How important is preschool?

We have a two-and-a-half year old daughter. We decided not to send her to preschool this year, but we’re wondering if we made the wrong choice. I stay home with her while my husband works, which is usually fun for both of us, but sometimes exhausting for me. I keep hearing about how important early childhood education is, but private schools are so expensive. How important is preschool, really? —Anon.

As a preschool teacher, I think the most important question is, what are children supposed to learn in preschool? (I think we ought to be asking that about K-12 school as well, but we’ll live to fight another day on that one.) To me, there two things that are by far the most important lessons for a child to learn at preschool: (1) I can succeed in social environments outside my home, and (2) School is a great place that I love going. Let me explain.

(1) In surveys where kindergarten teachers are asked, “What skills make a successful child?” things like knowing the alphabet and being able to count to 20 are far down the list of answers. What kindergarten teachers look for are skills like waiting your turn, listening to instructions, and staying calm in groups of other children—in short, social-emotional skills. If a child has good self-control (also known, in early-childhood circles, as “self-regulation” or “executive function”), they are well prepared to succeed in an elementary school environment. Children can really only learn these skills through practice around other people. One of the most valuable thing in a high-quality preschool is an environment where children can learn to cope with being in social situations where people with different goals and ideas and plans and priorities are all around them—they learn through exposure, and they learn from coaching by expert teachers.

(2) To me, if a child walks out of three years of preschool having learned only one thing, that thing should be “School is awesome!” If a child experiences preschool as a place where he is valued and respected and listened to; where he has fun and learns interesting things and experiences success—well, he’s going to walk into the first day of kindergarten thinking, “This is gonna be great!” And he’s that much more likely to succeed in kindergarten—and beyond—because of that positive expectation.

So it’s important for children to develop socio-emotional skills and learn that school is great. And a child can do those things at a good preschool. But while good school is an easy place of a child to have those experiences, it’s not the only place. If you think your child will get those lessons without preschool (and we can talk about how another time), then I think they won’t enter kindergarten at any disadvantage.

That said, there are other great benefits to preschool. The sense of community is a huge aspect—you get to build relationships with other families that are probably going through life events similar to yours. Diversity is another big one—your friends and family-members are probably a lot like you, but at preschool your child is more likely to get exposed to many different kinds of people. At a preschool you get the benefit of the teaching staff’s expertise and years of experience—they can offer you strategies when you’re frustrated and help solve problems, and they are often the first to notice any signs of health troubles or developmental challenges. And yes, along the way, your child will probably learn the alphabet and how to count to 20.

If you feel confident your child will get well socialized and learn to be excited about school without going to preschool, then sure, feel free not to send them. But a good preschool has a lot going for it, and in my experience families are usually glad they joined.

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