The advantages of early childhood education are often disputed. Studies with Head Start programs throughout the United States have shown some evidence that there are advantages to providing some formal education to children who are still very young. It is argued that these statistics, however, are often misused to show more advantages than actually exist. Head Start programs have shown that students entering kindergarten and first grade with some formal education already had higher IQ scores and fewer social and behavioral problems. These kids were also more likely to learn new material quickly.
What most opponents are quick to point out is that these children may have an advantage for only the first two or three years of school. By third or fourth grade, most students who have not had early formal education have caught up academically and socially to those who have. So while a child who has attended preschool or other early education programs may get a head start, he or she doesn’t always cross the finish line first. Other issues remain problematic, like the overwhelming poverty that usually qualifies children for Head Start.
Early childhood education is a general term that describes a diverse range of programs, from daycare to preschool to others. There is evidence to suggest that early daycare may actually be a detriment rather than a benefit to young children. Longer stays at home with a single caregiver are argued to be more intellectually stimulating. The child who stays at home is also more likely to benefit from breastfeeding for longer, which many say is of great advantage to the child.
Most experts agree that early childhood education works best in low pressure, social, and friendly environments. It is also more effective when preschool is only a small part of a four- or five-year-old’s day. Schooling that bleeds into long hours at daycare may not carry the same benefit for children, because it means more time away from parents. Not all programs are equally beneficial, and their value can vary depending upon funding, the teacher-to-child ratio, and teacher experience.
Some of the long-term benefits of early childhood education in quality preschools include greater parental involvement, fewer referrals to special education or remedial services, higher grades, better social skills, and a greater ability to focus. Some studies also show that children attending preschool are more likely to graduate and pursue higher education, and be well integrated socially as an adult. These children may also be less likely to commit illegal acts, and tend to earn more money.
Most of these benefits are cited from research into Head Start schools conducted in the 1980s. This research also found that preschools may greatly benefit children with developmental or physical disabilities. Children from middle and upper class families are least likely to benefit, though they are most likely to attend preschool. Children who speak another language at home also benefit a great deal from early schooling, as they are the most prepared to learn English when they are very young.
Deciding if a child should attend preschool is a parental decision that some say should not be legislated. Children cared for by an inventive and intelligent caregiver are likely to exhibit many of the same traits as those attending preschool. They are also typically given more attention in small family settings. Parents who commit to an “at home” education do need to commit to being creative and engaged in raising their children, however.
There is strong evidence to suggest that early childhood education can have some great benefits for children, but the quality of that education must be assessed to see what kind of benefits it actually provides. If it is less effective for children who spend most of their time in daycare settings, perhaps the best model is finding strategies for allowing a parent to stay home with his or her child for at least the first two to three years, before sending the child to school. Also important is considering a child's personality because individual differences in children mean that not all children will derive equal benefit from early education.