When you walk into a high-quality pre-kindergarten program, you immediately see learning occurring. Children are engaged in small groups reading books, building interesting structures with blocks, and determining what sinks and what floats at the water table. The teachers are asking questions, pointing out children's successes and guiding learning. The room has a sense of purpose, organization, and excitement.
High quality pre-k programs can be found in many settings: schools, churches, mosques, synagogues, Head Starts, and public and private child care centers. Unless a state makes a commitment to building and funding a pre-k system, however, families have trouble finding well designed, high-quality programs that prepare their children for kindergarten, elementary school, and beyond. Research shows that children who attend high-quality pre-k programs perform better in school and throughout life. They have more advanced language and math skills and enter kindergarten knowing how "school" works. The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) has created a ten-point checklist that rates the quality of pre-k programs nationwide. The key components of a high-quality program include:
Well Educated Teachers
The professional development of teachers is related to the quality of early childhood programs. The most effective pre-k teachers have bachelor's degrees and specialized training in early childhood education-and they are paid salaries and benefits comparable to K-12 teachers. Highly educated pre-k teachers are more likely to develop a responsive and strong interpersonal relationship with each child which affects the young child's motivation to learn, social competence and school achievement. Pre-k aides should at a minimum have a Child Development Associate Credential and both the teacher and aide should devote at least 15 hours every year to improve their skills through comprehensive, well designed professional development opportunities.
Low Teacher-Child Ratios and Small Class Size
Young children learn best in small groups (no more than 20 children) in which they can ask and answer questions and receive individualized teacher attention. When the group size is small, children are more likely to initiate activities on their own. Teachers with fewer children in the group are less restrictive and controlling, more supportive of each child's learning style and have time to extend children's language, guide children's social interactions, and encourage exploration and problem solving. A ratio of one teacher for every ten or fewer children is crucial.
Research-Based Curriculum Aligned to K-12 Standards
The curriculum helps the teacher organize daily learning activities. While no one curriculum has been identified as best, high-quality pre-k programs have a curriculum with specific goals that integrate learning across all aspects of a child's development-cognitive, physical, social, and emotional. A good curriculum provides a variety of daily opportunities for language and reasoning, science, math, block play, dramatic play, art, and music. Throughout the day, children learn through whole class activities, small groups, and individual interactions with the teacher.
Parents and extended family members are an integral part of the program. Teachers create multiple ways to share information about the children's strengths and successes, favorite activities and learning progress. Family members are offered a variety of ways to be involved in the pre-k program: parent conferences and home visits, serving as decision makers on the governing board, assisting in the classroom, helping with field trips, sharing expertise or coming to the class to be with their child. Most importantly, families are respected as the child's first and most important teachers and are supported in their efforts to extend the child's learning at home.
Focus on the Whole Child and Family
Children cannot learn if they are undernourished or if they cannot see the pictures in a book or hear what the teacher says to them because of undiagnosed problems. Programs should screen children's vision, hearing, and general health in order to identify problems and make appropriate referrals early. When needed, families should have access to social services or to information about nutrition, parenting, and family support. Pre-k programs should offer children breakfast and/or lunch in order to ensure proper nutrition.