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In education, it’s uncommon to have much of an opportunity to see what happens in other classrooms, let alone what happens on campuses of a different level. 

Yet everything done in one level is built upon all that has happened before it, and each new level provides a foundation for the next.

Although communication happens within a school or, at the secondary level, within a department, we rarely have the chance to get an overview of what other people are doing within the walls of a school. 

It’s important to have an idea of what our students have experienced before and what they will be experiencing in the future, so we thought we’d start a new series in which we summarize what happens in the classrooms at different levels. 

We also want to explore what the day-to-day experiences are of office staff members, administrators, librarians, bus drivers, and substitutes. We want to offer you a window into the world of paraprofessionals and custodians because our schools could not operate without people in each of these vital roles. 

Our purpose is to create opportunities for communication at all levels of education. We also want to take some of the mystery away from moving from one level to another when teachers or others want to make a career change. 

So this is the first in that series.

Here is:

What Happens in Pre-K

Ages in Pre-K

Students entering pre-kindergarten are four-years-old although children in P.P.C.D., (Preschool Programs for Children with Disabilities) the early childhood department of special education, can be as young as two, depending on the diagnosis and severity of their physical, mental, or cognitive challenges. General education students usually begin at four and turn five during the school year or the next summer.

What Pre-K Is NOT

If you want to make a pre-k teacher really mad, call his or her vocation “daycare” or “babysitting”. These educators, in most states, have to have just as much education and occasionally more to teach pre-k as one would in any other level (including high school). Many pre-k educators pursue special certifications to be able to teach this age group in addition to general certifications. 

Pre-K teachers have state and national standards to adhere to that are just a rigorous as any other level, and many of their students have only been potty trained for two years at most (although the truth is that every year there are some that actually aren’t potty fully trained yet). For this reason, most pre-k classes have in-class bathrooms

Daycares may have a curriculum, but pre-k is a public school program. Many students have to qualify financially, or show some other documentation to prove that they are at-risk in order to qualify for pre-k.

Pre-K is also not Head Start, which is a similar program in many ways but has different funding, as well as different goals and requirements for students and families. Head Start programs also have different professional development requirements.

Surprisingly for some, pre-k is distinctively not Kindergarten. Pre-K students may advance to the level of Kindergarten, just as students in any grade level can be advanced, but pre-k is focused on slightly different developmental knowledge and skills.

Although four and five-year-olds are similar in many ways, their physical, mental and emotional development are significantly different, especially in children who qualify for Pre-K programs. 

Why Is Pre-K Important?

Studies have shown that after about third grade, you cannot tell who has gone to pre-k and who hasn’t by looking at academic scores. Some people have said this proves pre-k is unnecessary, but early childhood educators know the opposite is true.

Pre-K is usually offered to children of low socioeconomic status, children who are homeless, and children who are in the foster care system. Studies have shown that children within these classifications are often spoken to by adults less frequently, not read to daily, and are exposed to significantly fewer educational opportunities (like visiting the zoo or museums) when compared to their peers 

Pre-K is also provided for children with physical and developmental differences.

These are, by the understanding and interpretation of years of research, the students who are at-risk of becoming future high school dropouts. They often have lower language ability and understanding, they tend to have little to no mathematical or logical reasoning development, and they haven’t had the opportunity to develop their gross and fine motor skills.

In short, without pre-k, these students would be starting Kindergarten with a deficit. By third grade, this deficit can become a chasm, and by middle school, studies have shown these students are often well on their way to failing or dropping out completely. 

The fact that the playing field is evened out after about third grade is a testament to the fact that pre-k works to fill those significant gaps in the education of many children before they can have a negative impact.

Early intervention is vital to student success in so many learning differences. 

Daily Life in Pre-K

Academics in pre-k are introductory in many areas.

In ELAR, students listen to and interact with literature appropriate for their age. Teachers talk to them about poetry, they explore skills like rhyming and alliteration, and of course, they learn about letters.

Most academic requirements for pre-k don’t require students to know every letter and every phonetic sound, but they are required to know between half and ¾ of that total. 

