Cognitive Development

Piaget’s Preoperational Stage

Building on the accomplishments of the first stage of cognitive development, which takes place during infancy and involves sensorimotor regulations, preschoolers enter the second stage of cognitive development, called the preoperational stage, which is organized around symbolic regulations. According to Piaget, this stage occurs from the age of 2 to 7 years. In the preoperational stage, children use symbols to represent words, images, and ideas, which is why children in this stage engage in pretend play. A child’s arms might become airplane wings as she zooms around the room, or a child with a stick might become a brave knight with a sword. Children also begin to use language in the preoperational stage, but they cannot understand adult logic or mentally manipulate information. The term operational refers to logical manipulation of information, so children at this stage are considered pre-operational. Children’s logic is based on their own personal knowledge of the world so far, rather than on conventional knowledge.

The preoperational period is divided into two stages:

  1. The symbolic function substage occurs between 2 and 4 years of age and is characterized by gains in symbolic thinking, in which the child is able to mentally represent an object that is not present, and a dependence on perception in problem solving.
  2. The intuitive thought substage, lasting from 4 to 7 years, is marked by greater dependence on intuitive thinking rather than just perception (Thomas, 1979). This implies that children think automatically without using evidence. At this stage, children ask many questions as they attempt to understand the world around them using immature reasoning. Let us examine some of Piaget’s assertions about children’s cognitive abilities at this age.
Figure 5.1

Pretend play. Pretending is a favorite activity at this time. A toy has qualities beyond the way it was designed to function and can now be used to stand for a character or object unlike anything originally intended. A teddy bear, for example, can be a baby or the queen of a faraway land. Piaget believed that pretend play helped children practice and solidify new schemata they were developing cognitively. This play, then, reflected changes in their conceptions or thoughts. However, children also learn as they pretend and experiment. Their play does not simply represent what they have learned (Berk, 2007).

Symbolic representation. In addition to ushering in an era of pretend play, the development of symbolic representation revolutionizes the way young children can think and act. Representational capacities underlie the emergence of language which opens up channels of communication with others and provides young children words and concepts for their inner experiences (like emotion labels). Symbolic capacities also scaffold the development of memory, and allow young children to remember and discuss autobiographical events. They become very interested in two dimensional representations, like photographs and computer screens, and can interact with grandparents and others using these tools.

As seen at the end of the sensorimotor period, toddlers begin to use primitive representations to solve problems in  their heads. During the preschool years, cognitive advances allow them to get better and better at trying out strategies mentally before taking action. Hence, planning and problem-solving become central activities. Problem-solving can be used to facilitate physical play (e.g., planning how to build a castle), solve interpersonal conflicts (e.g., two children want the same toy), or figure out how to comfort oneself when one is sad.

Mental  representations are also key to the advances in executive function and self-regulation described earlier. When children can hold goals in their minds that are different from the ones that spontaneously emerge, they use representations of what they are supposed to do to modulate or manage what they want to do. Young children show an outpouring of representational activities, including language, pretend play, story telling, singing, drawing, looking a photos, and discussing the past and present. They love to engage in joint problem-solving and be read to, often asking for the same book or video over and over again, pouring over and discussing the story, until they can repeat every word.

Despite the many advances that symbolic thought brings to young children, there are still several significant limitations to their thinking, including egocentrism, perceptual salience, and animism. When parents see behaviors typical of the preoperational stage, it is important that they correctly interpret their meaning. Young children are not being hard to get along with. These behaviors are the result of genuine limitations in their cognitive functioning. Young children can understand many ideas and follow rules, but for the best developmental outcomes, adults should temper their expectations and demands so that they are reasonable, and explain their thinking using language that is developmentally attuned to children’s current cognitive capacities.

Egocentrism. Egocentrism in early childhood refers to the tendency of young children not to be able to take the perspective of others, and instead the child thinks that everyone sees, thinks, and feels just as they do. Egocentric children are not able to infer the perspective of other people and instead attribute their own perspective to everyone in the situation. For example, ten-year-old Keiko’s birthday is coming up, so her mom takes 3-year-old Kenny to the toy store to choose a present for his sister. He selects an Iron Man action figure for her, thinking that if he likes the toy, his sister will too.

Drawing of a child looking at a mountain diorama with a doll on the opposite side
Figure 5.2. What does dolly see?

