Low-income families have fewer high-quality resources available to support their young children, so Governor Ralph Northam’s executive directive to establish an executive leadership team to focus on school readiness is a step in the right direction of providing high-quality care and education for these children, according to Cindy Smith, director of the Virginia Tech Children’s Emotions Lab.

Executive Directive Four for 2019 creates a team to establish preschool programs for all of Virginia’s low-income families by 2025.

Smith, who also serves as a faculty member and director of graduate studies in the Department of Human Development and Family Science, cautions that the governor’s leadership team will need to consider several factors for the project to have a lasting impact.

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Quoting Smith

“Even if Virginia creates these programs, the quality will be compromised if we cannot pay the teachers and administrators what they deserve,” she said. “The educators and preschool staff play such an  important role in supporting our state’s youngest citizens. The need for well-educated, high-quality teachers is imperative because these are the people who will carry out the goal of increasing high-quality child care and education.”

In addition, Smith defines a need for specific types of programming.

“Developmentally appropriate curriculum for preschool-aged children would focus on social and emotional development and academic skills in a play-based curriculum,” Smith said. “Play is so beneficial for children of this age, and they can learn so many academic skills by engaging in play. Play provides opportunities to try out different roles, such as through pretend play, which supports children’s cognitive development and language skills. Play also provides children with opportunities to develop social skills.

“Playing games with children can teach them about taking turns, as well as numbers, letters, and colors. Play provides learning in a context where children have fun and are therefore motivated to learn. So many programs focus on rote learning, such as asking children to recite the alphabet together, using flash cards to teach colors, or having children trace letters. Asking children to do these activities without a meaningful context doesn’t support intrinsic, self-motivated, engaged learning in the same way that a play-based curriculum does.”

But she also advocates that the program needs to start earlier than preschool.

“The focus on three- and four-year-olds is a start in the right direction, but families need safe, dependable, and quality care for their children starting at birth,” Smith said. “The focus on preschoolers ignores the needs of families following the birth of their children. It also ignores the importance of early stimulating environments for infants and toddlers. Just as providing high-quality care and education helps prepare preschoolers for their next step in elementary school, providing high-quality care and education for infants and toddlers helps them prepare for preschool.”

About Smith

Cindy Smith is an associate professor in human development and family science at Virginia Tech, where she directs the Children’s Emotions Lab.

Smith’s research focuses on the social and emotional development of young children, parent-child interactions, and the impact of parent characteristics such as personality, marital relations, and family stress on parenting behaviors. She is a two-time Generations United Award winner and has received several other awards and grants from Virginia Tech.

To secure an interview with Cindy Smith, contact Bill Foy by email, or by phone at 540-998-0288.

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