Last month the state legislature passed Indiana's first investment in preschool education. The bill will provide about $10 million in state funding for high-quality preschool programs for approximately 1,500 low-income children. Despite support for the bill in the state House, the state Senate's approval was stalled until the last minute, and the bill in its final form is modest compared to Governor Pence's original request for funding to serve 40,000 children.
The link between high-quality preschool and later adolescent and adult academic, Health, and wealth outcomes is well supported by scientific evidence. But research is slow to inform public policy in Indiana. Indiana was only one of nine states to provide no state funding for preschool education even though over half of 4th and 8th grade children in Indiana public schools are unable to read or perform math at grade level according to the Children's Defense Fund.
Why are the preschool years so important for later success?
Four key developmental shifts take place between the ages of 3 and 6 that respond especially well to high-quality preschool environments in unique and targeted ways.
Children with good self-regulation are skilled at controlling their emotions (e.g., avoiding angry outbursts), their thinking (e.g., sustaining attention to a difficult task) and their behavior (e.g., sitting still). Self-regulation skills begin to develop during preschool years and are scaffolded by preschool teachers (e.g., raise your hand before speaking during circle time).
Children draw upon their executive functioning skills to manage the multiple streams of information coming at them at once and to respond appropriately. Working memory allows children to remember multi-step instructions (e.g., put your artwork in your cubby, get your jacket and line up for recess). Inhibitory control allows them to resist temptation and think before they act (e.g., ask to see a friend's toy rather than taking it). Flexibility allows children to switch gears in different situations (e.g., running on the playground is fine but running in the hall is not). These skills become more coordinated between the ages of 3 and 6 years and high-quality preschool curricula are designed to improve them.
Between the ages of 3 and 6 children become 1) more skilled at perspective-taking (e.g., I know Ahmed is upset because he asked for the red crayon and Jason accidentally broke it), and 2) better able to predict how another person might feel (e.g., Sarah may get her feelings hurt if she isn't included in playtime, so I will ask her to play with Katie and me). Qualified preschool teachers scaffold social understanding, which underlies social-cognitive reasoning skills necessary for managing complex relationships with friends and adults.
Children begin to use language as a tool for thinking rather than simply a tool for communicating with others. They think aloud to help them stay on track (e.g., "get my jacket then line up"). They use private speech to work through a problem (e.g., "get the green and brown Legos to make a tree") or a frustrating situation (e.g., "just ignore my friend who keeps talking to me while the teacher is reading a story"). Qualified teachers help preschoolers make the shift to using language to guide thinking and reasoning, a powerful tool to control their own behavior and emotions.
The importance of high-quality preschool education does not lie in teaching kids how to read, spell and calculate earlier, but in preparing them how to think, control themselves and get along with others so they can learn in a classroom setting. This kind of investment in early education for all Indiana children seems like a no-brainer.
Developmental psychologist Jessica Beer and cognitive psychologist Tonya Bergeson-Dana combine their real world experience as mothers with their professional training as researchers to provide parents with a practical way to apply the most current findings in childhood development research to their everyday life. Jessica and Tonya are also co-founders of The Urban Chalkboard playcafe, and welcome questions and feedback from readers at a href=mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org>email@example.com.