Reframing the First Day of School


I’ll never forget Aug. 27, 2000. That was the day my daughter, Lily, marched off to kindergarten to take advantage of her free and appropriate public education.

When the big day arrived, never had I appreciated the power of the phrase “in loco parentis” so strongly nor realized the magnitude of the struggle our forefathers faced with the implementation of nationwide compulsory education. 

My husband and I helped our daughter locate her small desk, took a photo, feigned a smile and departed — both of us reduced to tears before making it from the kindergarten door to the school parking lot.

Rebecca ShoreRebecca Shore is the author of Baby Teacher: Nurturing Neural Networks From Birth Age to Age Five. Photo by Tod Carleson

My reaction surprised me. I was an older mom with a 20-year career in education and three university degrees in the field. Our daughter had experienced several years in preschool programs prior to kindergarten and we didn’t take first-day photos at those. I knew full well the first years of formal schooling were not the first years of learning for her, even though most of her earliest educators were actually called “caregivers” instead of teachers. Later I realized the parental trauma brought on by that first day of kindergarten was actually an indication of the depth of the embedded nature of a longtime tradition in this country, the notion that the earliest years of what is considered formal schooling has typically begun with kindergarten.

The Real Gap
Within our nation’s school systems, sometime between kindergarten and secondary education, a wide variation appears among the achievement levels of different children. The learning gap between high-achieving high schoolers and dropouts is certainly no secret to educators. Huge sums of federal funds and foundation support have been injected into K-12 education in an attempt to bridge the learning gap. From the Annenberg Foundation’s millions to the billions attached to Title I, from whole-school restructuring efforts to class-size reductions, from two decades of effective schools research to the Blue Ribbon Schools, Goals 2000 and generous Gates Foundation money, no simple solution has surfaced for bridging this gap and leaving no child behind.

How can so much hard work, so much money and the best of intentions fail to produce some kind of best practices that work for educating all of our children? Why have we been unable to close the learning gap?

Perhaps the paradigm of when the early years of schooling begin has blinded school reformers. Research has shown that if children are experiencing failure in their schoolwork by the end of 3rd grade, they rarely catch up with their more successful peers. In fact, we see tremendous gaps between high-achieving kindergarteners and many other kindergarteners who struggle to identify colors and shapes. This kindergarten gap grows with each child at each grade level, becoming a serious learning gap. Perhaps the answer to bridging the learning gap lies not in asking the question “How do children learn?” but reframing it as “When do children learn?”

Neurological Answers
Technological advancements and the relatively new field of cognitive neuroscience are helping to shine a bright light on the learning problem. Positron emission tomography scans and functional magnetic resonance imaging are helping us to answer this more critical and promising question of when children learn, and the implications are startling. The earliest years of life, before a free and appropriate education is available, appear to hold the key to learning.

Neurologists claim we never have more brain cells than when we are newborn. Brain cells are estimated in excess of 100 billion, creating over 1,000 trillion synaptic contact points — a number greater than all of the stars and planets in all of the galaxies. One important type of brain cell is the neuron. The primary role of neurons is to take in data from the outside world, make sense of it and adapt the organism to it. It is the brain that determines if you are hot or cold, happy or sad. How does it do this?

Upon receiving information from the outside environment, neurons are stimulated to communicate with other neurons. When the information transfers from one neuron to another, it is called a synapse. This is the magical moment of truth on a cellular level for educators. When neurons are repeatedly stimulated to communicate, neural networks are formed in the brain.

Our primary goal in education is to increase the number of synapses in the brains of our students to form complex neural networks, creating a broad base of neural circuitry upon which high-level thinking later will be built.

Some neurons already are networked at birth. We do not have to teach a baby to breath or cry and we do not have to teach their hearts to beat. Most functions associated with survival are already hard-wired at birth. These critical networks are housed in the lower brain just at the top of the spine.

