PORTLAND – After 35 years as an early childhood educator, imagine my delight in hearing President Obama put universal preschool on the policy agenda during his State of the Union speech. Since then, everybody is talking about 4-year-olds! But what is the bottom line on all that is whirling and swirling around preschool in the U.S.?

Let’s put the large research studies (about whether preschool is beneficial in the long term) aside for a moment.

Anyone who has spent time in preschool classrooms, whatever the funding source (state, federal or private), knows that quality varies. There are very good and very bad programs; most of them are in the middle. Here’s what matters most: the relationships between the children and their teachers and the concurrent use of a research-based curriculum.

First and foremost, it’s always about relationships — between teacher and child, between teacher and family and between the children themselves.

You don’t “teach” the social-emotional component first and then science or math or literacy. It is all wrapped up in strong relationships.

Those of us lucky enough to have been raised in high-resource homes and exposed to rich language and literature now build our own children’s knowledge, self-worth and ability to get along with others in our homes every day.  

We don’t point out the bird perched on the branch and discuss why it hasn’t flown south for the winter, borrow a book on nonmigratory birds from the library (defining “perched” and “nonmigratory” along the way) and think, “I am providing vocabulary and background knowledge for my child to be successful in school.” 

We do it because that’s what you do in a relationship with a child. You talk about his world. You answer her questions. You provide experiences.

Guess what? It turns out that after all those years of talking, reading and listening, our children are ready to follow directions, play with others, solve problems and learn to read and write when they get to school. When they sound out the word “perched” in a third-grade science text, they will have had many experiences that will lead to comprehension.

Thanks to good research in early language, literacy, numeracy and parent-child relationships, we know what happens when children do not have these experiences in their years before elementary school.

We know the achievement gap begins at least two to three years before kindergarten. We know that if we aren’t intentional about forming relationships with children in their first five years, they will not be “reading by third grade,” the recent benchmark that has received so much media attention.

So what do we do about preschool children who don’t get these experiences at home?

First, we need teachers who understand how to form relationships. The good news is most early childhood educators are skilled in that realm.

Second, we need teachers with solid language skills who are literate themselves and who understand the building blocks of early literacy and numeracy.

Third, we need a curriculum. For children at risk, it is no longer enough to set up the classroom, plan curriculum day to day or week to week and hope that children will interact and acquire the skills they will need for success in school.

Teachers need a research-based curriculum that, when implemented well and within the context of relationships, demonstrates measurable changes in knowledge and skill and closes (or significantly decreases) the achievement gap before kindergarten.

To do this, we need teachers who understand instruction. How do we help children learn about their world in the most efficient ways? How do we explain why the snow is melting and what makes a shadow, and then expand children’s thinking using thoughtful and well-placed questions?

How do we make sure that children are gaining in their development of phonological awareness (the ability to hear the sounds of language), a critical precursor to learning to read?

How do we use “big words” and expand children’s vocabulary every day in the books we read and the conversations we have with them?

Our time with children in preschool is limited. Every part of every day must be intentional and exploited for maximum learning. In addition, we need to communicate what we are doing to families so they can continue our work at home. Oh, did I mention it all needs to be fun and engaging for children?

Finally, when children leave preschool, we need early elementary teachers to make sure they continue to move children forward so there won’t be “fade-out” by third grade.

Want to see the bottom line in action in some of our preschools in Maine? Contact me and I’ll personally show you what it takes to make a difference.

Sue Reed (email: [email protected] usm.maine.edu) is a social and behavioral sciences instructor at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.