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What Parents Need to Know About Early Childhood Education: Sorting Fact From Fiction

Ms. Meyers is a long-time preschool and kindergarten teacher who writes about issues in early childhood education and advocates for play.


10 Lies in Early Childhood Education

1. Earlier is better when it comes to reading

2. All children can read at a young age

3. Phonics Is most important for early reading

4. Teachers are best at reading instruction

5. Workbooks are great tools for reading

6. Academic preschools are best

7. Neuroscience supports early academics

8. Standardized tests garner reliable results

9. Professional in education endorse Common Core

10.Technology prepares kids for kindergarten

Each of these common untruths is fully described below.

Falsities in Early Childhood Education

When we were kids, many of us got the same stern warning from our parents each summer at the pool: Don’t go swimming until you wait at least 30 minutes after eating! Even now, long after doctors have debunked that advice, uninformed moms and dads across the globe continue to issue it. Misinformation such as this, shared so widely and for so long, illustrates how difficult it is to correct the record even during these more enlightened times. Today, nowhere is this truer than in early childhood education where falsities are spread both in person and online.

Social Media Spreads Misinformation

While moms and dads have greater access to knowledge because of the internet, they often favor unreliable sources. What scholars write isn’t nearly as enthralling as what celebrities, politicians, and their Facebook friends have to say. Jenny McCarthy, for example, found fame by posing nude for Playboy but then went on to influence millions with her anti-vaccine stance. Sadly, this woman with no medical or scientific background became the leading voice on the matter.

There’s no doubt that confirmation bias also comes into play with issues surrounding early childhood education. Moms and dads, like moths to a flame, get attracted to opinions that validate their own. With that in mind, here are 10 common lies about early childhood education that are widely circulated and some folks accept without questioning. Hopefully, they'll be put to rest soon so parents have the truth and can make well-informed choices for their kids.

1. Earlier Is Better When It Comes to Reading

In the past two decades, federal legislation such as No Child Left Behind and Common Core have increased academic rigor for younger kids. As a result, one of the goals in kindergarten now is to get all youngsters reading by the end of the school year. It's understandable, therefore, that parents would believe early reading instruction has long-term benefits for their kids.

However, there's no research that supports this earlier is better approach. In fact, children who learn to read at 5 aren't better readers than those who learn at 6, 7 or even later. In Finland, a country whose educational system is envied around the world, formal reading instruction doesn't begin until age 7. Moreover, studies show that children who learn to read when they're older are more likely to become book lovers, choosing to read for pleasure, than those who learned when they were younger.

2. All Children Can Read at a Young Age

Because of the Common Core standards, we now have a goal of all children reading before the end of kindergarten. However, this contradicts ample research that shows there's an enormous range for when kids learn this skill. According to neuroscience, some aren't developmentally ready at this tender age.

Judith Hudson, a developmental psychologist, writes: “Most children have not yet formed certain neural connections that allow them to decode printed letters and then mentally combine them to make words. A few children are able to read earlier, but most of them just pick it up; they don't learn through direct instruction.”

Tragically, there's a high price to pay for this unrealistic expectation. Professor Nancy Carlsson-Paige says that early reading instruction can create feelings of confusion, anxiety, and inadequacy in young children. Moreover, it can give parents the misleading message that their youngsters aren't smart when, in all reality, they're just not developmentally ready.

3. Phonics Is Most Important for Early Reading

Sadly, the unrealistic expectation that all kids should be reading in kindergarten has negatively impacted our preschools as well. Early childhood educators now feel an intense pressure to present structured lessons in phonics to get students prepared for elementary school. Today, some parents demand that their preschoolers be taught these pre-reading skills so they'll be ready for kindergarten.

However, research consistently shows that early reading exposure should focus on the affective realm, not the cognitive. Young children need to have an emotional connection with books. Knowing T says “tuh” and B says “buh” is far less important than making positive associations with literature—those all-important feelings of security, excitement, suspense, comfort, and joy that turn kids into life-long readers.

4. Teachers Are Best at Reading Instruction

With their children getting reading instruction in both preschool and kindergarten, parents can feel relegated to the sidelines. The lexicon (sight words, digraphs, blends) can be unfamiliar and intimidating to them. Therefore, some take a giant step back, thinking it's the teacher's domain and not theirs. This is one of the most tragic and damaging consequences of early reading instruction.

