Wednesday, February 02, 2022

Academics-Based Preschool Harms Children

The long-term effects of the things we do to children in schools is a notoriously difficult thing to capture in research.

Generally speaking, however, we as a society have concluded, based on our collective behavior and with little evidence, that more academic training at earlier ages is the way to go. We assume that if we want kids to be good at school (a dubious goal at best) then we must give them lots of practice in preschool, which has lead in recent decades to two-year-olds being expected to sit at desks to be the targets of formal literacy and mathematics training. It has lead to our youngest citizens spending the bulk of their days indoors, focusing increasingly on things like worksheets and memorization drills. 

Many of us, including readers here, have looked on with horror. Preschoolers are simply not developmentally ready for this type of schooling. We see evidence that these unrealistic pressures are one of the leading causes of the current spike in childhood anxiety and depression. When we point any of this out, when we say that the push toward academic preschools is harmful to children and prevents them from working on the foundational social-emotional learning that young children need, proponents of top-down, adult-directed academic style schooling insist that it's the price we must pay for the long-term benefits, especially for disadvantaged children. They point to studies that show that children who are exposed to these "school readiness" types of curricula have a leg up with things like letter recognition and print awareness.

They can legitimately assert this because the research on the short-term effects consistently shows that children from academic preschool programs do enter kindergarten with certain advantages over those who have spent their preschool years playing. The part of the research that they ignore is that whenever an attempt has been made to study the long-term impact, we see that those advantages disappear rather quickly leaving the drill-and-kill kids largely indistinguishable academically, and worse off by other measures, from comparable peers who were not enrolled in academic-based programs. 

This is a consistent finding, going all the way back to the Perry Preschool Project, still the gold standard for long-term research on the impact of preschool. This study continues to track low-income children from a play-based program since the mid-1960's. They were the first to find that academic advantages faded rapidly once the kids moved on to elementary school. It's a result that has been replicated repeatedly, right up to a recent study on Tennessee's Pre-K program for children from low-income families that not only recreated this result, but found that by 3rd grade the children who attended the academics based program performed worse on both academic and behavioral measures than classmates who were never in the program.

In other words, the Tennessee Pre-K program harmed the children it sought to help.

The children studied in the Perry Preschool Project, however, the ones who attended a play-based, child-centered program also lost their short-term academic advantages, but continued, into adulthood, to reap the benefits of their behavioral head start. They had fewer teenage pregnancies, were more likely to have graduated from high school, to hold a job and have higher earnings, to commit fewer crimes, and to own their own home and car. They are more self-motivated, better at working with others, and, generally speaking, are more personable. 

The key, I think, is that these kids got to play when they were young, which is the soil from which healthy, happy, well-adjusted adults grow. 

If you want to read more about the research into the harm caused by academic preschools, I urge you to take a look at this recent piece in Psychology Today from author and researcher Peter Gray.

I know that many of the people who read here do not need more research to tell them that young children need play and lots of it. We are in the classroom every day, seeing the benefits with our own eyes. But as the Biden Administration here in the US gears up to offer free universal state-run preschool for 3 and 4-year-olds, there is a great danger that they will ignore the evidence in favor of yet more academic-style schooling for our youngest citizens. This will harm the children and it's harm that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

I also know that many people who read here will, however, hold their noses and support anything that offers free childcare for low income families. 

We are compassionate people. We know that the families of our low and middle-income students are struggling financially and free preschool, even free drill-and-kill preschool, will be a boon to them. Experience tells us, however, that nothing is really free, no matter what party is in charge. This "free" preschool will come with so-called "accountability" requirements that will invariably mean, among other things, high stakes testing (high stakes for those whose funding is on the line). This will mean sitting preschoolers in desks to be trained to pass tests. This will mean top-down school prep curricula, a grindstone that is completely inappropriate for these children who need to play. And we know from research that this will harm the children we seek to help. 

Still, many well-intended educators have told me that it is a price we should be willing to pay for the economic relief that universal preschool will provide low and middle-income families.

Indeed, one of the Biden administration's strongest arguments in favor of universal preschool is the economic benefits it will bring to families. I can stand fully behind free universal childcare. This is something we should have done long ago. But labeling this as "school," even "preschool," is a real and present danger to the children and families we are hoping to help because our society has consistently demonstrated that it will do harmful things to children in the name of schooling. 


Please join the very first cohort for Teacher Tom's Play-Based Learning, a brand new 6-week foundational course on my popular play-based learning pedagogy, designed for early childhood educators, childcare providers, parents and grandparents. I can't wait to share it with you! For more information and to register, click here

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