Learning About Early Education

A parent of a precocious four-year-old inquired, “How do you know when your child is ready for kindergarten?” Marvin Jacobson, author of Educating the Total Child: Straight from My Heart: Six Decades of Inspiring Children, Parents and Teachers, responded, “It depends on the child.” But, how does a parent assess their child, decide when to begin her formal education, and choose an appropriate school for her?

Children learning doesn't start for them in kindergarten.
“Early learning begins in the womb,” shares Lynn Carmouche, owner of The Learning Center in Baton Rouge. Parents are their child's first teacher. Early eye contact, hand holding, all interactions between a parent and child are critical to a child’s development.

“Children are naturally curious,” notes Cynthia Fontcuberta DiCarlo, PhD, the Executive Director of the Early Childhood Education Laboratory Preschool at LSU. “Encourage your children to ask questions and explore.” DiCarlo believes it is detrimental to focus on academics in pre-kindergarten and preschool. “Don’t start with pencil and paper. Support what children are interested in. Read to them. Go to the library and the zoo. Learning opportunities are everywhere.”

Parental interaction with their child–talking, singing, and playing rhyming games–helps stimulate language and vocabulary development, and builds important foundations for learning to read. Studies show that children with early education have stronger language, pre-mathematics, and social skills. How can you help your child get a good start? 

Make learning fun!
Help your toddler develop a love of learning by:

Preschool can lay a good foundation. 
To find a good preschool, start searching several months before you want to enroll your child. You’ll want a preschool that is in a convenient location near your work or home, with operating hours that work with your schedule. Determine if you want a preschool with a religious affiliation, one that practices the Montessori teaching method, or any other specific preferences.  

Carmouche advises parents to ask about the education and training of teachers and management. “Watch the interactions between the children and adults. Look at the kids’ faces. Are they excited about learning? What kind of interactions are occurring between the children? Look for programs that allow physical activity. Early childhood education should encourage inquisitive thinking, the joy of learning new things.”

Lindsey All, mother of a five and one year old, is “a research junkie. I read reviews online, read about the different options in Baton Rouge Parents Magazine, developed a set of interview questions of what was important to us, and interviewed a handful of schools. We looked for safety (qualifications of teachers, background checks, and CPR training for all faculty and staff), child/teacher ratios, diversity, and curriculum.” 

All’s oldest daughter potty trained early, so she entered preschool when she was 22 months old. “She loved her teacher and class, however, she is also very small. Being the youngest child in class, and the smallest, seemed to be affecting her confidence. We decided to keep her in PreK an extra year before kindergarten. It was definitely the right decision. She has become a little leader, and she is very bright and confident, even though she is still the smallest child in her class.”

Studies have shown that public preschool and pre-kindergarten classes often give children an advantage over those who do not attend preschool or pre-kindergarten classes.

The report, The Current State of Scientific Knowledge on Pre-Kindergarten Effects, found “that children attending a diverse array of state and school district PreK programs are more ready for school at the end of their PreK year than children who do not attend. Improvements in literacy and numeracy are most common.” 

The authors of the study discovered that “children who have had early experiences of economic scarcity and insecurity, gain more from these programs than their more advantaged peers.” The study also found that dual-language learners “show relatively large benefits from PreK education.”

Dr. DiCarlo believes that preschool should be compulsory, but that it must not stress academics exclusively to the children who attend. “Children need to learn how to negotiate social situations,” she says.  

All advises “Be your child’s advocate, and don’t settle if you are worried or uncomfortable. We decided to pull our daughter from two different daycares that made us uncomfortable before ultimately deciding to place her in preschool.”

Preschool and pre-kindergarten classes should also include instruction on social and emotional skills; play; art, music and movement; toys; and games. All learning opportunities should benefit a child’s readiness for school.

“Social skills are critical for learning,” states Carmouche. “Children need to learn how to interact with others.” Every child needs to be around other children, and away from mom or dad, before going to kindergarten. Sunday school, playgroup, and swimming lessons, also help develop social skills. 

Social interaction with peers and adults is key to kindergarten success. 
To determine whether to enroll your child in kindergarten, observe her or his behavior. Does she know how to get along with her classmates at preschool? Ask her preschool teacher whether she plays cooperatively with others and works out her differences on her own. Watch how your child interacts with peers on the playground, during playdates, or at birthday parties. Is he sitting on the sidelines? Attaching himself to you at group gatherings?

While you are the best one to judge whether your child is ready for kindergarten, Louisiana law requires a child to be five years old by September 30 to attend kindergarten. A child may enter kindergarten at a younger age if he or she is identified as gifted. Children are required to attend kindergarten in Louisiana, and schools offer full day programs. If a child is four before September 30, he or she can attend PreK.

Having your child evaluated for his or her readiness is also an option you have available if you're unsure.
Children mature at different rates. Perhaps your child is physically mature but not emotionally mature enough to start school. If you feel your child is not ready for kindergarten, Louisiana has a program to evaluate your child, and the public schools offer programs to help children get ready. 

Carmouche sums it up, “If a child has the confidence to try new things, the sky’s the limit for his or her education.” ■

When Visiting Preschools, Look For:

A nurturing environment.
Visit and observe the children. Are they happy? Engaged? A good preschool should have a welcoming, friendly atmosphere and invite you to become part of its community by helping with activities or accompanying the children on field trips. Speak to parents of current students, and ask their opinions.

Clean, safe facilities.
Is the building adequately heated, lit, and ventilated? Equipped with working smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, and first aid kits? Upstairs windows should have screens or bars. Radiators and heaters should be covered. Are all medicines and hazardous substances out of reach? Are toys and play equipment in good repair? Is the outdoor play area level and secure? Is access controlled so strangers can't just walk in off the street?

A stimulating curriculum.
Look for a program that encourages independence and inspires your child's individuality and creativity. Daily schedules should include physical activity, including time outdoors, group programs, individual activities, creative projects, meals, and free time. A well designed curriculum should stimulate your child's development, provide your child with the chance to try something new, and be adjusted to match each child's abilities and skill levels. 

A qualified, caring staff.
Observe how the staff interacts with the children. Teachers should be well prepared, responsible, and enthusiastic. Does the preschool share your child care philosophy about naps, discipline, meals, and other care issues?

Does the preschool have adequate staff to give your child the attention and care he needs? A preschool should have one teacher for every seven children to encourage interaction and development. Ask how long staff have been with the preschool. Low turnover is key to ensuring consistent and stable care for your child.

Established ground rules.
Look for a school with a strict sick-child policy. Find out which illnesses mean your child has to stay home, and for how long. A good preschool helps minimize illness by requiring all children and employees to have current immunizations and regular checkups.
What are the school's guidelines regarding food? If the school has a food plan, what does it serve at meal and snack times? Does the food plan encourage healthy eating habits?

A preschool should have clearly established written procedures for everything from operating hours to how to handle emergencies. 

A current license.
Ask to see a preschool's license, then double-check with a call to your local social services department. Look for a facility accredited by NAEYC, (National Association for the Education of Young Children) by searching the NAEYC database ( Preschools must meet state licensing regulations for health and safety. A license doesn’t guarantee quality—that's why you have to evaluate the school yourself.

Top Readiness Skills for Kindergarten

Did You Know?
Kindergarten is mandatory in Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. ■

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