfare had vocabularies that were half as large as those of their more affluent peers, and the disparities persisted throughout childhood.
  • A prekindergarten program, no matter how good, is not going to be able to overcome that negative educational home environment years after the fact.
  • As for those students who come from affluent families that also learn their words and letters and phonics sooner? Of course a child in a formal school environment is going to know more stuff in the beginning than a child not in the formal school environment. But any play-based education advocate will tell you that those measures of ability mean squat when you’re actually talking about instilling a life-long ability to learn. Looking at those short-term impacts falsely assumes that impact is the absolute measure of a child’s ability to learn. In fact, learning sight words and phonics are not the most important component of a preschool child’s ability to read. We have much more trouble measuring the true important parts of education — curiosity, problem-solving, and comprehension.
—–Maybe instead of educational policy experts they should have had actual experts in the field of early childhood education on.
3. The third grade ‘fade out effect’ does not immediately mean prekindergarten is a bad idea. In fact, children may come roaring back in high school and have wonderful cognitive and behavioral results.
Those critical of prekindergarten are not necessarily promoting throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In fact:

The main problem I have with universal prekindergarten is the universal component of it.
Let’s look at some of those later effects of prekindergarten:
In President Obama’s  State of the Union speech, he says:
In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own.
But the studies refer to the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project, both of which were intensive programs for a small population of disadvantaged students. Those programs involved visits with the parents and tailored learning plans.

They are less preschool, more large-scale intervention. A large state-run program is not going to approach that level of wraparound care. Even Head Start, which obviously serves only disadvantaged children, does not approach that level of care.
So no. Our kids are not going to come roaring back and make up the learning gap. And it’s disingenuous to imply they will.
Maryland is already doing great with preK for disadvantaged children, so why not expand it to a universal program?
You are doing great with the enrollment numbers and the short term effect. But you’re really going to spend your resources on expanding preK to kids who don’t need it as opposed to fixing what’s going wrong with the long term effect? No state is doing great with our disadvantaged children. We are all failing. Focus on them.
-PreK in Oklahoma exists because the voters and the business community wanted it.
No, it existed because a lawmaker snuck it into a bill on a loophole. The people of Oklahoma never got to debate it. Do we love it? Sure. It makes us look good and it provides free services to everyone.  Have we had a real discussion on it?  No.
Thanks so much to the show for having me on. I do like the fact they tried to balance their point of view with me and with Lindsay Burke from the Heritage Foundation. I am extremely frustrated, however, that neither Lindsay nor I had anywhere close to equal time.

Controversies: Is Preschool Necessary?

You are a mother of a soon-to-be four year old in Tulsa. You have to decide which preschool he or she will attend next year. What do you do?

First, let’s look at your assumptions. Does your child actually need preschool?

Need is a strong word. Will your child benefit from preschool? In a nutshell – probably.

Some research suggests that if you are an educated parent who spends time talking and learning with your children, that your child probably will not gain any extra educational benefit from preschool. Further, the type of preschool education (how many parents are researching the heck out of Montessori vs. Waldorf vs. Reggio Emilia?) matters even less.

Preschool benefits children from disadvantaged families far more than it benefits children from families that already provide the socio-emotional support, learning tools, and exposure to literacy as a natural and holistic part of child-rearing.

This seems a bit confusion in the light of much research indicating the effects of high-quality preschool are beneficial across all income strata and race indicators, but it’s not as paradoxical as it seems at first. What preschool does, according to twin studies done by University of Texas psychologist Elliot Tucker-Drob, is neutralize the effects of the home environment on students who attend preschool at the age of four. Therefore, students who come from disadvantaged situations – including those who have childcare providers or parents who do not engage with them on a high level – benefit the most from a quality preschool situation. The home environment factor accounts for the increase across all socioeconomic and race indicators when looking at preschool benefits as a whole. In addition, some research suggests any academic advantage gained by sending a child to preschool fades over time.

So, again? In a nutshell – four year olds need educationally stimulating environments to score well on literacy and math skills indicators in kindergarten and in the elementary years. How they get that environment is up to you.

(As a side note, a lot of the data indicate intervention at the age of four is beneficial – but not necessarily earlier. However,that may have to do with the quality of the intervention and the continuity of care.)

What about socialization?

Is a good literacy and math score the only indicator of success? Not necessarily. Much of early childhood education is focused on helping children learn how to be students, whether it is operating in a structured environment or speaking up in class. There are also socialization factors – how to interact with peers, for example. Those are all also indicators of future success in the elementary years.

