An education expert and Parents advisor explains how the president's goal to bring universal pre-K to every state can benefit children.
Credit: Fancy Photography/ Veer

If you followed President Obama's last State of the Union address, you know about his proposed plans for universal preschool, which could help bridge the educational gap for young kids of different backgrounds. About two out of three 4-year-olds and two out of five 3-year-olds currently attend preschool, and the numbers are rising. The growth in preschool participation has been fueled primarily by three factors: Research has revealed important brain development occurs in the early years of life; there is compelling evidence that preschool has long-term benefits for children, and preschool helps prepare children for the increased demands of kindergarten. Children from low-income families are less likely to attend preschool than kids from middle- and upper-income families, however, and this widens the achievement gap in kindergarten.

To improve access to pre-K, President Obama's plans include offering federal funds to every state to create free, high-quality programs. Many cities and states are getting behind the president's initiative -- New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has made universal pre-K a centerpiece of his new administration, for example, and San Antonio and New Jersey state have substantially expanded access to publicly funded early-childhood education programs. Because funding for universal pre-K will come from taxpayers, will the money and effort spent on the programs be worth it? So far, the bulk of the research indicates that preschool (particularly high-quality preschool) does provide extra educational value to kids. These are the three main reasons universal preschool is worthwhile.

Preschool helps children develop important social and self-regulation skills.

Children need to interact with a large number of same-aged peers to develop skills that will help them succeed at school. These skills include listening, sharing, waiting, taking turns, and even learning how to lose (for example, in a game). Children also need to learn school-related behaviors to help them thrive in the classroom, such as paying attention, following directions, and completing tasks. In particular, current research shows that self-regulation (the ability to control one's behavior, attention, and emotions) is a strong predictor of early success in school. Kids who can refrain from expressing strong anger, can focus on a task despite distractions, raise their hand instead of calling out, or ask for a toy instead of taking it tend to adjust more easily to school environments. Although parents can certainly encourage these self-regulation skills at home, preschool helps kids develop them in a consistent context so they can utilize them often.

Preschool lays the foundation for brain development and future learning.

There is no other time in a child's life when there is more growth in the areas of the brain used for higher cognitive functions such as impulse control, attention, memory, and reasoning than during the first five years. These cognitive functions make it easier for children to interact with other children, engage in problem solving, remember and follow rules, and plan and manage their time. Research has shown that how well kids have developed these basic skills before entering kindergarten can predict school success later in life. Investing in high-quality preschool environments that help children learn is more efficient and effective than trying to remedy learning problems later on.

Preschool benefits society as well as individual children.

There is consistent and compelling evidence of the long-term, cost-savings benefits of preschool. High-quality programs, such as those developed in Boston and Tulsa, have produced gains of between a half and a full year of additional learning in reading and math. Although some studies have found that this improvement in academic skills is no longer evident after second grade, most studies have documented immediate overall academic advantages. Many studies have also found that even if the achievement advantage disappears, children who attend preschool are less likely to need special education services, repeat a grade, drop out of high school, and even be incarcerated as adults. Overall, the benefits of preschool outweigh the costs for both middle-class children and economically disadvantaged children, although most studies find that children from low-income families benefit more, perhaps because they enter preschool with relatively lower skills on average.

Children can certainly develop the social and cognitive skills needed to succeed in school without going to preschool. But given the increasing proportion of children participating in preschool and the higher expectations in kindergarten, giving children some time in a structured, educational experience sets them up for academic success. When choosing a preschool, it is important to pick a high-quality program that offers a nurturing social environment and opportunities for children to engage in playful learning.

Copyright © 2014 Meredith Corporation.