Pre-K: Reframing the Challenge

Exploring a Dual Generation Approach to Pre-K

At T Lab, we began with a broad design challenge: how might we extend the benefits of the early childhood education (ECE) experience to all low-income children? And how might we examine this challenge specifically within the context of a dual-generation approach.

Our first step was to understand exactly what the ECE experience entailed. We visited several preschool, kindergarten and transitional kindergarten classes, both in the public and private school system, to get a sense for how kids learn, what tools are used, and what it means to be “Kindergarten Ready.” Not surprisingly, we witnessed many stages of child development and uncovered a wide range of approaches to early learning.

A common theme we detected is that education expectations have shifted: children are now expected to learn the skills previously considered first grade level by the time they enter kindergarten. This shift has put more pressure on the pre-k years, which are often managed solely by parents or primary caregivers, as preschool is costly and not widely available.

A parent maps the connections between families and pre-k

As we studied our systems of early learning, we had a particular focus on how they impact low-income communities. While the criteria for being kindergarten ready is universal, the roadblocks to getting there vary from one demographic to another.

We developed our first of many hypotheses: that time, money and awareness are the major roadblocks to school readiness in any low-income community, from East Palo Alto to Bayview to East Oakland. We tested this hypothesis by going straight to the source: primary caregivers. We immediately set out to find “culture brokers” within our target communities with the hopes of gaining a trusted introduction to parents and caregivers who could answer our questions. These liaisons have proven invaluable, not only for introductions to parents and caregivers, but also in helping us understand the ecosystems of these communities. Every day and every interview provides us answers, and even more questions. Several defining words and patterns emerged: trust + relationships; experience + exposure; foundational skills vs. academic skills; strengths-based approach.

We were beginning to narrow our focus on awareness (that parents and caregivers don’t realize they have the ability to get their children ready for school), when we had an a-ha moment. We’d spent a good amount of time at one particular elementary school in East Oakland and noticed an elderly woman there. She picked several children up each day, sometimes volunteered in the classroom, and frequented the family center. When we asked about her, we learned that her two grandchildren and sister’s grandson are enrolled at the school, and that she has another grandchild at an adjacent preschool. Because the children’s parents are not consistently in their lives, she is their primary caretaker. Every day, we engaged with her a little more until eventually she agreed to meet with us. For over an hour, we walked through a design activity to test our hypothesis, but left bewildered. The primary roadblock for this family wasn’t awareness, but we couldn’t quite put our finger on what the barrier was.

The next day we had a meeting with Miriam Hernandez-Dimmler, an Assistant Research Professor at UCSF’s Child Trauma Research Program. For two hours we sat engrossed in Miriam’s world, hearing story after story about the effects of trauma on childhood development. With heavy hearts, we staggered to the bench outside SF General’s emergency department to collect our thoughts.

We began to see a pattern. The primary roadblock for these families wasn’t time or awareness. It was something more insidious, something more constant: they lack a sense of safety and stability in their community, and that reality makes it hard to trust. One parent told us, “I don’t feel that [my son] will be safe outside so I tend to keep him inside, even when the courtyard is gated.” As Miriam put it, these children’s brains aren’t forming to learn how to learn, they are being formed to learn how to survive.

It was time to reframe our challenge: How might we enable primary caregivers to provide school readiness skills (social emotional, language/speech, exploration) in a community that is struggling with trust stemming from little safety and stability?

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