Piaget’s classic experiment on egocentrism involved showing children a three-dimensional model of a mountain and asking them to describe what a doll that is looking at the mountain from a different angle might see (see Figure 5.2). Children tend to choose a picture that represents their own, rather than the doll’s view. By age 7 children are less self-centered. However, even younger children when speaking to others tend to use different sentence structures and vocabulary when addressing a younger child or an older adult. This indicates some awareness of the views of others.

Perceptual salience. Perceptual salience means that children reason, not based on what they know, but based on what they perceive (ie.g., see and hear) in the present local context. This cognitive limitation is on display every Halloween, when parents dress up, especially if they use masks. For a preoperational child, the mask is so perceptually salient that even if the parent continues to talk and the child can recognize their voice, their experience is overwhelmed by the transformation of the parent’s face, that they react to the masked parent as if they were a stranger. At this age, children’s understanding is halfway between the reasoning based on action of the sensorimotor period and the reasoning based on logic of the concrete operational period. During the preoperational period, reasoning is based on empirical reality, that is, information provided by the senses.

Animism. Animism refers to attributing life-like qualities to objects. The cup is alive, the chair that falls down and hits the child’s ankle is mean, and the toys need to stay home because they are tired. Cartoons frequently show objects that appear alive and take on lifelike qualities. Young children do seem to think that objects that move may be alive, but after age three, they seldom refer to objects as being alive (Berk, 2007).

Intuitive substage (age 4-7 years). During the intuitive substage, children begin to move toward logical thinking. They show some signs of logical reasoning, but can’t explain how or why they think as they do. This is an age filled with questions, as children begin to make sense of their worlds. Parents should know that children’s ceaseless “why?” questions do not require detailed explanations. They are looking for brief and simple explanations. For example, if children ask “Why do I have to wear a helmet when I ride a bicycle?” they are not looking for a lecture on legal issues, but just a simple “To keep your head safe.” Likewise, if they come back from a bike ride and say “Well, I didn’t fall down, so now I don’t need to wear a helmet any more”, you can explain the idea of risk through an everyday example, saying, “You have to wear it every time, because you could fall down.” If you want to try a metaphor, you could explain, ” Your head is like a glass, it could get broken. Does a glass break every time you drop it? No. But does that mean that it’s a good idea to drop it? No. We want to keep your head safe.”

Centration. The primary limitation of thought during the intuitive substage is called centration. Centration means that understanding is dominated (i.e., centered on) a single feather– the most perceptually salient one. At this age, children cannot hold or coordinate two features of an object at the same time. Piaget demonstrated this aspect of preoperational thought in a series of experiments. They showed that young children do not yet have the logical notion of conservation, which refers to the ability to recognize that aspects like quantity remain the same, even when over transformations in appearance. 

Inability to conserve. Using Kenny and Keiko again, dad gave a slice of pizza to 10-year-old Keiko and another slice to 3-year-old Kenny. Kenny’s pizza slice was cut into five pieces, so Kenny told his sister that he got more pizza than she did. Kenny did not understand that cutting the pizza into smaller pieces did not increase the overall amount. This was because Kenny exhibited centration when he focused on only one characteristic (the number of pieces) to the exclusion of others (total amount). Kenny’s reasoning was based on his five pieces of pizza compared to his sister’s one piece even though the total amount of pizza each had was the same. Keiko was able to consider several characteristics of an object than just one. Because children have not developed this understanding of conservation, they cannot perform mental operations.

Figure 5.3. Conservation of Liquid. Does pouring liquid in a tall, narrow container make it have more?

The classic Piagetian experiment associated with conservation involves liquid (Crain, 2005). As seen on the left side of Figure 5.3, the child is shown two glasses which are filled to the same level and asked if they have the same amount. Usually the child agrees they have the same amount. The experimenter then pours the liquid in one glass to a taller and thinner glass (as shown in the center of Figure 5.3). The child is again asked if the two glasses have the same amount of liquid. The preoperational child will typically say the taller glass now has more liquid because it is taller (as shown on the right side). The child has centrated on the height of the glass and fails to conserve.

