Student achievement begins with good teaching -- and skill and ability gaps begin long before the school bell rings in kindergarten. Georgia -- the first state to offer universal pre-kindergarten -- wanted to learn how much bang the state was getting for its educational buck.
Preschool is not daycare, contrary to some general misconceptions. Whereas daycare is often childcare without an emphasis on learning, preschool is a child’s first formal learning environment. Preschool focuses on cognitive and social development by stimulating a child’s curiosity and imagination. Children learn through sharing toys, taking turns, and interacting with their teachers and each other. The classrooms themselves are very lively, brightly decorated with posters of the alphabet, maps, number tables and student artwork. Classrooms must be interactive and stimulating to foster an exciting learning environment. Teacher-student ratios are also closely monitored to ensure close interactions, and class sizes are kept relatively small.
Despite increasing public interest in early childhood education, preschools are still generally considered private schools. Many are funded by tuition and donations, and because the government does not mandate preschool, it is considered an option for families. However, the evidence of the lasting effects of preschool has prompted some government action. The Department of Health and Human Services instituted the Head Start Program to provide early childhood education to children from low-income families and promote their healthy development.
Montessori schools are institutions centered around the Montessori method of learning. This method, founded by Dr. Maria Montessori over a hundred years ago, emphasizes the curiosity, creativeness and self-motivation of the child and stresses independence. This “child centered” approach to education differs from traditional methods in several major ways. Perhaps the most notable feature of Montessori schools is the classroom itself, where multiple age groups learn within one environment. Children in Montessori classrooms range from ages two and up, with no distinction in education levels. Thus, an eight-year-old learns side-by-side with a three-year-old to simulate a real-life social environment and promote peer learning. Younger children learn from the older ones, while the older children are able to practice teaching things they already know.
Montessori classrooms are also designed to foster independence and exploratory learning. In these classrooms, students are given the freedom to chose what to learn and to set their own pace. The classrooms have multiple interactive spaces, each dedicated to a different academic area, such as language arts, math and science. Children are encouraged to explore these areas in the order that most interests them, and they often end up working closely with other students to explore these areas together. Despite the autonomy, teachers in Montessori schools are by no means passive or uninvolved. Rather, the teachers work alongside students, guiding them through their exploration of the classroom, answering questions and facilitating group work. They are highly involved in this self-motivated learning process. The American Montessori Society provides a very detailed Introduction to Montessori schools that further illustrates the methods and pedagogy of this innovative approach.
Montessori institutions are private schools, and are therefore not funded by the government. Their teachers are also not subject to national teacher certification and licensure standards, though they are required to have at least a Bachelor’s (preferably in child development or early childhood education) and complete a special teacher education program.
Kindergarten is usually seen as the beginning of formal education, and it is fully integrated into the elementary school system. Kindergarten is public education and subject to state law (therefore, kindergarten teachers must be properly licensed and certified), though it is not mandatory in every state. Children enter kindergarten during ages five to six, and many states do not begin mandating education until age seven. However, whether it is mandatory or not, it is still highly encouraged. Though kindergarten is more formal, it still qualifies as early childhood education because students are under eight years old. They are still developing at a rapid pace, and kindergarten is important to easing their transition into elementary school.
Kindergarten focuses heavily on social development and peer-to-peer interactions, though there is greater emphasis on fundamental academics than there is in preschool. In preschool children learn how to count, but in kindergarten they begin learning about adding and subtracting. They learned colors, and now learn how to blend those colors to make new ones. And whereas in preschool they learned the alphabet, kindergarten teaches them how to spell and string basic words into simple sentences. Basically, kindergarten lays the groundwork for their formal education by introducing new concepts that develop into the different academic subjects they will learn throughout the rest of their educational career.
During the first few years of life, a child learns a lot about themselves and the world around them, and parents are their first teachers. Parents teach them how to speak, how to walk, how to feed themselves. They teach them the alphabet, shapes and colors, and even how to count and spell very simple words. But for healthy development, children need active stimulation and interaction with others. This is where early childhood education is the most beneficial. It is in these classrooms where children apply what their parents have taught them to a practical setting and have their first interactions with people outside of their family. Beginning with children as young as two, teachers guide them through an important transition and oversee their adjustment. Early childhood education focuses on “learning through play” by providing a hands-on, interactive atmosphere where children learn about themselves through playing with other children. As a teacher of young children, you become somewhat of a surrogate parent, their first source of guidance in playing with others and forming friendships. You teach them how to share, how to take turns, how to have manners--lessons that stay with them and evolve with each crucial phase of their life.
Children this young also have more physical demands than older students. Many preschools incorporate a nap time into their schedule or are on half-day schedules to accommodate a child’s exhaustion after a long morning of playing and learning. Snack time is also built into these schedules, which serve as a great opportunity to teach your students table manners. Teaching young children requires nothing short of complete devotion and perseverance. It can be a daunting task, but to a truly committed teacher, it is worth the effort.