A guest column by Jonathan Gillentine
America needs high quality preschool programs to help address achievement and opportunity gaps affecting young children. In communities with extensive needs, these children and their families have few options for essential learning experiences that set a foundation for success in school.
Recently Congress has put forward bills that will eliminate Federal Preschool Development Grants, which since 2014 have helped 18 states establish new public preschool classrooms and have added supports to existing programs in communities that have the highest needs.
Why is preschool so important? As a preschool teacher with over 20 years of experience, I know that preschool offers learning opportunities that help kids grow in language development. In our classroom we used exciting events to expose children to meaningful language that they used to describe and understand their continuously growing world. They learned words like stabilize, alternate, spigot, momentum, and compost, plus many others.
Preschool also offers kids the opportunity to understand scientific and social concepts through which they begin to develop intellectual capacity. Teachers ask many open-ended questions of children to promote high-level thinking as they explore: How are you going to create a house for your toy cat? What does it need? or Why do you think the bugs are eating this plant and not the others around it? Such experiences are vital in that they promote independence; children see themselves as capable of finding answers rather than only looking to the teacher for ideas on what to do next.
Furthermore, preschool helps children develop a repertoire of skills they can use to solve social problems. Children can learn at a young age both to ask a peer to stop doing something or to invite a peer to help them. In my class, instead of refusing to share an item, children learned to say, “I’m using this now, but when I’m done, you can have the next turn.”
They also learned to understand the feelings of others by looking at facial expressions and body language. This helps form a sense of empathy. A child who can say, “It was an accident. Are you okay?” often doesn’t need a teacher to assist in resolving hurt feelings. This builds a sense of social and emotional competence. Considering the level of turmoil we face in this country concerning interpersonal conflict, providing children with skills and support to peacefully and respectfully resolve their differences is an invaluable investment.
Yes, adding preschool to federally supported programs won’t come cheap. Costs for qualified teachers and assistants, materials, and equipment quickly add up. But we know that the money we invest in preschool programs provides a significant return – in lower rates of remedial and special education, in better health of our citizens, and in higher rates of employment as these children reach adulthood.
Congress must continue to fund the Federal Preschool Development Grant Program. It is the only hope some of our children have for getting a running start at a successful, productive life.
Dr. Jonathan Gillentine serves as Early Learning Specialist for Windward District in Kane`ohe, Hawai`i. He is a veteran teacher of 35 years, including 20 years as a preschool inclusion teacher, serving young children with developmental delays and children in Head Start. Gillentine is a National Board Certified Teacher, an America Achieves Teacher Fellow, and a Hope Street Group Hawaii State Teacher Fellow.