Classification errors. Preoperational children also demonstrate centration when they have difficulty understanding that an object can be classified in more than one way. For example, if shown three white buttons and four black buttons and asked whether there are more black buttons or buttons, the child is likely to respond that there are more black buttons. They focus on the most salient feature (black buttons) and cannot keep in mind the the general class of buttons, so they compare black versus white buttons, instead of part versus whole. Because young children lack these general classes, their reasoning is typically transductive, that is, making faulty inferences from one specific example to another. For example, Piaget’s daughter Lucienne stated she had not had her nap, therefore it was not afternoon. She did not understand that afternoons are a time period and her nap was just one of many events that occurred in the afternoon (Crain, 2005). As the child’s capacity to mentally represent and coordinate multiple features improves, the ability to classify objects emerges.

Critique of Piaget. Similar to the critique of the sensorimotor period, several psychologists have attempted to show that Piaget also underestimated the intellectual capabilities of the preoperational child. For example, children’s specific experiences can influence when they are able to conserve. Children of pottery makers in Mexican villages know that reshaping clay does not change the amount of clay at much younger ages than children who do not have similar experiences (Price-Williams, Gordon, & Ramirez, 1969). Crain (2005) also showed that under certain conditions preoperational children can think rationally about mathematical and scientific tasks, and they are not always as egocentric as Piaget implied. Research on theory of mind (discussed later in the chapter) shows that some children overcome egocentrism by 4 or 5 years of age, which is sooner than Piaget indicated. As with sensorimotor development, Piaget seemed to be right about the exact sequence and the processes involved in cognitive development, as well as when these steps are typically observable under naturalistic conditions. But current research has provided more accurate estimates of the exact ages when underlying capacities emerge, which could only be revealed by working with children in specific experimental conditions that removed barriers to their performance.

Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory: Changes in Thought with Guidance

Figure 5.4. Lev Vygotsky

Modern social learning theories stem from the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who produced his ideas as a reaction to existing conflicting approaches in psychology (Kozulin, 1990). Vygotsky’s ideas are most recognized for identifying the role of social interactions and culture in the development of higher-order thinking skills. His theory is especially valuable for the insights it provides about the dynamic “interdependence between individual and social processes in the construction of knowledge” (John-Steiner & Mahn, 1996, p. 192). Vygotsky’s views are often considered primarily as developmental theories, focusing on qualitative changes in behavior over time, that attempt to explain unseen processes of development in thought, language, and higher-order thinking skills. Although Vygotsky’s intent was mainly to understand higher psychological processes in children, his ideas have many practical applications for learners of all ages.

Three themes are often identified with Vygotsky’s ideas of sociocultural learning: (1) human development and learning originate in social, historical, and cultural interactions, (2) the use of psychological tools, particularly language, mediates the  development of higher mental functions, and (3) learning occurs within the Zone of Proximal Development. While we discuss these ideas separately, they are closely interrelated.

Sociocultural theory. Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory emphasizes the importance of culture and social interaction in the development of cognitive abilities. Vygotsky contended that thinking has social origins, social interactions play a critical role especially in the development of higher-order thinking skills, and cognitive development cannot be fully understood without considering the social and historical context within which it is embedded. He explained, “Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological)” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 57). It is through working with others on a variety of tasks that a learner adopts socially shared experiences and associated effects and acquires useful strategies and knowledge (Scott & Palincsar, 2013).

Rogoff (1990) refers to this process as guided participation, where a learner actively acquires new culturally valuable skills and capabilities through a meaningful, collaborative activity with an assisting, more experienced other. It is critical to notice that these culturally mediated functions are viewed as being embedded in sociocultural activities rather than being self-contained. Development is a “transformation of participation in a sociocultural activity” not a transmission of discrete cultural knowledge or skills (Matusov, 2015, p. 315). For example, young children learn problem-solving skills, not by sitting alone at a desk trying to solve arbitrary problems, but by working alongside parents or older siblings as they work on actual culturally-relevant tasks, like preparing a family meal or repairing a fence. Working together, the dyad or group encounter social or physical problems, and discuss their possible solutions before taking action. Through participation in joint problem-solving, young children develop these skills.

Language as a developmental tool. In his sociocultural view of development, Vygotsky highlighted the tools that the culture provides to support the development of higher order thought. Chief among them is language. For Vygotsky, children interact with the world through the tool of language. For Piaget, children use schemas that they construct and organize on the mental plane, but for Vygotsky, language, a social medium, was the mechanism through which we build knowledge of the world. He believed that with development, the language we acquire from our environment shapes the ways in which we think and behave. With development, language becomes internalized as thought (i.e., cognition, or reasoning) and children use this internalized language to guide their action.

