Close to 3,000 athletes will be competing in 15 different sporting events at the winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, but there is one thing virtually all of us have in common: We didn’t make it here overnight.
Many of us began our journeys as young children with caring coaches and mentors who guided us every step of the way. Now, as a volunteer who works on a variety of efforts to help children become better students, I recognize how important it is for all children to develop key social skills in their early years.
Which brings me to a topic that’s getting a lot of attention at this moment: a plan to make quality preschool available to 4-year-olds across the nation. It’s known as the bipartisan Strong Start for America’s Children Act because it will give millions of children the foundation for long-term academic achievement.
While much of the discussion about this legislation has focused on preschool as a precursor to math and literacy skills, I personally gravitate to the behavioral impacts. As an athlete who began the pursuit of my Olympic dream years ago, I know my success has been driven by my ability to focus and maintain self-control, to be patient but persistent in the effort to develop new skills, and to listen and respond effectively to the counsel of my coaches.
High quality preschool experiences can develop these abilities as well. In the best programs, experienced teachers help children learn self-regulation and other social skills by routinely praising them for asking permission to do things. They also ensure children become accustomed to standing in line to wait their turn and not grabbing things from others. These experiences enable them to become better listeners, control their impulses and work as part of a group.
The best preschools also offer parents voluntary guidance on how to teach social skills by focusing more on reinforcing positive behaviors than punishing negative behaviors. These are skills that can last a lifetime — and they’re all vital for doing well in school.
A recent evaluation of Pennsylvania’s high quality "Pre-K Counts" program showed the portion of participating 3-year-olds at risk for problematic social and self-control behavior fell from about 22 percent at the start of the program to just 3.6 percent by the program’s end.
Those of us who are especially concerned about closing the achievement gap should also look to recent studies in several states, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, North Carolina, Michigan and the city program in Boston. While each study measured different outcomes, they found a range of benefits, including a lower need for special education, a lower likelihood of being held back a grade, and higher math, literacy and language skills that persisted well into the elementary school years.
Recent research also dispels the myth that these benefits "fade out" over time. A study of New Jersey’s high-quality state preschool program, which served thousands of low- and moderate-income families, found participating children significantly outperformed non-participating children in kindergarten, second grade, and now in the fourth and fifth grades.
Unfortunately, Utah is one of nine states that have no universal preschool program, which means working families must either pay as much as $6,000 a year for private preschool or depend on Head Start, which only serves about 8 percent of our 4-year-olds.
The good news is that if the Strong Start legislation is implemented and fully funded it will provide states with significant resources to create, strengthen and expand preschool programs. Even better – states are in the driver’s seat when it comes to developing their programs. Utah could ensure its program has experienced teachers, small classes and other qualities that have a proven impact on success.
Emily Cook is a freestyle skier competing in the Sochi Winter Olympics. She trains in Park City.
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