Smart Parenting for Busy & Imperfect People

Preschool & Kindergarten Shopper Beware

My kindergartner hates school and it doesn’t surprise me.  I have eaten lunch in his cafeteria, spent time in his classroom, attended his field trip and reviewed his daily school schedule.  Sadly, I could raise objections on all accounts and he has the privilege to attend one of the better public schools, in one of the best school districts in the country.  The problem it isn’t his teachers, the kids or the larger class size,  it’s the school and the current philosophy of what makes a school great.  This has spurred me to seriously considering private school and as an expert in the field of child development and a former teacher who has spent time teaching in private and public schools, I have some insights to share with those who are also school shopping.

What should parents look for in an excellent education and what should be avoided?  Is it worth it to pay extra for private school when you have public school near by that seems fine?  We’ll walk through each of these questions over the next three weeks.  This week we’ll focus on what to avoid when preschool and kindergarten shopping. This advice is relevant for children attending school from the age of two until about about eight years old.

Annoying Claims that Schools Make

When school shopping, it is important to keep in mind that the school is selling you a product. They also have every incentive to convince you to buy their product.  (Even public schools financially benefit when you enroll your child and will receive funding from the state and federal government per student.)  Most often, office staff and sometimes faculty will give the tours.  These representatives are usually glowing, friendly and fun.  Keep in mind that these representatives do not always have a keen understanding of child development or education, even if they know their product well.  Below is the top two claims that irk me when touring schools:

1) “Our method is the best.”

My biggest grievance is that every school is certain that their methods are developmentally appropriate and therefore the best, but they have very little evidence to support their claims when pressed.  Just because a school representative tells you that a certain method is the optimal, does not mean that it is, in fact, the beneficial.  Schools want you to feel like you and your child are the best and of course you would only pick the best school for your child.  Many private schools rely upon a philosophy that is decades old and has not be updated or reconsidered in eons. At one point in time their philosophy may have been scientifically sound, but that doesn’t mean it is present day. Public schools are mostly forced to adopt the federal or state philosophy, which at the current time is standards and performance-based and is developmentally inappropriate for young children (even if the school and staff are excellent).

2) “All our students are ahead by one grade level.” 

Private schools who want to stand out as challenging or elite often offer curriculum that is one grade level ahead of schedule.  Do not be duped.  Curriculum is designed by experts in the field of study and in child development to be ideal for the average child.  Most of us have average children and so when we press them to jump to the next grade level we are depriving them of developing at an appropriate, beneficial level.  The problem is that parents (including myself) wear parent-goggles and we like to see our children as above avenger in every way, even when this cannot reasonably be the case.  Schools play on our pride and aspirations when selling you the “challenging curriculum” product and dangle ivy league college as the end prize.  From teaching and study I have learned that most children are advanced in one area, average in many and occasionally lagging in some subject.  The key to an excellent curriculum is picking stimulating and well written books, not necessarily ones that are ahead of grade level.

Sound the Parent Alarm

On the website or tour, schools will usually promote all their exciting features and services.  You can quickly recognize what the school deems as important by observing which aspects of the school are heralded most.  If the school praises their high test scores, impressive extra-curriculars, amazing PTA or the like above all else I usually duck out or close my browser at the first opportunity.  School is about children and specifically we are considering young children who are nothing like adults in the way they play, learn and live their lives.  It can be difficult to filter out the parent promoted features (that give us the warm-fuzzies) from the ones that are actually scientifically beneficial for young children. When school shopping, let your alarms sound when you observe these items:

1) Repetition & Memorization:

Beware when a school touts the antiquated notion that children should memorize copious amounts of information while young.  While young children are sponges for random facts, they neurologically speaking do not have the capacity to retain all this information long term and most of it will be pruned between ages 7 to 9 with the rest of their baby memories.  It is scientifically undeniable that children are very capable of critical thinking and that creative and out-of-box learning is the most effective and motivating type of instruction for young children.  Who was the 18th president of the United States?  My point exactly- I know you reached for your phone because you, like the rest of us, do no remember this pointless fact from school but can access it quickly with your phone. In the information age, we don’t need to memorize facts anymore as we have information at the touch of our fingers.  What children need to learn is how to apply these facts.  Beware of classical schools who are known for their use of memorization in the grammar stage and while much of their philosophy should be applauded this factor is significant and a deal-breaker for the early years.

2) Heavy Emphasis on Academics:

Young children are very capable.  They can be taught to toilet train at a twelve months, read at age three and do arithmetic in their second year, along with a long list of other possible impressive feats.  The key to this list is that they CAN accomplish these impressive achievements, but this doesn’t not mean that they SHOULD.  When we spend time teaching one lesson to our children, it also means that we are not teaching other lessons.  The key to a great school is finding one that teaches the right lessons.   Rigorous academics in the early years is NOT the right lesson and it can lead to ills such as ADHD, depression, low self-esteem, perfectionism, decreased ability to apply learning to real life scenarios and diminished creative capacity, along with causing your child to down right dislike learning, reading, school and life in general.  Schools who agonize to convince you that they are a prestigious, academically elite school for gifted thinkers are usually the ones that are the furthest from this marker.  The science of child development has taught us that most young children have a potential for great things and emphasizing giftedness is very inappropriate and harmful in the early years.  We’ll discuss next week which lessons are important and worthy of the time and expense to teach young children.