Pre-K students learn about naming words (nouns), doing words (verbs) and describing words (adjectives and adverbs) although they are not yet required to know the names of each classification yet. They learn about capitalization and punctuation (so if your tenth graders tell you they’ve never had anyone tell them to begin sentences with capital letters, offer to call their pre-k teacher and ask about that).

Writing is introduced in pre-k beginning with general lines and shapes. Since many pre-k students have not had the opportunity to use and build muscles used in writing, they do a lot of activities requiring gripping, grasping, twisting, and turning from the fingers, wrist, and elbow. By the end of pre-k, students are generally able to write their names and a few other words.

Students do fingerplays, sing songs, play games, and do many activities that build fine motor skills, gross motor skills, and their core muscles (so they can sit up and control their torsos). All of these are vital developments for children learning to write.

Pre-K Math is an introduction to patterns, numbers, shapes, and logical reasoning. They learn to observe and sort by attributes (color, shape, numbers of sides, etc…). They learn to see and appreciate groups as they compose, decompose, and name them by number, order, or attribute. The foundation is set for addition, multiplication, subtraction, and division. They begin to see fractions, although they don’t know to call them fractions yet. They also learn foundational elements of algebraic reasoning, geometry, and financial literacy. 


Science instruction includes learning to observe the world around them, acknowledging the patterns of nature (weather, days, seasons, weeks, years), scientific reasoning, investigation using tools (tweezers, beakers, measuring implements, and scales to name a few), and doing all these things safely. 

There is a lot of interest in animals, both living and extinct, and students are given the opportunity to explore, classify, and discuss animals from dinosaurs and bugs to whales and butterflies (yes, butterflies are also insects - they learn that in pre-k as well).

Students learn the basics about life, space, and earth sciences. There are even discussions on some very basic chemistry (because it’s just too fun to pass up). 

In Social Studies, students learn first about similarities and differences between classroom families, then families in neighborhoods, cities, states, and around the world. They learn about culture, they celebrate holidays, and they talk about how communities work together to accomplish goals. 

They explore jobs, the differences between wants and needs, and the importance of understanding how eating good food makes the body work well.

Physical needs and development are a priority in pre-k. Most pre-k programs provide nutritional meals for pre-k students, and there are often other supports offered to families through the school that might not be available to them in other places.

Social-emotional learning is a huge part of learning at this age, as well. Students in pre-k learn to share, to communicate verbally when they are angry or sad, ask for what they need or want, clean up after themselves, keep the communal space organized, and build relationships with other children their age as well as the adults that care for them.

Some pre-k programs have access to art, music, P.E., and computer programs while some do not. Most pre-k programs incorporate these things into their daily routines if they aren’t given access to programs outside of the classroom. 


Some pre-k programs are half-day, but many are full-day. 

The direct instruction for this age is usually chunked in groups of 5 to 15 minutes. Pre-k teachers teach through whole group instruction, small group instruction, songs, videos, interactive play, and centers. 

“Lecturing” is rare, and everything is as hands-on and practical as possible. At this age, 3 to 5 minutes is about the attention span of most students at the beginning of the year. With careful work, some students are able to extend that to 12 to 15 minutes by the end of the year.

Many pre-k teachers use thematic instruction as a way to integrate all subjects into their learning time. In thematic instruction during winter, for example, you might see:

  • a teacher reading a picture book about penguins
  • a teaching assistant measuring children and comparing them to the average sizes of several kinds of penguins for math
  • children drawing pictures about facts they’ve learned about penguins in their science journals
  • a group of children pretending to be scientists at a zoo preparing food for the penguins to eat

Although all early childhood teachers employ some of these methods to integrate subjects often, many pre-k teachers have to use them because they are often short on time (especially in a half-day program) and attention spans are minimal. 

Centers are used in early childhood for children to have opportunities to practice new skills and using knowledge with their classmates. There are some centers that focus on building social skills along with new understanding.

It may look like “just play”, but it’s organized and thoughtfully arranged to accomplish student goals and standards. Teachers and paraprofessionals can also learn a lot about what students understand and are able to do by observing students during this free-play, so you may see them doing informal observations during this time in the classroom. 


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