So, preschool still may assist children make the transition to kindergarten smoother, which sets them up for future success. This, of course, means the decision to send a child to preschool is a very child- and family- specific decision.

Notice the mays here. There is evidence that preschool helps even the educationally-advantaged child by improving social skills.

However, parental involvement in social-skill modeling is just as, or perhaps even more, important.Preschool teachers may help with some of those skills where parents don’t (or, suggest to parents on how to teach these skills). But it is by no means necessary that a child needs to go to preschool to learn how to interact with peers.

Consider this. Socialization is not the same as socializing.  Socialization is the art of learning social skills; socializing is interacting with peer groups.  Glen Dewar argues that center-based care may increase levels of aggression in students, citing Tucker-Drob’s twin studies as well as other studies (discussed in more detail below). However, the studies do not necessarily distinguish between daycares and preschools, and do not distinguish between the quality of care.

Finally, the fact that preschool may help children become good students in a structured learning environment may not really speak to parents who don’t desire their children in a structured environment – for example, many homeschoolers. Homeschooling, of course, turns the educational value of preschooling on its head as well, as most homeschoolers (and many other stay at home parents regardless of their choice of kindergarten) don’t wait until the magical age of five to start teaching anyway, thereby ‘homeschooling’ their preschoolers.

This still begs a few questions. Let’s look at them one at a time.

Childcare versus preschool versus prekindergarten:

One issue with the various studies out there is that the terms are often mixed. As I stated in my private schools post, it is difficult to distinguish between center-based daycare and preschool, especially as some centers provide daycare for younger children but preschool-like curricula for older children. In addition, the terms preschool and prekindergarten are often treated as interchangeable (In the latter case, we will attempt to use the term prekindergarten only when referring to a public school program occurring on-site at an elementary school -basically, an extra year of public school before kindergarten).

One study indicates that for disadvantaged children, any sort of center-based care, including daycare, provides a comparative advantage over parental care or informal familial care. The study is complicated by the fact the parents self-reported the type of care their child received (ex: center-based daycare or preschool). In addition, some children received a mix of care (for example, preschool plus a grandmother caring for them on off days).  Nevertheless, the results of the study seem to be consistent with conventional wisdom -those disadvantaged students benefited most from prekindergarten collocated with the elementary school, less from private preschool, and even less from center-based daycare. But all had a positive effect in comparison to no center-based care at all.

This is in stark contrast to studies indicating that center-based care pales in comparison to nanny or familial care – but in those studies, 1.) the quality of the center based care was not discussed, 2.) the type of center based care was not discussed, and 3.) the quality of nanny or familial care was not discussed.

Some other studies have shown positive effects of center-based on groups of children, mostly disadvantaged children but also other, more advantaged groups of children. At the very least, the studies have shown no negative effect if the quality of care was considered high. However, again, these studies did not often distinguish between types of center-based care (preschool vs. daycare) and did not compare with home-reared children.

A 2007 federally-funded study indicated that four years of center-based daycare correlated with slightly higher teacher-reported aggression by students by sixth grade. In fact, there may be lasting effects of daycare stress.  However, the fact that the aggression is teacher-reported,the length of time in daycare necessary to make a difference, and the very very small increase in aggression these reports suggest, makes the ‘danger’ of daycare in this case not every significant. In addition, the study shows that the quality of mothering has a much higher effect than anything about the daycare itself.

What can we draw from those mixed results? The type and quality of care matters. High-quality center based care can make a difference in overcoming bad home environments. Otherwise, it’s not certain that kids are better off in daycare or preschool centers as opposed to at home.

So, centers=good,usually when it comes to disadvantaged children. What about in-home daycare?

Research from 2007 indicates that toddlers and preschoolers in mixed-age settings, especially among large groups of children, experience some negative effects within in-home daycare.  Toddlers, especially, appeared to receive less-sensitive care, and preschoolers displayed more aggression. But again, this seems to be relative to the quality of care provided in the in-home daycares studied.

So mixed ages is bad.

Not necessarily. In childcare, maybe. However, educationally, mixed ages may be beneficial to the student.

We’ll look into this more later.

So what you keep emphasizing is that quality matters.


But, can sending a child to daycare (before preschool age) harm their emotional development with their mothers?

Probably not. Again, quality matters. However, in numerous studies of the long-term emotional effect of daycare on infants to kindergarteners indicate that although their quantity of time with their parents was obviously lower, the quality was unchanged, likely because the working parents made up for lost time. In early childhood, there may even have been some emotional benefit to entering daycare, although the beneficial effects diminished by the time the children reached kindergarten and first grade.