Scaffolding and the “Zone of Proximal Development.” Vygotsky differed with Piaget in that he believed that a person not only has a set of actual abilities, but also a set of potential abilities that can be realized if given the proper guidance from others. He believed that through guided participation known as scaffolding, with a teacher or capable peer, a child can learn cognitive skills within a certain range known as the zone of proximal development. Both Piaget and Vygotsky highlighted the importance of interactions with the social and physical world as the sources of developmental change, Piaget’s ideas of cognitive development emphasized universal stages progressing toward increasing cognitive complexity. Vygotsky presents a more culturally-embedded view in which situated participatory learning drives development. The idea of learning driving development, rather than being determined by the developmental level of the learner, fundamentally changes our understanding of the learning process and has significant instructional and educational implications (Miller, 2011).

Have you ever taught a child to perform a task? Maybe it was brushing their teeth or preparing food. Chances are you spoke to them and described what you were doing while you demonstrated the skill and let them work along with you throughout the process. You gave them assistance when they seemed to need it, but once they knew what to do, you stood back and let them go. This is scaffolding. This approach to teaching has also been adopted by educators. Rather than assessing students on what they are doing, they should be understood in terms of what they are capable of doing with the proper guidance and mentoring.

This difference in assumptions has significant implications for the design and development of learning experiences. If we believe as Piaget did that development precedes learning, then we will introduce children to learning activities involving new concepts and problems, but follow their lead, allowing learners to initiate participation when they are ready or interested. On the other hand, if we believe as Vygotsky did that learning drives development and that development occurs as we learn a variety of concepts and principles, recognizing their applicability to new tasks and new situations, then our instructional design will look very different.

Section Glossary

Scaffolding: a process in which adults or capable peers model or demonstrate how to solve a problem, and then step back, offering support as needed.

Sociocultural Theory: Vygotsky’s theory that emphasizes how cognitive development proceeds as a result of social interactions between members of a culture, and relies on cultural tools like language.

Zone of Proximal Development: what a learner can do with help from more competent others; sits in the gap between what a learner can do alone without help, and what the learner cannot yet do.

Theory of Mind

Theory of mind refers to the ability to think about other people’s thoughts (also known as meta-cognition—that is, thinking about thinking). Theory of mind is the understanding that other people experience mental states (for instance, thoughts, beliefs, feelings, or desires) that are different from our own, and that their mental states are what guide their behavior. This skill, which emerges in early childhood, helps humans to infer, predict, and understand the reactions of others, thus playing a crucial role in social development and in promoting competent social interactions.

One common method for determining if a child has reached this mental milestone is called the false belief task. The research began with a clever experiment by Wimmer and Perner (1983), who tested whether children can pass a false-belief test (see Figure 5.5). The child is shown a picture story of Sally, who puts her ball in a basket and leaves the room. While Sally is out of the room, Anne comes along and takes the ball from the basket and puts it inside a box. The child is then asked where Sally thinks the ball is located when she comes back to the room. Is she going to look first in the box or in the basket? The right answer is that she will look in the basket, because that is where she put it and thinks it is; but we have to infer this false belief against our own better knowledge that the ball is in the box. This is very difficult for children before the age of four because of the cognitive effort it takes.

Three-year-olds have difficulty distinguishing between what they once thought was true and what they now know to be true. They feel confident that what they know now is what they have always known (Birch & Bloom, 2003). You could say that their perspectives are fused: whatever is actually true is what they and everyone else thinks. Even adults need to think through this task (Epley, Morewedge, & Keysar, 2004). To be successful at solving this type of task, the child must separate three things: (1) what is true; (2) what they themselves think (which can be false); and (3) what someone else thinks (which can be different from what they think as well as different from reality). Can you see why this task is so complex?

Figure 5.5. Sally–Anne task to test children’s ability to infer false beliefs.

In Piagetian terms, children must give up a tendency toward egocentrism. The child must also understand that what guides people’s actions and responses are what they believe rather than what is actually true. In other words, people can mistakenly believe things that are false (called false beliefs) and will act based on this false knowledge. Consequently, prior to age four children are rarely successful at solving such tasks (Wellman, Cross & Watson, 2001).

