Dr. Suzanne Bouffard, a child development specialist and author of The Most Important Year. She will tell us why pre-kindergarten is so important and what we can do as parents to ensure we get the most of this time for our children! 🔥
In this video you will know about:
- Is preschool necessary?
- Why is preschool the most important year in a child’s development?
- What are some of the short and long-term benefits of attending a high quality preschool program?
- What mistakes are preschools making today?
- What key things should parents be looking for in a pre-K classroom?
- Is it worth paying a hefty tuition?
- What types of preschool philosophies are most beneficial?
Full Interview Transcript
Kelly: Suzanne, it’s so great to have you here. I saw your book at our local bookstore, and I was so intrigued by the title, “The Most Important Year”. My kids are in that sort of sweet spots.I wantedto find out why you think preschool is the most important year?
Suzanne: Well, thank you so much for having me. Preschool is a really important and really exciting time for kids and for the grownups who spend time with them and work with them. One of the reasons is that there’s an enormous amount of brain development happening in the preschool years and in early childhood in general, from the time that kids are born until they’re five years old, they have faster brain development than in any other time. In fact, at certain points in time, they’re developing a million new neural connections a second, which is really astonishing. So over the last few years, we’ve been learning how much of an opportunity there is in early childhood to help shape children’s brains and make the connections that they need to be curious, engaged, healthy, and successful people.
Kelly: You talked about going to preschool is so important, but I think other people talk about how it’s the parents that are the most influential on how when you’re staying at home with your kids. Some people argue that that’s obviously more important than where you’re sending them to preschool. Socan you talk a little bit about that?
Suzanne: Parents are children’s first and most important teachers, and there are many things that obviously children get from their parents that they don’t get anywhere else, but there are also many things that they can get from a preschool experience that they don’t get anywhere else. One of those things is the opportunity to develop a certain set of social skills and emotional skills in a group. When kids are three, four, or five years old, it’s a really big time for them to learn how to share, take turns, express themselves in words instead of hitting, get along with others, be part of a group. Some of those things are things that you can’t teach as well at home with just your child or just your children. Certain things really happen only in group dynamics.
Also, we all know that sometimes our children act differently when they’re not with us and they’re with somebody else. So it’s also a really good time for children to start developing independence, and preschool really gives children the ability to do that in many different ways.
For example, my three-year-old will insist at home, but he doesn’t know how to take his shoes off and on. But at school, they tell me he does it flawlessly by himself every day. Those are some of the little ways that preschool can be really beneficial.
Now that being said, it’s important to note that some children don’t have access to preschool, either because their families can’t afford it or they live in a place where it’s not available or maybe their families have just made the choice not to do that. Really, what matters most is that the adults in a child’s life, whoever they are and wherever they are, are facilitating cognitive, social, and emotional development. There are all kinds of ways that parents can also help kids at home, whether it’s teaching them to recognize the letters on a stop sign and say, “Oh look, that starts with S, so does your name, Suzanne. Look, that’s an “s,” or whether it’s counting the number of stairs that you walk up when you’re going into your apartment.
All of those little ways of teaching day to day are the most important things that children need. It’s just that preschools sometimes offer a little bit more opportunity to do some of those things. As we all know, as parents, sometimes you can get so caught up in just the day-to-day of keeping things running, doing the laundry, and cooking that it’s hard to make the space to do that.
Kelly: That’s true. You mentioned something about kids not being able to afford it. I’m here in Marin County and most preschools are more than I paid for college here. I mean, they’re so expensive, and so I just wonder is that really worth the price of sending them?
There’s competition even to get into these schools. Is it worth the price to send them to the really fancy preschool? Or what’s important, I guess, when you’re looking at the preschool?
Suzanne: I think it’s a really good question because there is a real range of programs out there, and there are some programs that are just real hidden gems that maybe get overlooked and maybe aren’t as fancy and expensive. Then I’ve also seen some programs that are very polished and well put-together, but then aren’t actually very high quality for kids.
