This month I am pleased to turn over this space to one of our most veteran teachers, Stefan Ulstein. He has some keen insights from his perspective as a high school teacher about the importance of early childhood education.
The Transcendent Preschool
Recent behavioral science has challenged the idea that pre-school children are exclusively concrete thinkers. We now understand that they are capable of complex thought and self-reflection, which are essential components of a developing relationship with God. This raises serious questions about the spiritual effects of early-childhood education.
A study reported in the New York Times Magazine found that children from low-income families who had received excellent pre-school education were “half as likely to have been teenage parents and 2.5 times more likely to have enrolled in college than the control group” later in life. Social scientists, drawing from neurology and psychology are making strides in understanding just how important pre-school is for later social and academic success and why that is so.
Many parents consider secular pre-schools to be compatible with their faith because young children don’t get into the kinds of trouble that older kids do. The teachers model good behavior and teach students to be curious and creative. Many public pre-school teachers are, in fact, devout believers. However, without specific nurturing of the child’s developing sense of the transcendent, especially in school districts that specifically forbid such nurturing, we may be ignoring the most vital part of a child’s education.
Some theologians and sociologists speak of “spirituality” and “religiosity” as being almost unrelated. Spirituality has to do with a sense of wonder and the infinite. Religiosity describes worship, prayer, rituals, and community. Others, however, posit that religion gives us an essential way to describe our spirituality and to develop a vocabulary upon which to describe and build our faith. Fellowship with believers of all ages gives us a social framework for our spirituality. Just as academic disciplines like medicine, economics, psychology have their own working vocabularies, religion has its own set of terms to describe concepts and experiences.
Studies have suggested that “80 percent of all neural connections form by age 3—and that a child’s ability to capitalize on these years is directly related to her environment” (NYTimes). A child who is nurtured as she conceptualizes the transcendent and incorporates it into her working vocabulary will build upon the nurturing and example of her parents. An educational environment that teaches good stewardship and curiosity, without acknowledging the transcendence of Christ’s love, may subtly undermine spiritual development.
The measure of a child’s well-being is called flourishing. Children flourish physically with sleep, food, and shelter. They flourish academically with solid teaching. To flourish spiritually—which includes every other measure—requires not just a pleasant, non-threatening environment but a thoughtfully planned and executed vision of Christian education that will provide a basis for lifelong faith.
Tony Eude, who studies childhood spirituality, writes of The Search, or spiritual questing. This is related to the existential questions of “Who am I, Where do I fit in? Why am I here—related to identity place and purpose. Ultimately the child must be aware of the Transcendent Other, the living God, to internalize and employ Christian values. God exists as a living being, outside of oneself. In the earliest stages of childhood the world is comprised of “Me and Not Me”. As the child grows in the understanding that the universe exists outside of himself he begins to see his parents, siblings and God as separate living beings. (Eaude, 2005; Hay & Nye, 2006; Tacey, 2000)
Popular culture and academia are entering a period of robust, aggressive atheism. As this “new atheism” becomes more mainstream it is being advanced by many intelligent and thoughtful people. It will increasingly become the default setting for the vox populi, the accepted consensus of the population. A growing percentage of Americans now describe themselves as atheist and are raising their children in this worldview. A child who begins formal education in this milieu may lack the skills to recognize and accept the transcendence of God.
In a Christian pre-school, staffed by educators who embrace the transcendence of life, the child receives a synthesis of the influences that will allow her to flourish spiritually–now, and in later life. Teaching social skills, responsible stewardship of the environment and other admirable traits, outside of the transcendent and without the framework of religiosity, risks fragmenting life rather than unifying it in a relationship with God. That’s why BCS sees pre-school as a time for building a foundation for life-long learning. Educating a four-year-old in the knowledge of God’s sovereignty over all of life is every bit as important as educating a seventeen-year-old. The child’s first steps are pointed toward the finish line.
Written by Stefan Ulstein, International Admissions Adviser and International English Teacher, on behalf of Kevin Dunning, Superintendent
Interlandi, Jeneen in https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/09/magazine/why-are-our-most-important-teachers-paid-the-least.html