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Is Preschool Effective? Here is What the Latest Research Reveals About the Benefits of Preschool

Updated: Mar 14

Preschool teacher working with children

As policies begin to change and more states extend funding towards free public preschool, there have been an influx of articles surrounding the true benefits of preschool. As you know, I love research! I believe that everything that we do as educators should be guided by research and data. Several of the recent articles that I have read (listed below) have addressed both the need for high quality preschool, as well as if preschool is truly effective for our children. Let's dive into what I have learned.

 

A group of researchers, practitioners, members of national organizations, school districts, and more, recently came together to dive into data related to the effectiveness of preschool. Previous research related to preschool effectiveness from the 70’s found that children that were able to attend public preschool truly excelled, and the positive effects carried on throughout adulthood.  These studies were completed with a small group of children who were taught by researchers, and the children were taught using child-focused, high-quality instruction. 


As the times have changed, lifestyles have evolved, and more and more children are attending preschool in both the public and private sector. Researchers are finding that the initial results from the 70's may no longer stand true. A more recent dive into the research done by Jesse Bruhn and Emily Emick of Brown University found that, “random evaluations from the past 60 years demonstrate that preschool improves children’s short-run academic outcomes, but those effects fade over time. However, positive impacts re-emerge in the long term through improved outcomes like high school graduation and college enrollment” (Gerstle & Schmidt).

Research related to benefits of preschool.

Reports note that there is limited research on behavioral outcomes, as well as the assessment of if the programs studied are considered high quality preschools. 


Follow-up on this data shared by Deborah Stipekin in her article, 40 Years After ‘A Nation at Risk’: The Imperative for High-Quality Pre-K, shared several possible explanations for the benefits of preschool fading once children enter elementary school. These include:

  • “…kindergarten teachers often repeat material that children had already learned in preschool, allowing children who did not have preschool to catch up with those who did.”

  • “… teachers in the early grades do not differentiate instruction for children with varying skill levels, which impedes children’s opportunities to continue to exhibit growth" (Stipekin).


This leaves one to consider if the results would differ if we truly met children at their academic level when they enter the preschool classroom, instead of a “one size fits all” approach to teaching. 

 

What Are the Key Take-Aways?


What are the benefits of preschool?

While we must think critically about the data presented and the changes that we have seen since the 70’s, we must also reflect on the many other factors that play into the success of preschool.  The biggest phrase that comes to mind is HIGH QUALITY.  The children that had success in the past attended schools with high-quality instruction.  We must ask, “What kind of teacher training is provided?  What curriculums are being used?  Are teachers up to date on the latest literacy research? Do the children have the support that they need to meet their basic needs of sleep, nutrition, and the levels of stress when they enter the classroom?   We must be careful to share conclusions related to the effectiveness of preschool when there are so many unanswered questions that can greatly affect the learning outcomes of our children.

 

I, for one, believe that when children are engaged in learning environments that provide quality instruction, follow the research, merge instruction with play, and provide safe and caring environments, preschool has numerous benefits for both the child, and society as a whole.  Let’s dive into some of these benefits:


Benefits of Preschool on the Child:

  • Early Cognitive Development: Preschool programs focus on nurturing cognitive skills such as language development, problem-solving, and critical thinking. Children engage in activities that stimulate their brains, laying a strong foundation for future learning.

  • Social and Emotional Growth: Interacting with peers and teachers in a structured environment helps children develop social skills like sharing, cooperation, empathy, and conflict resolution. They learn to manage emotions and develop self-regulation, essential for success in school and life.

  • Preparation for School: Preschool serves as a bridge between home and formal schooling. It introduces routines, structure, and educational basics, making the transition to kindergarten smoother for children, reducing anxiety and enhancing readiness to learn.

  • Language and Communication Skills: Exposure to language-rich environments in preschool aids in language acquisition and communication skills. Children develop vocabulary, verbal expression, and listening skills, all of which are crucial for effective communication.

  • Cultural Awareness and Diversity:  Preschool helps to expose children to various cultures, traditions, and backgrounds. This fosters acceptance, respect, and appreciation for differences, promoting a more inclusive society.

  • Boosting Confidence and Independence: Preschool encourages children to explore and try new things independently.  This builds self-confidence, resilience, and a positive attitude towards learning.

  • Early Identification of Learning and Behavior Difficulties:  Early identification and intervention for potential learning difficulties can occur in preschool settings.  Addressing these challenges early can prevent larger learning gaps in later years.

 

Benefits of Preschool on Society: 


Benefits of preschool on society.

I believe that preschool not only contributes to the healthy development of individual children, but also lays the groundwork for a more educated, skilled, and cohesive society in the future.  The federal government has reported that for every dollar that we invest in preschool, we get an $8.00 return on our investment. Dedicating money to early childhood learning greatly impacts families now and in the future.  Here are just a few of the many societal benefits of preschool:

  1. Long-term Economic Benefits: Investing in early childhood education yields high returns in the long run. Economists argue that every dollar spent on quality preschool programs generates significant economic returns due to increased productivity, reduced crime rates, and higher earning potential for individuals later in life.

  2. Reduced Income Inequality: Public preschool helps level the playing field by providing all children, regardless of their socioeconomic background, with access to quality education. This can reduce income inequality by offering equal opportunities for learning and development during the formative years.

  3. Prevention of Academic Intervention Needs: Economists argue that investing in preschool education can lead to cost savings in areas such as special education, remedial programs, and social welfare services. Quality early education may decrease the need for expensive interventions later in a child's educational journey.

  4.  Increased Parental Participation in the Workforce: When children have access to reliable and high-quality preschool programs, parents, particularly mothers, are more likely to join or remain in the workforce. This increased labor force participation contributes positively to the economy.

  5. Healthcare Cost Reduction: Early childhood education has been associated with better health outcomes. Economists argue that a well-educated population tends to make healthier lifestyle choices, leading to reduced healthcare costs for society in the long term.

 

Conclusion:

As we navigate the complexities of preschool effectiveness, it is evident that we need to continue to invest time into both research and high-quality instruction.  We must dive deeper into the research, looking at the behavioral outcomes, teacher training, demographics, and more.  Only then can we confidently say that preschool is or is not an effective entity.  I would love to hear your thoughts!  Comment below!


References:

Gerstle, T., & Schmidt, A. (n.d.). Bridging the gap between preschool policy, practice, and research. MIT News | Massachusetts Institute of Technology. https://news.mit.edu/2024/bridging-gap-between-preschool-policy-practice-research-0110


Schwartz, S. (2024, January 11). Preschool studies show lagging results. why?. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/preschool-studies-show-lagging-results-why/2024/01


Stipek, D. (2023, December 19). 40 years after “A nation at risk”: The imperative for high-quality pre-K. The 74. https://www.the74million.org/article/40-years-after-a-nation-at-risk-the-imperative-for-high-quality-pre-k/


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