3) Lack of Outdoor Recess:

Outdoor play is essential in the early years and research has shown the importance of young children being offered a minimum of one hour total playing time outside each school day (regardless of weather).  Public schools are fueled by the funds that come from students succeeding on standardized tests.  The more that teachers teach to this test, the more they will earn individually in their salary and the more the school will earn collectively.  The teachers and school have great incentive to ensure that your child scores well on the test.  This means that everything that is not related to the test is put in danger of being cut from the daily schedule.  One of the easiest areas to cut is recess, as it doesn’t affect teacher jobs, which are backed by unions, or generally upset parents who see it as “just” playtime.  Contrary to popular belief, research has shown us that recess is actually one of the most important parts of a young child’s day at school and the lack of recess negatively influences a child physiologically, academically, socially and emotionally.  My son attends school from 9am to 4pm and receives a 20 minute recess daily- this is highly inappropriate for a 5 year old.

4) Promise for Morality:

I have a very deep faith and moral code and I desire my children to also choose this course in life, but school is not a place where faith and morality is passed according to numerous studies.  Research has never once supported the idea that kids come to follow a particular faith or moral doctrine from attending school.  Families and genetics can influence faith and morality, but schools do not.  This can be difficult for some families to swallow, but the sheer of amount of research behind the issue is hard to dispute.  If you want your child to follow a particular faith, moral code or doctrine, then you will need to teach, emphasize and most importantly live according to and model these beliefs daily.  It is reasonable to expect that your child’s school will reinforce your moral code, but it is unreasonable to believe their claims that school will be the primary instrument of your child’s conversion or model of belief.

Stay Tuned in the Coming Weeks

School shopping isn’t negative and we don’t want to end on a sour note, so check back in the next two weeks for follow-up articles that detail which positive traits to look for in a school, since we reviewed which to avoid this week.  We’ll also discuss how to know if private school is worth the extra expense.  Ultimately, parents the decision of school choice is yours and it is not a light decision.  Intelligent Nest, LLC is here to equip you so that you can make your expert choice.

Preschool children

Citations: Meta-Analytic Approach

A proper, full scientific explanation with citations for each claim above requires hours to provide and could fill a book.  This article’s purpose is to offer you a quick summary.  Proposed ideas have been researched extensively with sources derived from lectures, books and multiple concurring studies.  If I have only read one study with one such claim (and it has a readable abstract or summary), I will always cite it because I don’t see it as an absolute fact and it is open to interpretation, but when numerous studies done in different countries, with different populations of people, completed by reputable scientists from reputable schools repeatedly conclude the same ideas, then I take it as being strongly supported by science and bearing of truth.  Also, considering that this format is casual (and unpaid), I cannot invest the required time to properly retrieve and cite meta-analytic conclusions.   For those of you looking for more information, I applaud you!  Here are a few great, readable places to start:

To understand in readable terms how young children learn neurologically, I suggest:  What’s Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life by Lise Eliot, Ph.D.  Also, Alison Gopnik wrote The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Teaches Us About the Mind and also consider Einstein Never Used Flash Cards by Dr. Hirsh-Pasek and Dr. Golinkoff as all are applicable to understanding why teaching using memorization in the early years is, frankly, a waste of time.

In short, the long term and short term memory portions of the brain are separate and have different pruning processes.  The most influential type of learning for young children is self-initiated and sensory, as these factors influence growth and storage in the long-term memory portion of the brain where as rote memorization teaching methods usually only create learning/growth in the short term memory.  In past generations, adults assumed children were not smart enough to think critically (society saw children as cute mush), but observed that they could memorize and so teachers focused on memory.  Thanks to the field of neuroscience, we now know this to be completely false and have substantial evidence that children can do both, but that critical analysis is the better learning method of the two.

To understand the importance of unstructured play as an approach to learning and life, you can ready Play by Dr. Stuart Brown or Absorbent Mind by Maria Montessori (beyond her popular preschools Montessori was a doctor, keen observer of children and won a Noble prize for her research).   Also, here is a link to a readable article on the importance of play in the first 5 years:

Good luck with your research and please post or email any follow-up questions.

3 Responses to “Preschool & Kindergarten Shopper Beware”

  1. Angela

    Very interesting article Kristen. I feel similar to you regarding my son’s school and I’m always “browsing” around seeing what other options are out there. I agree very much with the “overachiever” emphasis of many schools and that children should have scientifically based and age appropriate curriculum. Also about recess – SO important for my very active boy. I would be great if you could list some of your sources for your claims, especially about repetition and memorization, as I would like to do further reading myself.

    • The Intelligent Nest

      Thank you for your question! You are not the only one wanting to learn more and obtain evidence and so I added a citation section to the end of the article. Please note this is not a traditional citation section, but will give you a few options to start your own research. I applaud your desire to learn more and wish you the best of luck!

      • Angela

        Thank you very much for the information at the end as it is extremely helpful. As a mother and educator this topic is very close to my heart. I’ve visited countless schools in the area because I really want to see what other options are out there. I have read MANY brochures and curriculum guides claiming all kinds of things, so this gives some great perspective, thanks again!

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