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Chapter Seven: Education in Early Childhood

 Section 3: "Preschool"

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Joy Ro performing for ACPA.


Did you ever wonder about the widespread practice of beginning school at age six? Is it an arbitrary starting place? Interestingly enough, as different as the developmental theories can be, many agree that a major shift occurs at about that time. In Piaget's theory the child moves from the preoperational to the concrete operational stage of cognitive development. Many behaviorists identify the onset of verbal mediation with this age. Freud would point to the resolution of the oedipal complex, and Erickson would add the transition from the initiative v. shame conflict to the industry v. inferiority conflict.



Each of these shifts makes the child a little more like the adults who are trying to teach. The answer to the question at the beginning of this paragraph is not that before this age the child is unteachable; rather it is that educators have not understood the nature of the early childhood years we1l enough to design a curriculum well adapted to them. Not that the educators understood the next stage much better, but the assumption that the eight-year-old thinks essentially like an adult is less wrong than the corresponding assumptions applied to the ages two through five.



Piaget has devised dozens of experiments testing children on several fundamental concepts. The young child does not understand as we understand the concepts of number, length, volume, weight, serial order, classification, transitivity, time, causality, and numerous others. The young child's ability to abstract is severely limited -- some would say the child is perceptually bound.



In one Piagetian experiment the young child is shown to be unable to assume the perspective of a person sitting a quarter of the way around a table. This corresponds to an inability to assume the perspectives of others in general. This makes cooperation, especially among peers, very difficult. This does not mean that communication cannot be effective, but since the child cannot coordinate perspectives, the effect of a command is to nullify the child's perspective. Rules are considered absolute and unchangeable so moral reasoning is very limited. While adult authority is respected it is confronted by the child's emerging needs for autonomy.



From the psychoanalytic perspective, the child is still attached to his or her parents, particularly the opposite sex parent. There is less interest in relating to peers and outside adults than there will he after the resolution of the complex. This is another reason not to expect a high motivation for cooperation.



However, all this does not mean the child cannot benefit from a well-planned educational program. Since the child has acquired the permanent object concept, symbolic activity becomes possible. Children rapidly become able to associate pictures and words with their referents. The child is actively engaging the environment on a concrete level, developing schemes that will later be organized into the logical systems of later childhood. All of the concepts described as missing earlier do not appear from nowhere at age six. The foundations are gradually built upon precursor notions during the early childhood years. Thus, the building blocks of the future adult's individual strength, integrated and refined intelligence, are being formed at this time.



Furthermore, aspects of racial and gender identity are being developed. Early experiences can affect later attitudes about people who appear different. Children's notions about gender and gender roles are particularly impressionable at this time. While it is an exaggeration to say that the personality is determined by age five, the statement does stress the importance of the early years and implies that a well-designed early childhood program can significantly affect the adult outcome.







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