Teaching Preschool Is More Than Child's Play

As a nation, if we're serious about investing in more pre-k opportunities, we must ensure that these programs offer a high-quality educational experience.


Amid our current hyper-partisan climate, it seems nearly impossible to get American policymakers to agree on anything. And if a policy does garner widespread support, it's even harder to write legislation that will become law without some form of controversy threatening its eventual promulgation. It's an all-too-familiar narrative in today's politics — and it's playing out once again in the dispute over the universal preschool plan that's a signature piece of President Biden's social spending bill.

Surprisingly, there are two major elements of the plan that aren't generating much debate at all. The first is a proposed requirementthat pre-k teachers hold at least a bachelor's degree in early childhood education. The second is that their pay be commensurate with elementary school staff with similar qualifications. These specific teacher-centric proposals are worth further examination.

As a nation, if we're serious about investing in more pre-k opportunities, we must ensure that these programs offer a high-quality educational experience. And if we're going to reach higher levels of quality in the first place, we need to embrace the fact that preschool teachers are so much more than glorified babysitters. In fact, as you'll see, experts agree they have a bigger impact on our kids' success than any other teaching professional they will encounter during the entirety of their academic journey.

More than two-thirds of Americans favor using federal funds to expand access to pre-k programs. This comes at a time when we need to get working parents out of the business of childcare and back into the labor force. Still, many policymakers find themselves divided over the price tag and the fact that states themselves will need to assume a significant portion of the costs. As a result, we may not see the plan implemented in some states, even if it passes the U.S. Senate and reaches the President's desk (which, as of this writing, it has not). This could be a monumental missed opportunity for many of our nation's children and the teachers who help support them.

Dr. Michael Troy, a clinical psychologist at Children's Minnesota and a leading expert in early childhood development, recently sat down with me to discuss just how important preschool can be. "Our brains are built from the ground up," he says. "So, what we learn in year one lays the foundation for what we learn in year two, and so on and so forth." Viewed in this context, preschool is where our kids learn how to learn, and they need a highly skilled and steady hand to help guide them through the process.

Why is the job so demanding?

First, it's not about opening a lesson plan and teaching to a set curriculum. It's about helping kids learn to think critically, collaborate with one another and deal with the challenges that naturally arise in any social setting. In our conversation, Dr. Troy discussed how in his experience most kindergarten teachers would prefer students who can sit in groups and help their fellow students, for example, over students who can sight-read any day. It takes a specialized skill set to build an environment in which children can develop these traits.

Second, at a time when as many as 33% of kids are forced to confront "adverse childhood experiences" in their lives, it is becoming essential that pre-k teachers learn to recognize the signs and know how to address them. Kai-leé Berke, the co-founder of Noni Educational Solutions and a contributing author of The Creative Curriculum for Preschool, recently told me that pre-k teachers need to be able to build relationships with children who have been through trauma. Here again, we see the need for advanced training and specialized skills that will help our pre-k teachers overcome a significant obstacle to healthy childhood development.

And third, amidst teacher shortages and burnout that has been exacerbated by the pandemic, pre-k teachers must have access to self-care resources and learn how best to remain calm and collected at times when the classroom is anything but. In the words of Ms. Berke, "Teachers are human, and it is inevitable that they will be impacted when there are moments of chaos or instances when a child may act out or become aggressive with other students. The question is: Do our teachers possess the skills and training needed to stay regulated and come back to center in these moments?" If so, they can remain in control. If not, they risk not only exacerbating the situation but their own mental health as well.

It's vital that we keep in mind that a lot more goes into creating a loving, successful learning environment than meets the eye. And by requiring that our pre-k teachers get the training they need — and the pay they deserve — we can help ensure that our pre-k programs have what it takes to set our kids on the path to success.

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