Kindergarten-Ready Standards? Try Parenting PSAs Instead.

by Robert Pondiscio
July 27th, 2010

When I was a kid, my family would drive frequently to Yonkers, NY to visit my grandparents.  Along Long Island’s Northern State Parkway, there was always an enormous amount of trash on the side of the road.  People thought nothing of rolling down the window and tossing trash from moving cars.

If that strikes you a bizarre, selfish or just plain disgusting, thank the “Crying Indian.”  One of the most effective television commercials ever, the Crying Indian was the centerpiece of a long-running public service campaign from Keep America Beautiful.  The anti-pollution campaign changed behavior.   It drove awareness of the problem of litter, and fed a growing environmental consciousness in the U.S.

People did a lot of things when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s that are now considered socially unacceptable:  women smoked while pregnant.  Parents smoked in front of their kids.  Drinking and driving.  Not wearing seatbelts.  From buying war bonds to fighting child abuse, public service messages have a long history of changing behaviors and our definition of what is or is not acceptable.  Perhaps we need to revisit this tradition.

In an Education Week essay, Elanna S. Yalow, executive vice president of Knowledge Universe, argues that educators, lawmakers and parents must create “common standards for early-childhood learning.”

Although “kindergarten ready” may not have the same cachet as “college- and career-ready,” early learning is the cornerstone of long-term success for America’s children. After all, learning starts at birth, and learning standards should start with even our youngest children….Without early-learning standards and quality pre-K education programs to support them, the developmental gaps start and expand even before children enter kindergarten.”

Rather than get standards-happy, I’d rather see an aggressive public awareness campaign that carries the message that a child’s success in school is largely driven by what happens before that child sets foot in school on Day One, and gives parents a few things they can do to get their child ready from the start.  Here are a few ideas off the top of my head. 

1. Read to your child for 30 minutes a day.
2. Have conversations with your child every day.  Use questions, not commands.
3. Teach your child the alphabet before kindergarten.
4. Teach your child to count to 20.
5. Limit TV time to 30 minutes a day.

Rather than try to parent-proof children with “early childhood learning standards,” perhaps we’d be better off sharing the habits of good parenting broadly, aggressively and publicly.  Behaviors change when people see the benefit of changing.  Isn’t that what education is all about? It works.  If you need proof, just look on the side of the road.

Update:  Joanne Jacobs has more on this.   ”Kindergarten preparedness training is a regimen with an ancient history,” comments reader Obi-Wandreas.  “In some more primitive areas it is still referred to by its archaic designation of ‘parenting.’”


  1. Your five stated ideas are excellent.

    The problem (don’t shoot the messenger); the adults/parents who need to do this the most are probably the cohort who will never get the message or if they do, will ignore it.

    If they do hear your message and/or abide by it, the achievement gap would dwindle markedly in five years or less.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — July 27, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

  2. You might be right, Paul. At the very least, attempting to change behavior through public awareness is a hell of a lot cheaper than universal Pre-K. And probably “stickier” than farming it out to programs and schools. The other objection I can conceive of is “you can’t tell parents how to raise their kids.” I tend to see it as less prescriptive and more emotional/self-intererested: “School success begins at home. Here’s what you can do.”

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 27, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

  3. Don’t mean to tread too deeply into the politically incorrect waters but it’s never ceased to amaze me that in most states in this country you need to pay for a license to go fishing but ANYONE can become a parent – no license necessary, no prerequisites, no training, no test to pass, no registration fee required, bubbka.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — July 27, 2010 @ 5:07 pm

  4. I agree completely, Paul. It’s *outrageous* to make people pay to fish.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 27, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

  5. Rule of thumb: with rare exceptions, people love their kids and want the best for them. Some people do not love school, did not do well in it, may not have graduated, and may have little confidence that they can navigate it any more successfully for their children than they did themselves. The people in school probably love it; they’ve chosen to spend their lives in it, first as students, then as teachers. There are some obvious cultural obstacles to having these two groups work together for the success of the new generation.

    Some well designed PSAs might be just the thing to bridge the gap.

    By the way, about number 4, counting to 20. The PSA should include teaching 11 as 10-1, 12 as 10-2, 13 as 10-3. And that the each number includes the ones before it, as the alphabet does not.

    It’s a great idea. How do we get it implemented? Who do we sell on this?

    Comment by Homeschooling Granny — July 27, 2010 @ 9:08 pm

  6. I loved your introduction to the power of PSAs. I have been advocating this for quite some time now. After reading about the Hart and Risley study, I cannot see any other way to close the achievement gap than by reaching the parents and daycare workers first.

    I am sure you are familiar with this study, but some of your readers may not be. This longitudinal study showed that many children are entering our school system having heard 32 million words less than their peers have. Many other studies show that overall academic success is closely linked to a child’s vocabulary size. Thus, if we really want to even the playing field, we must reach those who spend the most time with our children in the 0-5 years–parents and daycare workers.

    I was just at the Department of Education’s Institute of Reading in Anaheim and asked the speakers about PSAs. They mentioned that PSAs were made in the past and aired at the time when most parents of at-risk children would be watching television–at 1:00 a.m. I wish I had thought more quickly on my feet because I doubt that the majority of parents and daycare workers with whom we need to target are really up at 1:00 a.m. Sure some are, but the majority? Although their answer was a bit fuzzy, it sounded like new PSAs are being taken into consideration (or that they should be.)

    My mother is a perfect example of how parents can change (and will change) when given good parenting advice. She would never have been up at 1:00 in the morning by the way. Why is she a great example? Well, she was not read to or talked with when she was a child, so she began raising her seven children the same way. Thankfully, the Head Start program came along in time for children number six and seven. (I am number seven.)

    The wonderful people at the HeadStart program let my mom know how important it was to talk with us, read to us, and take us to the library. So she did. What were the results? Children number six and seven went on to college. Two of the other five dropped out of high school. I am sure much of this is because they began school with limited world knowledge and a very limited vocabulary. Had they been parented like children number six and seven were, things probably would have been different.

    Personally, I believe there are many parents out there like my mother. They do not understand the importance of reading and talking with their children. If they knew how important it was to their children’s future academic success, I think they would gladly make the change.

    I also learned from a great Reading Rockets video, “From Babbling to Books,” that many parents think it is weird for adults to talk with children. If no one ever tells them how important it is, there is no reason for them to change. Here is a link to that video:

    At the institute, I also asked the speakers if we were going to start targeting daycare workers. Many children spend a lot of time there and I have heard many horror stories about daycare center workers who just plop the children in front of the television all day long–some even strapped into car seats. The speakers said they were working on it, but were not very specific.

    If any of your readers are interested in learning more about the Hart & Risley study, I wrote about it here: PSAs came up in the comments.

    If there is anything I can do to help promote this idea further, please let me know. I am completely on board!

    P.S. I do not remember seeing any PSAs about literacy. Do you?

    Comment by Julie Niles Petersen — July 28, 2010 @ 4:03 am

  7. In a K-class of 20 students, 15 of whom are prepared for entering school, the 5 (or even 1 or 2!) students who require “over the top” attention in order to merely function as part of a class can take an inestimable toll on those other classmates. In my experience, it is not uncommon for parents to become disenchanted early on when thy encounter a system that does not give a teacher adequate support to deal with the neediest students who demand the greatest time and attention. Kindergarten-preparedness is primarily the responsibility of the parents, but a strong partnership between the education system and the medical profession (doctors, nurse practitioners, nurses) who see parents and children on a regular basis in the pre-K years, might be a place to focus some attention.

    Comment by LynDee — July 28, 2010 @ 11:38 am

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