A Voice of Experience

Susan Phillips
October 22, 2001

Kim Hughes teaches in Raleigh, North Carolina. And while she's teaching her young students, she's also teaching teachers: her classroom is part of a demonstration project, so people come to watch her in action throughout the school year. The project is part of an early-intervention program of the Wake County public school system. Though it's called a preschool, the next stop for the children in her classroom is kindergarten. Says Hughes, "If they called it a pre-k, I'd be doing exactly the same thing."

Many parents of pre-k children didn't go to preschool or pre-k themselves. What should they expect? What does a good pre-k program look and sound like?

Right now, there is no common definition of what pre-k is? I think the terms of preschool and pre-k can be used interchangeably. People hear the word pre-kindergarten and they get a more academic picture in their mind.

The number one thing is a really strong emphasis on social and emotional development and interaction. Without that, children will struggle later on.

Children need to have opportunities to share space, take turns with things, engage with other children. Then there is the physical piece: having kids run and jump, go outside on the playground. Also we need to be encouraging kids to develop fine motor skills, eye-hand skills, before they can learn to read and write? Stringing Cheerios, that's a pre-literacy activity, whether parents realize it or not.

To some parents and caregivers, three or four seems young for formal schooling. Are all children ready for pre-k at that age?

As a teacher, personally my feeling is that all children are ready to begin school—schools just have to do a better job of being ready for all children. It's not only that the teacher needs to understand early childhood development, but the environment has to be right: young children learn by doing, they need to have concrete experiences. Are the materials for that available?

Kids will be successful if they have rich experiences as early as possible: playdates, museums, outings with parents—those are incredible opportunities. I would have a harder time convincing someone who can provide this at home that pre-k is necessary? But the reality is that most do not have that option.

You have to look at a child's life. If they have rich social experiences, do they have experiences that let them celebrate making mistakes? Do they feel good about making mistakes? That's the best thing, if a kid can say, "That's OK, I'll make it next time." Do they have regular chances to use materials like puzzles, to sing, to listen to incredible literature?

Do they have a chance to engage with different types of adults with different kinds of personalities? A place to go outside and run and jump and play? How many home environments have all of that?

What are some signs that a particular classroom might not be ready for pre-k children?

If you walk into a classroom and all the kids are sitting at a table practicing writing their names, that is not a good thing. Any time you have large groups of children, all engaged in the same activity at the same time, that is usually not the best situation. The exception to that would be story time, but even then, a lot of children wind up sitting in story time for too long.

If you come into the classroom and see kids working on what I call "drill and kill," or "death by ditto," find out why. Is it because there is no money for supplies? Is it because the teacher doesn't have another idea? Be respectful, but see if you can help. It could be they need more money in that school.

Do parents have realistic expectations of pre-k?

Parents all want their kids to read and write. "My child knows her ABCs." That's something I hear a lot on the first day. Well, I'll want to know more about that?do they know the ABC song? Do they recognize letters? As a teacher, you have to say to parents, "My goal is also for your child to learn to read and write, but they need to be ready first."

A lot of people are stressing out, parents and teachers, about all the standardized testing. Until a child is developmentally ready, it isn't going to happen for them?Pre-k is when you can build that foundation.

How can parents help their child's pre-k or preschool teacher?

Parents have to develop a partnership with a teacher, a genuine partnership. Be up-front and communicate with the teacher about what's happening in your child's life. I had a child whose kitty died yesterday. It was important for me to know that.

Teachers need to understand that in some populations, parents have had horrendous experiences with public schools. Nevertheless, parents need to talk positively about school. They need to read to their children every night. Stop buying them stuff, sit with them and talk, enjoy books, go to the library together.

What are the biggest challenges presented by the current expansion in pre-k programs? Making sure the quality is there? Schools have not yet responded to new knowledge. Think about the changes in medicine the last 30 years! But we haven't made the same kinds of changes in schools. We know kids' brains grow and develop fastest between 0 and 5, we know that this growth happens best when they have different kinds of experiences. If we know those things, why are we not doing these things in every pre-k program?

It's hard to teach the way I teach. There's a lot of work on the front end, setting things up, preparing materials and activities. I look at myself as a specialist in environmental design. But it works. My kids move and learn so quickly. Parents say they can't believe how engaged their kids are.

Young kids cannot advocate for themselves. We need to be their voice; we need to do what's best for kids? It's almost an epidemic, to get these programs up and running. But it's doing it right that matters.



Kim Hughes is on the board of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. She has been teaching young children for 20 years, and has two children of her own, son Justin, 16, and daughter Loren, 13.

Susan Phillips is managing editor of Connect for Kids.