Early Childhood Education, Effective Parenting Not in Conflict

Calls for a coordinated curriculum between early childhood programs and public elementary schools are not pleas for parents to abdicate responsibility, Maryanne J. Kane writes. Reuters

Why are American public schools failing? How can the system be fixed? Responses are unbelievably varied. Debates are always heated and passionate. This fact became evident after publishing two articles in Newsweek on education reform: "Fixing Public Education"and "Age 5 is Too Late." I witness children entering first grade who are ill-equipped to meet the Common Core Standards. Interventions, extra reading and math resources, social programs are all put in place to help but many times this child is always trying to catch up. It is heartbreaking. To assure every child enters first grade on level, I recommended a coordinated curriculum between the early childhood education program and the public elementary school.

Perhaps when discussing America's public school system, it is best to begin with objective facts. Fact #1: About 15 million children in the United States live below the federal poverty threshold, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty. Fact #2: 11 percent of children under age 3 in the United States live in deep poverty. Fact #3: Poverty negatively affects brain development in young children. Fact #4: There is a direct correlation between children, age 0 to 5, experiencing poverty and their inability to thrive in kindergarten. These four facts are indisputable. Solutions are not.

Comments posted on Newsweek included:

  • It's called parenting! I cannot believe someone sincerely believes formal schooling would be a good idea for toddlers. It actually horrifies me.
  • I prefer that the government remain out of this stage of child development and allow parents to make their own choices.
  • Education prior to Pre-K starts at home! Parents are the first and most consistent teachers.
  • Well, I guess I'm a failure. Cause I started at 5. And, guess what? So will my babies.
  • Society should not be expected to replace parents in their basic role of parenting their child.
  • Putting children that young in a public school environment robs them of time they could be spending learning about their own family and community.

My reply: Of course, parents should always have the option to keep young children at home. Of course, parents are a child's first teacher. Of course, government should not take over the role of a parent. Of course, toddlers should not be forced into formal education.

My articles recognize the correlation between brain development and school success. Brain growth, approaches to life and learning, language skills: All these are shaped by what does—or does not—happen in a child's first days, months, and years. In her article, "Brain Development Research Can Influence Early Childhood Curriculum," author Judith Colbert stresses, "What happens in the earliest months and years is of greatest importance and has long-term consequences for later life."

Ponder the powerful implications of Colbert's statement "long-term consequences for later life." For example, a first grade child entering formal education may have serious problems remembering sight-words and/or simple math facts. Inappropriate behaviors erupt due to feelings of failure and inadequacy. The child, unable to verbalize his/her frustration, may demonstrate signs of aggression, withdrawal, depression, fear, hyper-tension. Teachers will utilize many strategies and additional personnel to serve this child's needs: a math interventionist, a reading interventionist, a behavioral coach. If the child's skills and behavior deteriorate to an at-risk level, the teacher may IST the child or possibly consider a referral for special education. Continuing in the educational system, this child may always perform below grade level with behavior issues. The interventionists and remedial programs used to service this child are only temporary Band-Aids.

We need to ask why a child 7 years of age is so angry? Why a child 7 years of age cannot retain or recall a simple sight word, such as "ball?" Why a child 7 years of age cannot comprehend the concept behind 3 plus 3 equals 6? The impact of a devastating or enriching quality of life for children zero to age 5 answers these questions. And, there is ample scientific research supporting this opinion: "Early experiences that are nurturing, active, and challenging actually thicken the cortex of an infant's brain, creating a brain with more extensive and sophisticated neuron structures that determine intelligence and behavior. While good experiences help the brain develop well, poor experiences can literally cause a genetically normal child to have a lower IQ. Children who are exposed to fewer colors, less touch, little interaction with adults, fewer sights and sounds, and less language actually have smaller brains."

It is imperative that quality early childhood education begins with the public school system. If public schools are failing, and scientific research demonstrates zero to age 5 experiences set the stage for success or failure in public school, it is reasonable and necessary the public school system begins earlier than age 6 or 7. It is important to stress, early childhood public school education is different from elementary public school education. I am not suggesting toddlers walk in a straight line, sit in a desk, or read from a chapter book. What I am suggesting is a coordinated curriculum between the early childhood education program and the public elementary school. That coordinated curriculum could very well be the Montessori Method, "a system for teaching young children, in which the fundamental aim is self-motivated education by the children themselves, as they are encouraged to move freely through individualized instruction and physical exercises, accompanied by special emphasis on the training of the senses and the early development of reading and writing skills."

To repeat, parents should always have freedom to choose what is best for their children. One parent may opt out of early childhood education for their child. However, another parent may opt to have early childhood education for their child. The choice and government funding should be available. Yes, parents will always be the primary educators. Period.

Maryanne J. Kane, Ph.D, received her doctorate in Music Education from Temple University and has 30-plus-years experience teaching in various elementary settings: parochial, private, and public in the Philadelphia and Delaware County areas.