Spring 2016

Early Childhood Education: The Key to Success

Quality Preschool Matters

Quality Preschool Matters

Over the years, preschool and early childhood education have become hot topics in the teaching world. Why should we have it? How should we fund it? Who should get to attend? What does it look like? I do not have all the answers, and my magic teaching wand is not able to fix the existing issues. What I can do is tell my story and the stories of my students to shed some light on why I believe preschool matters and what quality early childhood programs look like.

Mark* entered preschool at three years old with limited verbal skills, behavior challenges, and a lack of basic social skills. I will never forget the day he climbed into the sand table and contently sat there playing and exploring. It was evident that he had a long way to go before he was really ready to learn. Mark was lucky to work with a special education team that was not only specialized but dedicated to early childhood.

As his teacher, I created an environment that was safe and where the philosophy was all children are capable of learning. He had access to materials that were developmentally appropriate, promoted critical thinking and deeper learning. Mark was part of an elementary school that embraced the preschool population and made them part of the school culture, allowing him opportunities to work with older peers and learn from them. Mark had many challenges along the way, but after three years in the program working with a team committed to his progress, he was able to succeed.  

Mark can communicate effectively and learn as part of a classroom community. He is beginning to read, and he is an excellent artist. He is curious, loves school and is always eager to take on new things, which has allowed him to thrive in his primary elementary school years. His story is just one of the many that show why high quality early childhood programs are extremely valuable. What if Mark had not gone to preschool?  How many more challenges would he have faced entering the high pressure kindergarten environment with no prior school experience? What if he was never given that chance to explore, play and learn to learn?     

I believe school districts need to embrace early childhood education and place value on preschool. This means more than providing a thrown together program and claiming you support preschool. Districts need to dedicate the resources necessary to reach out to the youngest minds. A quality preschool program needs quality educators. Preschool teachers need to be provided with appropriate professional development and should be given the same opportunities as other teachers to collaborate and create new learning experiences for their classrooms. We need to shift our thinking from a K-12 education system to a pre-K-12 education system, and set forth clear expectations for our students and clear goals to help them become 21st century learners and citizens. Public education should begin embracing it’s young students as we know many of our children enter elementary school unprepared for what lies ahead of them. Due to whatever circumstances life has thrown them, they lack early academics and, more importantly, the cognitive and social-emotional skills needed to succeed in school. Preschool is a way to help children learn to learn and learn to love learning.

"Preschool is a way to help children learn to learn and learn to love learning."  

I believe we can bridge those gaps and help students enter the highly academic kindergarten world prepared for the challenges that lie ahead. Kindergarten is not the way you and I remember it. Children who are five and six years old are expected to sit at desks and work for long periods of time, with little or no time to play and are held to higher expectations for academic work in reading, math and writing. I want to be clear; I am not saying children are not capable of the standards set forth. I actually believe all children are capable of them but in their own time and not along a dictated path. Our students enter school with limited skills and life stories that would keep you up at night and make you cry. We need to help these children, as their circumstances leave them unprepared. Countless studies have shown the positive impact of preschool, especially for students that are most at-risk, and yet many districts still struggle to dedicate themselves to this worthy cause. By believing that preschool matters, investing in programs, and providing more access to quality early childhood education, you are setting children up for future success in school. You are helping them overcome their struggles before they start to drown in kindergarten and lose their desire to learn.  

The most crucial way districts, schools and teachers can support and ensure quality early education is by believing that preschool students can do great things--yes, the three and four year olds. We need to believe in their success, so they can believe it too. A truly high quality preschool program will create a learning environment that challenges children and helps them believe in their potential. It provides an education that fosters critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving and confidence. An education that teaches not only the A, B, C’s and 1, 2 ,3’s, but how to be a good friend, communicate your ideas with others, and how dedication leads to success.         

For early childhood programs to have an impact, schools and districts need to respect what learning and teaching looks like in preschool. You cannot just throw a rug on the floor, add some toys and close the door.  Preschool teachers are often put in a position where they have to defend what is happening in their rooms and why their students have created such a mess. Quality early childhood education is play-based and child-centered, which from the outside looks chaotic and is typically noisy. You cannot just throw a rug on the floor, add some toys and close the door. Preschool teachers are often put in a position where they have to defend what is happening in their rooms and why their students have created such a mess. Quality early childhood education is play-based and child-centered, which from the outside looks chaotic and is typically noisy.   

Preschool teachers are often put in a position where they have to defend what is happening in their rooms and why their students have created such a mess. Quality early childhood education is play-based and child-centered, which from the outside looks chaotic and is typically noisy.

I remember the day I knew Mark found his path to learning. He sat in my spot during circle time and loudly sang the Pete the Cat, I Love My White Shoes book to his friends. In the beginning he could not even sit in a group learning environment for more than two minutes and now he was leading his fellow students in song. Administrators need to support this learning and provide an appropriate environment in which it can flourish. Staff need to be trained and dedicated to early learning, and they need to be respected as true educators. Classrooms should be equipped with appropriate materials and provide a sense of community so children can feel safe to explore, create and play together. They need a curriculum that guides them to learn not only academics but social-emotional skills, cognitive abilities and one that fosters a love of learning.  

Quality early childhood programs encourage perseverance in the face of adversity. It gives us an opportunity to create a passion for learning and thirst for knowledge that can continue throughout their lives. These are the kinds of students we hope to see across grade levels, so why would we miss the chance to provide this type of education when they are young and naturally inclined to learn? By respecting early childhood and supporting quality preschool programs, we set our students on the path to discovery, knowledge and endless opportunities.

*The name of the student was changed to ensure  privacy.

Ashley Preston is the 2016 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year; she is a Rhode Island native who is certified in early childhood special Education and elementary education. Preston began teaching in 2006 as a special educator with the preschool program in Manchester, N.H.  She works with students with special needs, those learning English and many who live in poverty. Preston is a dedicated member of her school staff and feels that building a community is essential for schools and classrooms. She is passionate about education and believes all students are capable of incredible things if they have someone who believes in them.

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