Children who transition earlier to a formal school environment learn to be more focused and are less impulsive than children at play-based preschools, a new study suggests.
“These results demonstrate for the first time how environmental context shapes the development of brain mechanisms in five-year-olds transitioning into school,” says Silvia Bunge, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley, and coauthor of the paper in Psychological Science.
Researchers hypothesized that a controlled educational setting in which young children must learn to sit still, follow directions, and avoid distractions would boost certain cognitive skills, such as staying on task. The experiment, conducted in Germany where preschool is referred to as “kindergarten,” proved the theory.
“Our results indicate that the structured learning environment of school has a positive effect on the development of behavioral control,” says lead author Garvin Brod, a researcher at the German Institute for International Educational Research.
For the study, researchers used computerized tests and brain imaging to track the cognitive performance of 62 5-year-old children.
A comparison of the results of tests conducted at the beginning and end of a school and preschool year, show that children who had gone to school showed greater improvement than their preschool peers at maintaining focus and following rules.
Moreover, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of their brains during an attention control task showed the children who had started school had a more active right parietal cortex, which supports attentiveness, among other cognitive skills.
While the findings reveal new information in the ongoing debate over the developmentally appropriate age to start school, the researchers are not necessarily advocating for early school start ages.
“Those results should not be taken to mean that the elementary school setting is necessarily better for young children’s development than play-based early schooling,” Bunge says, citing other research that shows children do well in hands-on, interactive learning environments and the fact that there is enormous developmental variation across children of the same age.
The study is part of the HippoKid project led by Yee Lee Shing at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development.
Some of the nation's top researchers who've spent their careers studying early childhood education recently got together in Washington with one goal in mind: to cut through the fog of studies and the endless debates over the benefits of preschool.
They came away with one clear, strong message: Kids who attend public preschool programs are better prepared for kindergarten than kids who don't.
While all kids benefit from preschool, poor and disadvantaged kids often make the most gains. "Researchers who study pre-K education often find that children who have had early experiences of economic scarcity and insecurity gain more from these programs than their more advantaged peers."
Children who are dual-language learners "show relatively large benefits from pre-K education" — both in their English-language proficiency and in other academic skills. Dual-language learners are mostly low income, Spanish speaking children, often with underdeveloped pre-literacy and pre-math skills. But, says Phillips, "there's substantial evidence now that, because they're learning two languages at the same time, they have stronger brain circuits that support self regulation." That may explain why preschool can help them make quick progress: "Their capacity to incorporate new information and to switch attention from one task to another, these are the skills they bring."
And yet, the researchers said, that doesn't mean preschool should necessarily be targeted toward poor or disadvantaged kids. "Part of what may render a pre-K classroom advantageous" for a poor student or a child learning English, "is the value of being immersed among a diverse array of classmates."
Not all preschool programs are alike. Features that may lead to success include "a well implemented, evidence-based curriculum" and an emphasis on the quality and continuous training of pre-K teachers. There's still a lot of research that needs to be done, the study concludes, "to generate more complete and reliable evidence on effectiveness factors."
Currently, the federal government, along with 42 states and the District of Columbia, spend about $37 billion a year on early childhood programs, mostly targeting low-income 3- to 5-year-olds.
When it comes to what preschools should teach, the researchers took on a big question in that field, too: Should pre-K focus on the social and emotional development of children or should it concentrate on what researchers call "skills specific curricula," namely numeracy and literacy?
The research clearly says it's not a matter of either/or.
"What we know is that children bring a vast array of experiences, both strengths and weaknesses," Phillips says. "Some children need more support than others. Some bring vast knowledge and skills."
Instruction built on social and emotional skills, rich play, toys, games, art, music and movement complements explicit instruction focused on things like learning to count and matching letters to sounds and words. Both benefit kids' readiness for school.
For researchers, the critical questions now are: What should the next generation of pre-K programs look like? What else needs to happen — in preschool and beyond — to ensure a long-term impact? And how do we connect all the dots in a child's educational trajectory beginning with preschool?
That's no easy task considering that half of the school-readiness gap between poor and affluent children is already evident by age 2, before most kids ever get to preschool.
Another major hurdle is the disconnect between pre-K and elementary education. Rather than building on the skills that kids arrive with, researchers have found lots of redundancy with kindergarten and first-grade teachers repeating a lot of what pre-K teachers do. This results in what researchers call "dead zones" that squander hard-won gains.
"On that count we cannot declare victory," says Phillips. "We need to look at the elementary grades as re-charging stations."
Pre-K programs today can also do a better job reaching out to low income families dealing with stress and mental health issues. The home, after all, provides either a sturdy or fragile foundation, researchers say.
"We know that poverty and adversity compromises the developing brain architecture and circuits," says Phillips.
And while even a high-quality program does not inoculate children from adversity and poverty, it can help mitigate those effects.
"Absolutely," says Phillips. "That is pre-K education's primary function."