Most educators are keenly aware of the importance of a child’s transition to school. That transition now starts earlier for many children, as some school districts across the country open their doors to 3- and 4-year-olds with prekindergarten programs. The growth of these programs is due largely to research showing that early childhood is a critical window for brain development and to corresponding improvements in grade retention, achievement gaps, and high school graduation for older students who attended pre-K.
But only high-quality, developmentally appropriate programs achieve the kinds of impacts seen in cities with successful models, such as those in Boston and Tulsa, Okla. While policymakers debate the best training approaches for pre-K teachers and states tweak their early-childhood rating systems, a key piece of the quality puzzle is too often overlooked. Public school principals, superintendents, and instructional leaders, whose responsibility for pre-K classrooms is growing, have little or no training in how they should guide and evaluate teachers of young children.
Before the 1990s, most preschool programs were housed in community centers and overseen by directors with backgrounds in early-childhood education. Although many children continue to enroll in such programs, more than 1 million children annually attend public school pre-K programs overseen by elementary school principals. And many of those veteran school leaders weren’t trained to oversee these programs and likely never expected they would be responsible for them.
Pre-K may be common now, but training for principals around best practices for pre-K teaching and learning still isn’t. A 2015 survey of new principals by the National Association of Elementary School Principals found that only 1 in 5 felt well trained in early-childhood education. Even in districts considered national models of pre-K, principal training is usually voluntary, if offered at all, and often funded by outside philanthropy. While some districts have early-childhood departments to provide training for leaders, others rely on instructional coaches and support staff who have no early education background.
I spent two years researching the state of U.S. pre-K classrooms, including visiting more than a dozen schools, for a book about how to give all children a solid start in school. I saw many missed opportunities for quality practice. One principal in New Jersey thought that an appropriately bustling classroom was “chaotic” when preschoolers were simply active and engaged.
In the nation’s capital, I met teachers who had to convince their new principal that posting a daily learning objective on the board wasn’t reasonable—or readable—for preschoolers and that most 4-year-olds cannot stay silent in the hallways. These teachers were not only frustrated, but frightened: Their annual evaluations—and hence their salaries—were tied to policies that didn’t make sense for 4-year-olds.
School and district leaders aren’t the only ones who could benefit from basic pre-K knowledge. In New Jersey, pre-K teachers told me that kindergarten and 1st grade teachers were unfairly blaming them for graduating 4-year-olds who hadn’t learned to read, rather than recognizing the critical social and self-regulation skills those children had learned. Early-grades teachers could be better prepared to build on the foundation of pre-K if they knew what skills they should and should not expect children to know. Even secondary educators could benefit from understanding the value of investing district funds in the preparation of their future students. But too few teachers, especially at the secondary level, are required to receive thorough training in child development.
Pre-K may be common now, but training for principals around best practices for pre-K teaching and learning still isn't."
School-based pre-K has been successful in districts where early-childhood education is treated as a thoughtfully developed specialty. Boston’s early-childhood program has 20 staff members who provide age-appropriate curricula and ongoing coaching for pre-K teachers. Studies of the program show that the children are better prepared for kindergarten and show fewer achievement gaps across racial groups than their district peers who didn’t attend the pre-K program. The program’s 2007-09 cohorts also scored higher on standardized reading and math tests in 3rd grade.
As other school districts think about incorporating high-quality pre-K, here’s what school leaders and educators outside of the pre-K classroom should keep in mind:
• Preschoolers learn at different paces. In the same way that toddlers learn to walk and talk at varying stages, different children concentrate on specific skills at different times, so both their teachers and curricula need to be flexible and expectations about what children can master need to be realistic.
• Preschoolers need support to develop self-regulation skills. No 4-year-old has mastered the art of waiting patiently or solving disagreements. Teachers and administrators should support the development of those skills, not punish children for lacking them. Behavior management approaches that are popular in older grades, like color-coded behavior charts, can confuse and possibly even harm young children.
• Preschoolers don’t need disciplinarians. Some parents and educators suggest that strict discipline better prepares children to succeed academically. But research shows just the opposite: Focusing on students’ self-regulation skills and hands-on learning lead to later academic success.
Early-grades teachers and administrators who understand the real benefits of quality pre-K and how to deliver them can leverage the strengths their students bring, rather than expecting children to accomplish sophisticated reading and math milestones by age 5. Teachers of upper grades can learn valuable strategies from early-childhood educators, such as how to differentiate instruction and help children cope with individual frustrations.
While educators outside of pre-K classrooms don’t need to be early-childhood experts, a little bit of training could go a long way. Some basic knowledge of what the youngest students need to thrive can make those students more successful—and little kids, as we all know, eventually become big kids.