Okay, you got me. Center-based care is generally good. Quality preschools and prekindergarten is best. So, what about full-time vs. part-time preschool?

A 1999-2001 study on a universal four year old program for Francophone students in Ontario compared half-day students (1999-2000) to full-day students (2000-2001).  The results highlighted almost across-the-board positive results for the full-day students over the half-day students, including superior vocabulary, comprehension, and adjustment to academic learning.  The results did not highlight any difference is psychomotor development.

However, the results may be complicated by the fact that it surveyed Francophone students in an English-speaking province.  Much of the goal of the program was to encourage the use of French both in school and at home. In some ways, the program appears to resemble an immersion experience as many of the students spoke English in their daily lives.  It may therefore be more difficult to parlay those results into something useful for the typical preschool experience.

However, there is one notable result.  Teacher reports indicated students in the full-day program exhibited more hyperactive behavior, inattentiveness, and less willingness to share.

What IS a ‘quality pre-school’?  Do I need to find a Montessori program or a Reggio Emilia program?

I wouldn’t worry about choosing between the specialized teaching styles. That’s not the marker of quality we’re talking about. We’re looking at the teacher certifications, teacher pay, and teacher-to-student ratio – something we’ll discuss further when exploring Oklahoma’s quality system.

What about learning the three Rs? That comes into play, right?

No. In fact, play is the operative word here.

Noted blogger Penelope Trunk, with her typical acerbic style, took President Obama to task with her entry, “Univeral Pre-K is Bad for Everyone. ” Look, at first, I was expecting to agree with her wholeheartedly. Offensive or not, Trunk often cuts to the heart of the matter. And, as a small-government lover myself, I don’t generally like universal anythingˆ.

One of Trunk’s many objections stems from the fact that the early childhood years are better served by play rather than academic learning.

That idea is backed up by a ton of research.

Formal instruction may hinder a young child’s creative learning skills. For example, in two separate studies, when young children were given a toy and able to explore it own their own, they were able to discover the various features of the toy and even come up with novel uses of their own. When an authority figure showed the child how the toy worked – whether by demonstrating only one aspect of the toy or providing an illogical use of the toy – the children played the way they were shown and did not discover new ways to play with the toy. (See the studies here and here)

Let’s return to the Francophone program in Ontario. As I stated earlier, the full-day students appeared to have a decrease in social and attentiveness skills relative to the part-day students (based on teacher observations). Why? The study authors speculate:

These two results could be explained by a higher level of fatigue among children who attended the full-day program for 4-year-olds. The parents and program administrators noted that the children in the full-day program were tired at the end of their day in class, while this remark was rarely made with regard to children in the half-day program. …our results may indicate that the adaptation of a half-day program to a full-day curriculum does not produce an improvement in the behavioral development of children.

While we lack sufficient data to explore this increased level of fatigue, it is possible that teachers in the full-day preschool program focus more attention than did teachers in the half-day program on providing pedagogical activities to prepare children for the academic learning of the first grade. Therefore, they may have relinquished a play-focused educational approach that targets children’s overall development. As such, the paper-and-pencil activities completed by the children may have benefited their academic development at the expense of the anticipated positive effects on their socialization and behavior.

In fact, too much formal instruction in the early education realm may lead to children’s being mislabeled as ADHD and may negatively affect the perception of boys’ behavior in the classroom, thereby increasing a gender gap in grades. In addition, the lack of play may affect emotional development, leading to the rise of anxiety, depression, and problems of attention and self control.

We will dig more into the research regarding play-based education in follow-up posts.

But Trunk confuses preschool with a place where children cannot play.

Can a stay-at-home parent provide this level of play education? Sure. Of course, the stay at home parent may instead decide to chunk her child in front of the TV for hours at a time to get a break (I’m pointing fingers at myself here). Can a child care facility provide this level of play education? Sure. Of course, the childcare facility might be more focused on getting kids to eat on a schedule, sleep on a schedule, and stop hitting each other.  Can a preschool provide this level of play education? Hopefully. Of course, the preschool may instead be focusing too much on rote memorization and ABCs in order to prove parents that they are ‘teaching’ their children something.

And therefore we again reach my bottom line. Is preschool necessary for your child? No. Can it be helpful? Yes. But, it’s going to be an individual decision.

Next Up: State- provided quality preschool education – in Tulsa, Oklahoma, what that means for universal Pre-K and HeadStart, and if the immersion education and age-banded classes offered in some Tulsa classrooms is beneficial.

After that: Private educational models – Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, and so much more.

After after: A new look at redshirting and greenshirting kindergarteners, and more on play-based education.