Why are Preschool and Elementary Educational Experiences So Important?

The longer I am involved in preschool and elementary education, the more I am convinced that our efforts with young students are among the most important and long-lasting. Recently a colleague sent me a link to a New York Times article that bolsters my own philosophy: that investing time, focus, and money in our children’s earliest years of schooling is crucial to their continued academic and life-long success.
In their first years of school, children establish their self-identity as learners. Based on their experiences with challenging situations and new information, as well as the feedback they receive from adults and their peers, they decide—in the most basic sense—whether they are “good students” …or not.
If a student decides, because the school-work is confusing, boring, not connected to his experience of the world, etc., that he is a bad student, or that school is not relevant to him, then this concept of self and school will be difficult to change later in life, no matter how good his middle or high school may be. If, on the other hand, a young student is convinced that he is capable, shown that he is valued, and invited to engage in meaningful work every day at school, he will carry this concept of self and school with him into each new environment. Students who are ready and excited to engage in the activities of school can jump right into those pursuits, without first having to wrestle with the decision of whether school is important to them or not.


Preschoolers participating in a balls and ramps science unit


Routines of mind and body also begin to solidify at a very young age. We all know how hard it can be to break bad habits and learn new ones as we get older! When young students learn the habits of paying attention when others are talking, taking turns, managing frustration, being patient and flexible when solving problems, reading quietly for extended periods (the list goes on and on), these skills propel them to be productive learners in the future, both inside and outside of the classroom.  Meanwhile, the child who fails to develop and value such habits is at a disadvantage.  Her future teachers will need to devote valuable instructional time to dealing with and correcting behaviors in order to teach basic learning skills.


So how do we help students gain a positive self-concept of themselves as learners and develop productive habits of mind and body? For starters, small class sizes are a must, in my opinion. Teachers need to be able to get to know students in-depth, to become intimately aware of their interests, skills, strengths and weaknesses. This is a crucial step toward ensuring that every student feels valued and understood. Small class sizes also allow teachers to respond to individual learning abilities in order to challenge each student appropriately.


Another issue is the ability of schools to build and teach curricula that are relevant and developmentally appropriate for the community they serve. Small and independent schools have the flexibility to tailor their programming to meet the needs of their particular students. National standards help frame skills that are essential for every learner to master, but teachers and administrators need the autonomy to determine the best ways to ensure that each student will be able to apply these skills in real life. 


Finally, I believe that the most successful schools pay attention to—and intentionally program for—the development of social and emotional skills. Large institutions charged with meeting stringent testing requirements have little time to spend on character development and social skills practice… and too often, the time that is spent in these pursuits becomes another token exercise in covering, rather than internalizing, ideas that are essential to personal growth.


These are just some of the reasons I believe that a positive, carefully designed early educational program is vital to students’ future success. When parents ask me why they should spend money on a private elementary education, as opposed to saving for high school or college, these are the reasons I give. Our own students are both witness and testimony to the efficacy of our programs; they move easily and successfully into a variety of educational environments when they leave us, including public schools as well as small and large private schools. It is with pride and excitement that I watch them charge forward, driven by the positive concept of self and school that is a direct result of their experiences at Seneca Academy.

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