Outwitting the “Fade-Out Effect” of Preschool Education

What two teacher practices does research show are most effective for helping preschoolers make cognitive gains that last through elementary school?

At an October 22 seminar on improving preschool quality (hosted by the Center for Law and Social Policy and the Institute for Human Development at Berkeley), the focus of the day was on how to make preschool programs “pack a bigger punch” in terms of boosting children’s cognitive skills.

Speakers, including child development researcher Robert Pianta, spoke of overcoming the “fade-out effect” (the tendency for academic gains children make when they attend preschool to fade away by 3rd grade).

The occasion for the seminar was the release of a report describing two programs that aim to improve the quality of preschool teachers—specifically how teachers interact with students. That report, Lifting Pre-K Quality: Caring and Effective Teachers, identified two key teacher practices that, when performed together, predict robust gains in cognitive skills for children who attend preschool:

  • Interacting with children in an emotionally supportive way and
  • Structuring class time and teacher-child interactions in a way that maximizes what Pianta called “cognitive load.”

Pianta noted that many preschool teachers are excellent at interacting with children in an emotionally supportive way but weaker at infusing cognitive content and skill development into those interactions. “We need to engineer the right kinds of instructional supports to help preschool students make academic gains,” he said, including training preschool teachers in instructional skills.

Researcher Diane Early noted that a teacher’s possession of a bachelor’s degree, which some policymakers urge as a requirement for a highly qualified preK educator, does not predict lasting gains from preschool.

Pianta and colleagues’ CLASS approach for helping preschool teachers become more effective is one of the two programs described in Lifting Pre-K Quality. (TEEM, developed at University of Texas–Houston, is the other.)

Early educators, what are your thoughts? Do you agree that these two practices are the important ones for helping preschoolers prepare for elementary school?

Post submitted by EL Associate Editor Naomi Thiers


  1. I agree that the two practices are very important ones for helping preschoolers prepare for elementary school. You mentioned that many preschool teachers struggle with infusing cognitive content and skill development into their emotionally supportive interactions. In my preschool classroom we follow the Creative Curriculum, which encourages cognitive development in all content areas. There are “centers” where children engage in structured play based on a theme. For example, since now we are working on buildings, all of the centers in the classroom provided students with the opportunity to engage in fun activities which will strengthen their knowledge of buildings and how they relate to their personal life. I would recommend this curriculum to all preschool educators, as it is a great guide for helping students develop the necessary skills to succeed in Kindergarten.


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