Does Preschool Really Provide an Academic Advantage?

Does Preschool Really Provide an Academic Advantage?

A recent study examined the impact of children attending a free preschool program in Tennessee. Researchers found that, although the children who attended the preschool scored higher on kindergarten readiness, they showed lower reading, math, and science scores in both third grade and sixth grade. They were also more likely to be held back, more likely to need special education services, more likely to get in trouble at school, and had lower school attendance rates in sixth grade.

This large study included 2,990 children in Tennessee from disadvantaged families who applied to a free preschool program. About half of the children were randomly assigned to attend the preschool.

First, it is important to mention that this is only one study and previous research has found positive impacts of providing free preschool, including long-term impacts such as being more likely to attend college. Yet, some studies have similarly found immediate positive effects that then seem to fade with time. This is the first study to show negative impacts of a universal preschool program.

So how could a preschool have a negative impact on children? What does this suggest about preschool in general? While these findings may be disappointing and even alarming, they provide six evidence-based ideas for how to improve preschool programs:

1. Preschool should focus more on developing abstract “unconstrained” skills (that is, skills that are never fully mastered, such as listening, attention, and problem-solving) rather than specific “constrained” academic skills (that is, a skill that can be mastered, such as learning the alphabet or counting to 10). The preschools in this study tended to focus more on concrete literacy skills rather than more abstract skills. Research finds that academic outcomes may be sustained with more abstract “unconstrained” skills (skills that are never fully mastered) vs. “constrained” skills (skills that can be mastered such as spelling your name).

2. Preschool should give children more positive attention for appropriate behavior rather than negative attention for inappropriate behavior. This study found that children in the preschool program showed more behavioral issues in sixth grade, which is in line with previous research showing that center-based early child care is associated with more behavioral problems. Research finds that focusing on positive attention for appropriate behavior is linked with better self-regulation abilities in preschoolers. Accordingly, it may be that, when early child care teachers use negative attention to control behavior, they are preventing children from developing internal self-control.

3. Preschool should involve primarily child-led activities or “choice time.” The researchers found that the preschools in the study used more whole-group instruction (20-25% of the day) versus child-led activities or “choice time” (less than 15% of the day). Research finds that when children are actively involved in the activity, they show better reading comprehension, vocabulary, and math (Farran et al., 2017). In particular, child-led play and social interaction in preschool seem to be essential. Research has found that play-based preschools tend to be associated with better long-term outcomes than preschools focusing on direct instruction of academic skills. Research also finds that encouraging cooperative play among children is linked to better language skills and better self-regulation.

4. Preschool should involve frequent opportunities for movement and gross motor activity. The children in this study had very little outdoor play or gym time, only 3% to 4% of the day on average (Farran & Bilbrey, 2014). This is significant since research shows that preschool children are more attentive to classroom tasks after recess, particularly outdoor recess.

5. Preschool teachers should focus on listening to the children in their class rather than simply teaching them. Previous research found that, when teachers listen to children, the children show improved learning of math, letters, and sight words. In addition, when children speak more frequently in class, they show stronger self-regulation and vocabulary.

6. Finally, preschool classrooms should strive to minimize transition time. In this study, a large part of the day (25%) was spent in “transition time” such as lining up for bathroom visits or lunch and switching between activities. Research finds that “transition time” reduces learning time and is associated with increased negative behaviors. If the classroom and schedule cannot be altered to minimize transition time, teachers should prepare students for transitions and incorporate learning into transition time.

In summary, this study gives us insight into how to improve preschool programs in the future. Specifically, this research suggests that preschool classrooms should involve more focus on child-led activities, unconstrained skills, positive attention vs negative attention, listening to children, more chances for movement, and reduced transition time.







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