Many states, the federal government and policymakers are working toward a goal of “universal pre-K,” which would entail increased funding to support our youngest learners. A more inclusive goal, however, is universal school readiness.
Universal pre-K is often associated with brick-and-mortar programs that focus more on delivery mechanisms rather than the impact on children and families. At the same time, geographic factors and individual family situations often prevent many students from being part of an in-person pre-K program – challenges the COVID-19 pandemic magnified for many families.
When it comes to early learning, we estimate about 2.2 million students in the United States are either unserved or underserved. That’s approximately 50% of the country’s 4-year-olds, and means that any new government funding for universal pre-K also should allow opportunities for creative solutions to enhance school readiness, including resources that are virtual or home-based. Families need a variety of ways to help their children prepare, so that all children have access to opportunities to help them enter school ready to succeed.
When it comes to school readiness, knowing what students need to know is a crucial but surmountable challenge, especially for those not served by a more traditional pre-K system. While learning standards vary from state to state, numbers, counting, letters, shapes and the sounds of language are the key foundations for kindergarten. If, for example, kids can recognize different letters, the sounds they make and how sounds blend to make words, then they’re well on their way to being able to read. Practicing these skills builds strong pathways in a child’s brain that prepare them for future reading success.
Children need exposure to a wide variety of words, concepts, ideas and experiences. Reading books, watching videos together, talking a lot and being curious together are all ways to help a child gain foundational understanding. The science of reading highlights that a child needs both practice on the foundational skills for identifying words and a strong bank of knowledge. Practicing and mastering these skills and having exposure to many words and ideas help children arrive on the first day of kindergarten ready to learn. Being ready also builds their confidence, helping them achieve early success that creates a great experience to build upon for long-term learning.
Being ready to learn additionally means having strong mindset skills that help children positively contribute to their classroom communities. These skills include sharing, collaboration and executive function, meaning the ability to think about actions before taking them. Young students also need to know how to communicate about their feelings. They can start by asking themselves, “How am I feeling right now?” This can lead to other types of self-reflective questions such as, “How did I do on this work?” and, “How does this make me feel?” Mindset skills enable children to focus, learn from mistakes, have more confidence and think about how their actions affect others.
We all practice these different types of skills all day long, continually learning more throughout our lifetimes. And that means with the right guidance and support, family members can embrace their role as their child’s first teacher. This doesn’t mean five hours of academic work a day; instead, it means weaving learning across the day.
This can be as simple as caregivers developing a routine of asking children what they’ve learned and helping to reinforce that knowledge. For example, if a child has learned the letter B, the caregiver can reinforce that learning by making that sound and pointing out things that begin with the letter B. Similarly, making a habit of reading together develops empathy, and is a wonderful way to embed mindset conversations into everyday experiences. Reading and talking about a wide variety of topics also expands a child’s background knowledge, which allows them to jump into new conversations and build upon their understanding – and confidence – once they enter kindergarten.
For caregivers, it’s universally motivating to see a child’s progress and to feel how much they can do to prepare their children for school. All caregivers can support their child’s learning, and providing resources, tools and coaching to help them in this journey sets both the caregiver and the child up for future success.
Because rich home-learning environments and strong school and family relationships are key pieces to a child’s lifelong learning, families must be included in any initiatives to support universal school readiness. Everyone associated with early learning must work together to create continuity for children from birth until they start school, and they must involve caregivers in the conversation.
Solving the opportunity gaps that currently exist will take all of us. If caregivers are empowered through state and local support and have the resources to be their child’s first teacher, then the impact will be universal – and will last long beyond kindergarten.