So, I will preface this article with no one knows your child(ren) like you do and this article is meant as an inspiration and support, especially for making a choice that there is not a lot of outward social support for in Western countries. The good news is, people are increasingly paving their own ways, listening and attuning to their own families especially as what family means is diversifying, and educating themselves on all of their options.
The past 3 years have seen a huge surge of literature, both formal and informal, on delaying kindergarten. Kindergarten starts at age 5 in the U.S. and something to the tune of 90% of 5 year olds (as of 2017) are enrolled in kindergarten programs. That road is paved by the 40% of 3 year olds and 70% of 4 year olds in preschool programs; and of these children, more than half are in preschool programs for full days.
Neuroplasticity is at its Peak
90% of brain growth happens before age 5. 80% of this happens by age 3!!! This means that these are the most important years to communicate, connect with, and overall parent your child. So although it’s probably the least popular time in history to be stay at home, or mostly stay at home, with your child(ren), the investment in the first few years will be well-worth your time.
Your toddler will be fully adjusted to you/your family, your expectations will be much more likely to be in tune with their development and your needs, etc. Delaying preschool until the age of 4, or the year prior to kindergarten, may be a doable compromise for you and your family if preschool is highly desirable to you because something to the tune of 85% of brain growth has occurred. There are also so many wonderful half day (3 hour) options so that your routine(s) are maintained as long as they are beneficial to you and your toddler!
Emotions (Become) Matter
How we feel determines our self talk later in life. Or, as more eloquently expressed in this Harvard publication, “As young children develop, their early experiences literally become embedded in the architecture of their brains.” What we feel becomes part of how we are- including the thoughts we think and the actions we take, both large and small. No environment is perfect, but supporting and tending to a toddler’s feelings as much as their thinking is certainly something scientists, doctors, and parents can agree on across the board! Delaying preschool will therefore be beneficial for those that can engage with their toddlers emotionally.
This again is not a perfect process; most toddlers will get angry and throw tantrums and it is up to the caregiver(s) to respond. Sometimes this means frustration or anger! But if those in your toddler’s environment are willing to go on that emotional journey and show them how to respond in more beneficial ways, even if that is leading by example, then the learning is absolutely invaluable. Scientifically, a healthy relationship is built of at least five positive interactions to one negative one. This leaves a lot of space for the growth that parenting and caregiving demand. Knowing this can also equip you with the fuel to grow a big E.Q. (emotional quotient) as a benefit to delaying preschool!
Having constant caregiving in a consistent location(s) is one of the best ways to start our toddlers out and prepare them emotionally for the world. Secure emotions will lead to secure behaviors, and often this security feels compromised at school for toddlers because of the magnitude of changes and the inability to securely attach to a caregiver. A preschool teacher, and certainly other preschoolers, cannot day in and day out be expected to provide that 5:1 positive:negative interaction that is crucial for positive emotions to be the outcome, so emotional deficiencies are often observed in the behaviors of preschoolers that only expand later in life (check out #4 for loads of data). Whether you use the E.Q. as a reason to delay preschool or not, definitely do keep it in mind when forming your toddler’s environment.
Relationships Also (Become) Matter
So, I definitely previewed this point under #2, but here I’m talking about relationships in the outer world- with their caretakers, playmates, and environment- but also about the relationships between neurons in their brains! Connections in the brain are built through positive interactions and sensory experiences that are repeated over time. Interestingly, negative interactions and experiences don’t typically cause connections to be formed in the brain, but rather (depending on scope/severity) prevent connections from being formed. This means that during toddler-hood, it is possibly one of the best uses of time to develop positive interactions, and repeat them daily!
Learning from those close to them and their environment will very naturally reinforce these connections forming in the brain. Relationships with adults is actually more important at this age than with peer groups. That’s because the other little minds are in similar developmental flux and looking to their environments, and everything in them, for direction and ideas about how to grow; and in the case of large peer groups/extended time spent among them, it appears to be the blind leading the blind! There will come a day when peer group development is most appropriate, but there also is a real benefit (of learning) to toddlers that they receive from the adults in their lives.
Stress Deactivates Brain and Organ Development
Yep, that’s right. Stress is a really important set of chemicals that gets us ready for fight, flight, or hide mode- but is really only meant for extremely short periods and not a daily occurrence. Stress is super easy to measure using the hormone cortisol, and children who go to preschool have elevated cortisol throughout their entire days, rather than children receiving home based care. And this is further evidenced by a behavioral analysis (which can be viewed as the visible effects of the brain at work) of the effects of preschool on over 14,000 children from many different backgrounds.
Reading and math scores were up, but for those attending preschool earlier in life, behavioral problems occurred at much higher rates. These rates went up the more hours the toddler spent at preschool. One of the most interesting findings is that middle and higher income children fared the worst behaviorally, though (presumably) they were at higher quality preschools. This was confirmed by a more recent study which also found no correlation between preschool quality and socioemotional outcomes. While the brain is doing a majority of its development, this seems to be probably the worst time to deactivate it! Oh, and about those reading and math scores? Those went down (comparatively) over time, with an extremely concerning number- mortality- going up.
Time With Family and Friends is Proven Supportive
Part of the same study that showed the behavioral issues occurring within preschoolers showed that it’s not actually time away from parents that increase stress (measured by cortisol levels). It appeared to be that children receiving in home care (this includes care from nannies as well as extended family and parents) exhibited both least stress and least poor behavioral outcomes. This is extremely heartening and valuable information for those choosing to delay preschool because it gives the best idea of directions to go, and you can affirm that your toddler, no matter what family and friends looks like to you, is certainly receiving the benefits of them and of your routine(s) together.
Your time and resources spent gathering care, and the blessings of care provided by friends and family multiply. And school is there when it is developmentally appropriate for your child(ren). There really is no rush, and this is one side of a plethora of data available. Should you choose the delayed entry to preschool (and beyond), know that despite being a social minority, there is very sound neuroscience behind your likely very heart-felt choice.