Universal Preschool Education: Fulfilling its Promise by Ensuring its Quality

by Clancy Blair

The move to introduce universal access to preschool — in NYC specifically and in the US generally — has added to the groundswell of interest in children’s development. The universal preschool movement builds on years of research indicating that young children who experience higher quality preschool are better prepared for school, have higher levels of achievement, are more likely to graduate high school, and generally have better life outcomes in terms of health, wealth, and happiness.  Research has shown that this is particularly the case for children living in poverty.

Within this overall positive framework on pre-k, however, it is important to ask what high quality is exactly? And if the goal of preschool is to help prepare children for kindergarten, what does it mean to be ready for school?

Experts in child development research have information with which to address these interrelated questions. With respect to high quality, there are some obvious aspects of quality, such as appropriate physical space, low caregiver to child ratio, caregivers who are warm and supportive and who provide children with appropriately complex and rich language stimulation within a well organized and orderly set of activities.  But more specifically, how does high quality help to prepare children for school and translate into better outcomes for children? To answer this, we have to consider the skills and abilities children need to acquire prior to going to kindergarten; and then ask how a high quality preschool environment can best support them?

A seemingly immediate and obvious answer is, of course, academic; such things as knowledge of letters and numbers, of how letters and sounds go together to make words and sentences and how numbers go together in order and in relation to one another.

A focus on academic readiness, however, is really secondary to what many experts consider the essential and most important objective of high quality preschool, namely to help children build self-regulation skills; the ability to focus attention, be emotionally expressive, not be impulsive, and to engage in purposeful and meaningful interactions with caregivers and other children. In short, the objective of high quality preschool education is to foster self-regulation that provides the foundation for school readiness. By fostering the development of self-regulation, high quality preschool assists children in making sense of and building on the academic information that they will increasingly be exposed to in kindergarten and the early elementary grades.  Too much of an academic focus in preschool without sufficient support for a strong foundation in self-regulation is ultimately self-defeating and likely to lead to worse not better school readiness outcomes for children.

How to interweave the focus on self-regulation development with a focus on academic knowledge is the pressing question for research in early childhood education.  The current research available to address this question, how high quality preschool supports self-regulation development, and why high quality preschool is most important for and effective with children growing up in poverty and other disadvantageous circumstances are our next topics. The important thing is to act on what we know to ensure productive and meaningful preschool experiences for children.