The data come from a household survey of parents and guardians in Massachusetts. When complete, the household survey will form one cornerstone of a study that will follow a representative sample of three- and four-year-olds from across Massachusetts for four years, capturing their experiences in the actual settings in which they spend their time. The study aims to significantly enrich our current knowledge about what works in early education, which relies primarily on data from just a handful of small-scale studies that date back to the 1960s and 1970s.
The new findings — suggesting the greater likelihood that four-year-olds are in formal care settings than three year olds — might reflect the fact that four-year-olds “have more formal options to choose from at this age, or that parents are responding to the movement for a year of preschool before school begins,” says Nonie Leseaux, who co-directs the Zaentz Initiative with Stephanie Jones, both faculty members at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “What we don’t yet know is what these various experiences mean for children’s learning and growing.” The study will fill in many of those gaps, helping policymakers understand the characteristics of early care in formal and informal settings, the links to children’s outcomes over time, and effective practices to improve quality and access across the spectrum. (The researchers note that these preliminary findings are not yet representative of the population at large, because they pull from a partial sample of data; the full sample will be representative, as will the final study results.)
Parental Hopes and Concerns
The household survey also revealed that parents strongly believe in their young children’s abilities and intelligence, but they worry that their kids won’t develop the learning skills or gain access to the academic opportunities they’ll need for later life success.
The survey asked parents questions designed to elicit a sense of their aspirations and concerns for their preschool-aged children. Parents were asked about:
- their confidence in their child’s schooling
- their confidence in their child’s medical care
- their biggest worry for their child
- how they would describe their child, using three words
Confidence in schools and health care:
Parents generally expressed a high level of confidence in both schooling and medical care, though they expressed a slightly higher level of confidence in medical care. And researchers said that a non-negligible number of responses to the schooling question ranged from “somewhat confident” to “not at all confident,” indicating that schooling is a concern for a number of parents.
By far, parents worried most about academic skills and education — a broad category encompassing concerns about access, quality, and ability.
Next on the common worry list, in order, were: social-emotional well-being and physical well-being. Less common, but still significant, were worries about self-actualization and morals and about the state of the world.
Describe your child:
When asked to describe their child in three words, parents most often used the word “smart.” Other commonly heard words: funny, intelligent, and loving. Almost all of the descriptive words parents used were positive.