However, the majority of the neural networking that will take place in a child’s brain will happen as a result of the stimulation or deprivation it receives from the environment in which the child spends his or her first few years of life. In fact, between the moment of conception and that first day of kindergarten, the brain develops at a pace that exceeds any other in a person’s life.

Making Jell-O
Researchers tell us the texture of the less-networked baby’s brain resembles yogurt, while an older child’s is more the consistency of Jell-O. As a baby experiences all of the wonders of life outside the womb, its neurons communicate and neural networks form and expand. It is the networking of neurons that helps to change the brain’s consistency from yogurt to Jell-O. If we shake Jell-O, it wiggles and jiggles but retains its form. Shaken yogurt, on the other hand, can break up, never to regain its original shape. Consider the Shaken Baby Syndrome. It can be fatal to shake a very young child or cause severe, irreparable brain damage.

This consistency matter has implications for new learning as well. Neurons are ready and waiting to connect and the young brain can rise to what would seem to be extraordinarily high expectations, given an enriched environment. For example, if a baby is born into a home that is bi-lingual or even tri-lingual, neurons will naturally communicate and produce a multilingual toddler. Later after the brain’s foundational networking is laid, it becomes more difficult to learn new things. (Try teaching two new languages to a 16-year-old.)

Likewise, if a child is born into an environment in which complex sentence structure is the norm, and this is the language level used for communicating with the child, that child will typically develop a much more advanced vocabulary and stronger language skills than a child raised in a less-enriched language environment. Important implications for our education system result as a consequence of this research — that is, these more advanced language skills usually last a lifetime.

Open Windows
Around the age of 10, or the onset of puberty, the brain “cleans house,” so to speak. It prunes itself of many unneeded neurons. Once children approach adolescence, the body begins preparing itself for reproduction and hormones race throughout the system. The brain is still flexible and capable of new learning, but adult learning does not compare in speed to the formation of the fertile mind of a young child. So why is the brain of an adult bigger and heavier than that of a baby when a baby has more neurons? It is a consequence of the neural networking.

Magnetic imaging scans and other improved technology have provided a clearer window for researchers looking into the live brain, revealing critical windows of opportunity for teaching young children. The earliest years of learning not only matter, they appear to matter the most! In fact, many neurologists estimate the brain is anywhere from 80 percent to 95 percent “set up” by the time a child arrives at the kindergarten door. And some of this early wiring can have a lifetime of influence on a child’s future learning potential.

Steve Pinker, a linguist at Harvard University, says children who do not hear proper grammar regularly in their environment between the ages of 2 and 4 can diagram sentences every day of their K-12 school lives, yet it’s still unlikely these youngsters will ever develop proper grammatical habits of their own. Again, the costs saved by earlier language arts instruction could significantly reduce problems associated with language skills later on, preventing a lifetime of humiliation and discrimination for someone with less-sophisticated language skills.

Clearly, a long-range solution to school reform and the learning problem must begin years earlier than kindergarten and probably with conception. Our present system resembles building a skyscraper and, after completion, trying to move all the restrooms from one side of the building to the other. How much easier, more practical and cost effective to design the plumbing system for several possibilities in the blueprint stage? Perhaps the gap that needs bridging is actually the one between conception and the kindergarten door.

A Timing Issue
Put on your most preposterous imaginative thinking cap and consider this analogy: Imagine a country just getting started that is under-populated. The leaders of this country realize the critical importance of propagating the citizenry and the species and decide to take action. They set up free reproduction schools for women designed specifically to reach the goal of increasing the population of the country as fast as possible. Their mission? Educate to procreate!

However, since the work of the young women is critical to their growing economy and young women are far more productive in the workforce than elderly women, they decide to wait until the women are older to enroll them in the reproduction school. Education becomes compulsory for women at the age of 50; at that time they all are sent to reproduction school for 12 years. When they graduate at the age of 62, their exit examination is to bear a child. This school system, the nation’s leaders believe, will ensure a quick increase in population.

