Education Commentary

Schooling All 4-Year-Olds: An Idea Full of Promise, Fraught With Pitfalls

By Anne K. Soderman — March 14, 1984 5 min read

Four-year-old Andy Sumner lives with his mother, a single parent, and his 7-year-old sister. He doesn’t quite qualify for the Head Start program in his community, and his mother doesn’t feel she can cover the tuition charged at a local nursery school. In the fall, he will enter kindergarten. Is he already behind educationally? His mother worries a lot about that.

Because approximately 46 percent of all 4-year-olds are in government-subsidized programs for low-income families, or in a variety of private programs supported by the middle and upper classes, is it time to institute national pre-primary programming for all 4-year-olds?

Educational heavyweights such as Superintendent of Education Phillip Runkel of Michigan and Commissioner of Education Gordon Ambach of New York State think so. They cite significant social changes and a growing demand for “developmental” kindergartens by both educators and parents of young children. They advocate greater allocation of educational resources for early education in what seems to be an earnest effort to remedy some of our education ills.

When deciding whether we should develop a program of national pre-primary education, we need to be direct about the goals of such an effort. We need to clearly spell out our objectives if the outcome is to benefit children and serve as more than a Band-Aid to education. Opponents of this move toward public sponsorship of pre-primary education claim there may be hidden agendas, including:

  • Using a national pre-primary program as a “legitimate” way to spend public tax revenue on day care for the millions of children under 5 whose parents work.
  • Providing services for the “Andys” out there--the 4-year-olds who are not enrolled in programs because there are not enough subsidized places, or for those children who have parents simply unwilling to pay for such services.
  • Providing a safer place during the day for a growing population of abused and neglected children.
  • Filling empty classrooms and putting unemployed teachers back to work.
  • Formalizing, standardizing, and more closely monitoring the wide variety of already existing pre-primary programs.
  • Providing continuity and a stable environment for the large number of children whose parents are in the process of separation, divorce, and remarriage.
  • Providing a more nurturing and healthful environment for children of the poor.
  • While a few of the above considerations might be appropriate reasons to support a comprehensive day-care network, they are not good reasons to institute national pre-primary education. Day care cannot be equated with education. Nor should such a decision be made simply to “prime the pump” for the later educational functioning of these children.

    Making formal education available to all 4-year-olds should occur only because we believe it would enhance their cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development.

    Unfortunately, educational planning is not always done purely with the development of children in mind. Rather, it is sometimes economically driven, influenced by the vested interests of powerful pressure groups, or altered unpredictably by well-meaning legislative, religious, political, educational, or lay groups waging their own ideological battles.

    Other opponents of national pre-primary education worry about whether its curriculum would be matched appropriately with the developmental needs of 4-year-olds. They cite the cognitive “sifting down” that has occurred in kindergartens today, charging that large numbers of children are already visibly under stress because academic demands placed on them are greater than their developmental capacity to respond. There is good evidence that this is true. The American Academy of Pediatricians has expressed concern about the dramatic increase of “stress-related” symptoms being seen in young children. Frustrated kindergarten teachers acknowledge they are contributing to the pressure but say they feel caught up in having to prepare children for 1st-grade expectations.

    What is being taught to kindergarten children today is what was expected for the 1st grader 15 years ago. During the 1960’s, in our fright that we were falling behind the Russians technologically, we made dramatic changes in our educational programs. The result, in kindergarten, was an emphatic move away from socialization toward an identifiable product--reading.

    Despite the pseudo-sophisticated exteriors children often possess today--their assertiveness with adults and surface familiarity with adult behavior--they have not changed biologically or cognitively. The majority of children at 4 and 5 still function with a mind and an egocentric nature that limit their understanding of others’ views.They have a genuine need to play, and the quality and quantity of the time they spend playing are later seen (or observed to be lacking) in their creative thought, ability to make decisions, and potential for coping with stressful situations.

    The excellent research in brain growth “periodization"--which is being hotly debated at present--provides further biological support for the work of Piaget and Gesell, and substantiates the importance of recognizing changing brain structures. The research clearly outlines the periods of 2 to 4, 6 to 8, 10 to 12, and 14 to 16 and beyond as the periods during which there are brain-growth spurts that increase the child’s ability to attain new levels of learning and accept cognitive challenge. In between, in the periods from 4 to 6, 8 to 10, and 12 to 14, there is very little brain growth. These years provide a crucial period in which children are motivated to refine and consolidate their higher-level thinking through exploration and practice. In the early years, boys may be 6 to 18 months behind girls in moving through these structural changes. Our failure to apply in the classroom what we have learned through research is evident in the secondary schools--boys outnumber girls 13 to 1 in remedial classes and by as much as 8 to 1 in classes for the emotionally impaired.

    But back to our original question: Should formal education be made available to all 4-year-olds? That depends. If such a national program were directed toward providing stimulating environments--staffed by responsible adults who are knowledgeable about 4-year-olds and are skilled in programming for the physical, social, emotional, and cognitive needs of these children--we might finally be on the way to developing a bumper crop for the schools. Whether this will happen will depend on our respecting, and protecting those who have the most to lose or gain--our nation’s 4-year-olds.

    A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 1984 edition of Education Week as Schooling All 4-Year-Olds: An Idea Full of Promise, Fraught With Pitfalls