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Too Much Too Soon: The Long-Term Effects of Academic Preschools

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
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Early Childhood: The Foundations of Learning

Child development experts recognize that early childhood education is crucial to the long-term academic success of an individual. Research shows that the first five years of life set the stage for everything that comes afterwards, and that during this time, children’s brains are most receptive to learning language and numbers. For these reasons, there’s been a great deal of support over the past several decades for creating a rigorous academic environment for young children, beginning as early as preschool.

Since the human brain is more sensitive to learning linguistic and mathematical concepts between the ages of two and five than it is at any other time, the reasoning goes, it makes sense to take advantage of this period, and expose children to as much academic knowledge as possible. However, over the past few years, there has been a backlash against this approach, and a growing body of scientific research indicates that academic rigor during preschool does more harm than good.

Does an Academic Preschool Lead to Stress or Success?

In an article published in 2010, “Pressure or Challenge in Preschool? How Academic Environments Affect Children,” child psychology professor Kathy Hirsh-Pasek writes:

“Academic preschools have little benefit for children’s academic skills, may dampen creative expression, and may create anxiety.”

She goes on to say that the negative effects might not be quite as severe as some critics suggest. However, the point she makes is critical. If academic challenges in preschool bestow little to no benefit on a child’s overall academic achievement – which is the entire goal of an accelerated early environment – then there may be no real compelling reason for going through all of the trouble in the first place. Academically rigorous preschools are challenging for parents, children, and teachers, and can be expensive and time-consuming. Without direct evidence to support their long-term academic benefits, it’s worth examining other modes of early education that might be more effective in terms of energy, time, and cost.

Two Approaches: Academic and Comprehensive

In 2013, the Swedish government initiated an in-depth examination of existing preschool curricula in order to determine best practices for the education of young children in the 21st century. The study identified two fundamental approaches to teaching children between the ages of two and five: The Academic Approach and The Comprehensive Approach.

The Academic Approach is characterized by large amounts of direct, teacher-centered instruction in reading and mathematics, with little focus placed on child-directed choice or play-based activities. On the other hand, The Comprehensive Approach is characterized by a balanced mix of play-based activities, student-directed choice, and direct instruction in reading and mathematics.

The results of the study were rather surprising.

Though the Academic Approach showed short-term improvements in a child’s literacy and numeracy (i.e. facility with language and numbers), specific knowledge, and IQ, there was no statistical advantage for the Academic Approach over the Comprehensive Approach with regards to long-term academic outcomes. In other words, students in accelerated preschool programs scored higher on standardized tests early on, but once both sets of students reached middle school and high school, the differences disappeared, and the initial academic rigor made no difference.

The scores were even.

The most important data gathered from the Swedish study had little to do with academics, though. Instead, it’s got everything to do with personal characteristics and individual development. The results showed that The Comprehensive Approach to preschool education was more likely to improve a child’s creativity, independence, self-confidence, general academic knowledge, and personal initiative. In addition, children who attended preschools with child-centered classrooms showed less tendency to engage in misconduct, fail classes, and were almost ten percent less likely to be expelled from high school.

Learn to Play, Play to Learn

It’s no surprise that the scientific data supports a balanced approach to early education. Most teachers, parents, and child specialists understand through direct experience that young children need healthy doses of both unstructured play and structured learning almost every day. This might be the primary paradox of working with and raising children. What parents and teachers also understand is that kids go to preschool to learn more than academics. They learn vital social, personal, and emotional skills that set them up for success as adults.

Unlike the developmental learning windows for acquiring academic skills such as language and mathematics, which remain open through childhood and adolescence, the developmental windows for acquiring emotional skills such as cooperation, collaboration, self-regulation, and independence close earlier. If children don’t learn proactive and productive strategies for getting along with others during their formative years – curriculum elements that might be missing from a preschool environment that stresses academics at the expense of play – they often face challenges shoring up these skills during pre-adolescence, adolescence, and early adulthood.

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