Sure, there is a child or two born to the women in the schools, but overall, the schools fail in their purpose. Reform after reform comes and goes in an effort to fix these reproduction schools. The curriculum is revised, class sizes are reduced, and requirements for teachers are increased. Still, few of the 62-year-olds are able to bear children when they graduate. Policymakers are baffled. They blame the teachers. Teachers work harder and harder, and more and more money and resources are injected into the system, but there is no noticeable improvement. Teachers blame the students. Students blame their parents. Everyone works harder and harder, but no significant increases in childbearing are seen.

Had the country considered making its schools for 15-year-olds instead of 50-year-olds, no doubt it would have enjoyed considerably more success. Like a gold prospector who digs and digs in search of the mother lode, if he is but a foot away from the vein, it doesn’t matter how deep he digs. It doesn’t matter how technologically advanced his equipment becomes or how much capital he spends on new and improved diggers. He won’t find gold unless he considers changing his boundaries.

Three Acts
So what is a community to do with this information? Educate, communicate and advocate.

First, we all need to educate ourselves about how the brain learns. There are several publications in print now that make this learning simple to understand and practical for educators and parents to use. A deeper understanding of the inner workings of the brain and the dramatic implications for how and when we educate our children will only help us in our present roles, whatever they may be.

After we have educated ourselves, we must teach children all about their own brains and how they learn best. Adding a little brain science to the curriculum of our schools will give children the tools they truly need to become lifelong learners. Teaching them habits of mind that facilitate learning is as important as teaching them social studies and math. Healthy brains maintain healthy bodies and brain care is a critical piece of all other curricula.

Second, we need to recognize the study of the brain and how learning occurs likely will lead us beyond the playgrounds of our schools and into the infant/toddler rooms of our community daycare programs. Become familiar with organizations such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children and with the issues facing this important group of educators. Share information with colleagues and especially the parents of children with younger siblings in your schools and neighborhoods. Imbue in them the importance of reading to their children daily, speaking directly to them using complex sentence structure and enriching their earliest childhood environments in a variety of ways.

Third, we need to find out what our state is doing (or not doing) on behalf of the youngest students and then act legislatively to improve the quality and availability of the important early childcare settings. The North Carolina Smart Start initiative (www.SmartStart-NC.org) is one nationally recognized partnership for children that brings together a multitude of services for youngsters within a county structure. Assessments of this effort show that Smart Start participants have higher school-readiness scores than any other group. Child-care professionals are significantly better educated, more experienced and better paid than when the program began. There is also evidence of less turnover among early childhood teachers, and parents from the parent-support group are much better informed.

Baby Teachers
When do children become students? The answer is before they are born. Bonita Bloodworth, former principal of Hurley Elementary School in Salisbury, N.C., said she couldn’t afford to wait for the opening day of kindergarten to affect the lives of her pupils. “After reading the brain research on early learning, we realized that if we really wanted to help our families prepare their children for kindergarten, we had to go to the maternity wards,” Bloodworth said. “We formed a group of parent volunteers and took school bags to every new mom leaving the local hospital. The bags included lots of information for them and board books to read to their babies. This is a way we help enrich our learning community and foster kindergarten readiness.”

A century ago, a high school education was not considered part of a free and appropriate public education. It was intended for the college-bound elite. The sons of doctors, lawyers and the clergy were generally the only students fortunate enough to get special training beyond the 8th grade, and it usually came about because their parents could afford it. The same rigorous battle that made compulsory education a reality in the first place was waged again to provide a free high school education for the daughters of machinists and farmers, plumbers and painters.

Today, new knowledge is confronting us once again with a similar paradigm problem. A truly seamless free and appropriate education for all children should begin where learning is perhaps the most important of all, on the maternity ward. Only through redefining our educational boundaries can we expect to close the gap in student learning.

Rebecca Shore is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the author of Baby Teacher: Nurturing Neural Networks From Birth to Age Five. E-mail: rshore6@uncc.edu