Issued February, 2001

National Physicians Center

Currently there is an effort underway nationwide to convince state legislators of the vital importance of funding early childhood education programs.

The rationale used to promote these programs is usually based on early brain development research suggesting children cannot achieve their full potential unless they are exposed to accelerated learning experiences before the age of three. This is often coupled with the suggestion that, now more than ever, mothers need and/or want to work and therefore, require quality, affordable care for their children.

Before legislators agree to fund these enormously expensive initiatives that will undoubtedly divert funding from other programs, they must be certain the research their decisions are based on is indeed valid. In the case of early childhood education programs, available research suggests they may actually be inferior to early learning opportunities at home. In addition, it appears the demand for out of home childcare is not as prevalent as many advocates claim.

In short, there are many important issues related to these programs that must be clarified. Once in place, they will set a new standard for how young children will be taught and who their teachers should be.

Early Childhood Development: A Second Opinion

  • Many child development experts question the method in which early brain development research has been conducted. They believe the results have been exaggerated and the long-term positive effects extrapolated to the extreme.[i]
  • Some studies of efforts to teach preschool children show a failure to increase cognitive abilities in even the best of circumstances.[ii]
  • An April 1999 study showed that children enrolled in Georgia's Pre-K program benefited more from unstructured activities than from structured, academically oriented activities (i.e. Often they'd rather play with the box than the toy in it).[iii]
  • Monitoring the home environment by providing home visitors is one component of many early childhood education programs. However, this method of assisting parents has shown limited success except in exceptional cases of long-term, intensive interventions for very high-risk populations.[iv]

The physical and emotional impact of institutional settings

  • The emphasis early childhood programs place on cognitive development will be stressful for many children, even emotionally damaging for some. The pressure to process more information at a faster pace could actually cause children to enter Kindergarten less ready and motivated to learn as a result – the opposite of what early childhood programs intend.
  • Young children have short attention spans. Therefore, increasing the number and frequency of activities will not necessarily insure an increase in their level of learning or comprehension.
  • An increasing number of children, especially boys, are being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Studies show that, for these children, the home environment is more conducive to learning than the institutional environment, which involves more activities and distractions.[v]
  • Three and four year-olds are developing a sense of security, which is vital to their overall growth and development; they first look to parents for that security. If this security is threatened in any way, they may withdraw physically and emotionally, impacting their ability to learn.
  • Child-care institutions cannot provide an emotionally nurturing environment equal to that provided by a parent or family member. Very young children will quickly become aware of this fact and therefore, may experience feelings of insecurity because of the school's impersonal environment.
  • Some children who are removed from their homes too early become withdrawn and detached from their parents. This is often due to feelings of confusion about where their security lies
  • The amount of time, not just the “quality” time children spend with parents and other family members, helps them develop a sense of security and belonging. Institutionalized early learning programs do not represent a comparable substitution.
  • Young children are more susceptible to infections than their older counterparts due to their developing immune systems. Institutional learning environments put young children at risk for potential illness on a daily basis. Many studies show increased rates of infection in the children and spread of infectious diseases to the community from these institutions.

Early childhood education programs: A need expressed by parents or a created “crisis?”

  • A 1997 Glamour poll found 88% of women would want their child at home if they could afford it
  • Only 16 % of children are now in center-based care while their mothers work.
  • The initiation of these early learning programs would result in 84% of mothers being taxed to subsidize the child-care choices of 16% of mothers.
  • The state sanctioning of early childhood programs falsely suggests that institutionalized childcare is superior to home learning experiences.
  • Encouraging parents to entrust their children to an institution may result in some being less responsible and reliable. In the long run, there is great potential for early learning institutions to foster more dependency on the government (i.e. taxpayer) and more of an entitlement mentality.
  • State-sponsored, standardized early learning programs emphasize the importance of academics while ignoring the crucial importance of parental input into a young child's overall development.

Appropriate socialization and adequate attention for young children

  • Family life is the first lesson in socialization for young children. Learning primary social skills in a classroom environment will not be an adequate substitute.
  • Three and four year-olds are not all on the same level of physical and/or emotional development. Boys are slower to mature verbally and tend to be more physically aggressive, whereas girls tend to need more intimacy and a quieter, more calm environment in which to learn
  • It is important that children at this age (who may not be able to adequately verbalize their needs) are understood. Parents or relatives are better equipped to deal with this than teachers--no matter what their level of expertise.
  • Feeling safe and secure is critical at this stage of development and involves more than just the immediate physical environment. For security to be internalized, a routine should be established which includes frequent individual attention, positive reinforcement and consistent discipline.
  • School staff may not be able to adequately address tantrums and other forms of “acting out” which are common at this age.
  • A low teacher/child ratio of 15 to 1 or even 10 to 1 will not always be sufficient to handle everyday crises. “Time out” will work only briefly for some young children and not at all for others who will experience feelings of abandonment, fear and confusion.
  • During this stage of development, children seek role models and are learning the basics of right and wrong. Will institutions focus on character building and teaching strong values? If so, whose values will children be taught?

To summarize our views as healthcare experts, universal preschool appears to be yet another one-size-fits-all approach offered by bureaucrats for what may be a non-existent “crisis.” Reform should start with the age groups in which children are more physically and emotionally mature, and therefore, ready to absorb and retain what they are taught (i.e. grades 1-12).

In addition, any government assistance for families with young children should be in the form of tax incentives for ALL parents, not just those parents opting for government-run day care and early childhood education programs. This will assist parents who wish to keep their children at home as well as single, working parents who require childcare outside of the home.

R. Bob Mullins, M.D. Board Chair, Birmingham, Alabama

Jane Anderson, M.D. Executive Board, San Francisco, California

Dianna Lightfoot, President


[i] Bruer, John T. The Myth of the First Three Years: A New Understanding of Early Brain Development and Lifelong Learning. Free Press; September, 1999.

[ii] Robert G. St. Pierre and Jean I. Layzer, Barbara D. Goodson, and Lawrence S. Bernstein, National Impact Evaluation of the Comprehensive Child Development Program. Prepared for Michael T. Lopez, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Administrator for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Contract No. 105-90-1900, June 1997.

[iii] Laura Henderson, Kathleen Basile, and Gary Henry, “Prekindergarten Longitudinal Study 1997 – 1998. “School Year Annual Report,” Georgia State University Applied Research Center School of Policy Studies, April 1999, pp. 29-40.

[iv] The National Physicians Center for Family Resources. The Parent Trainers: A Nationwide Study of Home Visitation Programs. May, 1998.

[v] Attention Deficit Disorder. The Chesapeake Institute. Washington, DC, 2001

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