The Harm We Can Do in Early Years Education

A few years ago, I read a pretty alarming study that had come from Germany. A situation arose there, in a particularl area, where early years approaches to education were being changed from quite an academic’ approach to a much more play-based approach. However, as this process was going along there were political changes and the process stopped. it stayed stopped for some time whilst people figured out where to go next.

This created a unique situation – otherwise consistent for demographics and other background, about half the local children were experiencing a play approach in early years, the other half a much more academically oriented approach. Researchers latched on to the opportunity this represented and started a longitudinal study that tracked these children right through in to their adult years. Incidentally, after those differing early years experiences they were randomly educated through the same experiences in later years.

So, what did they find out?

a) Firstly, the children experiencing the more academic early years approach experiences academic benefits over their peers UNTIL CLASS 4. After that, the positions were reversed and there was an ever-widening gap with the children who had the play-based experiences outperforming their peers.

b) Maybe most alarming, in adult life, the children with the more academically oriented early years showed higher levels of alcohol and substance abuse, trouble with criminality, involvement in domestic abuse, psychological illness, obesity and poor health.

These are really quite alarming outcomes, especially as the research really didn’t flag up any long term positive benefits from the more academic approach to early years learning. Even more alarming when we see the pressures that come to bear throughout the world to make early years education more content driven, more teaching-centric and more focused on ‘getting an early start’ on the ‘stuff’ of school learning.

If all that wasn’t enough, here’s some further, new research from Stanford University, working with colleagues in Denmark about the difference between early and late starts for kindergarten. It showed those starting earlier had much higher levels of inattention and hyperactivity much later in their schooling. These are known factors that can be major negatives for academic outcome achievements

Quartz – Stanford Researchers Show We’re Sending Many Children To School Way Too Early

I don’t believe for a minute that we’re going to be changing the ages at which children start school. Therefore, it becomes critically important that we work to ensure that the experience they have is a low pressure, high-play one. We also need to invest considerable energy to educate parents, to share knowledge and expertise with them, so that they understand why the lay logic of a hasty start and early academic pressure are dangerous and counter-productive for their children.

Let Them Play – Update

Long time readers of this blog know that I’m not a big fan of pushing academic goals and pursuits on very young children. I’ve always believed that the weight of evidence was already so significant that it couldn’t be ignored.

Here are a number of my previous blog posts around this topic;

Let Them Play
Younger Children and Play
Sad State of American Kindergarten
Long Life Changes Everything

It’s my firm belief that forcing our youngest children on to a heavy diet of academic learning is like playing a form of Russian roulette with their futures. There might be a few who excel, some who do OK – but there will be too many losers in this game and it cannot be acceptable.

Neurology is teaching us more and more about the developing brain. In order to be able to learn a new skill requires that the child must have a neural network that is ‘ready’ for that learning. If you have some children in a room who are reading and some who are not, this is no measure of long term reading potential, but merely a matter of the readiness of their neural networks. However, at both the conscious and unconscious level the child doesn’t know this. Instead, they are put in to a situation where they seem to be a failure, a cause of disappointment to the adults who matter most in their lives. To me, this is a recipe for children with a fixed mindset and a set of beliefs that they are not good at school learning, never will be and are destined to underachieve. Then, they will go through their entire schooling producing the kinds of results they expect of themselves. In short – we are setting up too many children for failure and under-achievement.

If anybody still had doubts on these issues, here’s a recent article from the US that shares some fascinating recent research from Denmark. It carries strong evidence of mental health benefits of delaying the start of school (by which i take it to mean serious, school-type learning, curriculum etc.) which in turn are exactly the kinds of factors that contribute to higher and better academic achievements. The article brought to mind other research that I read recently that said that whilst many children introduced to academic learning early showed some academic benefits in terms of performance these were all wiped out by the end of Class 4 and after that these students slid further and further behind their peers.

Washington Post – Delaying kindergarten until age 7 offers key benefits to kids — study

Here, I want to stress. I believe very firmly that high quality, calibrated pre-school programmes for children up to age 5-6 have a beneficial impact on their later learning, school readiness and academic achievements. However, we must see that the key is that these programmes should focus very much on building pre-school skills, such as prosocial behaviour ability rather than seeking to get an early ‘head start’ on the academic learning that comes later. This also doesn’t mean holding any child back from doing things for which their neural network is ready. However, the fact that they’re ready early doesn’t make them heroes, child prodigies or even praise-worthy. it just is.

We don’t hand out awards for being an early walker, and we don’t put late walkers in remediation – and they all walk!

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