Learning Early: A Preschool Primer

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When picking up my 2-year-old daughter from Parent’s Day Out last spring, I was shocked when her caregiver asked if she would be entering their preschool program in the fall, just after her third birthday.

Full359.jpgHow did this happen so soon? Could I possibly have a child ready for school?

Suddenly, it seemed my husband and I had a huge decision to make. Even though our daughter had been attending Parent’s Day Out once a week for more than a year, that was merely a place for her to play and make friends – somehow very different from preschool.

We agonized over what kind of program she should enter, how many days she should attend, and whether or not the teachers provided loving, safe care as well as an atmosphere conducive to learning. You would think we were enrolling her in college!

However, choosing and enrolling your child in a preschool can be a major decision. It will likely be the first step towards formal education and should be a positive experience.

Before Preschool

Your child’s education begins at birth. Research has shown the first three years of life are crucial to brain development. How your child learns in these early years, even before preschool, may determine life-long learning patterns. However, this does not mean that parents and caregivers need to be giving babies and toddlers structured lessons. It is the everyday, instinctive interactions between parents and very young children that provide the most important building blocks for healthy brain development and learning.

Sandy Williamson, director of Early Childhood Programs for Tennessee, describes a child’s brain in the first few years of life as an open window that is slowly closing on new ways of learning. She notes the importance of stimulating brain development in the early years, and that Tennessee has a program to help parents in this area.

“Smart from the Start offers information that enables families to broaden their interactions with the young child, so that all areas of a child’s development – social-emotional, language, cognitive and physical – are nurtured,” Williamson says.

A loving family; verbal and physical interaction with parents, caregivers and peers; unstructured play time with an interested adult interacting and following the lead; and lots of time spent lap reading should provide your child with ample opportunities for learning in the first three years.

By the time children enter preschool, which is generally at the age of 3, most are ready for a more structured learning environment. At this age children have a longer attention span and are better able to participate in group activities, according to Bonnie Spear, director of Blakemore Children’s Center.

“Three is the age where children begin to really develop social skills and they begin to play with other children instead of side by side,” explains Spear.

Many children are also potty trained at this age, which is a requirement for enrollment in most preschools. Additionally, Spear notes that attending preschool helps ease the transition to kindergarten for children who have never been in day care.

“In today’s world, so much is required of children when they go to kindergarten that some kind of group experience is really beneficial,” she says.

In Search of Quality

In Tennessee, there is no state mandated curriculum for preschool. However, quality programs will have certain hallmarks. Diane Neighbors is a past president of both the Nashville Area Association for the Education of Young Children (NAAEYC) and the Tennessee Association for Education of Young Children (TAEYC), as well as the current director of Vanderbilt Child Care Centers. According to Neighbors, a good preschool program will support the cognitive, physical, social and emotional development of the child. It should be safe, clean and provide ample age-appropriate materials and equipment.

If snacks and meals are provided, ask to see a menu to make sure they are nutritious. There should be planned activities and a daily schedule available to parents. Neighbors notes good programs will have small numbers of children for each caregiver. The maximum allowable caregiver-to-child ratio for 3-year-olds is 1-to-10, but lower ratios are better. Studies have shown that low caregiver-to-child ratios are one of the most significant factors in promoting learning and decreasing behavior problems.

Always take a tour of a preschool before enrolling your child. Look to see if the children appear happy, if the toys and materials are in good condition and accessible to children, if the rooms are spacious and if the teacher interacts with the children on their level. Neighbors notes the importance of feeling included in a program.

“Quality preschool programs offer opportunities for parent involvement, such as participating in classroom activities, serving on an advisory committee and attending parent-teacher conferences,” Neighbors says. “Parents must feel welcome and have a good relationship with the staff in order for the child to feel secure.”

One component necessary for children to feel secure is consistency of caregivers and teachers. Staff turnover can be frequent at some preschools, so make sure to inquire about it when considering a program. Turnover of teachers is not only difficult on the children, but it may indicate an inferior program.

Training of teachers is another consideration. Teachers for licensed preschools are required to complete a minimum of 12 hours of training annually. There are a variety of levels of education and training for teachers. However, Spear notes an ideal teacher will have classroom experience as well as a bachelor’s or associate’s degree in early childhood education.

There are also official methods for measuring a quality preschool. Tennessee’s Department of Human Services (DHS) recently instituted a rating system for child care, which includes preschools. The Environment Rating Scales assess in detail physical environment, basic care, curriculum, interaction, schedule and program structure and parent and staff education. Each facility receives an overall rating, ranging from no stars at the lowest to three at the highest.

A report card is required to be posted in the facility, or you can find results through DHS. It is important to note that this method of assessment is controversial within the child care industry and not universally accepted as an accurate reflection of the quality of a program. About one percent of child care programs in Tennessee are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), which strives to raise the level of quality for all child care, including preschools.

The Learning Environment

The majority of preschool programs are run under the mantle of churches. Some teach religious beliefs, while others do not. There are also different methods of teaching. Montessori schools focus on individualized learning and stimulating a child’s natural desire to teach himself. A few programs, such as Blakemore Children’s Center, combine ages. A multi-age preschool program could contain children ranging from 2-and a-half to 5 years old. According to Spear, this type of grouping is beneficial to young children.

“It gives them all a chance to be leaders and followers,” she explains. “It allows the child who is able to go ahead faster to move ahead, and allows the child who might need a little more help in an area to get it without being singled out.”

There is also the consideration of a program which includes special needs children.

“It is beneficial not only to the child who has special needs,” Spear notes, “but also to the typically developing child. It eliminates barriers and fears that children tend to have when they are never exposed to children who have different kinds of abilities.”

Be wary of programs that put pressure on children regarding academic performance. Although Neighbors notes a quality program will offer opportunities to develop skills in math, science, art and music, much of what preschoolers will be learning is social skills.

“Probably the most important things a child learns in preschool are empathy for others, ability to communicate feelings and ideas, independence, self-confidence, self-help skills and the ability to get along with others,” Neighbors offers.

Enriching the Preschool Years

If you decide preschool is not for your child, there are many activities you can participate in to enrich the years before kindergarten. Neighbors recommends providing opportunities to play and interact with other children at parks, in play groups or with friends. Libraries and bookstores offer story hours and activities that are not only fun and free, but can also be a place for children to socialize. She notes cooking with your child helps in learning to follow directions and helping with routine household chores can teach self-help skills.

Regardless of whether or not your child attends preschool, always make time for reading.

“The most important thing a parent can do is read to their child,” Neighbors offers. “The library can provide a list of books that are age-appropriate.”

If you decide on preschool, spend some time preparing for the first day. Spear recommends visiting the school several times with your child to familiarize him with the environment. If there is only one opportunity to visit the classrooms, see if you can take your child to the preschool’s playground to play with the other children. She also suggests arranging a play date with another child who will be in the class.

With preparation and a little luck, as you watch your child enter the classroom that first day, the only tears fought back will be your own.

Amanda Cantrelle Roche is a mother and freelance writer residing in Middle Tennessee.


Online Assistance:

Child Care Resource and Referral
www.state.tn.us/humanserv/childcare; 313-4820
Lists all state licensed preschool programs as well as their STAR ratings.

National Association for the Education of Young Children
www.naeyc.org; 800-424-2460
Lists NAEYC accredited programs and offers information on quality care.

Smart from the Start
www.k-12.state.tn.us/smart
Offers information on stimulating brain development in the first years of life.


 

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