Pushing Kids to Be Smarter Sooner
Why the focus on preschool may be misguided.

By Rich Maloof for MSN Health & Fitness

All across the country, parents of preschoolers have been sighing in relief. Summer brought the news that more kindergarten classes would shift this fall from part-day to full-day programs.

For parents and caregivers, the advantages of this recent trend are clear. Those in dual-earner families won't need to leave work early or pay for after-school childcare. Stay-at-home parents will be able to enjoy a few extra hours of peace—or, more likely, spend additional time doing all it takes to keep a household up and running.

If you're a kindergarten student, your benefits are not so clear-cut (though, hats off to you for perusing this article!). According to a study released in July, the academic gains resulting from full-day kindergarten diminish quickly—and even tend to be reversed within the elementary-school years.

The benefit of part-time K

The study, which appeared in the journal Child Development, used data from 13,776 children who were in the kindergarten ("K") class of 1998–1999. Though the reading and math skills of full-day K students tended to improve at a faster rate compared part-day K students, their lead evaporated once kindergarten was over. The academic abilities of the part-day K students actually increased at a faster rate between the end of kindergarten and the spring of fifth grade.

The researchers of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study believe this phenomenon is explained not by what happens in school, but in the home. The parents of full-day K students are more likely to come from lower-income homes in which both adults work and therefore have less time to support and stimulate the intellect of a child.

Going for gold

It's a shame—a heartbreaking one, for some—that parents may have to forego an ideal intellectual environment for the sake of putting dinner on the table and a roof overhead.

The impact of socioeconomics on education and child brain development is not news. But the ever-mounting pressure to be smarter sooner has increased the emphasis on kindergarten and pre-school education.

Is it a simple, undisputed fact that a child stands a better chance of mastering a skill or intellectual ability when he or she has a good head start? Is a window going to close on your child's opportunity to become a genius, a virtuoso, or an Olympic athlete?

Early connections

The concern stems from the generally accepted notion that 75 percent of the brain develops by the age of 6, and a few studies have provided solid evidence of how critical early brain growth is to specific cognitive functions.

For example, we know that the primary language center, located in the brain's frontal lobe, makes many of its neurological connections in the early grade-school years. For this reason, children learn new languages more quickly and easily than teens or older people.

Another striking example is how the corpus callosum, which is like a highway between the right and left sides of the brain, becomes 10 to 15 percent thicker among children who are trained on the piano before the age of seven. Older musicians are known to have uncommon growth of brain areas as well, but studies published in Discover magazine and in the journal Science suggest they could practice like they were Chopin's protégé and still not have anywhere near the same enlargement of the corpus callosum.

Don't worry, be happy

Such studies are worthwhile and fascinating, but they tend to fuel a unique brand of parental paranoia. When status and superlative achievement eclipse a parent's interest in a child's happiness, the pressure to excel is met with diminishing returns.

"The bottom line for me is that there ought to be a high level of engagement between parents and children, and it ought to be a lot of fun," says Dr. R. Scott Benson, child and adolescent psychiatrist with the Creekside Psychiatric Center in Pensacola, Fla. "When there is stress in either direction—either because other life stresses inhibit interaction or because the child is uncomfortable—the learning process is curbed."

In addition to anecdotal evidence derived from his own work with kids, Benson cites a study that showed nerve centers in the brains of lab mice made fewer neurological connections when the mice were stressed.

In his 1999 book The Myth of the First Three Years: A New Understanding of Early Brain Development and Lifelong Learning, author John T. Bruer, Ph.D., challenges the idea that pre-kindergarten experiences mold a person's brain for life. "There's no magic cutoff," Bruer told the National Education Association. "Good teachers can have profound effects at any age, from pre-school to university to people you work for in adult life."

Some highfalutin preschools are now tracking (and advertising) the number of their students who go on to attend Ivy League universities. To them we say: Let the kid play with the Tinker Toys for now, and let's see how it goes.

As Benson concludes, "It's the positive and uplifting learning experiences that can be the most life-enhancing."

For more information on child development, visit the Web site of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.