Without a doubt, parents are their children's most powerful teachers. Moreover, they're much better equipped to instill in their kids a lifelong love of books. When enjoying story time together, they can cuddle with their kids and make the experience warm, loving, and cozy. While reading, they can pause to discuss the plot, the characters, and the illustrations. They can connect their kids' experiences to those in the text. All this is impossible for teachers to accomplish when reading to a large group.

5. Workbooks Are Great Tools for Reading

To increase profits, publishers and tech companies convince parents that workbooks, flashcards, and computer games are needed to teach kids how to read. However, experts in early childhood development strongly disagree. They argue that a close, loving bond between parent and child builds the foundation for reading success, not anything that’s purchased.

Professor Ross A. Thompson is a developmental psychologist who studies parent-child relationships in the first five years. He says that the earlier is better obsession is unique to parents in the United States. He asserts that moms and dads in other countries are correct in allowing kids to develop at their own pace.

Contrary to what parents here believe, Professor Thompson argues that there is no advantage in pushing kids to learn at younger ages. He says, “It’s a classic American concern how to accelerate learning. Many parents believe that if their children learn fast early, they will remain accelerated. But children learn best at a natural rate. Those who show early advances settle out by the time they reach grade school. Others catch up.”

6. Academic Preschools Are Best

As Professor Thompson and other scholars note, parents in the United States are unique in their preoccupation with accelerated learning. Sadly, many now see preschool through a narrow lens as simply academic preparation for kindergarten. Parents in other countries, though, see them preschool through an expansive lens as a place to get kids curious about the world and empowered to discover new things.

Denmark and Sweden, for example, take the opposite approach to ours with their highly successful Forest Schools. Youngsters spend hours each day in the woods (regardless of the weather) where they're encouraged to explore, take risks, and get dirty. Activities stem from their own imaginations—not toys, games, and technology. The low student-teacher ratio allows kids to be kids: climbing trees, splashing in puddles, and playing in the mud, all the while staying safe. Research shows children who attend Forest Schools are happier, more confident, and more independent.

7. Neuroscience Supports Early Academics

Our country's policies and practices in early childhood education go against what we've discovered in neuroscience. Research in that field shows us that no two brains are alike. Therefore, it's unreasonable to treat all young learners the same and expect the same results from them. Our expectation that all kindergartners should be reading by the end of the school year is unsupported by facts and is damaging to kids.

Colleen Rau, a reading intervention specialist, cautions: “The lightbulb goes on for students at different times. But if we make students feel pressure so that they shut down, then that light bulb is not going to be as likely to come on and they aren’t going to develop the confidence that they need to become successful readers later.”

8. Standardized Tests Garner Reliable Results

Standardized testing has become big business in our nation. What was once considered unthinkable—administering these exams to preschool and kindergarten students—is now a sad reality. Child development experts, though, assert that the results are largely meaningless for kids 8 and younger. Substantive conclusions cannot be garnered because kids' brains are growing so rapidly during these early years. Furthermore, their attention spans are too short for test-taking, making the results highly unreliable.

Moreover, some primary grade teachers say that administering such tests to little ones is developmentally inappropriate and downright cruel. They maintain that it stresses out young learners. They also assert that it's a waste of precious instruction time.

In this brief video, a kindergarten teacher addresses the negative impact that educational reforms have on young children including increased anxiety and depression.

9. Professionals Endorse Common Core

More than 500 esteemed professionals—educators, pediatricians, and developmental psychologists—signed a joint statement opposing the K-3 Common Core standards. This is unsurprising since the committee that wrote them consisted of 135 individuals but not one kindergarten, first, second, or third grade teacher. Their blatant exclusion from the process resulted in goals that are developmentally inappropriate and potentially damaging to young learners.

Their statement read: “We have grave concerns about the core standards...The proposed standards conflict with compelling new research in cognitive science, neuroscience, child development, and early childhood education about how young children learn, what they need to learn, and how best to teach them in kindergarten and the early grades.”

Kindergarten teachers objected most strongly to Common Core because it presents them with a whopping 90 standards to manage. As a result, their classrooms have become teacher-centered environments with structured lessons, children sitting and listening, paper-pencil tasks, and rote learning. This goes against decades of research that show kindergartners learn best in child-centered classrooms where they're doing, playing, exploring, and following their curiosities.

