Making Pre-K Matter: Instilling a Mobility Mentality

Making Pre-K Matter: Instilling a Mobility Mentality

Making Pre-K Matter: Instilling a Mobility Mentality


  • Rather than pursuing universal programs, we recommend targeting pre-K at the low-income children who need it the most and are the least likely to get it;
  • We also advocate for incorporating grit, a growth mindset, and other skills inherent in a mobility mentality into the curriculum; and
  • We should offer wrap-around services to address the full range of needs faced by low-income communities to ensure the grown-ups in children’s lives are equipped to help them succeed.

Low-income students start school already trailing their higher-income peers, and many will struggle for years without ever catching up. But that gap goes far beyond pure academics, and so too must the policies aimed at addressing it. To ensure we keep the promise of our educational system and give every child a chance at being upwardly mobile, we should target our limited early childhood education resources towards the children who need it most and make those programs as meaningful as possible. To meet the needs of those kids, we must fund pre-Kindergarten programs that enshrine the non-academic skills which research shows are crucial to future success, while offering their families the wrap-around services they need to continue that learning at home.

An unacceptable seven in ten children born in the lowest economic quintile will end up poor or near poor as adults. Economic solutions are crucial, but there are non-economic ways to increase a person’s chance at success and upward mobility as well. Part of the answer to the mobility crisis is ensuring that every child in America is imbued with a mentality which research shows can help them succeed. This mobility mentality combines a growth mindset (the belief that intelligence and ability are not innate qualities but skills that can be developed with practice) with grit (the tenacity and perseverance to do the work necessary to develop those skills and work towards long-term goals despite setbacks along the way). Instilling the mobility mentality in the next generation is a process that begins with the grown-ups in the crucial early years of a child’s life—parents, daycare providers, relatives, teachers, and clergy. This will give every American child a better chance in life if we incorporate it into our priorities around pre-Kindergarten policy.

The Problem

Early childhood education plays a critical role in upward mobility—because while the very best way for someone to move up and out of the lowest income quintile is to earn a college degree, low-income children regularly start their educational path less prepared than their higher-income peers, and many never catch up. This gap is well documented: low-income children enter kindergarten four to six months behind their classmates from middle-class families in both oral language and pre-literacy skills.1 Children who enter kindergarten without knowing their letters have significantly lower reading ability at the end of first grade, and 88% of children considered poor readers in first grade will still be considered poor readers in fourth grade.2 Further, children in low-income households hear 30 million fewer words by age three than children in higher-income families—and oral language and vocabulary are crucial building blocks for reading skills.3 By the time children are three years old, those from low-income families score an entire standard deviation lower on IQ tests than those from wealthier families.4 And this achievement gap between children from families of different means is growing—as documented in the graph below, research by Dr. Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University shows that the income achievement gap is now almost two times larger than the gap between white and African-American children, when 50 years ago nearly the reverse was true.5 While the relationship between parents’ education level and children’s achievement has remained stable, the size of the gap between high and low-income children increased 30-40% from the generation born in 1976 to that born in 2001.6

Comparing the Income and Black-White Achievement Gaps7

Comparing the Income and Black-White Achievement Gaps

But it’s more than reading, writing, and arithmetic. Forty-six percent of kindergarten teachers say that at least half of their students have problems following directions, and 34% reported that more than half of their students have problems working independently.8 Much of the achievement gap between low- and high-income students is rooted in not just academics but also executive functions—non-cognitive skills like handling stress, delaying gratification, and controlling impulses that help people deal with confusing and unpredictable situations and are key elements of a mobility mentality. The high stress of growing up in poverty often means that low-income children have fewer opportunities to practice these skills—there is no point in delaying gratification when they are repeatedly denied any in the first place—which leaves their executive functions underdeveloped and can have negative effects on their future success and physical health, according to Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.9 Even further, the stress of their daily lives might actually erode what level of these skills they’d developed naturally. These executive functions are controlled by the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, which is developed most critically in children’s early years. In fact, the most important skill development for executive functions takes place in the first five years of a child’s life—before kindergarten begins.10

In addition to the academic and developmental challenges faced by low-income students, children whose families live in poverty face further obstacles many of their peers will not—parents who work long hours for low pay and can’t afford childcare, lack of health insurance or access to quality care, and a deficit of institutional knowledge about the educational system. Without access to all-day pre-K programs, working parents have to juggle astronomical childcare costs—with the average cost of sending a four-year-old to center-based daycare consuming nearly a third of the median single mother’s income.11 And the average weekly childcare costs for working mothers with children under the age of 15 increased 70% between 1985 and 2011.12 We know that grown-ups play a hugely important role in the future success of children, but the current system only seems to make it more difficult for parents to help their children get ahead—with most pre-K programs offering only short periods of instruction that interrupt the work day, childcare costs pricing families out of the market, and little assistance targeted at the family as a whole and their broader needs. That makes it even harder for them to use education as a stepping stone to upward mobility. 

The Solution 

Target and expand pre-K for children with the biggest need.

