BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group
CHICAGO -- Universal preschool is widely touted as a surefire way to boost kids’ academic achievement. But while it isn’t likely to be affordable for -- or even desired by -- all families, it shouldn’t be underestimated as a potent educational support for low-income children.
Earlier this year, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that poverty adversely affects structural brain development in children. According to the authors, a national sample of MRI scans of children from families with limited financial resources revealed systematic structural differences in the frontal lobe, temporal lobe and hippocampus.
These differences may explain as much as 20 percent of low-income children’s achievement deficits, according to the authors. They concluded that households below 150 percent of the federal poverty level should be targeted for additional educational resources.
Now, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have quantified the amount of preschool that might negate the effects of the household chaos and disorganization that are so closely associated with poverty: 35 hours per week or more per week.
The researchers, whose findings were recently published in the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly, tracked 1,300 children from two rural, high-poverty regions in the U.S. since their birth in 2003 and focused on how the children’s development was impacted during their time in child care.
The well-orchestrated interaction and play that high quality out-of-home child care can offer -- in addition to dependable routines, responsibilities such as stowing playthings in their rightful cubby holes, and even nutritious snacks -- provide a safe place for children to exercise the muscle that is referred to by psychologists as “executive function.”
You may have heard of the Marshmallow Test, a diagnostic tool that researchers and psychologists use to assess the ability to delay gratification -- which is an example of how people, not just kids, use executive function. A subject is offered two treats, one that the subject identifies as a favorite. The subject can either consume the treat immediately or “earn” larger quantities depending on how long he or she can wait for it.
In a kindergartener, executive function can translate to keeping your hands to yourself while sitting in a group waiting for story time. In a first-grader, it can mean the difference between persevering while learning how to print your name and not being able to focus or troubleshoot and then melting down. Impulse control is fundamental to learning -- and it is a skill that can be honed with practice.
The Illinois researchers discovered that high-quality child care can eliminate the link between household chaos and adverse developmental outcomes, but they are not sure why. It could be that the quality of these kids’ out-of-home environment was highly nurturing, engaging and orderly.
Or it could be that simply reducing the amount of time that the children were exposed to blaring TVs, messiness, an absence of reliable daily schedules, and frequent comings and goings by household members and visitors -- all of which can inhibit kids’ ability to develop patterns of sustained attention -- made the difference.
Surely, being in a language rich environment like preschool helps mitigate the well-documented word gap that exists among children of different socioeconomic statuses, which is widely recognized as hindering their academic achievement. Studies have found that by age 3, children from low-income families hear roughly 30 million fewer words than more affluent kids.
At any rate, universal preschool is a controversial issue pitting those who don’t believe it is a silver bullet against those who argue it should be a right for every child. Indeed, the science is far from settled, with past research showing mixed results. Some studies even suggest that kids who spend greater time in child care are prone to increased behavioral problems -- but these may be at least partially explained by delving into the quality of the child care that kids are exposed to.
Perhaps it’s time to recognize that universal preschool is prohibitively expensive and might not move the needle for middle-income and affluent kids. This shift in thinking opens up to the possibility that preschool for our neediest children is an investment this country can’t afford to pass up.
Esther J. Cepeda is a Nationally Syndicated Columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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