By Dr. Donna Housman
Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo has identified expansion of early education as one of his top three priorities for the current legislative session, and recently called on the state to “provide early access to high quality programming for our youngest children.”
On the face of it, the speaker’s call to action should generate little opposition, except perhaps over the question of how he intends to fund this expansion. But there is in fact a growing backlash against early childhood education, with critics arguing that there is scarce evidence supporting pre-K; that the benefits of pre-K dissipate quickly or that early childhood education’s benefits redound mainly to lower-income students.
Further, the speaker’s remarks beg the very important question of what constitutes “high quality” early childhood education.
Most of the criticisms of early childhood education fail to hold water, but that is not to say that all early childhood educational experiences are created equal. With Massachusetts Secretary of Education James Peyser having dampened any expectations for additional education funding, it is important that we understand the evidence around high impact early childhood education and maximize any investment in early childhood education.
Access to early education has been shown to mitigate serious problems of substance abuse, aggression and violence and to contribute to behavioral health and overall well-being – all issues cited by Speaker DeLeo.
The idea that lower-income children principally benefit from early childhood education is based on a predominant misconception that poverty alone is to blame for the achievement gap. Positive, responsive relationships, rich in quality time and communication, are what influence and shape a child’s growing brain and development. Children hunger for nurturance, connection, limit setting and love; those are family characteristics that are not necessarily linked to income. Children from middle- and high-income families can benefit from high quality early learning experiences.
But what do we mean by high quality early learning experiences? Too often early childhood education advocates don’t clearly define what evidence-based early childhood education looks like. While any pre-K education may be better than none, if we’re going to make the investment we should do it right.
First, new research into the brain clearly suggests that it is too late in the developmental process of the child to target expansion of access to pre-school education to 4-year-olds. Learning begins at birth, and research confirms that 90 percent of the brain is already developed within the first three years of life. As the Brookings Institution recently concluded, “[W]e know from the scientific literature that attention to the development of human capital needs to start when the brain is developing the fastest and is at its most malleable – that is right at the beginning of life.”
Second, learning focused on emotional and social development is equally important as learning focused on the development of cognitive skills. Emotional and social development provides the foundation for the development of academic skills. Maintaining focus during periods of frustration requires patience and persistence –fundamental skills essential to learning. These skills are rooted in children’s ability to understand, control and manage their own emotions and those of others. When equipped with these skills, the evidence suggests that even very young children can understand and apply complex concepts, even in elemental physics and mathematics. We need the right curriculum and teachers who are skilled in working with children to develop emotional and social competencies necessary for success both in learning and in life.
However, the curriculum needs to be appropriate to the developmental stage of the child. Some education reformers – who typically have never stepped foot in a classroom – are advocating a “light” version of what amounts to a curriculum designed for three- and four-year-olds. A narrow focus on mathematics and literacy skills at such an early age is at odds with what we know about child development and is only likely to cause stress, anxiety and frustration in children. Instead, children should be focused on the “work” of creative play, which can integrate literacy and math skills naturally, as well as developing early emotional and social competencies that help them successfully deal with daily challenges and growing empathic relationships.
No single policy measure has as great a return on investment as early childhood education, but we should try to forge a common understanding rooted in new scientific research of what an excellent early childhood education means.
Dr. Donna Housman is the founder of Beginnings School in Weston, a clinical psychologist, and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.