Researchers examining the development of theory of mind have been concerned by the overemphasis on the mastery of false belief as the primary measure of whether a child has attained theory of mind. Two-year-olds understand the diversity of desires, yet as noted earlier it is not until age four or five that children grasp false beliefs, and often not until middle childhood do they understand that people may hide how they really feel. In part, because children’s understanding is fused: in early childhood children do not differentiate genuine feelings from the expression of feelings. They have difficulty hiding how they really feel (e.g., saying thank you for a gift they do not really like). Wellman and his colleagues (Wellman, Fang, Liu, Zhu & Liu, 2006) suggest that theory of mind is comprised of a number of components, each with its own developmental timeline (see Table 5.1).

Table 5.1 Components of Theory of Mind

Stage, Component Description
Desire Psychology (ages 2-3)
Diverse-desires Understanding that two people may have different desires regarding the same object.
Belief Psychology (ages 3 or 4 to 5)
Diverse-beliefs Understanding that two people may hold different beliefs about an object.
Knowledge access (knowledge/ignorance) Understanding that people may or may not have access to information.
False belief Understanding that someone might hold a belief based on false information.

adapted from Lally & Valentine-French, 2019

Those in early childhood in the US, Australia, and Germany develop theory of mind in the sequence outlined in Table 4.2. Yet, Chinese and Iranian preschoolers acquire knowledge access before diverse beliefs (Shahaeian, Peterson, Slaughter & Wellman, 2011). Shahaeian and colleagues suggested that cultural differences in child-rearing may account for this reversal. Parents in collectivistic cultures, such as China and Iran, emphasize conformity to the family and cultural values, greater respect for elders, and the acquisition of knowledge and academic skills more than they do autonomy and social skills (Frank, Plunkett & Otten, 2010). This could reduce the degree of familial conflict of opinions expressed in the family. In contrast, individualistic cultures encourage children to think for themselves and assert their own opinion, and this could increase the risk of conflict in beliefs being expressed by family members. As a result, children in individualistic cultures would acquire insight into the question of diversity of belief earlier, while children in collectivistic cultures would acquire knowledge access earlier in the sequence. The role of conflict in aiding the development of theory of mind may account for the earlier age of onset of an understanding of false belief in children with siblings, especially older siblings (McAlister & Petersen, 2007; Perner, Ruffman & Leekman, 1994).

This awareness of the existence of theory of mind is part of social intelligence, such as recognizing that others can think differently about situations. It helps us to be self-conscious or aware that others can think of us in different ways and it helps us to be able to be understanding or be empathic toward others. Moreover, this “mind reading” ability helps us to anticipate and predict people’s actions. The awareness of the mental states of others is important for communication and social skills.

Language Development

The development of symbolic representation during the second year of life leads to an explosion of language growth during toddlerhood and early childhood.

Vocabulary growth. Between the ages of two to six, a child’s vocabulary expands  from about 200 words to over 10,000 words. This “vocabulary spurt” typically involves 10-20 new words per week and is accomplished through a process called fast-mapping. Words are easily learned by making connections between new words and concepts already known. The parts of speech that are learned depend on the language and what is emphasized. Children speaking verb-friendly languages, such as Chinese and Japanese, learn verbs more readily, while those speaking English tend to learn nouns more readily. at the same time, children learning less verb-friendly languages, such as English, seem to need assistance in grammar to master the use of verbs (Imai et al., 2008).

Literal meanings. Children can repeat words and phrases after having heard them only once or twice, but they do not always understand the meaning of the words or phrases. This is especially true of expressions or figures of speech which are taken literally. For example, a classroom full of preschoolers hears the teacher say, “Wow! That was a piece of cake!” The children may begin asking “Cake? Where is my cake? I want cake!” Or when a young child falls down and scrapes her knee, and she hears a parent say “Oh your poor knee” as they put on a band-aid, the parent should not be surprised if, when the child falls down and scapes an elbow, she shows it to the parent and says– “Oh, man, I got another knee.”

