Public Preschool Education: Helpful or Harmful?

Preschool has long been touted as the necessary foundation to early childhood education. Politicians and institutions will often champion the cause of universal preschool for all children, beginning at the earliest ages possible. But what effect does public preschool education actually have on young children? 

A recent study conducted by Vanderbilt University examined the state-funded preschool program offered in Tennessee and found some shocking results. Student progress was closely monitored over the course of years, and participating students were examined in third grade and again in sixth grade. It found that students who attended public preschool fared worse than students in the control group who did not attend, both in test scores and behavioral issues. They experienced “significant negative effects” and tested “worse than their peers.”

The study examined students who participated, comparing their achievement tests and disciplinary data to non-participating children. 

Third Grade: 

  • Students were scoring lower on reading, math and science achievement tests. 
  • Students were more likely to be diagnosed with a learning disability and given IEPs. 

Sixth Grade: 

  • Student academic scores continued to decline further. 
  • Students were committing more behavioral offenses in school. 

While participating students had a slight advantage at the onset of Kindergarten, the study showed that the control group quickly caught up to the students who attended public preschool, with any benefits quickly waning. Researchers noted that public preschool tended to initially benefit at-risk children from disadvantaged backgrounds, but could be detrimental to children from middle income families. The younger the child was at the time of enrollment, the higher the negative impact. 

Under Pressure

Could stress be a contributing factor for educational and behavioral challenges among children who experience group or formal care at a young age? 

Researchers are looking at the effects of stress on children who attend daycare and extended care preschools. The National Institute of Health noted that the majority of children saw an increase in the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in an institutionalized setting when compared to natural stress levels at home. For girls, this presented itself as anxious behavior, while for boys, it showed as an increase in aggressive behavior.

“Stress is a normal part of development and daily life,” said Dr. Danielle DeLong, director of psychology services at Harbor of Toledo. “Quite often, we feel stress that helps us stay engaged and functioning at a productive capacity. Infants feel stress when they cry, and then they feel calm again when an adult can help them soothe. When an infant is exposed to prolonged stress, also known as ‘toxic stress,’ this can change the development of the brain, affecting a child’s social and emotional abilities. Many children who experience this level of stress will have a harder time working through problems, communicating effectively with others, sharing and taking turns.” 

Dr. DeLong noted that extended periods of time in an institutionalized setting could potentially be detrimental to a child’s growth and development.

“While preschool can be a valuable tool to support the social, emotional and academic growth of children, research has found that there is such a thing as ‘too long’ in childcare,” she says. “Experts generally recommend between 30 and 45 hours as the maximum amount of time in childcare per week. Additional time spent in childcare can lead to poor peer interactions and adjustment concerns for children ages two through kindergarten.” 

A Crucial Time for Brain Development

Lindsay Stormer, LSW, Team Lead for Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health at Harbor of Toledo.

Quality of care is also a concern for public preschool participants. 

“Preschool can be a nourishing environment for children as their brain develops, just as the home environment can be,” said Lindsay Stormer, LSW and team lead of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health at Harbor. “What is important to know is that, whether it is at home or in preschool, your child’s formative years are from birth until age five, when 90 percent of brain development is occurring. For some children, most of this time is spent in a childcare setting, which can vary from center-to-center and classroom-to-classroom.” 

For this reason, Stormer feels that teachers hold a large responsibility in developing child behavior. 

“When a teacher has less training and less ability to problem-solve challenging behavior, the environment may offer fewer benefits socially, emotionally, and academically, contributing to potential behavior difficulties later.” 

How to spot a quality preschool program

Stormer maintains that a quality preschool program can still have a positive impact on child development.

“When a child is in group care, they are generally exposed to more language, social play, and a structured environment,” she said. “These benefits improve child behavior and can help support a child, both socially and emotionally.”

Here are some things Stormer recommends considering when choosing a preschool:

  • What is the teacher-to-child ratio in the classroom?

“One of the disadvantages is that, in Ohio, infant classrooms are staffed at either a 1-to-5 or 1-to-4 ratio, teacher-to-child. As professionals, we understand that, generally, when raising children it is more effective to have more adults provide caregiving. As the adage goes, ‘It takes a village’. When fewer adults are available to support caregiving, such as in group care, children are more likely to incur changes in the brain that may lead to challenges later.”

  • Take a tour and observe how the teachers interact with the children.

“Look for warm responses that include patience and a willingness to teach.”

  • Observe children at play

“A connected child will be engaged in their play and attuned to the teacher — signs of a healthy environment that prioritizes growth and development.”

  • How do the teachers respond to the child’s needs?

Do the children seem comfortable approaching their teachers for help? Do they seem happily engaged in their play? 

“As you observe, be mindful of teachers who appear more invested and engaged with the children, as opposed to those who stop engaging and have a conversation with you. These teachers may have a greater understanding of the impact they have on the growth of the children in their care.”