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What is Pre-Kindergarten?

By Victoria Blackburn
Updated May 16, 2024
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Pre-kindergarten is a form of early childhood education. It is usually offered as a formal educational program for children aged three or four. Pre-kindergarten can take in many different settings, including public schools, private and public nursery schools, religious institutions and child care facilities. The goal of pre-kindergarten is to prepare children for starting kindergarten the following year.

It is not compulsory for children to attend pre-kindergarten in the United States. In fact, different states provide different programs and facilities. Depending on the area where the family live, either the state, school district, or the parents of the children will decide whether or not the children can attend a pre-K program.

Pre-kindergarten is different from day care or child care, as it is more focused on academics and skill building. Most day care and child care centers are focused on just looking after children while their parents are absent. Not only do pre-K teachers focus on academics, but they also help develop children emotionally, socially and physically. Most pre-K facilities follow an educational curriculum that outlines instructional activities to meet these goals.

As pre-K is not compulsory, most families must apply for places within their local programs. Depending on the state, different criteria are used to determine whether a child can be placed or not. For example, Tennessee runs a voluntary pre-kindergarten program for all four year olds. It is completely voluntary and up to the parents, communities and school districts to decide whether they want and need a pre-K program. Other states and districts have distinct requirements for application to pre-K, and many do not have the number of places to match the number of children in the area.

There is some controversy over the fact that pre-K schooling is not mandatory in all states. In many states, pre-kindergarten remains reserved for high income families who can afford private schooling or those families targeted for public-assistance due to low incomes. Many experts, educational professionals and policymakers are calling for pre-K to be funded for all children so that everyone can reap the rewards of beginning their education early.

A great deal of research has been carried out into effects on a child’s education from attending a pre-K program. Most brain development occurs before the age of five, so starting education earlier is beneficial to all children. Studies have shown that children that attend pre-kindergarten are less likely to be held back during their schooling and they are more likely to graduate from high school.

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Discussion Comments
By geekish — On Aug 29, 2011

@amysamp - Children in pre-kindergarten or preschool as we call it hear in my neck of the woods in North Carolina do receive services if they qualify. In fact all kids regardless of age can qualify for services.

For example we have a program here called Children's Developmental Services Agencies (CDSAs) and these agencies work with service providers to provide services for these young children.

But back to pre-kindergarten, yes they can receive services and if they do not attend pre-kindergarten if the child is 3 years old, they can be tested by the school system to see if they qualify for services with parental consent of course (if they are less than three years old consult the CDSA or other such program).

It is called early intervention and many people feel it makes an incredible difference.

By amysamp — On Aug 28, 2011

Do children in pre-kindergarten classrooms receive services such as speech therapy or physical therapy?

I have nephews that are 2 and 4 and I am worried about their speech development as they are both incredibly difficult to understand; and I was hoping that if they get to go to pre-kindergarten then they might be able to receive services to help them beyond the classroom academics.

By animegal — On Aug 27, 2011

@Sara007 - My aunt is considering putting her son in pre-kindergarten so that she can have more free time for herself. While I can understand as she has had three kids in just a few years, I wonder if pre-kindergarten should really be the equivalent of a babysitting service for parents that are over-burdened. I think I would feel really guilty putting my child in school early just so I could grab a latte more often.

What do people think? Is pre-kindergarten OK for those parents who just need more time, or should it be reserved for children who are really up for the academic and social challenges of being in school so young?

By Sara007 — On Aug 26, 2011

Pre-kindergarten can be a huge help for those mothers that want to return to the workforce earlier and still give their kids a fun activity to do. I have found that pre-kindergarten was great for my daughter because she had the chance to make a lot of friends and is now much more social than she was when she was just playing with the children in our immediate neighborhood.

I think pre-kindergarten is an excellent idea that really puts your kids ahead of the game when it comes to overall academic achievement in life. It is great for both parents and children.

By MaPa — On Aug 26, 2011

@kylee07drg - That woman sounds like a nightmare. She should be working with prisoners, not little kids.

You don't want everyone running wild, but how can you keep a four-year-old from being playful? And hitting them with a ruler? I don't think she would last very long today.

By KLR650 — On Aug 25, 2011

@Oceana - I think an involved, capable parent is the best case scenario for determining how their child is going to perform in school.

Unfortunately, some parents are either unwilling or incapable, or both. For them, the pre-kindergarten activities and programs are probably much more necessary.

