Suzanne Bouffard Ph.D.

The Most Important Year

Ready, Set, Go!

Navigating early childhood education is complicated. Here's a map.

Posted Jul 24, 2017

Suzanne Bouffard
Source: Suzanne Bouffard

As a parent, having an advanced degree in child development is both a blessing and, occasionally, a complication. I try not to think too hard about whether my children are hitting their milestones and whether their schools are living up to my hopes. But I’m thankful for the tips I’ve picked up on my professional path, especially when it comes to navigating preschool and childcare. Because as we all know, the toddler and preschool years aren’t easy. The more information we have about early childhood education, the better we can make it for every child – yours, mine, and everyone else’s.

For my first five years of parenting, I worked 20 hours a week in an office staffed with developmental psychologists – smart, down-to-earth women and men who knew the research about early childhood inside and out, and also knew the ropes of parenting from their own experience. I learned so much from them, about how to get my baby to sleep, how to manage those cringe-worthy tantrums, and what to look for in a preschool. I learned to laugh through it all, to forgive myself for the inevitable mistakes, and to recognize that my job was to love my child for who he was and help him be the best he could be. Above all, I learned how to merge the professional and the personal – both in terms of child development knowledge and finding my own stride as a parent. Imagine, I thought, if every parent could have that kind of support.

I was never more grateful for this experience than when I began visiting Pre-K classrooms in my city’s public schools. Shortly before my eldest child turned four, I signed up to be herded through school tours with other parents. As I toured the surprisingly different classrooms, I became aware not just of the teachers and children, but of the other parents – those who were there and those whose lives precluded them from making it at 9 am on a Tuesday. Some of them looked lost or bewildered and some furtive and anxious. Others seemed to be focused on things that research shows don’t matter much for kids’ learning, like the age of the school building, or things that can be outright detrimental, like whether teachers were “controlling” the classroom or getting kids to sit silently while they lectured about letter sounds. Finding the right school for your child is a very personal decision; still, I wanted to help these parents. I wanted the hundreds of hours I had spent learning about children and early childhood education to make a difference.

That desire grew into my new book, The Most Important Year: Pre-Kindergarten and the Future of Our Children. It takes a journey through Pre-K programs in America today to find out what great programs look like, why many programs aren’t up to par, and what it will take for all children to get what they need in Pre-K so they get off to a great start in school and life. Visiting Pre-K teachers, students, and parents around the country was an eye-opening privilege, one I am trying to share with other parents through my writing. And delving into cutting-edge research on how children learn to read, write, and regulate themselves was a fascinating exploration that I am continuing to pursue and share. I am starting this blog to share insights, advice, and stories from my travels and my own experience, in the hope that they can help you and your family or school make the most of your early education opportunities.

The blog will explore topics like how to tell a great preschool from a mediocre one, why parents sometimes have a harder time than children with the transition to school, and whether it really matters if your kid eats the marshmallow. It will also look at big-picture questions like why there is so much teacher turnover in early childhood programs and why the U.S. invests less in early childhood education than almost every other developed nation in the world. I want this blog to be as useful to you as possible, so I welcome your questions and suggested topics in the comments section.

Ready, set, go!