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Setting expectations from the start: How early education gets children ready for college and career

January 29, 2013

By Merle Froschl and Barbara Sprung, FHI 360 Co-Directors, Educational Equity

In our twenty-plus years working on equity, we’ve always recognized the importance of communicating early and to all children the expectation that they will go to college, they will have a career and they will succeed.

To describe the connection between what happens in early childhood education to later school and career opportunities, Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada uses the image of a conveyer belt. If children can climb onboard early, momentum helps carry them to the next stage. We refer to the educational journey as a continuum, from birth through pre-K, elementary, middle and high school, then college and the world of work.

For instance, children use dramatic play to understand the adult world, including future job and career options. Pre-K students might have a dress-up area that includes props and clothes associated with college and career: lab coats, stethoscopes, college T-shirts, conductors’ wands, microphones, computer keyboards, flight suits and police badges, to name a few. Importantly, both girls and boys should be expected to wear these costumes so their options are not limited by gender stereotypes.

Likewise, pre-K educators have an opportunity to think carefully about visitors who represent a variety of community and career roles.

Early childhood curricula should also include materials that are culturally familiar to students. A culturally relevant curriculum communicates tacitly to all children that science, math and reading are for them — that academic skills are part of their everyday lives.

Parents also are essential in conveying that learning and achievement are important. Although early childhood educators say it a lot, the adage is no less true: parents are their child’s first teachers. For example, case studies1 show that parents do math with their kids more than they think: they calculate how much something costs or they demonstrate how to adjust a recipe.

More and more, brain development research affirms that interacting with a child, reading aloud, engaging in conversation, working math and science games into household chores and simply asking children thought-provoking questions help make them lifelong learners. We, as educators and as a society, need to help parents of all socioeconomic backgrounds understand that their role as teachers is critical.

Young children don’t need to be drilled or confined to desks with worksheets. Instead, we advocate playful, interactive, hands-on and minds-on strategies to get children to see themselves as college- and career-bound and to help them settle in comfortably on that continuum to success.

1 Goldman S, Booker A. Making math a definition of the situation: families as sites for mathematical practices. Anthropology Education Quarterly. 2002;40(4):369-87.