What I always tell people is the most important thing is to pay attention to the teachers and the staff and how they interact with children. Your child is going to learn the most in all kinds of ways from adults who are supportive, nurturing, and love kids and love to be there. You can tell a great teacher because they get down on your child’s eye level, they address them by name, and they treat them with curiosity and with seriousness, so when a child has something to say, they are respectful about either listening or saying, “Can you hold that thought for two minutes while we finish the book, and I want to come back to you?”
The other thing that adults do that is a good indication of their quality as teachers is that they, the really good teachers find teachable moments in everyday interactions. They might see that a child is interested in something, is interested in trucks, so they ask them questions about it and they engage them in interesting conversations about it or they might notice that a child is having trouble sharing and they’ll go and sit down on the rug and help them with that.
Great teachers are supportive. They’re not punitive. They don’t yell at kids. They don’t roll their eyes at kids. So if you can find a place that has great supportive teachers, your kid is going to do great.
Kelly: How do you know that though, if you’re just touring a school?
Suzanne: You can also learn about the way that the kids feel about the teachers. When there’s a good relationship between teachers and kids, kids will go and hug their teachers, they’ll be excited to share things with their teachers, and their teachers will be excited to listen.
You can also listen to the kinds of things that teachers say. A great teacher asks, “Why do you think that is?” or “What are you thinking about?” or “Oh, I noticed that you did this.” A not so great teacher says a lot of don’ts. “Don’t do that. That’s wrong. That’s not right.” That’s a much more negative and punitive way of interacting with a child. Kids don’t learn as much from that. That’s one thing to look for.
Another thing that’s good to look for on a quick tour is to look and see what are on the walls of the classrooms. In a good school, kids are being encouraged to be actively engaged in the processes of learning, and that often means that their artwork is on the walls or hanging from the ceilings and showing the kids, “Look at what we created together,” or “You are a really important part of this learning environment.”
But if you walk in and you’re seeing a lot of commercial posters or a lot of cookie cutter artwork, if three-year-olds have all sort of cut out the same lady bug and decorated it at the same way, that suggest to you that the school is more interested potentially in conformity and tradition than in children’s expressiveness and learning. Those are just a few of the kinds of things you can look for on a tour.
Kelly: Let’s talk about what’s the difference the long- and short-term benefits of someone who attends preschool versus a child who doesn’t attend preschool?
Suzanne: There’s some really interesting research that’s been coming out showing that not only is it important whether a child went to preschool, but it’s important whether they’re classmates went to preschool. There’s actually some data that shows that in a class where more of the kids went to preschool, all the kids do better in school. Even if they didn’t go to preschool themselves, they still benefit from an effect that the other kids did.
The researchers speculate that that’s because that group of children has a more well-developed set of social and emotional skills and they’re kind of ready to move ahead. Sometimes, people also ask me a question about, “how do we know that preschool is effective because aren’t there studies that show the benefits fade out over time, and that kids do better in the short run, but then five years later or even two years later, they’re not outperforming their peers anymore?”.
Some of that research comes from Head Start, one of the oldest federally funded programs for low-income children to attend preschool. Some studies that came out of the original incarnation of that program in the 70’s and 80’s found this supposed fade out. The kids did better at the end of the year than their peers who didn’t go to preschool. But when you look a couple of years later, they were no longer doing better.
We’ve come to learn a lot about why that happened in the research. One of the reasons is that the children who went to preschool then went on to kindergarten classrooms with kids who hadn’t been to preschool. So the teachers had to go over the same material, whether it was about shapes or about how to conduct yourself in a classroom that the Head Start kids already knew. It wasn’t actually that they were falling behind. It was actually that the other kids were catching up. In some ways, that’s actually an argument that all kids should have universal access to prekindergarten in some fashion because then when they all have that and they go to kindergarten, they’re ready to move forward.
Another thing that we’ve learned that’s related is that, of course, preschool is very, very important, but so is the quality of the classrooms that kids go on to in kindergarten, first grade, and beyond. There are some really interesting studies that found this supposed fade out effect of preschool. But then what they did was they went in and they measured the quality of those kids’ kindergarten classrooms, and they did indeed find a difference that the kids who went on to high quality kindergarten classrooms continued to do better than their peers. The kids who went on to poor quality kindergarten classrooms actually ended up doing worse than their peers, who hadn’t gone to the preschool program.
