Civic engagement sparked in preschool

There are many possible explanations for why some young adults choose to vote and others don’t. Could a focus on self-regulation in preschool years earlier have anything to do with it? Researchers say yes.

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Civic engagement sparked in preschool


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Preschool children, 3 and 4 years old, can’t vote in elections and may not even be familiar with the concept of “voting.” Civic participation doesn’t show up in state curriculum standards for this age group either. Yet, even without an explicit focus on civic engagement in early childhood education programs, researchers have found a positive connection between students who attend high-quality preschool programs and their later decisions to register to vote and participate in elections as young adults. 

This latest study comes out of Georgetown University’s Center for Research on Children in the United States and examines data from Tulsa’s early adoption of universal PreK. The data set includes over 4,000 children who were eligible to participate in Tulsa’s high-quality universal PreK program, about half of whom did. Looking only at those who were still located in Oklahoma between the ages of 18 and 20, researchers determined which young adults had gone on to register and vote. As it turned out, the preschool alumni had a greater tendency to both register and actually vote in the presidential and state elections that were held in the first two years they were of voting age. 

The research builds on similiar longitudinal data findings from the Perry Preschool Project, among other studies, which followed underserved preschool-aged children in Michigan in the 1960s into adulthood, looking at outcomes for those who attended a high-quality preschool program and those who did not attend preschool. That data indicated that the strong emphasis on planning and social reasoning that served as a component of their preschool program may have influenced voting and volunteerism behaviors later in life.

"In the hierarchy of social skills that pay off in the long run, self-regulation seems to be particularly important."
Karin E. Kitchens and William Gormley in From preschool to politics: Early socialization in Tulsa

Here, study authors Karin Kitchens and William Gormley stress that the intent and focus of a preschool program may be more important than it's duration, which could help to explain why participation in a one or two-year program early in life could still have a meaningful impact on behavior so many years later. They embrace the idea that high-quality PreK enhances the cognitive skills that may lead to greater civic engagement and participation by improving understanding of the political process and its relevance. Simultaneously, they believe that the emphasis on key social-emotional skills, such as self-regulation, grit, and empathy, are equally important determinants of adult civic behavior. And "in the hierarchy of social skills that pay off in the long run,” they say, “self-regulation seems to be particularly important."

Tools Takeaways:

  • Skills like self-regulation that are developed through high-quality PreK programs like Tools not only have considerable positive impact on children’s future academic potential, but can also play a powerful role in their civic engagement as adults 
  • By engaging children in Play Planning, Make-Believe Play and other Tools activities, Tools teachers and schools lay a foundation for children to build foundational  executive functioning skills and initiate impactful social actions and interactions throughout their lives