Apr 17, 2010

What about preschool? Aren't you afraid she will be behind?

A friend of mine wrote and posted this on her blog Mommyscope (click the link to go directly to her site for many other great post!)

It is statistics and information like below that led us to slow down our early on "formal" academics with Alessondra. Once I stopped trying to teach her to read at 18 months and started playing with her and doing more games her learning took off!

Have you been thinking about preschool lately? Those with three and four-year olds tend to crank up the anxiety meter about this time of year thinking of their babies heading off to school next fall. Aaaack! Picturing the moment they walk through those doors, forever exiting the baby years, parents feel sudden pressure to get them into the best and brightest preschool academies, some shelling out hundreds (or thousands) of dollars per year in the hopes of propelling them into academic greatness before they reach kindergarten. Others pray they are blessed with a public school or daycare teacher adequately trained and equipped to get their child off on the right foot.

So what about that? Are you one of the majority of parents who believes children will be more successful if they are plunged into the world of academia from the age of….well, birth? Any Your Baby Can Read graduates out there? This is a tricky game our culture has created for children. Does anyone note the peculiar irony of parents scrambling for position to get their little darlings enrolled into ”Harvard” nursery schools, meanwhile the “darlings” themselves would just as soon spend their days digging in the dirt and chasing bugs? (which is precisely something they should be doing) It almost sounds like a humorous scene in a Norman Rockwell painting.

But to be frank, we parents of young children do feel enormous pressure to do this “school thing” right. The varying statistics and information floating around about factors related to early academic success can make a person’s head spin. And because we’re all new at this, we tend to believe whatever is the current trend in early education practices touted by family and friends. We willingly hand our precious children over to professionals, often assuming they know what’s best and can turn our little babies into studious pupils by year’s end. And some of these “professionals” don’t mind letting you know that “we’ll handle it from here.” That literally came out of the mouth of a teacher to a friend of mine once.

In the past few decades, a couple of factors have compelled the government to find ways of improving our early childhood education system, accommodating parents in the work force needing childcare and responding to pressure to compete academically with other countries. And because they, along with teacher’s unions, have financed expensive research in this field, the rest of us tend to accept whatever they recommend. They are the professionals, after all. One method of change has been the tendency to “push down” learning, meaning they are pushing our children at progressively younger ages to pick up formal academics, which basically include reading, writing, and math. They started recruiting three and four-year olds into the schools, “institutionalizing” them, as my friend referred to it the other day, plopping them into tiny little desks for hours a day. The assumption was that if children entered the system earlier, it would allow more time to cram knowledge into their brains, roll them down the conveyor belt called “school”, and turn out a better and more successful product for society in the end.

Well, that hasn’t worked out so well. Amid this grand experiment, educators have begun realizing that formal academics for these youngsters isn’t the answer. Test scores have not improved and cases of learning disabilities have actually increased, along with ADD/ADHD and other behavioral problems. We have essentially backtracked as a result of pushing these young children to do things their brains are developmentally unprepared to handle. And their little bodies, made for running and jumping at this age, are being stifled by extended hours sitting at desks. Did you know that cognitive learning is directly built upon proper development of gross and fine motor skills? It’s no wonder these children, little boys especially, are being incorrectly labeled as ADD/ADHD and learning disabled. They should be outside! They should be spending more time doing arts and crafts, not worksheets. And early reading CAN be accomplished. But if the child is pushed before he/she is ready, it can result in reading comprehension problems not apparent until as late as middle school. More recent research has shown that preschoolers ARE capable of more than we think. But in our narrow-mindedness, we have connected early formal education with future academic success…there’s so much more to it than that.

A recent study by the Albert Shanker Institute titled “Preschool Curriculum: What’s In It for Children and Teachers” shows that through various experiences of free play, structured play, read-alouds, discussions, songs, games, projects, and other active learning opportunities, preschoolers develop the cognitive and social skills necessary for successful elementary learning. For those who stay at home and spend any amount of time with your children, does this all sound familiar? Pre-reading and pre-math skills are learned through activities that have no resemblance to formal education at all. Art, music, movement activities, and imaginary play all serve vital roles in preparing their minds for reading and math skills. It’s interesting that after all the time and money spent on research, we’ve come to the conclusion that young children learn best just by being children. But it’s also encouraging to know that educational scholars are taking note, and it will be interesting to see how soon it filters down into the public school systems.

Dr. Jane Healy, author of Your Child’s Growing Mind, Endangered Minds, and Failure to Connect, would probably agree with some (not all) of what this study concluded. Brain development progresses from the lower to upper regions, from brain stem to outer cortex, through a process called myelination. Infant development centers around lower functions such as basic neurological, sensory, and gross motor skills, gradually spreading outward. The neuron connections build upon themselves, forming pathways which ultimately lead to the outer cortex where cognitive skills are mastered, including reading and math, among other things. Pushing children to develop formal skills before their brains are ready causes forced neural pathways in lower parts of the brain to undertake complex tasks they are not equipped to handle. That’s why you have children show up with learning disabilities later in school, because they’ve been using the wrong parts of their brain to handle complex cognitive tasks and it eventually catches up. Have you ever heard that until a child can ride a bike without training wheels, their brains are not ready for reading? The gross motor skills required for balancing a bicycle are foundational in making the connections required to develop a successful reader. You won’t hear the makers of Your Baby Can Read talking about the science of child brain development. But then again, they stand to gain a lot of money from unsuspecting parents, taking advantage of their natural desire to see their children succeed. Just because they CAN read at that age (and it’s not even actual reading, but rather memorization of word pictures) doesn’t mean they SHOULD. More information can be found in Dr. Healy’s book, Your Child’s Growing Mind.

An added note regarding early formal education is the eye factor. Until age five or six, the eye muscles are still developing rapidly. Many optometrists agree that straining children’s eye muscles too early by forcing reading of small print is likely a contributor in the rise of nearsightedness among our youth. Just another thing to think about.

My point in discussing this is to encourage you as parents to take an active role in your child’s education, realizing that only in the last few decades has there ever been such a push to force young children into early academics. If you choose to put your child in preschool or are in a position where you have no choice, ask questions, get an idea of what type of learning environment the school has created. If it includes lots of hands-on activities, free-play, outside time, read-alouds, and interaction with nurturing staff, you are probably on the right track. If your child sits at a desk all day and gets sent home with a stack of worksheets every night, voice your concern or get them out of there if at all possible. Some may not have recognized it, but we are ALL “homeschoolers” to some degree. Just how much of that role you are willing to relinquish when they reach school age is up to you. But keep in mind that you are ultimately your child’s best advocate, and a quality education from the start will serve your child well throughout the rest of their life.

My next post on this subject will discuss Preschool At Home, an argument in favor of what I believe to be the highest quality preschool education available, teaching them yourself in a nurturing home environment. I will outline what that looks like and how you can get started. So check back or subscribe to my e-mail list. Happy schooling!

Go to Mommyscope blog