Early childhood education has grown to include a variety of steps along the way to Kindergarten and first grade, but what are the differences as your child moves from Preschool to PreK?
The primary distinctions among all stages of early education, says Michelle Shaivitz, PhD, executive director of the Delaware Association for the Education of Young Children, are the “levels of play, social, emotional, language and other skills throughout the curriculum.”
For example, children in Preschool are most likely in the beginning stages of writing, cooperating and “learning how to maintain socially acceptable behavior for longer periods of time. (In PreK) children write and demonstrate developmentally appropriate practices as well, except in longer increments due to their attention span and their developmental abilities.”
The role of play in Preschool
A good Preschool is “designed for the whole child and attends to physical, social, emotional, cognitive and spiritual development,” says W. Steven Barnett, PhD, founder and senior co-director of the National Institute of Early Education Research at Rutgers University Graduate School of Education.
For a good Preschool program, “play is an important element. Children of all ages, all around the world, play. They run, they pretend, they create, they laugh and they struggle with difficult tasks. Through play they learn and grow, intellectually and socially,” says Barnett. However to be educationally effectve a program must offer more than just free play; teachers must be intentionally engaged with children in play and in other activities.
PreK’s goal is to make children ready for Kindergarten. Those who attend “high-quality PreK come ready for school,” writes Shawanna James-Coles, principal of Davis Elementary School in the Centennial School District in Bucks County, PA, in a guest column in The Intelligencer. They already know the “basics of reading, mathematics, getting along with others, building friendship and sharing.” These children are also “less likely to be retained in a grade, require remediation or receive special education services,” she notes.
The impact of PreK, however, goes beyond Kindergarten readiness, says Wendy Somers, owner of Goddard School in Newtown Township, PA. “It not only helps prepare a child for elementary school but has long-term, lasting effects in every aspect of a child’s life,” she says. At the Goddard School, says Somers, “our young learners hone valuable life and career skills while developing a love of learning in literacy, science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.”
Many children still don’t attend PreK
Despite the benefits, many youngters in the Delaware Valley do not receive PreK or other early-education experiences.
Delaware ranks 35th among states for PreK enrollment, with only 7 percent of 4-year-olds in a state-sponsored PreK program, according to the latest State of Preschool report from the New Jersey-based National Institute for Early Education Research. Pennsylvania ranks 30th, with 12 percent and New Jersey, 20th with 29 percent.
Children who do not attend a high-quality PreK program do not have the readiness skills needed to prepare them for standards-based curriculum, says James-Coles. “Their teachers, then, are required to spend more time on classroom management and social skills rather than engaging them in meaningful learning experiences.”
Colleen Barbaro of Elk Township, NJ, knows the importance of an early education now that her 5-year-old son, Brody, is attending preschool after spending more than four years at home without any formal schooling or daycare. “The preschool program has been extremely beneficial for my son in helping him make friends and build relationships with his peers.” It also has been excellent in reinforcing the “basic learning he has done at home.”
Even after attending early-education programs, some children can benefit from spending an extra year in PreK, a practice referred to as “academic redshirting.”
“While parents and testing requirements focus mainly on the testing ability of a student, supporting a child’s social and emotional development, along with his individual developmental growth, is important to long-term success,” says Shaivitz.
Unfortunately, “there is no one right answer to the question of redshirting for one child,” said Barnett.
“Parents need to make the right decision based on each individual child and the Kindergarten that he will enter,” Barnett says. “Preschool and Kindergarten teachers can help advise parents in the decision but ultimately parents know their child better than anyone else.”
Cheryl Lynne Potter is a freelance writer from South Jersey.