The magnitude of this problem has led several policymakers in Washington to propose universal pre-K education. Universal pre-K would be ideal if we had unlimited resources, but that may not be possible. According to estimates by the New America Foundation, if 75% of the nation’s approximately 4.1 million four-year-olds were enrolled in President Obama’s proposed universal, full-day, high-quality pre-K and the federal government covered half the costs, it would come to $12.3 billion each year.13 Instead, we should focus our efforts on providing comprehensive, peak-quality pre-K to the cohort of low-income three- and four-year-olds that need it the most and are the least likely to get it now.14 In fact, the data show that pre-K doesn’t actually need to be universal: higher-income children face fewer barriers to mobility and less stress in their daily lives than low-income children and thus get fewer benefits from pre-K classes. Low-income children who attend pre-K, however, see measurable benefits. They are less likely to be arrested and more likely to graduate from high school, be employed as adults, and earn higher wages.15

Studies show that not only do low-income children gain far more benefits from attending pre-K than their middle-class peers, but those benefits also last longer. On average, a child who was born into poverty or has less-educated parents scores in the 33rd percentile on reading tests when he enters kindergarten—but attending pre-K increases predicted performance to the 44th percentile.16 Researchers found these score increases and the academic and non-cognitive skills they reflect also persist into higher grades for low-income children, while they begin to fade for wealthy children.17 If we are truly committed to addressing our mobility crisis, we must focus on providing low-income kids in particular with the best chance possible to be upwardly mobile—and that starts with making them the utmost priority in pre-K.

Instill the mobility mentality in existing and future pre-K programs.

Pre-K curriculum should not only close the vocabulary gap but also give low-income students the opportunity to build the important non-cognitive skills like grit and a growth mindset that contribute to mobility at the very time their brain is developing. Among preschool- and early elementary school-aged children, these skills are highly predictive of long-term success. Students who demonstrate skills like self-regulation, focusing attention, and adherence to rules typically have higher math and reading scores throughout their time in school and are more likely to have successful careers, marriages, and health outcomes.18 In fact, these skills are even more predictive of school readiness than IQ scores.19 The beauty is that they are not difficult to develop—evidence-based approaches aimed at early school-aged children include teaching them through sports, martial arts, or mindfulness exercises and via classroom curriculum and teacher training. Pre-K programs can foster executive functions inherent in the mobility mentality in several ways, including playing games that require memory sequencing and turn-taking, providing opportunities for child-led play, and ending each day with a review of what was learned to promote working memory.20

Some programs have already incorporated mobility mentality skills into their pre-K curriculum, like KinderCare, which operates in 39 states, and Montessori, whose students test higher on non-cognitive skills than those attending other types of pre-K programs.21 And Illinois could serve as a model for how states can incorporate instilling the mobility mentality into their early childhood education policies—in 2012 it became the very first state to include these skills as one of the core components of its early learning guidelines, providing parents and caregivers with strategies and indicators to help young children develop self-regulation, problem-solving, persistence, empathy, and confidence.22 If we are serious about mobility, we should make these programs not the exception but the rule.

Offer wrap-around services to fully serve the needs of the low-income community.

Wrap-around pre-K is specifically designed to address the many needs of low-income families in a more comprehensive way. Its structure varies from program to program, but it typically includes before and/or after school childcare so parents can work full time, medical or dental care for the children and/or their families, testing for developmental delays as well as hearing and eyesight, support services, and programs that involve parents in their children’s education. Research shows that full-day preschool programs like those offered by wrap-around providers give the same academic benefits as half-day programs but also increase parental employment and earnings.23 And when parents have more of what they need, they can spend more time helping to instill a mobility mentality in their children.

Several states and cities already offer some version of wrap-around services, and their experiences could be used to develop best practices for other states or federally-funded programs. In Arkansas, for example, the Arkansas Better Chance for School Success program provides pre-K services that last 7.5 hours per day and coordinate between pre-K and childcare programs to provide before and after care, wrap-around services, and holiday/summer care.24 And in Michigan, many programs in the state’s Great Start Readiness Program provide wrap-around child care funded by tuition and the childcare subsidy and all public school programs must provide wrap-around care either on-site or through referrals or transportation.25 Chicago’s wrap-around pre-K program provides families with health and nutrition counseling, job training, and cooking classes.26 

Incorporating wrap-around services and a focus on the skills that build a mobility mentality in federal pre-K policy will ensure that federally-funded early childhood education programs like Head Start are focusing on the needs of low-income students, teaching them what they need most to succeed and equipping their whole family to do so—not just helping them to memorize their ABCs. And pre-K itself is actually a money-saver—every $1 spent on early childhood care saves $7 down the road because those children are less likely to repeat grades, require special education classes, or need welfare as an adult.27 The federal government already has significant monetary influence in early childhood education—not only through Head Start, but also through programs like the IDEA preschool grants and the Childcare and Development Fund, which alone allocated $5.2 billion dollars in grants during fiscal year 2012.28 We should ensure that that influence is wielded in a way that will give all kids the best chance of becoming upwardly mobile—by focusing on providing low-income students with the wrap-around care they need and encouraging the skills like grit and the growth mindset that are crucial to later success. This can be done through federal legislation—like a targeted version of Senator Tom Harkin’s (D-IA) existing pre-K bill, or by prioritizing this model when the federal government awards grants and other funding for early childhood education.  