I did go to preschool, but my mother had taught me most of that stuff by the time I got there. School always came easy to me. I think most of it was the rock solid foundation I got at home.

By emtbasic — On Aug 25, 2011

@ElizaBennett - It's certainly your choice when and how your kid goes to school, and I am sure that the program you picked out for him will be great.

My only thought is, children pick up languages so easily, he might have really learned some Spanish in the other program. Did you guys think about that?

I don't think the social studies is a great loss at that age, but I sure wish I would have gotten a head start on learning languages.

By Oceana — On Aug 25, 2011

My friend looked into the price of putting her three-year-old in pre-kindergarten, and it was simply more than she could afford. So, she decided to teach him some of the basics at home.

She ordered pre-kindergarten worksheets and a curriculum from a home-schooling company. It included recommended daily lessons, and since she was a stay-at-home mom, she had time to stick to the schedule.

As a result, her son did great in kindergarten. Since the lessons she taught him were exactly like the ones taught in pre-kindergarten, he did not miss out on anything by not attending.

By kylee07drg — On Aug 25, 2011

I had a traumatic experience involving my pre-kindergarten teacher that made me afraid to go to school. At that age, things really shape your outlook, and you can easily become mentally scarred.

This teacher was an old lady with a stern face. She was very strict, and she should not have been working with very young children, because she had a low tolerance for playfulness. Whenever the children became loud or showed any signs of having fun, she would slap their hands with a ruler.

One time, she became particularly annoyed with the class. They would not respond to her command to quiet down, so she picked up a table and slammed it down for effect. Then, she started yelling loudly. Everyone got quiet with shock at first, and then several kids started to cry. I was terrified of what might happen next, though nothing did.

By StarJo — On Aug 24, 2011

It’s funny how something as simple as making the letter “A” is a challenge when you take part in pre-K. Writing comes so naturally later on in school, but this can be attributed to the hard work you did as a four-year-old.

I still remember writing on tablets. These sheets of paper had big, solid lines with dotted lines in between them to show where the middle of letters should go. The bottom of the “A” had to touch the bottom solid line. The top point had to reach the solid top line, and the line through the middle of the letter had to run along the dotted line.

I remember my little brain working hard to make all the parts of the letters line up properly. Pre-K really builds a good foundation and allows us to quickly move on to more complicated things.

Since pre-K wasn’t required, we did the same writing activity in kindergarten. Those who had taken pre-K breezed right on through, while the others took more time to learn.

By Perdido — On Aug 23, 2011

When I was four, our town didn’t even have a pre-kindergarten program. In fact, at the time, the school itself didn’t even offer kindergarten classes. If you wanted to put your child in regular kindergarten when he turned five, then you had to take him to the private kindergarten, which was in a house with a playground out back.

These days, I believe actual kindergarten is mandatory where I live, while pre-K is optional. My parents tried taking me to the private kindergarten school, but I ended up a dropout because I just wasn’t ready to be away from home yet. That was totally fine back then.

By ElizaBennett — On Aug 22, 2011

@jennythelib - My understanding is that Head Start hasn't been shown to be very effective at raising kid's IQ's in the long-term, but that it might have longer-term benefits at preventing grade retention (i.e., "failing" a grade) and other less directly intelligence-related benefits.

When I enrolled my son in preschool, I was given a choice between the "academic" program and the "regular" program. I asked about the difference. The academic program includes little bit of Spanish and some extra social studies. The "regular" program still has the basic letters, numbers, etc. but has more play time instead of more teaching.

Now, we consider ourselves a very academically-oriented family, and we'll expect a lot from our son - when he's old enough to give it. For now, I put him in the "regular" program.

By jennythelib — On Aug 22, 2011

Does evidence really show that pre-K is effective? I thought I remembered reading that Head Start, which is essential a preschool program for at-risk kids, had been shown to be sadly ineffective.

It seems so logical that pre-kindergarten learning would be beneficial to all kids and Head Start was so well-intentioned, it's hard to admit that it might not work as well as it should.

Then there's the question of whether kids this young need to be "learning" formally at all. When I was in kindergarten, we learned our letters and just got started learning to read. Now, kindergarten classes only *review* the alphabet because it is assumed the children already knew it. if you aren't ready to get busy reading, you're behind. It just seems like if kindergarten is supposed to be for five-year-olds, then it should be appropriate for five-year-olds!

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