On Early Childhood Education

As a society, we undervalue early childhood education in favor of secondary and high education.

That’s my assertion, and it is definitely an opinion (although one supported by a lot of research in the education field). I’ve held this position for longer than I’ve had children, and I never thought I’d need to be called on the carpet about my commitment to it. But now I have children and it’s time for me to put my money where my mouth is, which is proving to be more challenging than I’d anticipated.

A Little Context

I’ve written before about how toxic and narcissistic parenting communities can be, so I’ll try to spell this out without making it seem like a humble-brag: my child has some different learning needs. Her spoken language is about a year advanced from her age-peers and her interests are more in line with significantly older kids as well. Whether this gap widens or narrows is really a moot point, because right now she needs to have intellectual challenges that aren’t in line with her age.

This isn’t simply because we want her to excel intellectually, it’s more to do with happiness. When my child isn’t intellectually stimulated, she stagnates developmentally and becomes aggressive and hard to handle at home. She throws things, she intentionally pushes the buttons of grownups, she does things she knows she isn’t allowed to do (and then plays ignorant about them), she pretends she can’t hear adults, she can sometimes be violent, and in several instances she’s actively chosen to pee on our stuff. Looking back over that last sentence, it sounds like I’m describing a misbehaving cat.

We went through all of this when she was one of the oldest kids in the “wobbler” room before moving up to the “toddler” one at the wonderful school she’d been attending since she was 9 months old. The last month or so before moving up were painful for us as a family, and we were so gratified when she suddenly had older kids to play with in her new room that it was like our household breathed a collective sigh of relief.

When her older peers gradually all moved on into preschool, including her boon companion (the first best friend that she has ever had) we began to see more and more behavioral problems at home. “I don’t WANT to go to school” became a pretty common refrain in the morning, which is notable for two reasons. First is that except when she was the oldest kid in the wobbler room, she had always enjoyed school. The other is that my barely 2 year old daughter was using contractions and complete sentences while the other kids in her class were still communicating like normal kids are supposed to.

A Brief Disclaimer

The school our daughter attended was great. They have a diversity mission which made sure that our kid had differently-abled peers, as well as kids of many ethnic, racial, cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds. This school remains such a cool place that while the following transpired, we didn’t even think about sending her younger brother anywhere else. So while what follows will sound like a lot of complaining, the school really did what it could to accommodate our kid.

Moving Up

We were told that in order to be eligible to move up to preschool early, kids needed to be potty trained. So at 2 years and 2 months, we potty-trained her. Then we were told that potty-training wasn’t actually a criteria for moving up to preschool early and that, in fact, there was a state regulation that said that only 2 and a half year old kids can begin preschool. While we were disappointed, you can’t very well argue with state regulations, so we just began counting down the days until her 6 month “unbirthday” when she could legally go and join her older friends in a new room full of new, intellectually appropriate activities.

But, Alas

It was not to be, unfortunately. Three months out from the end of daily crying sessions about not going to school, we were informed that there just wasn’t enough room for her to move up, and that she’d have to wait another 3 months beyond the time she could legally begin. We thought about the behavioral issues we were already dealing with, imagined how bad they would be in 6 months, and grudgingly began looking at other options.

We just couldn’t, in good conscience, keep her in a room that was causing her to be miserable. For one thing, it made us miserable too. For another, it was torturous to watch her try to talk about dinosaurs with kids who were still on single syllable words. The whole thing was creating something very akin to toddler depression. There was just this lingering malaise that she was constantly under.

Easier Said Than Done

It’s not as easy as just transferring a kid to a new school, however. One thing you have to understand about early childhood education is that good nurseries, daycares and preschools commonly have waitlists because they are packed to the gills with kids who are always in transition from one developmental area to another. Our options were limited.

We found a preschool where the kids ranged from 2.5 all the way up to kindergarten (which, in turn, was based on developmental appropriateness rather than an arbitrary age cut-off). We took the Pooka to see it and she fell in love with it. She played with the older kids and grinned like a fool. She did somersaults with the older kids and smiled larger than we’d seen in months. She participated in the music class with MUCH older kids, looking over her shoulder and beaming at us. Since that visit she asked to go back with startling regularity, singling it out by name or calling it “The Adventure School.”

Clearly we’d found the perfect school for our daughter, with one major conceit: there was no way we could afford it.

My wife and I are firmly middle class, and despite carrying around a large amount of student debt from my PhD program, we were fairly comfortable in our budget. But even with that relative comfort,  changing preschool was going to financially devastate us. When we crunched the numbers, we realized that even if we cut every luxury out of our lives, we were still going to barely be able to afford both preschool and rent. I mean deep sacrifices. I mean “giving up alcohol completely” sacrifices. And making some money on “side-hustles” as well.

Can I Compromise On This?

Suddenly, my conviction about the importance of early childhood education was shaken. It’s preschool, not a graduate program, surely “good enough” is, well, good enough. This got me thinking about my own preschool experience and I came to realize that it was my first foray into scientific experimentation and imaginative play. A long-haired hippie introduced me to The Hobbit when I was 4 and it clearly changed my life: preschool is included in some of my happiest and most vivid memories of my childhood in general and education in particular.

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t settle when it came to early childhood education. I wish I hadn’t seen that school or taken my daughter to visit, because now both of us will be holding every other school up against it. I must send my daughter there, even if it means making huge slashes to my lifestyle. Even if it means working a side job. Even if it means giving up alcohol (I really like wine).

Part of me wishes I hadn’t studied education. Then it might not have made as much difference to me that the new school’s model was based on sound pedagogical practices, resembled the vaunted preschools of Northern Europe, or featured more than the government-required amount of “outdoor time.” Every parent wants the best for their kid, and if I hadn’t spent years reading about curriculum design and best practices in education, than I might’ve been able to go with a different school.

Or maybe I wouldn’t. Really, the look of bliss on my daughter’s face when we first took her there was heart-wrenching. She knew that it was a good place for her, with lots of room to run around, older kids to interact with, communal meals, super-qualified professional teachers, and enrichment classes in music, movement and language. She knew, and I knew… and now neither of us can unknow.

In Conclusion

So here I am, thinking about how I can possibly make this work, but knowing without a doubt that I WILL make it work. Because I have to. Because it’s that important. Education arguably becomes less important as you advance through its levels and I know that because the research all points that way. I knew this, but somehow I didn’t think it would apply to my own family.

But if it’s this hard for a middle class family of moderate income, it is straight-up impossible for any family making less. If I were living in poverty, this would be an un-achievable dream regardless of my child’s needs. Having early childhood education function in this way hurts vast swathes of American kids, simply because the foundation on which all education is built is not provided by our government but rather left in the hands of private industry.

When I made sweeping statements about the importance of early childhood education before I had kids, I had no conception of the complexity, or the difficulty, or the sacrifice. Now I have to walk the walk. Now I have to put my money where my mouth is, in a way that is still figurative but really does border on the literal. But I’m privileged to make those tough calls, because most Americans don’t have that luxury.

Any candidate who doesn’t have “improve access to early childhood education” in their education policy is not someone who really understands how our system is designed to keep kids in poverty, maintain the “achievement gap” and perpetuate social inequity.

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