The Montessori Method systematically teaches independent problem solving, starting at age 18 months, using hands-on learning and the native interests of preschoolers. She demonstrated that, given adequate food, regular health checkups, and the right full-day program, virtually all of even the most deprived children could learn to an equal or higher standard than their more privileged, traditionally educated peers.
Other methods, such as Reggio Emilia, Waldorf, Dewey, Abecedarian, and Bank Street, also address the unique needs of this age group. Unfortunately, sufficiently rigorous, longitudinal trials of these approaches have not yet been undertaken to determine which ones best serve the developmental needs of very young children.
Pedagogy and education research have both systematically undervalued the importance of social and emotional development in preschool children. Indeed, neuroscientific evidence demonstrates that all learning is based on emotional responses and social experiences. Therefore, social and emotional intelligence need to be developed as carefully and as thoughtfully as IQ. We now know that all three are essential for success in our highly networked, rapidly changing technological age.
Therefore, teachers need to be trained not only in the most effective approaches to cognitive development in young children, but also in how to foster and enhance their very sensitive emotional and social development. This will require both increased funding for research, and more rigorous training programs for preschool teachers. But recruiting and retaining highly talented and motivated teachers requires that salaries be increased significantly, to better match the critical importance and extremely demanding nature of their work.
While all of these measures may sound expensive, over a generation they would be far more than offset by the reduced costs of homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, addiction and all the other ills to which poor educational outcomes can lead, and by the increased productivity of a better-educated workforce. Indeed, according to Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman, the rate of return on investment when high quality preschool starts very early "is in the range of 6 percent to 10 percent per year per dollar invested."
However, even the best preschool education will not be maximally effective if it does not start until children are four, by which point the majority of that critical 0- to 5-year-old window has already passed. If we want to give every child the best chance for success, universal full-day preschool should start at 1+ or 2+. With that in place, in just a few years, children from all backgrounds will start arriving at primary school on track, with the skills and background necessary to be successful students. As we begin to expand and reform public preschool education, we should make the commitment to give all children a true head start toward fulfilling their potential.