I remember the moment when the cold hand of academic panic first gripped me as a mom. My older daughter, Gabrielle, was 4, and we were on our way up the stairs to a mommy-and-me music class when I nearly tripped over another mom and her child poring over a math workbook on a landing. I stopped. Were those double digits? Then two seconds later we had to skirt another parent-toddler team, this one working its way diligently through a chapter book. Suddenly Gabrielle's sweet afternoon of running in circles, banging sticks, and singing songs didn't seem quite... rigorous enough.
Though I knew in my heart I didn't want my kids doing homework before they'd even started school, after seeing those other kids I can't tell you I wasn't tempted.
The new reality
The earlier-is-better approach is fueling (and is fueled by) a rapidly growing storefront tutoring industry, which is reaching down toward younger and younger kids. Sylvan Learning Centers, which used to focus on helping kids in grade school keep up with schoolwork and catch up when they'd fallen behind, has begun pre-K programs in many of its 1,200 locations that are meant to prepare kids for the rigors of kindergarten. And it's not just a big-city or upper-middle-class phenomenon. "We're all over the place," says Richard Bavaria, Ph.D., Sylvan's vice president of education. "We're in Manhattan, but we're also in Dubuque. We've opened in big cities, rural areas, and suburbia." Its preschool program, Sylvan pledges, teaches 4-year-olds to read.
Sylvan's two main competitors -- SCORE!, owned by Kaplan Inc., and Kumon North America -- use the same strategy. At SCORE! Learning Centers, about 20 percent of the more than 75,000 kids enrolled are between the ages of 4 and 6. Parents typically drop off their children twice a week at a local center, usually conveniently located in a strip mall or on a busy downtown street. The Junior Kumon program is designed for children in preschool and kindergarten, and like those of the other two companies, it focuses on early reading and math skills. All three programs suggest that they'll foster an enjoyment of learning that will serve children well when they make it to the big time: kindergarten.
These are just the biggest companies. Smaller providers are also offering academic programs designed for younger kids, and preschools are increasingly including less play dough and blocks and more ABC's and 1,2,3's. But why? Why are parents so anxious about their 3-year-old's school readiness?
Carolyn Hoyt didn't learn to read until first grade but went on to get a graduate degree in English literature anyway.
One big reason for parents' anxiety is that the early elementary curriculum has intensified since most of us were kids. Concerned about how students will perform on the high-stakes testing mandated by the No Child Left Behind legislation, schools are teaching reading and math concepts at younger ages, making it more likely that a late bloomer -- or even just a gloriously average one -- will be struggling as early as kindergarten. "We've taken the measuring stick of elementary school standards and pushed it downward," says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., a professor of developmental psychology at Temple University and coauthor of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards. "We're assuming that the easiest way to improve education is to expect more from younger children." Kindergarten is the new first grade, where prereading skills are taught, while the former kindergarten curriculum -- recognizing letters, writing your own name, counting to 20 -- has been pushed down to preschool.
Contributing to this as well are vague fears about whether American children are prepared for the demands of "the new global economy" in a technology-driven future. Headlines suggest our kids don't do as well on tests as those in other countries, and we understand that education is the key to our children's future economic success and well-being. Going to school, learning to read, and doing arithmetic used to be stuff that kids just did, but nowadays the stakes seem quite high.
Adding to the pressure is a wide-spread and popular misinterpretation of discoveries about brain development. The belief that stimulating a child's brain makes him smarter has led to a more-is-better approach to learning. Parents now feel respon-sible, more than ever before, for priming the pump of their child's intelligence. Despite the utter lack of evidence that toys, CDs, and videos promote baby smarts, products that make that claim are flying off store shelves and into nurseries and playrooms. So it's not surprising, in a way, that children growing up with such an intentionally educational infancy and toddlerhood would find themselves doing schoolwork before they turn 4.
Even reluctant moms feel the pressure:
? "When my oldest son, Daniel, was in preschool, I saw parents sending their kids for tutoring and working with them to memorize letters, numbers, and sounds, really pushing them, but I resisted, thinking it was silly," says Jayne Gurland Lein of Cresskill, New Jersey, whose two sons are now 10 and 9. "But when Daniel got to kindergarten, I started to feel insecure. The other kids were further along. I agonized, but with a few years under my belt I now see it simply hasn't made any difference."
