Express Yourself: In the face of crisis, preschools need support

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A Winters Express opinion column

By Lorie Hammond
Special to the Express

Preschool for all children is on the national agenda, at the same moment when it is increasingly difficult for childcare programs to find adequate staff to run their operations. Why is this happening, and what is the solution? And if such legislation passes, a big question remains: who will operate new federally funded preschool programs? How will they provide high quality programs, and what will happen to the current network of preschools and childcare providers which already exists?

As a long-term educator and researcher, I’d like to share some perspectives on the reality of preschools today, since it affects us all.

Why does high quality education for young children matter? Because children ages zero to five learn 90 percent of what they will ever learn. By that standard, preschool outranks college in importance. All children deserve to maximize their potential, and they need a teaching environment that can support them in three main ways:

1. Young children need to develop the complex of social and emotional skills. Sitting passively and learning does not teach children the decision-making skills they are capable of learning. They need guidance and stimulation from adults, yet they also need to make their own learning decisions.

2. Children learn best by having conversations about rich, direct experiences. When children play in the sand, model with clay, push trucks along a sidewalk, or dance to music, they are not just playing. They are learning how their world works.

3. Like adults, children stop learning when they are stressed. That is why pressuring young children to do activities which are not natural to them, such as sitting at a desk doing reading and math, causes stress and actually limits learning. It is also why children who experience stress in their home life benefit from a healthy preschool environment. In the modern world, where adults are often stressed, preschool is an oasis for young children.

Considering how preschoolers learn, it is obvious that preschool teachers need to be experts to do their job well. They need superb social skills, thoughtful language, creative psychological strategies, and the ability to set up enriched and exciting environments on a daily basis.

Yet historically, caring for young children has been a low paying job. It was considered something which anyone, but particularly women, would know how to do. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is dysfunctional for society to devalue preschool teachers, since they are so badly needed.

This problem predates COVID, but now the situation in preschools is acute. Employers seeking lower paid workers in all fields, including childcare, are experiencing a shortage of applicants. Even institutions like my school, which value its teachers highly, have trouble paying what should be paid at a rate commensurate with education and expertise.

The reason for this is that the childcare day is long, and classrooms of young children need many teachers. On top of that, there is a limit to how much parents can pay. Parents already pay high tuition, so high that many struggle with the cost and some are pushed out of the workforce entirely. How can this problem be solved?

As a preschool director, k-12 teacher and teacher educator of 50 years, I strongly support subsidizing preschool and childcare to enable all children to attend preschool. Federal subsidies could enable all children to attend school, and teachers to be paid better. This would increase equity and help to ease costs for middle-class families.

We need federal subsidies for early childhood education which support current providers and incentivizes new providers to join with even more diverse community visions. It will be messy, as all community-centered work is. There will be variation. That is good.

Preschool children do not need to sit at desks and play on cement playgrounds. They need the community-based, diverse services which many wonderful preschool and childcare centers in our communities already provide.

But these centers need to become economically viable. Our early childhood programs desperately need federal subsidies which will enable all children to attend regardless of income, and raise professional salaries and benefits for teachers.

Let’s build on what’s working and make it available to all.

Lorie Hammond is the Director of Peregrine School. She is also a founder and the first Teacher/Director of the Winters Parent Nursery School.

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