Overregularization. Children learn rules of grammar as they learn language but may apply these rules inappropriately at first. For instance, a child learns to add “ed” to the end of a word to indicate past tense. Then forms a sentence such as “I goed there. I doed that.” This is typical at ages two and three. Even without any correction, those mistakes will soon disappear, and they will learn new words such as “went” and “did” to be used in those situations.

The impact of training. Remember Vygotsky and the Zone of Proximal Development? Children can be assisted in learning language by others who listen attentively, model more accurate pronunciations and encourage elaboration. The child exclaims, “I’m goed there!” and the adult responds, “You went there? Where did you go?” No corrections are needed. Children may be ripe for language as Chomsky suggests, but active participation in helping them learn is important for language development as well. The process of scaffolding is one in which the guide provides needed assistance to the child as a new skill is learned.


Although monolingual speakers often do not realize it, the majority of children around the world are bilingual, meaning that they understand and use two languages (Meyers-Sutton, 2005). Even in the United States, which is a relatively monolingual society, more than 60 million people (21%) speak a language other than English at home (Camarota & Zeigler, 2014; Ryan, 2013). Children who are dual language learners are one of the fastest growing populations in the United States (Hammer et al., 2014). They make up nearly 30% of children enrolled in early childhood programs, like Head Start. By the time they enter school, they are very heterogeneous in their language and literacy skills, with some children showing delays in proficiency in either one or both languages (Hammer et al., 2014). Hoff (2018) reports language competency is dependent on the quantity, quality, and opportunity to use a language. Dual language learners may hear the same number of words and phrases (quantity) overall, as do monolingual children, but it is split between two languages (Hoff, 2018). Thus, in any single language they may be exposed to fewer words. They will show higher expressive and receptive skills in the language they come to hear the most.

In addition, the quality of the languages spoken to the child may differ in bilingual versus monolingual families. Place and Hoff (2016) found that for many immigrant children in the United States, most of the English heard was spoken by a non-native speaker of the language. Finally, many children in bilingual households will sometimes avoid using the family’s heritage language in favor of the majority language (DeHouwer, 2007, Hoff, 2018). A common pattern in Spanish-English homes, is for the parents to speak to the child in Spanish, but for the child to respond in English. As a result, children may show little difference in the receptive skills between English and Spanish, but better expressive skills in English (Hoff, 2018).

There are several studies that have documented the advantages of learning more than one language in childhood for cognitive executive function skills. Bilingual children consistently outperform monolinguals on measures of inhibitory control, such as ignoring irrelevant information (Bialystok, Martin & Viswanathan, 2005). Studies also reveal an advantage for bilingual children on measures of verbal working memory (Kaushanskaya, Gross, & Buac, 2014; Yoo & Kaushanskaya, 2012) and non-verbal working memory (Bialystok, 2011). However, it has been reported that among lower SES populations the working memory advantage is not always found (Bonifacci, Giombini, Beloocchi, & Conteno, 2011).

There is also considerable research to show that being bilingual, either as a child or an adult, leads to greater efficiency in the word learning process. Monolingual children are strongly influenced by the mutual-exclusivity bias, the assumption that an object has only a single name (Kaushanskaya, Gross, & Buac, 2014). For example, a child who has previously learned the word car, may be confused when this object is referred to as an automobile or sedan. Research shows that monolingual children find it easier to learn the name of a new object, than acquiring a new name for a previously labelled object. In contrast, bilingual children and adults show little difficulty with either task (Kaushanskaya & Marian, 2009). This finding may be explained by the experience bilinguals have in translating between languages when referring to familiar objects.

Educational programs should take advantage of the preschool years as a time when children are developmentally primed to learn more than one language. The practice in the US of waiting until middle or high school to learn a second language flies in the face of the natural developmental progression of language learning. Systematic instruction, practice, reading, and writing in multiple languages would allow young children to become bilingual and bi-literate during a developmental period when that is relatively easy. That is why many school districts offer immersion programs in multiple languages starting in preschool or Kindergarten. School districts who serve many children who speak first languages other than English can take advantage of their skills and support bilingualism in all their pupils.

Early Childhood Education

Providing universal preschool has become an important lobbying point for federal, state, and local leaders throughout our country. In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama called upon congress to provide high quality preschool for all children. He continued to support universal preschool in his legislative agenda, and in December 2014 the President convened state and local policymakers for the White House Summit on Early Education (White House Press Secretary, 2014). However, universal preschool covering all four-year olds in the country would require significant funding. Further, how effective preschools are in preparing children for elementary school, and what constitutes high quality preschool have been debated.

