It’s a cliche, but true: Young kids are like sponges, soaking up any experiences in their paths. The early years are the learning years – whether at home, at preschool or in the community.
Research suggests that parents in low-income families often think children’s educations are solely the responsibility of teachers, while teachers expect parents to teach some essential skills at home, says Louis Manfra, an assistant professor in the University of Missouri’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies.
“It’s everyone’s responsibility,” Manfra says.
Parents and teachers need to integrate counting – more than just reciting numbers – into all aspects of children’s daily activities so they can master the skill, he says. Similarly, parents need to read daily to their children and fill the home with books and words, literacy experts say. They shouldn’t just rely on schools; reading needs to be a habit at home, too.
Matching and sorting games build a child’s understanding of numbers, categories and sequencing. Working puzzles encourages kids to perceive patterns, make plans and solve problems.
“Counting gives children stronger foundations when they start school,” Manfra says. “The skills children have when they start kindergarten affect their trajectories through early elementary school. Therefore, it’s important that children start with as many skills as possible.”
Kenneth Dodge, Ph.D., director of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy, agrees that a child’s early experiences are crucial.
Research suggests that high-quality preschool experiences improve academic outcomes at least through third grade, he says. “If we are investing in education from kindergarten forward, we should invest in preschool as a way to improve those outcomes,” Dodge says.
More and more parents of young children are working outside the home, meaning that families need extra support in helping their young children learn. Today, parents can be more successful in raising and educating their preschool-aged children if they receive community support, he says.
Preschool does not replace the parent’s role, Dodge says. Instead, most effective preschools support parents and enhance their impact.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children also endorses a national focus on early childhood education to bridge what the group sees as “gaps in policies and resources” to help every child thrive.
One advantage preschool teachers have over parents is the presence of classmates: a group to help your little darling realize he’s not the center of the universe. Without a group, mom and dad cannot teach him such skills as how to sit in a circle, how to keep his hands to himself, how to wait his turn and follow instructions.
For many children, preschool is their first experience in a structured setting with teachers and groups of children. Preschool may also help your child learn to separate from caregivers without pitching a fit, and build up steam for the longer kindergarten day.
A qualified teacher should be able to help a parent understand what is typical at each stage of early development – socially, emotionally, cognitively and physically – and how your little one fits into that picture.
Betsy Flagler is a mother and preschool teacher. Email her at email@example.com.