How science supports calls for quality preschool education in SD

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of children’s stories that Jackie Hendry, producer and host of South Dakota Public Broadcasting’s “South Dakota Focus,” will write for South Dakota News Watch. Every month she will watch the show that will be broadcast next week.


SIOUX FALLS, SD – Raising a child looks different for each generation. Amy Elliott, chief clinical research officer at Avera Research Institute, understands how quickly new science and research can change ideas that were previously taken for granted. Her research focuses on child health and development.

“For example, drinking while pregnant,” she said. “It’s something you don’t have to go back many generations – and it may actually have been something that was encouraged.” We now know the effects they can have on fetal development, which is why there is a recommendation not to drink during pregnancy.”

Likewise, researchers are uncovering new information about brain development. Even the past five years have revealed new information, Elliott said.

“We can look at the brain, for example, and look at brain development to a much greater extent than ever before with these technologies,” she explained.

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This means researchers have a clearer picture of which parts of the brain are developing, when they are developing and how fast. Elliott said that when a child is born, its brain is about a fourth of the size it will be when the child becomes an adult. By the child’s first birthday, the brain will have grown to half its eventual size.

“Some have even said that in the first three months, the brain increases every day by almost 1% in capacity — every day,” Elliott said. “Millions of bonds are formed in a very short time, a much more rapid development than is seen at any other period of life.” So the first year of life and then the first five years are really what we would call very critical periods of time for brain development.”

For example, research has found that the foundations for language development are laid in a child’s brain by age 3.

“Now you can definitely learn a language after that, but it’s a lot harder,” Elliott said. “We know there’s a critical period of time where different sounds — because different languages ​​have different sounds — integrate and become part of the way that brain is wired.”

Lifelong learning ability established in early childhood

Elliott expects the next decade of research to demonstrate similar findings about children’s reading, math and social development. So far, brain research is catching up with what early childhood educators have known for decades: the earliest years of a child’s life can set the tone for lifelong learning outcomes.

State law requires children to be in school until age 6, although families have the option of starting kindergarten if their child is 5 by September 1 of the school year. Families can harness the potential of these earlier years through preschool, but South Dakota does not have a state-run or funded preschool program. Aside from federally funded programs like Head Start, private early childhood education programs can vary dramatically in quality.

Amy Elliott is the Chief Clinical Research Officer of the Avera Research Institute in Sioux Falls, SD. She explained the latest developments in brain research to SDPB’s Jackie Hendry. (Photo: Krystal Schoenbauer/South Dakota Public Broadcasting)

Preschool standards ‘truly random in South Dakota’

Janessa Bixel is the executive director of the South Dakota Early Childhood Education Association. It is a state chapter of a national professional organization that provides resources for early childhood educators, families and communities. She has more than 20 years of experience in early childhood education, including Head Start programs in various states.

“When you’re in Alaska, or Kansas, or New Hampshire, or South Dakota — which are some of the places I’ve lived — those standards for Head Start are the same, essentially, in all those states,” she said. “When you get outside of Head Start, it’s really random in South Dakota. You can open a preschool and you don’t even have to be regulated in any way in the state.”

In fact, South Dakota is one of the few states in the country without a state-funded program or formal standards for measuring the quality of private programs. There have been some efforts by groups such as South Dakota School Administrators to create early learning guides, but they do not hold the weight of regulatory standards.

There are also no state-required certifications for preschool teachers.

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Part of Bixel’s work involves expanding opportunities for early learning educators in a state where public policy has not caught up with the importance that research places on the field.

“I would love to see South Dakota start an apprenticeship program for early childhood educators,” she said. “There are some states that are doing this right now and it seems like this could be an untapped area to support this field and really help elevate it as a profession, because it really is a profession. I mean, we’re working with young children when the most brain development is happening. So why not be required to understand how to work with young children at that time?”

Preschoolers ‘need more than love’

Nicole Weiss believes that preschool providers owe families the highest quality care for their children. She is the director of early learning for the YMCA of Rapid City. Although the state does not grant credentials to teach preschool, her program does.

“Preschool is an interesting time in children’s lives because they need more than love and freedom to roam and learn,” she said. “Also, they don’t need to sit down with worksheets and have their whole day lined up.” It takes some education for them to understand that.”

All teachers in Weiss’ department must join with at least a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential, a one-year degree.

“They have to have a minimum of that to be a lead teacher in our program,” Weiss said.

However, even this minimum education requirement adds a hurdle to ongoing staffing problems.

“There are a lot of people who think, because they’ve worked in childcare, that ‘I’m a preschool teacher now, I can do this or that,’ and they don’t understand lesson planning, assessments and conferences.”

The state Department of Human Services contracts with a handful of organizations around the state that offer CDA certification. One of them is a Rapid City nonprofit called Early Childhood Connections.

“The state of South Dakota supports CDA,” said Autumn Gregory, executive director. “Right now, they’re paying for the coursework, they’re paying for the stipend, they’re paying for the assessment and certification, and so they’re really trying to encourage professional development.”

But without a state requirement, it’s up to private entities to decide what level of training their staff needs.

Nicole Weiss is the Director of Early Learning for the YMCA of Rapid City, SD All preschool teachers in her department must have at least a Child Development Associate credential. (Photo: Krystal Schoenbauer/South Dakota Public Broadcasting)

Gregory’s organization also administers a program called Starting Strong, a scholarship program funded by the John T. Vukurewicz Foundation to allow disadvantaged families the opportunity to afford preschool. The benefits go beyond the kids in the Starting Strong program, she said.

“That kindergarten teacher will teach the child with the most needs because that’s where all the attention should go,” Gregory said. “If those kids can come in ready to learn, then it benefits all the kids in that kindergarten class.”

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Elliott, Avera’s chief clinical research officer, believes the data shows the same benefits for preschool that educators have experienced firsthand.

“Pre-K teaches kids so many things, and sometimes I think the things that are taught — the most important — are on the behavioral side,” she said. “There shouldn’t be pressure for kids to be able to read or do these things before school. But it’s good for them to be exposed to letters and colors and sounds and to love looking at books.”

Because child development research is moving so quickly, Elliott understands that it may take time for society—and politics—to catch up. She goes back to the example of drinking while pregnant.

“People will say, ‘Well, I think things turned out well. The only thing I would like to say is that this is what science has to do for us. It should help us raise the next generation better than the last.”


How to Watch South Dakota Focus

The next episode of “South Dakota in Focus” airs Thursday, December 30 at 8:00 PM Central Time / 7:00 PM Mountain Time. It can be viewed on SDPB-TV 1, Facebook, YouTube and SD.net.

The episode includes:

  • Why the John T. Vukurewicz Foundation Funds Multiple Programs to Increase Access to Early Childhood Education in Rapid City
  • Visiting the Fischback Center Preschool Lab on the South Dakota State University Brookings Campus
  • How a preschool partnership helped refugee children in Huron succeed in school

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