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Getting The Most Out Of Pre-K, 'The Most Important' Year In School

Shannon Wright for NPR

Suzanne Bouffard's new book, The Most Important Year, may be just what parents of preschoolers have been waiting for: a guide to what a quality pre-K program should look like.

Bouffard spent a lot of time in classrooms watching teachers do some really good things and some not-so-good things.

What are some of the things you learned?

Successful pre-K [programs] teach children to learn to be learners, how to be curious about how things work and find answers to problems.

You want to have hands-on experiences and opportunities for children to learn about things that apply to their lives. Good teachers always engage children in rich conversations and ask them open-ended questions, what they think and what they want to know.

Another really important piece of a good program is that it focuses on things like self-control and behavior in the class, how to wait your turn, how to share, how to deal with frustration and how to solve conflicts. Those are skills kids are just beginning to develop at 3, 4 and 5 years old.

Suzanne Bouffard
Anastasia Sierra / Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Suzanne Bouffard

Isn't much of that simply a matter of good parenting?

People ask me that question a lot. Parents play an important role. But at home, [children] they're not in a group so they don't learn how to wait their turn or they may not learn how to share. Even if a child is well-regulated at home, there will be new things to learn at school.

You give interesting examples of how children learn and what both teachers and parents miss. You highlight a story where a little boy wrote his sixes backward.

His teacher was getting really frustrated, requiring that he write [his sixes] over and over again, but it wasn't breaking that habit. Eventually, the teacher had the boy stop whenever he came up to a six, switch pencils and write the six in a different color.

It worked because it broke the habit by helping the child develop a new habit. It was a matter of learning a self-regulation skill. So you're fixing a problem and at the same time teaching kids they can be problem solvers.

You say this is all part of executive functioning. What is that?

It's basically the ability to manage your thoughts, emotions and behaviors to accomplish goals. It's like an air traffic controller at a busy airport. You're able to manage multiple pieces of information, coming and going, and you're keeping everything safe. It's the part of the brain that allows you to be organized and thoughtful.

Executive functioning is a skill that takes a very long time to develop. Children start to develop it at 3 or 4 years old, but it continues to develop throughout [K-12] and into adulthood.

Research shows that one of the reasons teenagers make more risky decisions is because their executive functioning skills are not yet fully developed.

There's growing pressure on parents and schools to get kids to read early and to test children early. You say this is bad and wrong-headed.

Young children develop skills at different rates. Some learn to walk first. Some learn to talk first. But by the time they get to school, unless there's some kind of developmental problem, they're all walking and talking. It doesn't really matter if they started walking or talking at 10 months or 14 months.

Reading is the same way. There's a completely normal range of development in which children start learning how to read. If you push too hard, sometimes it turns kids off.

Now that being said, it's never too early to expose children to rich language, word games, shapes of letters and the sounds they make. But there's a big difference between exposing children to those things and expecting everybody to meet a certain reading standard at a certain age and testing them on it.

You also talk about the dangers of "shaming kids to improve" and creating a culture of humiliation for both kids and teachers.

First of all, that's not the norm, but I did observe it in some classrooms. It's the idea that if we're very strict with children and make it painful for them if they don't meet our expectations, that they will be motivated to learn more.
For example, I talked to teachers who had very strict expectations of the number of words a child should recognize at the end of the school year. In order to meet that goal, they would use flash cards and test kids, constantly. There was a lot of pressure not just on children, but on teachers. One teacher I talked to, her principal would publicly call out teachers whose kids were not meeting the goal. Kids were anxious, stressed and didn't want to come to school.

Let's talk about the assumptions most pre-K teachers make about the way children learn. You say they need to get away from "passive learning" and encourage young children to "construct" their own learning. What do you mean by that?

Passive learning is when children sit and listen and adults tell them things. For example, I visited a teacher who was showing children how to mix colors to make new colors. She had kids sit in a circle with her at the front and she used paper cups to mix paints, then showed kids what happened.

It was not an effective lesson because it was really difficult for children to see what was happening and they weren't involved themselves.

So having the children mix the colors themselves would have let them "construct their own learning"?

Yes. Studies show that [most] kids actually remember and understand the information better when they learn in a hands-on way.

We've lost lots of kids because most classroom instruction is based on passive learning. As kids move forward and their school activities and projects get more complicated and difficult, it gets harder and harder for them to rely on their rote knowledge. They don't understand the process of solving problems. They don't know how to innovate.

One of the more contentious debates in preschool education these days is play vs. academics. What does the research say?

The research says very clearly that children learn through play and this notion that you have to choose between play and academic learning is a false dichotomy.

One study showed that you can give children building blocks and let them build whatever they want. Or you can give children building blocks with a goal — to build a landing pad for a helicopter, for example. In both cases, everybody ends up having fun and learning something but the kids who had a goal actually used richer vocabulary, especially around spacial skills and building concepts.

Free play is very important and it has its place in and out of school, but we shouldn't be afraid of curricula that tries to teach specific things. Also, you don't have to push children who aren't interested in doing a particular activity.

The ideal is to give children choices.

You caution that we should not view pre-K as the answer to solving the achievement gap. Can you explain?

Pre-K is a really important part of the puzzle, but it's not enough on its own, for a couple of reasons. Children need a solid foundation for learning long before they get to preschool, [but] we also need elementary and secondary school programs that are of high quality.

If a child has been in a supportive and nurturing classroom, then goes into a classroom that's strict and focused on punishing children, that's a rude awakening.

The big takeaway here is: Any gains a child makes in a quality preschool program will fade away in a classroom that's not supportive and nurturing.

We all know what quality programs do for children, and yes, they're expensive. But not as expensive as all the remedial programs we fund these days to "fix" kids who missed out. So the choice should be simple.

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