First Person

Ask an Expert: At what age should my son attend preschool?

EdNews Parent experts Ann Morrison, Karla Scornavacco and Robert “Kim” Herrell respond to a question from Amy of Boulder:

Q. At what age should my son attend pre-school?  He is 2 now. We have a nanny take care of him during the day and I worry he is not getting the preparation necessary to help him acclimate in kindergarten.

Ann Morrison: Many parents wonder about kindergarten and how to prepare their kids. Although school attendance in kindergarten is not required by Colorado law, I think it is among the most important years of a child’s life.  Like Robert Fulghum’s poem that begins, “All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten”, some highly important lessons are learned there.  Many academic, social, and behavioral areas develop in this time of a child’s life. However I will only address literacy development here.

It can be easy to think that school is the first place kids learn conventional literacy, but actually literacy development begins at birth. For example, when you pull into the restaurant parking lot how does your son know whether he is getting a Happy Meal or you are getting a latte?  He sees the “golden arches” of McDonalds or the green and black circle of Starbucks and knows that those logos have meaning, which is an area of literacy called logography.  Soon he will begin to notice the difference between text and pictures on his storybook page and come to understand that the words that you say when you read to him come from the text, not the pictures.  All of these experiences are part of a stage of reading development called emergent literacy.  A strong foundation in emergent literacy provides the foundation for instruction in conventional literacy taught in schools.

Regardless whether your son spends his days with an adult caretaker or in a pre-school setting, what is most important is that the interaction he is having is high quality.  High quality interaction includes lots of oral language experiences, extended time for play with a variety of toys, lots of “lap time” with an adult reading a wide selection of books, and plenty of “face time” with peers and adults for talking and eye contact.

You may want to work in a part-day preschool experience, but, if you believe that your son is having rich language and text experiences with his nanny already then I don’t believe there is any reason to change his care.

Several publications from the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL) provide suggestions for developmentally appropriate language and literacy activities for parents and caretakers.  Two Shining Stars booklets, one for toddlers and another for preschoolers, and another booklet titled Literacy Begins at Home are all good examples of resources at the NIFL.

Karla Scornavacco: In the state of Colorado, children can start “preschool” at the age of 2.5.  Some preschools will save a spot for your child, and welcome him into the school the day he turns 2½.  It’s the first “half birthday” that many parents of young children celebrate…while others dread, and others aren’t quite sure what to make of it. Preschool is indeed a path to kindergarten preparation. The trick, though, is figuring out what your son needs right now as a 2-year-old, and what works best for your family and work situation. A 2-year-old’s needs can be quite different from a 5- or 6-year-old’s needs.

The notion that there is one perfect, “it-must-be-this-way-path” to kindergarten is absurd.  So, take a breather. We, as parents, are going to be dealing with all sorts of parents who are going to choose school options for their children that do not match what we want for our families.  We may second-guess ourselves.  We may over-think options.  That’s OK. It’s part of the journey of being a parent.

So, what does your 2-year-old son “need” in order to be prepared for kindergarten?  Here’s a brief list.  There are multiple ways to meet these milestones.

  • Recognize rhyming sounds
  • Identify rhyming words
  • Follow two-step directions (e.g. get out the scissors, then fold the paper).
  • Cut with scissors
  • Trace basic shapes
  • Begin to share with others
  • Start to follow rules
  • Manage bathroom needs
  • Button shirts, pants, coats, and zip up zippers
  • Separate from parents without being upset
  • Speak understandably
  • Talk in complete sentences of five to six words
  • Look at pictures and then tell stories
  • Identify the beginning sound of some words
  • Identify some alphabet letters
  • Recognize some common sight words like “stop”
  • Sort similar objects by color, size, and shape
  • Recognize groups of one, two, three, four, and five objects
  • Bounce a ball

How can we know that children are ready for school?  According to national studies, teachers are more likely to expect your son to be able to pay attention and communicate his needs when he enters kindergarten.  Other parents, though, are more likely to focus on academic skills, such as counting to 20 or knowing all 26 letters.  There are two overlapping priorities at work here: your child’s socio-emotional development, and his academic development. You and your nanny can take care of most, if not all, of your son’s pre-kindergarten “academic needs.”  The socio-emotional part, though, requires that your son be around kids his age at least a few times a week. See this pamphlet from the Colorado State Library on kindergarten readiness, or this longer document on the same thing from the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Robert K. Herrell: As recent education summits/conferences have pointed out, preschool has an incredibly positive effect on the success of a student in school.  Yet opinions remain mixed on the best age for children to begin preschool.

Most preschool providers have a checklist of readiness behaviors. You might check out websites of preschools to see if they provide any guidance. And, as you visit and observe different preschool centers, ask to see their list of preschool readiness traits.

At the top of the list is usually, “Must be potty trained.”  Preschool staff know that accidents will happen, and many will have you leave a change of clothes for your child.  They are not interested, though, in taking the time away from the other children to perform this service for you.  Please don’t rush or force potty training, though. Your child will do it when he/she is ready.

It is so important to go and visit preschools.  Look for a clean, warm and caring environment.  There should be lots of talk, but not yelling.  Is the staff up with the children modeling behaviors, or are they sitting on one side of the room chatting?  And if you liked a preschool an older child went to, go and observe it again.  The staff and atmosphere may have changed.  Take the time to select what is best for your child.

Many preschools have options for the amount of time a child can attend:  half-day, full-day, two days a week, etc.  Let your child build up their “time” as they are ready, at their individual developmental pace.  “Can I go see Ms. V. and my friends today?”  This would be a signal for more time at preschool.  Some also have a late shift for those parents who work later hours. Ask about what options they offer.

If you are looking for a pre-kindergarten program, it is a slightly different decision process. Does the preschool understand the kindergarten readiness skills at your local school district? How exactly will the pre-K program work with your child to build his readiness?  A quality pre-K program will be able to give you specific examples. Many such programs will only allow your child to participate for one year, so it is best to begin such programs when your child can seamlessly move right into kindergarten.

When to send your child to preschool depends a lot on your own child’s development in those wonderful years between 2 and 5.  Selecting the right environment for him is also crucial. Is it as important as the college they will go to?  Maybe more.  It ranks up there with books and reading in the home as favorable indicators of future success. As parents, one of our jobs is to open as many doors for our children as we can.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.