Why the Preschool “Academic vs. Social-Emotional” Debate is Wrong

If you’re interested in early childhood education, family engagement, or children’s mental health, you need to pay attention to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) this week.

The study is an evaluation of ParentCorps, an intervention program that trains preschool teachers to support children’s social emotional skills and implement an evidence-based social emotional curriculum, while also working with parents of preschool children.

The results are impressive: By 2nd grade, children who participated in ParentCorps had fewer mental health problems and better academic achievement than preschoolers who did not participate. I’ve been fortunate over the past few years to learn more about ParentCorps through my work with the Stranahan Foundation, one of several foundations supporting the model’s expansion in New York City preschool programs.

The JAMA study is important for several reasons:

First, it illustrates the connection between children’s academic success, social-emotional development, and mental health. Most interventions that have been widely research focused on either academic outcomes or indicators of children’s mental health and well-being. In doing so, these interventions illustrate the fallacy of the tired “should preschool focus on academics or social-emotional development” debate. The reality is that preparing children to succeed in school and life requires both building their academic abilities and supporting their social-emotional development and mental health. And this study shows that it’s possible for well-designed interventions to simultaneously address both.

Second, it highlights a new and emerging paradigm for parent engagement. It’s a truism in early childhood that parents are children’s first teachers. But for all that we know about how much parents matter, the evidence that parent engagement strategies make a difference in early childhood program outcomes is weak to non-existent. That’s frustrating for early childhood practitioners and policymakers who know that parents are important but who have little research to go on about how best to engage them to support children’s learning. The problem, however, might not be with parent engagement itself, but with how early childhood and education programs have typically thought about parent engagement.

ParentCorps is one of an emerging number of initiatives nationally that take a different, and more intentional, approach to parent engagement, support, and development. Its “Program for Parents” is deliberately designed to build parents’ capacity to implement evidence-based practices for promoting children’s social, emotional, and behavioral regulation skills. And it’s timed to reach parents at a point — children’s transition to school — when many are particularly open to new information or opportunities to support their children’s learning. This model, and others like it, should stimulate a new discussion about what high-quality, effective methods of engaging and supporting parents of young children should look like, in order to build their capacity to support their children’s development and learning not just in preschool, but as they move through the K-12 system.

Finally, it’s a scalable approach. This study assessed the impact of ParentCorps as implemented, with over 1,000 children enrolled in typical New York City preschool programs. Today, ParentCorps is implemented in more than 20 New York City preschools and, through a partnership with New York City’s universal pre-k and Thrive mental health initiatives, will be rolled out to many more schools and students in the coming years. This suggests potential to expand the benefits found in the JAMA study to even more children.

Take a look at the study itself here, as well as the accompanying JAMA editorial. If you want to learn more about ParentCorps, visit their website here.