There’s a saying I’ve heard that says "Start with the end in mind." It’s a good one that applies to many things in life. I’ve been thinking about it as it relates to our mission here in the Conway School District. This week, we celebrated the naming of 8 National Merit Scholars. We also had a planning meeting for high school parents. Amidst all this our teachers have spent countless hours teaching our students, trying to meet each one individually to make sure he/she can be successful. Each student is at a different place on the educational journey. But that journey begins before they ever get to kindergarten.

Harvard research now shows definitively that the human brain develops most from birth to age 5 — with the most significant growth factor being a developmental process called "serve and return." This happens in a relationship between a child and his/her parents or caregivers. Basically it’s the constant back and forth activity that takes place between the child and the other person that helps develop both their brain’s capacity to learn and desire to learn, as well as what they learn.

What this means is that your child’s ability to learn and how well they will do in school is determined long before they ever enter the doors for kindergarten.

Think about that for a second. Go back and re-read that sentence. For many of us, this is a big shift in thinking. That means learning doesn’t begin when school begins. Instead, it has been taking place since birth. (Honestly even before!) The implications of this are HUGE, and there is so much more than I could possibly cover in one article. But we can boil it down to this: children need supportive, stable, loving relationships with adults their first five years of life in order for their brains to develop in a healthy way. Prioritizing and pursuing this, along with a preschool education program that focuses on emotional, social, cognitive, and language development will prepare children for success in school and later in life.

The brain grows rapidly from birth to age five, building foundations of understanding and character. Early childhood education gives children skills in attentiveness, motivation, self-control, and sociability — all of which help make them better students and more productive citizens. (Notice — preschool is about thinking skills AND character traits — preschool targets the whole child in its approach. Imagine how much this helps future teachers when these kids come to school with conflict resolution and other social skills.)

In our Conway Schools’ Pre-K Program, housed at Sallie Cone Preschool, we use a program called conscious discipline. Conscious Discipline is a comprehensive classroom management program and a social-emotional curriculum. Conscious Discipline encourages the concept of the school as a "family." This helps the students bring the ideas home and apply them there as well. Sallie Cone preschool does a Parent Involvement activity each month as well. Each member of the family — both adult and child — learns the skills needed to successfully manage life tasks such as learning, forming relationships, communicating effectively, being sensitive to others’ needs and getting along with others. The main focus areas of Conscious Discipline deal with self-control and discipline skills. They teach teachers and students to become proactive instead of reactive during moments of conflict. They also provide "do’s" instead of "don’ts" for discipline, trying to focus on the positive.

Our Sallie Cone Pre-K program targets economically disadvantaged households, because we know these are the students who are least likely to attend preschool elsewhere. At-risk children from disadvantaged environments often struggle in school from the start. Attending Preschool gives them needed resources and helps give them a foundation for success for the rest of their lives. Without it, they may struggle throughout school, and honestly, throughout life. Our Arkansas Preschool Plus Program also partners with the Conway Chamber to work with private preschools to provide resources and help to them as well.

So besides providing your child with a home environment that is safe and allows opportunities for interaction and stimulation, giving your child a preschool education can be vital to a child’s development and success in school. This is why preschool becomes such a "game changer" for so many kids. It either levels the playing field or at least gets kids started playing the game before they get into school.

Knowing this now, what we are seeing as we look at our current students in grades K-12, is that the learning differences our students have and the gaps in their knowledge do not come primarily from the current grades they are in, but they are deficits that have grown from grade to grade, areas of struggle that they likely came into school with. In other words, they did not begin school "on grade level" or at the standard required. Teachers say If you compare a student who has preschool knowledge and education with one who does not, the preschool child is much more prepared to learn in kindergarten.

So it’s a matter of prevention not intervention. By effectively using our preschool program — and maybe even one day expanding it — we can hopefully cut down on the number of students who need interventions once they are in school. Because preschool kids will be more prepared — educationally and socially — for school and for life. This information gives us hope that we can do more to help our students, maximizing their early years while their brains are still developing.

We cannot forget how important the beginning is. We need to stop thinking of that all important "First Day of School" as being the beginning of kids’ educational journey. What we do at the beginning of their lives is just as important. We must begin with the end in mind.

(Heather Kendrick is the Communications Specialist for Conway Public Schools. Follow this column bi-weekly in the Log Cabin Democrat. Contact Kendrick at kendrickh@conwayschools.net or by phone at 501-450-4800 Ext. 242.)