When does learning start? Pre-K is important, but learning begins much earlier. - Pathways LA

6th Mar 2019

When does learning start? Pre-K is important, but learning begins much earlier.

Universal pre-k is gaining traction and support from politicians, parents, and educators across the nation. This is a positive step towards ensuring school readiness for all children. However, as important as universal pre-k is for children, few people are also pointing to the gaps in early care and education during the crucial years from a child’s birth to age three.

The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study found that individuals who participated in quality preschool programming were more likely to graduate from high school, to own homes, to have longer marriages, and earned up to $2,000 per month more than those who started kindergarten with no prior educational experience. The concept of pre-k for all embodies the right sentiment – we want all children to have access to school readiness programs and the correlating lifelong set of benefits. That said, if we truly want to invest in a child’s overall development and learning then we must start earlier.

Let’s differentiate between early childhood education and pre-k.

Early childhood education (ECE) refers to any program for children ages five and under. Pre-K, the last phase of ECE, is an investment in ensuring social and emotional development so that they are ready for Kindergarten. It’s not about starting kindergarten a year earlier, rather it gets kids excited to learn in the next stage.

So how does pre-K differ from early care? The most obvious difference is the age at which children begin pre-k versus when they should be enrolled in early care programs. In terms of a child’s development, age is in fact the determining factor and guides the difference between early care and a more formalized school setting. 

During the earliest years, a child’s brain is developing faster than at any other time.

In the first three years of life more than 1,000,000 new brain connections are formed every second. They are constantly in need of different types of stimulation and because of this, early care is specifically geared toward playful learning, primarily through sensory information. A baby or toddler’s eyes, ears, nose, hands, and mouth are the main tools for learning. Pre-k, however, is when more traditional classroom materials are first introduced to children preparing them for what will be taught in kindergarten.

Low-income families face numerous barriers to accessing quality early childhood education.

Despite the high profile discussion around universal pre-k, few people are addressing the gaps that exist for families when it comes to accessing early care. While the benefits of early care programs are undisputedly positive, only 13.8% of L.A. County’s 650,000 children under the age of 5 are enrolled in licensed child care.

There are many challenges for all parents, but income is the most prevalent barrier to accessing early care. For the community Pathways LA serves the average household income is $11,711, which is 80% below LA County’s median household income. Many parents are struggling to balance work or school, securing stable housing, and some have faced various forms of trauma – adding quality child care on top is just one more hurdle.

In many cases the parents of younger children are, themselves, younger adults. They are less-established in their careers, lowering their income potential and requiring them to work jobs with non-traditional working hours. For these families their choices for quality investments in early education are more limited, further perpetuating a systemic lack of access for the most vulnerable in our communities.

Fortunately, the tides are beginning to turn.

While the nuance of the conversation on ECE has been limited, the seeds of change are beginning to be planted. With a new Governor and an alignment in policy agendas, the California State Assembly has introduced a series of proposed bills to help expand early childhood development. Among them is AB 194, a proposal to allocate $1 billion to access subsidized child care, with components specifically to help parents working non-traditional hours.

As this national conversation continues to develop, we look forward to elevating the level of discourse around these issues. In the meantime, here at Pathways LA we will continue to support these vulnerable families and offer opportunities leading them to greater social equity.

Our goal is to offer all families, regardless of income, the important building blocks early care and education provides. Universal pre-k is a great first step, and yet there is so much more we can do.