We have a chronic mobility problem which begs for intensive and targeted solutions. We should have federally-supported pre-K begin to address that need, at least in part, in low-income communities. It should work with young children so they learn the skills inherent in a mobility mentality that enhance and predict success. It should work with parents to help bring those lessons into the homes. It would be ideal if pre-K of this magnitude and quality could be universal throughout the nation. But until that time comes, half measures aiming for universality will not be good enough to break through the mobility barriers facing young children born into poverty today.

  • Poverty/Mobility40
  • Early Education5


  1. Bruce Fuller, “Preschool is Important, but it’s More Important for Poor Children,” The Washington Post, February 9, 2014. Accessed September 25, 2014. Available at:


  2. “Why All Children Benefit from Pre-K,” The Pew Charitable Trusts, June 15, 2005. Accessed September 25, 2014. Available at:


  3. Motoko Rich, “Language-Gap Study Bolsters a Push for Pre-K,” The New York Times, October 21, 2013. Accessed September 25, 2014. Available at:


  4. Beth Hawkins, “New Study: High-Quality Preschool for Poor Kids Under 3 Would Eliminate Achievement Gap,” MinnPost, January 20, 2014. Accessed September 25, 2014. Avaialble at:


  5. Sean F. Reardon, “The Widening Academic Achievement Gap Between the Rich and the Poor: New Evidence and Possible Explanations,” Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality and the Uncertain Life Chances of Low-Income Children, New York: Russell Sage Foundation Press, 2011. Accessed September 25, 2014. Available at:


  6. Ibid.


  7. Ibid.


  8. Why All Children Benefit from Pre-K.”


  9. Paul Tough, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2012, Print.


  10. Diana Mendley Rauner, “Make ‘Executive Function’ a Priority in Early Education Policy,” Catalyst Chicago, May 30, 2012. Accessed September 25, 2014. Available at:


  11. “Parents and the High Cost of Child Care: 2013 Report,” Child Care Aware, November 3, 2013. Accessed September 25, 2014. Available at:


  12. Simone Pathe, “When it’s Cheaper for Parents to Stay Home than Pay for Child Care,” PBS NewsHour, May 8, 2014. Accessed September 25, 2014. Available at:


  13. Alex Holt, “Doing the Math: The Cost of Publicly Funded ‘Universal’ Pre-K,” New America Foundation, Early Ed Watch, March 14, 2013. Accessed September 25, 2014. Available at:


  14. Katherine A. Magnuson, Christopher Ruhm, and Jane Waldfogel, “Does Prekindergarten Improve School Preparation and Performance?,” The Economics of Education Review, Vol. 26, Issue 1, February 2007. Accessed September 25, 2014. Available at:


  15. Ibid., See also “High-Quality Prekindergarten Is a Wise Investment,” Fact Sheet, The National Women’s Law Center, March 8, 2013. Accessed September 25, 2014. Available at:


  16. Magnuson, Ruhm, and Waldfogel


  17. Emily Badger, “Why Universal Pre-K Would Be Good for Poor and Well-Off Families Alike,” CityLab, December 20, 2013. Accessed September 25, 2014. Available at:


  18. United States, Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology, “Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century,” Draft Report, February 2013. Print. 


  19. Rauner


  20. “Executive Function and School Readiness,” Resource Paper, Child Care Aware America, November 2012. Accessed September 25, 2014. Available at:

  21. “Executive-Function Skills in Preschool and Prekindergarten,” KinderCare. Accessed September 25, 2014. Available at:; See also Tim Seldin, “Montessori Research Findings,” The Montessori Foundation, September 28, 2009. Accessed September 25, 2014. Available at:


  22. Rauner; See also Illinois, State Board of Education, “Illinois Early Learning Guidelines for Children Birth to Age Three.” Accessed September 25, 2014. Available at:


  23. W. Steven Barnett, “Preschool Education and Its Lasting Effects: Research and Policy Implications,” National Institute for Early Education Research, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, September 10, 2008. Accessed September 25, 2014. Available at:


  24. United States, Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Child Care, Technical Assistance Network, “Pre-Kindergarten and Child Care Coordination Initiatives,” Child Care State Systems Specialist Network, September 1, 2012. Accessed September 25, 2014. Available at:


  25. Ibid.


  26. “City Opening New Early Childhood Education Center On South Side,” CBS Chicago, August 8, 2013. Accessed September 25, 2014. Available at:


  27. “President Obama’s Plan for Early Education,” Questions and Answers, The National Women’s Law Center, April 2013. Accessed September 25, 2014. Available at:


  28. United States, Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Child Care, “Child Care and Development Fund,” Fact Sheet, September 17, 2012. Accessed September 25, 2014. Available at:



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