Please stop crushing your babies with academic expectations

It's rare that I come across an article that makes me drop everything else I was doing - especially not such a long article. But this one did. Which is great timing as I was just discussing these issues with my eldest on our jog this morning. I think I'll make her read this piece, too. Just so she understands it's not just her mom who's being driven bonkers by today's educationators. Please. If you have young kids, please go read it. Please take this stuff seriously. Below are some of the most important points it contains (my emphasis in bold on the crucial bits), followed by my take on it.

Until recently, school-readiness skills weren’t high on anyone’s agenda, nor was the idea that the youngest learners might be disqualified from moving on to a subsequent stage. But now that kindergarten serves as a gatekeeper, not a welcome mat, to elementary school, concerns about school preparedness kick in earlier and earlier. A child who’s supposed to read by the end of kindergarten had better be getting ready in preschool. As a result, expectations that may arguably have been reasonable for 5- and 6-year-olds, such as being able to sit at a desk and complete a task using pencil and paper, are now directed at even younger children, who lack the motor skills and attention span to be successful.

Preschool classrooms have become increasingly fraught spaces, with teachers cajoling their charges to finish their “work” before they can go play. And yet, even as preschoolers are learning more pre-academic skills at earlier ages, I’ve heard many teachers say that they seem somehow—is it possible?—less inquisitive and less engaged than the kids of earlier generations. More children today seem to lack the language skills needed to retell a simple story or to use basic connecting words and prepositions. They can’t make a conceptual analogy between, say, the veins on a leaf and the veins in their own hands.

New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.


Media attention to the cognitive potential of early childhood has a way of exacerbating such worries, but the actual academic consensus on the components of high-quality early education tells another story. According to experts such as the Yale professor Edward Zigler, a leader in child-development and early-education policy for half a century, the best preschool programs share several features: They provide ample opportunities for young children to use and hear complex, interactive language; their curriculum supports a wide range of school-readiness goals that include social and emotional skills and active learning; they encourage meaningful family involvement; and they have knowledgeable and well-qualified teachers.

As an early-childhood educator, I’ve clocked many hours in many preschool classrooms, and I have found that I can pretty quickly take the temperature from the looks on kids’ faces, the ratio of table space to open areas, and the amount of conversation going on in either. In a high-quality program, adults are building relationships with the children and paying close attention to their thought processes and, by extension, their communication. They’re finding ways to make the children think out loud.

The real focus in the preschool years should be not just on vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening. We forget how vital spontaneous, unstructured conversation is to young children’s understanding. By talking with adults, and one another, they pick up information. They learn how things work.


Unfortunately, much of the conversation in today’s preschool classrooms is one-directional and simplistic, as teachers steer students through a highly structured schedule, herding them from one activity to another and signaling approval with a quick “good job!”

Consider the difference between a teacher’s use of a closed statement versus an open-ended question. Imagine that a teacher approaches a child drawing a picture and exclaims, “Oh, what a pretty house!” If the child is not actually drawing a house, she might feel exposed, and even if she is drawing a house, the teacher’s remark shuts down further discussion: She has labeled the thing and said she likes it. What more is there to add? A much more helpful approach would be to say, “Tell me about your drawing,” inviting the child to be reflective. It’s never possible to anticipate everything a small person needs to learn, so open-ended inquiry can reveal what is known and unknown. Such a small pedagogic difference can be an important catalyst for a basic, but unbounded, cognitive habit—the act of thinking out loud.

Conversation is gold. It’s the most efficient early-learning system we have. And it’s far more valuable than most of the reading-skills curricula we have been implementing...


The shift from an active and exploratory early-childhood pedagogy to a more scripted and instruction-based model does not involve a simple trade-off between play and work, or between joy and achievement. On the contrary, the preoccupation with accountability has led to a set of measures that favor shallow mimicry and recall behaviors, such as learning vocabulary lists and recognizing shapes and colors (something that a dog can do, by the way, but that is in fact an extraordinarily low bar for most curious 4-year-olds), while devaluing complex, integrative, and syncretic learning.

One of my main objections to sending my kids to school, as I explained to my eldest this morning, is that in today's public-school system children are treated like little sponges that must be filled with as much "learning" as possible. They are not treated like people - like human beings with particular needs. That's especially true of small children. I was telling my daughter that in most schools today there is nowhere near enough time to play, and certainly very little time to play unsupervised or unscripted. Most school administrations (and, sadly, too many parents) seem to think that a young child who's just being allowed to play is wasting precious time that could be used to learn something.

As though unscripted play taught the kids nothing.

Here's another one, about conversation. When my kids were very little people always asked me how on earth I was going to get them socialized with my weird idea of homeschooling them. I always said something to the effect that it would happen naturally simply by taking them out into the world with me. That they would learn to interact with all kinds of people, of all kinds of ages and backgrounds, that "socializing" should not be limited to "getting along with 20 kids of exactly the same age and similar socio-economic status in a supervised setting". Nowadays I don't get that question at all anymore. It probably has something to do with the fact that all three of my kids can converse comfortably with adults and children of all ages. (The question I most often get these days is 'Are you sure she's only 5? Her vocabulary is incredible!")

I have spent the last 9-plus years talking to my kids. Not baby-talk either. Real normal talk. I also listened to them. They didn't always get what I was saying, and the reverse is also true. But we muddled through, eventually adding more formal lessons in math, grammar, and so on. I'm actually quite pleased with where they are in their schooling - both formal and informal. My goal is to help three human beings develop into the best versions of themselves they can be. If they want to get into a particular college, or get a particular job, they'll find a way.

Children learn by talking. They learn by listening. They learn by playing. They learn by exploring. They learn by imitating. Eventually as they get older (say, 8 and up), you need to start adding slightly more rigorous academic instruction in history, science, social studies and so on. But by that point a child who's been allowed to learn by talking and listening and playing is able to absorb new information much easier than a kid who's already sick to death of teaching-to-test.

I could rant about this all day, as some of you already know. Please consider the evidence that's coming out of new research on these academic programs for preschoolers. Not allowing a child to let her imagination run wild and forcing her to become a properly quiet student by age four is not going to make her happy or successful.

The power of example

The American nightmare