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A Hyper-Focus on College in the Early School Years: Good or Bad Idea?

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Parents get amped up thinking about college these days, for good reason. The number of applicants continues to rise, while the total available slots stay about the same. Tuition costs and student loan debt and lack of employment make for a stream of prominent headlines. So it makes sense that we all want to do everything we can to give our kids the best possible platform to take all this on. One idea is to start early. How early? Like beginning the preparation process in first grade.

Why not get kids on the fast track to think about what higher education means and how they will get there? Why wait until high school to get their minds wrapped around what it will take to stand out in what may be an unimagineably crowded field of applicants?

While I sympathize with the pressures, here are a few reflections that make me question this approach.

First, it's very hard to imagine that kids in the early elementary grades have a real grasp of what college means, other than it being a bigger school somewhere else. Asking them to connect the dots between developing their reading skills and improving their probability of getting into the school of their choice feels, developmentally speaking, to be, well, a reach. In this sense, maybe it does no harm, but then again, does it really achieve anything meaningful?

If the ultimate goal is to increase motivation for academics - rather than get young children's minds primed for the eventual application grind - then there is another hurdle in the reasoning process. Educators of children of all ages know, as do those who research these topics, that kids learn best when they become active learners. The hope is that children will develop an internal drive (i.e., intrinsic motivation) to explore and imagine and think and process and develop in cognitive leaps and bounds. Dangling the college carrot at a first grader may simply kick start a process of striving for achievement for external rather than internal reward. And rest assured that intrinsic motivation will be especially valuable in those college years that are in the front as well as the back of our minds now. So if we want to set the stage for readiness in the early years of school, it's best to not focus on outcomes but immediate internal rewards that come from discovering the joy of learning.

What about the nuts and bolts of education, and pushing hard on the academics so that the most competitive profile can be reached in the high school years? Yes, we want young children to make their way towards grasping and mastering the foundations of literacy and the platform for high level quantitative thinking. But let's not get fooled by rote learning that is fostered to look like an indicator of advancement. A young child may be learning more about abstract mathematics by focusing on fun ways to develop pattern recognition skills than by memorizing math facts without a real understanding of what that means. Yes, some may worry that their children need to get on board the math train early enough so that they can have the most advanced skills that allow them to take the most accelerated math classes in high school so that they can have a college application that looks better than ... everyone else who is doing something similar to them. Kids will have plenty of opportunity to develop advanced math skills when they get older. It's more important that they explore all the nuances of quantitative skill building along with experiencing the pleasure in the process.

The fact is, as kids gets older, they are going to experience lots of stress surrounding the application process. We want our young kids to grow into older kids who will bank on their love of learning as a compass for finding things they want to explore in college. If they do that, they'll do great. That's a real focus for the early childhood years that will translate into eventual success which will come from hitting the ground running when the college experience starts. Consider that we are seeing very troubling rises in levels of depression and anxiety in college freshman. This does not bode well for future generations. Getting into college is a starting block, not a finish line. You can't be exhausted when you get there.

Want to prepare a first grader for higher education? Teach them to learn how to love school.

Richard Rende, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist, researcher, educator, consultant, and author. He has held many leadership roles in child development research and academia throughout his career. He is co-author (with Jen Prosek) of the forthcoming "Raising Can-Do Kids: Giving Children the Tools to Thrive in a Fast-Changing World" (Perigee/Penguin Random House; August 2015), which provides an evidence-based approach for nurturing entrepreneurial traits that all children will need for future success. Rende serves as Director of Curriculum and Instruction at the Phoenix Country Day School. He provides a trusted academic voice on parenting, and his work has been featured in Parents.com, Parenting.com, the Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Yahoo!, Time.com, CNN, MSNBC, ABC News, and NPR.

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