Q: Our daughter, Emma, just turned 3. We're thinking of putting her in full-time preschool as my wife returns to work. My mother, a retired nurse, would love to take care of her. But in our community, attending preschool is the norm. Does preschool always benefit a child?
A: This is a hot topic in parenting and policy circles. Two decades ago, most parents in your position would have chosen "loving grandmother" over preschool in a heartbeat. But today, parents worry that "a child who's supposed to read by the end of kindergarten had better be getting ready in preschool," writes early childhood educator Erika Christakis in The Atlantic.
There is a lot of research on preschool effectiveness. Not surprisingly, much of it depends on the quality.
While the data on some pre-K programs suggest that early benefits often fade by the end of the third grade, a recent RAND Corporation analysis of high-quality programs in several states shows several benefits, writes Lynn Karoly, the study's lead author. Quality programming showed the "largest effects on school readiness and with sustained effects at older ages."
According to the study, preschool can reduce referrals to special education and grade repetition and produce increased high school graduation rates. RAND researchers also found that while kids across all income levels benefit, the positive consequences "tend to be larger for more disadvantaged children."
Before you go and enroll Emma, determine if she's ready. Christakis, author of "The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups" (Penguin, 2016), writes that "expectations that may arguably have been reasonable for 5- and 6-year-olds, such as being able to sit at a desk and complete a task using pencil and paper, are now directed at even younger children, who lack the motor skills and attention span to be successful."
Make sure that Emma gets the experiences during the next two years that kids need but may not get in kindergarten. A new University of Virginia study, "Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?" shows that kindergarten teachers in 2010 devoted much less time to art, music, dramatic play, dance and child-centered play than teachers did in 1998. Researchers reported a greater focus on math and reading, often with daily worksheets.
Christakis and other experts caution parents against preschool models that ignore a child's developmental stages.
How should you decide? Make an appointment with the early childhood specialist in the district Emma will attend. Discuss the readiness skills they expect in kindergarten.
Visit preschools. Are they child-centered places where Emma will thrive? Or is the focus solely on an academic curriculum that affords little creative play and sparse "listening and talking" between teachers and children?
Assuming that that her grandmother won't plop her in front of a television or a tablet all day -- that she will provide Emma a language-rich experience, with plenty of hands-on activities that develop early math, listening, speaking, reading and science learning -- consider an arrangement that gives Emma the best of both. Your daughter will benefit from a loving grandma who shows her why we measure ingredients when we bake a batch of cookies, and she will learn how to be a part of a group and make new friends in preschool.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)