? "Even though I'm ultimately comfortable with my decisions, comments from other parents will occasionally cause that moment of doubt: Am I providing all the opportunities I can?" says Heidi Steinert, mom of 8-year-old Emma and 4-year-old Andrew in Belmont, Massachusetts.
? "Sometimes the pressure does make me feel nervous because I've heard it so many times: 'Oh, you're not giving your child what every other child is having,'" says Karen Brownlee of Cincinnati, whose kids are 6, 3, and 3 months.
? "When my daughter started first grade, some kid at her table called her a 'toddler' because she couldn't read," says Virginia Shea of Sunnyvale, California. Turns out her reading level was completely age-appropriate, but some of her classmates had been given a head start.
When you talk to the educators who conceived these programs, their theories make some sense. Says Dean Bradley, cofounder and vice president of Kumon North America, who helped design its preschool curriculum, "We wanted to provide children with the very best first experience of learning, make learning fun, so they go through the Kumon program absolutely loving it."
But according to some psychologists and educators, these programs ignore a few vital facts about the way preschoolers learn, and the possible effects of pushing them too hard too soon. "Making children memorize phonetic rules and recognize words on sight is the worst way to introduce young children to the world of reading because it doesn't teach them to use the words in a meaningful way," says Hirsh-Pasek. "But that's what well-meaning parents are signing on to when they buy workbooks for their toddlers, sign up for early tutoring, or send their kids to highly academic preschools."
Some questions parents need to be asking themselves:
Is there any proof that these programs help children down the road?
"I have yet to see any statistics that prove that teaching reading and math to very little kids makes a long-term difference in their academic careers," says Michael Thompson, Ph.D., coauthor of Raising Cain and The Pressured Child. "Just because a child can read in kindergarten doesn't mean he'll be a better reader in fourth grade." Also, says Thompson, "a reward-based academic program can make kids anxious. You start seeing stomachaches, headaches, acting out, and sleep issues. Is it that important to teach four-year-olds that it's a dog-eat-dog world?"
That said, not all children will react this way. Some kids might even thrive in this kind of achievement-based program. And just as there is no evidence that early academics do any good, there's likewise no evidence they do any harm.
Do the skills have meaning in the real world?
"These programs may teach phonics and math facts, but that only gives what I call 'the illusion of confidence,'" says Laurel Zimmermann, who, as the former director of admissions at the Elisabeth Morrow School, a rigorous private elementary school in Englewood, New Jersey, saw firsthand both the rise of preschool tutoring programs and their results in children applying to the school. "Parents would come in and say to me, 'My child is doing so well in his tutoring program,' but what I would find was that the child's creative thinking was not doing so well. And I have seen absolutely no correlation between whether a child's gotten tutoring and how well he would do on our admissions tests."
What will your child not do in order to make time for tutoring?
A 4-year-old thrives by experiencing the world around him, doing things like splashing water, digging in the sandbox, catching fireflies, playing house, and banging on pots and pans. "When you build a fort in the living room, you're doing physics, because it has to do with balance," says Hirsh-Pasek. "And you're telling stories, forming the foundation for an effective use of language." Any time a preschooler spends sitting and learning academic concepts is time he is not learning through playing and doing. An understanding of math, for instance, doesn't necessarily come from learning what one plus one is -- that's merely memorizing a fact. In real life, preschoolers learn all the time: "Hey, how come he got two scoops and I only got one?"
The peer pressure to jump on the academic bandwagon is everywhere, subtle but insidious. And there is no evidence that the new rigor has any real benefit other than as a balm to parental worry. But pushing a preschooler to hit the books can generate its own anxiety-producing questions: Is your kid getting enough time to just be a kid? Is phonics really more valuable than dress-up and Legos? What is the best way to foster and encourage a love of learning in children? Not all parents will come to the same conclusions on these questions.
For Stephanie Lodish, M.D., a pediatrician in Ridgewood, New Jersey, who's bringing up her kids in a competitive public school system but refused to put her oldest child in any special programs before he started kindergarten, the bottom line was her son's happiness: "People who saw that Isaac wasn't doing any kind of enrichment in preschool would ask me, 'Aren't you worried he's going to be behind?' And I said, 'No, I think he's going to be happy.'"
Of course, as parents we can't think solely of our children's immediate happiness. We have to balance competing goals and desires and take into account what will be best for them down the road and long into the future. For some kids, a straightforward academic program before they start school might be just the boost they need and the kind of structured learning they love. But for the vast majority, it may be a solution to a problem they don't have.
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