The researchers speculate that the reason that happens is because those kids are used to a positive and supportive environment, and then they go to kind of a negative and punitive one. They’re like really shocked, really not prepared for that, and don’t know how to function. Again, it speaks to the importance of all kids having access to quality education before kindergarten.
Kelly: The peers are very influential too just as we move forward through your schooling in general.
Suzanne: Yes, exactly.
Kelly: You talked about not to push reading early on Why do you say that?
Suzanne: When we say that children shouldn’t be pressured to read in preschool or even kindergarten, what that means is that we shouldn’t be giving them flashcards or testing them or expecting them to read a book, but we should be introducing them to the wonders of language. We should read to them a lot, talk to them a lot.
A few things that researchers called prereading or preliteracy skills would be things like recognizing letters, being able to rhyme words with each other and something researchers called print concepts, which means being able to identify which direction you open the book more or less that you read from left to right, those kinds of concepts just what it means to be reading.
As they get closer to kindergarten, they’re starting to identify the sounds that letters make, but they learn that if you do it connected to their real life, not through flashcards, because that doesn’t really make connections in the brain, and it doesn’t help them learn. What it does instead is make them feel pressured, sometimes ashamed, and keeps them actually in the long run from developing a kind of foundational skills that they need.
Suzanne: One of the things that’s really important in terms of teaching methods is to do it in a multisensory way. To take the example of learning about letters, I’ve seen places where the teachers will glue a letter and then the children attach Cheerios along the glue marks, or in some places, kids bake the letters and eat them. Kids are very tactile and very physical or they may take the shape of the letters with their bodies. It’s really important that schools do those kinds of activities in multiple ways, not just one way, but all these different ways of making it a full body experience.
Kelly: There are so many different preschool philosophies, Montessori and Reggio, etc. What do you recommend? Is there a one-size-fits-all that you would recommend? Or is it just sort of individual to the child? Or how do you choose what the right philosophy is because there’s so much pressure I feel like just choosing a preschool?
Suzanne: Yes. I think there’s really no one best model. I think that the best model is a child-centered model, where the teachers and the staff are really focused on where kids are at and what they need and are teaching in a play-based and explored and hands-on way. The methods that you mentioned like Reggio and Montessori, tools of the mind is another one that’s great, those all do that. They all have a child-centered philosophy.
As a parent, it can be really overwhelming and really confusing thing. I think that we should be less hung up on the model per se and think more about, first of all, just the quality of the interactions between adults and kids and second of all, what works best for our kids and for our families. It makes sense that we all consider convenience and logistics of the programs, and there’s nothing wrong with that that that should be a factor and as should be, do you feel comfortable walking into the school? Do you feel comfortable to have a conversation with the teacher first about your child?
Those things, I think, are much more important. You can find a great Montessori program, and you can find a not so great Montessori program. Try to really look at what’s happening in the classrooms rather than at the sign on the door.
Kelly: Where can people go for more information about your research and work?
Suzanne: Well, thank you for asking. The book is called, “The Most Important Year”, and you can find it on Amazon or at your local bookstore. I also have a website, where I have a variety of articles about different topics and some video clips where you can learn more. It’s suzannebouffard.com.
Kelly: Thank you so much for coming and sharing all your tips and insights about those pre-kindergarten years. I think it’s very useful as we all look as our kids continue to grow. Thank you.
Suzanne: Thank you for having me. It’s a really important topic, so I’m really happy to get to talk about it.
Kelly: Yes, I agree. Thank you so much.
About Suzanne Bouffard PhD
Suzanne Bouffard is a writer with a background in child development and education. She received her Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Duke University and has spent the past ten years conducting and writing about education research at Harvard University. Bouffard’s articles have appeared in The New York Times, Parents magazine online, Educational Leadership magazine, and The Harvard Education Letter, and she is the coauthor of Ready, Willing, and Able. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two children. For more information, visit https://www.suzannebouffard.com.