10. Technology Prepares Kids for Kindergarten

Tech companies have made a fortune marketing their computer games to moms and dads of preschoolers. They tap into parental anxieties with promises that their products will boost children’s intellectual acuity and prepare them for school. Knowing that 90 percent of a youngster’s brain develops by age 5, many parents want their preschoolers to be challenged and stimulated during these crucial years. They see computer games as an effective and easy way to accomplish this.

Most child development experts, though, argue that technology is far more detrimental than beneficial for little ones. In fact, they urge parents to reduce their children’s screen time, not increase it. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends one hour or less per day of “high quality programming.” Moreover, they suggest that moms and dads don’t use screens as babysitters but watch or play along with their kids.

Pat Wolfe and Pamela Nevills are co- authors of a book that I highly recommend to all parents entitled Building the Reading Brain, PreK-3. It’s the guide that I used to get my sons, as well as hundreds of students, to become passionate lifelong readers. Wolfe and Nevills assert that preschoolers learn much more from real world experiences than virtual ones. Research shows that a young child’s brain develops best through meaningful hands-on pursuits. These include activities such as counting five apples while bagging them at the store, measuring flour and sugar while baking cookies, and making thank you cards for their birthday gifts.

What do you think?

© 2016 McKenna Meyers


McKenna Meyers (author) on March 16, 2017:

Tim, you sound like an amazing father and your kids are lucky to have you. Because of our country's quest for academic rigor at younger ages, elementary schools (and even preschools) feel pressured to teach in ways that are not developmentally appropriate. You are so right that children learn in different ways and different rates. A one-size-fits-all approach only makes kids feel inadequate. It gets parents needlessly worried. Because teachers are now focused on test scores and not the whole child, it's so important that parents celebrate their youngsters' uniqueness. Because my son has autism, I heard so many pessimistic comments from professionals about him, making it seem he had no future. Luckily, I just tuned them out and forged ahead. He's now 17 with his sights set on college and a career in engineering. You are so right; parents are the key! Thanks for reading and enjoy your kids.

Tim Kacillas from Anchorage, AK on March 16, 2017:

This is a mix bag of thoughts for me. I'd like to praise you for many of these points, while also wanting to poke holes in others. I (and I'm not really an expert) really think that every child is a little different. You mentioned this a bit in your article, but I can't say it enough. I tried to teach our oldest phonetics and word structure, but he wasn't interested, so I taught I'm to play Pokémon instead (a card game that requires basic math and detailed reading). He took to that instantly and is now in the gifted program at school and winning first place ribbons at school. Our second child (now in preschool) can't get past D in the alphabet but can cut paper and play playdo like a pro. I'm not really worried about any of these things, because I really don't think it matters. Kids are amazing and they learn at an enormous rate. I want to let my children explore and find what interest them the most. Once they find something that will keep their attention for more than two and a half minutes, that's when I step in and show them how to study that subject. It's the parent's job to be the sideline or burrier that just nudges the kiddos into the playing field and they'll find their way to the goal. Schools will do what schools do, but the adult at home is what the child sees and emulates. As long as there is a positive role model (super hero) that puts a value on education; i.e. reads to them, participates in activities, shows them the way; they'll turn out just fine. But like I mentioned, I'm not an expert.

McKenna Meyers (author) on August 10, 2016:

Yes, Denise, our expectations for public school teachers are unrealistically high. They cannot be everything to everybody, but we so want them to be. With this huge push for academic rigor at younger and younger ages, I see children getting turned off to reading. They're getting instructed on the mechanics of it before first experiencing the magic of it. When you read to your stepdaughter, you made her feel special and she connected those good feelings with books. Thanks for commenting and blessings back to you!

Paintdrips on August 10, 2016:

I have to admit that I learned many of these points the hard way... trial and error. My step-daughter in particular, whom I didn't meet till she was 6, showed me that the public school method failed in her case and just reading aloud to her gave her a renewed desire to learn to read much later than most would have expected. Since each child is different, it stands to reason that different methods are needed for each. The public school system is just not set up to accommodate that which is why many children fall through the cracks.