Early Years

December 06, 1989 4 min read

Young children who are pressured to excel in academics may become less creative and more anxious about tests without gaining a significant advantage over their peers, a new study indicates.

The observational study, one of the first to highlight how early academic pressure affects children, involved 126 middle-class families in Pennsylvania and Delaware.

The researchers--Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek of Temple University, Marion C. Hyson of the University of Delaware, and Leslie A. Rescorla of Bryn Mawr College--found that mothers with high academic expectations were more apt to pick preschools with a strong academic emphasis.

While placement in such schools hastened children’s acquisition of skills “in the short run,” however, the advantage was “not sustained’’ by the end of kindergarten. The children from more play-oriented preschools also had “significantly lower test anxiety and more positive attitudes about school.”

The researchers acknowledge that “learning potential can be increased and academic success enhanced by early educational experiences,” but they suggest that involvement too early in formal learning leads to early “burnout” in some children.

In the absence of federal child-care standards, a group of experts is drafting model standards for states.

The Bush Administration “has made it quite clear that there will not be federal standards,” said Dr. George Sterne, a clinical professor of pediatrics at Tulane Medical School and co-chair of the standards project, which he said will offer states a “reference point.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Public Health Association, collaborating under a grant from the federal Administration for Children, Youth, and Families, will complete a first draft of the standards in the next month and continue to refine and field test them.

They will address items ranging from the safety of playground surfaces to the hand-washing practices of child-care workers, and urge better training and pay for providers.

The standards will not highlight child-care curricula, but will cite guidelines by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Child-care legislation pending in the Congress would require only that states have standards in certain categories.

At the same time, Project Home Safe, which sponsors programs for “latchkey” children, is drafting standards for school-age child care.

Officials of the project, which is sponsored by the Whirlpool Foundation and the American Home Economics Association, are consulting other groups and experts to draft model standards on child-care facilities, activities, staff, safety, and parental involvement.

The initiative will incorporate standards adopted by by other groups and communities and address a level of quality beyond the “minimum standards” set by states, said a project official. They will be submitted to the n.a.e.y.c.'s academy of early-childhood programs for approval and could eventually be incorporated into its accreditation program.

The term “day care” has become a misnomer, contends a University of Maryland sociology professor.

In an address reprinted in the November issue of Demography, Harriet B. Presser, who is also president of the Population Association of America, says the growing service sector has boosted the share of parents working nights and weekends.

While organized child care is “directed toward a restricted range of daytime and weekday hours,” she said, more than one in six employed mothers and one in five fathers work evenings, nights, or rotating shifts. One-fourth of employed mothers and 30 percent of fathers work at least one weekend day.

The pool of nonemployed relatives available for child care is also shrinking, she noted.

In the study, 33 children were observed after being told “not to peek” at a surprise toy.

Only four did not look, but about two-thirds of those who did either lied or did not respond when asked. Girls were less likely to admit their transgression than boys, which the researchers say may reflect greater embarrassment or a stronger desire for social approval.

Children who peeked and said they didn’t tended to smile and appear relaxed, suggesting they had already learned to mask deception. Those who deceived but gave no response appeared more nervous, indicating they had difficulty lying directly.

The results are not surprising, the researchers say, given the “contradictory social messages” children learn from observing parents’ behavior and from being taught it is sometimes “socially appropriate to lie.”

Working Mother has published a list of 60 companies offering the best benefits for working mothers, including child-care, parental leave, and flexible hours.

The list was based on questionnaires and interviews with officials and employees.

One top-rated company, Apple Computer Inc., offers on-site child care, a gift of $500 for all new babies born to its workers, and up to $3,000 in adoption aid.--dc

A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 1989 edition of Education Week as Early Years