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Does My 3-Year-Old Really Need Preschool?

The following was syndicated from The Good-Bad Dad for The Fatherly Forum, a community of parents and influencers with insights about work, family, and life. If you’d like to join the Forum, drop us a line at TheForum@Fatherly.com.

To VPK or not to VPK?

That is the question for many parents trying to evaluate the relative value of placing our toddler into a formal preschool program for the upcoming school year.

Up to this point, our little ones are left only to us to mold. So, while a preschool decision could be considered minor, there is a lot of emotion-filled aspects to consider.

At about this time last year, my wife and I decided we’d be sending our then, soon-to-be 3-year-old to a full-day program the following year.

When my wife proposed the idea, I asked 2 questions:

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“Isn’t he too young to start ‘real’ school?”and “Does pre-K even work?”

The first question is a result of both ignorance and shock – for having to evaluate the mental fortitude of a child that, at the time, was hit-or-miss on the potty.

The second question, however, mattered to me. In my mind, if we were going through the effort of having our little one attend, I needed to understand the return to expect.

I do not remember my wife’s answer that day (it might have been, “you’re just cheap!”), but I can answer the question myself now.

Does pre-K work?

It depends.

And, it does not depend on your child, but on your own definition of what “working” means.

What Preschool Is Not

If you are looking for the first punch for your child’s ticket to a full-ride scholarship at an Ivy League university, preschool is not the answer.

In fact, most studies are hazy about the long-term correlation between attending preschool and future academic achievement.

The TN-VPK Effectiveness Study, published in 2015, concluded:

By the end of kindergarten, however, the children who did not attend VPK had caught up and there were no longer significant differences between the 2 groups.

By second grade, the academic performance of both groups of children had flattened out and began to lag below national norms. The latest round of results shows that this trend has continued through the third grade. Moreover, by the end of second grade and continuing in third, the children who attended TN-VPK are not performing as well on many of the achievement measures as the comparable children who did not attend VPK.

Other studies have, at least partly, contradicted this unexpected result – drawing conclusions about other factors (state funding levels and poverty rates) contributing to the dampened achievement data for VPK attendees over time.

No matter what study, no matter the empirical data anyone points to, it is clear that attending preschool is not a prerequisite for a future valedictorian.

What Preschool Is

Attending preschool is a leap into the pool of institutionalized education for our little ones.

The teachers are legit, the work is designed to enforce skills that a curriculum has deemed appropriate and us parents are required to sit on the sideline – for the first time for most of us, we relinquish control of our little one’s day.

The same studies that show flattened achievement over time, do acknowledge social benefits for preschoolers. Namely, all studies indicate that attending pre-K does ease the initial transition to Kindergarten.

So, again, does preschool work?

The answer is a resounding “Yes”, if:

  • Your toddler needs more than what he/she is getting at home.
  • Your kid will freak out (not just the normal tears – something deeper) when the time comes for Kindergarten.
  • You don’t mind losing a bit of control.

The answer is “No”, if:

  • Your measure of success is future Gifted Program admission.
  • The experience your toddler is getting at home is sufficient.
  • Your only worry is that he/she will be behind if they’re not attending.

The answer is yours – preschool has to work for you.

Now 100 days into my son’s preschool experience, I wouldn’t change a thing – preschool has worked for my family.

Whether it will work for your budding genius is up to you. After all, you know something that no study, no neighbor, no parenting expert does.

You know your child, and they are all that matters.

Tobin is a husband and father of 5. Tobin’s rambunctious family life provides ample opportunities for thoughtful pieces about fatherhood. Check out his writing at goodbaddad.com.