To set criteria for designation as a high-quality preschool, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) identifies 10 standards (NAEYC, 2016). These include:

  • Positive and caring relationships among all children and adults are promoted.
  • The curriculum supports learning and development in social, emotional, physical, language, and cognitive areas.
  • Teaching approaches are developmentally, culturally, and linguistically attuned.
  • Children’s progress is assessed to provide information on their learning and development.
  • Children’s health and nutrition are promoted, while they are protected from illness and injury.
  • Teachers possess the educational qualifications, knowledge, and commitment to promote children’s learning.
  • Collaborative relationships with families are established and maintained.
  • Relationships with agencies and institutions in the children’s communities are established to support the program’s goals.
  • Indoor and outdoor physical environments are safe and well-maintained.
  • Leadership and management personnel are well qualified, effective, and maintain licensure status with the applicable state agency.

Parents should review preschool programs using criteria such as those set by NAEYC as a guide and template for asking questions that will assist them in choosing the best program for their child. Selecting the right preschool is also difficult because there are so many types of preschools available. Zachry (2013) identified Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, High Scope, Parent Co-Ops and Bank Street as types of preschool programs, approaches, and curricula that focus on children learning through discovery. Teachers act as guides and create activities based on the child’s developmental level.

Figure 5.6. Four year old head start students

Head Start. For children who live in poverty, Head Start has been providing preschool education since 1965 when it was begun by President Lyndon Johnson as part of his war on poverty. It currently serves nearly one million children and annually costs approximately 7.5 billion dollars (United States Department of Health and Human Services, 2015). However, concerns about the effectiveness of Head Start have been ongoing since the program began. Armor (2015) reviewed existing research on Head Start and found there were no lasting gains, and the average child in Head Start had not learned more than children who did not receive preschool education. One study showed that 3-and 4-year-old children in Head Start received “potentially positive effects” on general reading achievement, but no noticeable effects on math achievement and social-emotional development (Barshay, 2015).

Nonexperimental designs are a significant problem in determining the effectiveness of Head Start programs because a control group is needed to show group differences that would demonstrate educational benefits. Because of ethical reasons, low income children are usually provided with some type of pre-school programming in an alternative setting. Additionally, Head Start programs are different depending on the location, and these differences include the length of the day or qualification of the teachers. Lastly, testing young children is difficult and strongly dependent on their language skills and comfort level with an evaluator (Barshay, 2015).

Despite the challenges in researching the effectiveness of Head Start, the social and economic benefits of investing in universal preschool cannot be overstated. This is especially true for preschool programs that serve disadvantaged children and communities. Researchers and economists have estimated that investing in the cost of Head Start for a single child—about $17,000—can yield a return to society of between $300,000 and $500,000 over that child’s lifetime (Heckman et al., 2010). This substantial economic return (potentially saving our society billions of dollars in the long run) comes in the form of lower high school dropout rates, lower unemployment rates, and lower rates of incarceration—all of which have been documented for individuals who had academic and social supports during early childhood (Heckman et al., 2010). Similar to the concept of preventative healthcare, the benefits of investing in early education for children in poor or underserved communities today will add up over time, and will yield greater societal benefits than we would expect from programs that implement interventions after problems emerge (for example, remedial schooling, job re-training, or substance abuse rehabilitation; Heckman, 2006).

Supplemental Materials

  • This Ted Talk features a seasoned school teacher, who discusses the importance of building strong and positive relationships with students.

  • This Ted Talk given by queer educator, Lindsay Amer, discusses why kids need to learn about gender and sexuality.

  • This website offers queer educator, Lindsay Amer’s teaching videos and resources to educate kids about gender and sexuality.

  • This study explores maternal involvement in the preschool years for Black families across three generations.

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OER Attribution:

“Lifespan Development: A Psychological Perspective, Second Edition” by Martha Lally and Suzanne Valentine-French is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA-3.0 / additional written material by Ellen Skinner & Eli Labinger, Portland State University is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA-4.0

Lifespan Development by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Video Attributions:

Every kid needs a champion by TED is licensed CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0

Why kids need to learn about gender and sexuality by TED is licensed CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0

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