+ Pre-K Needs Social Skills Along With ABCs

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Penn State researchers proved the need for instruction in social skills as well as academic skills at the Pre-Kindergarten level. 

“If preschools focus just on the facts — let’s just get the letter knowledge in, let’s just get the number knowledge in — they’re really missing the engine that’s going to drive the desire and motivation for learning,” says Penn State University psychology professor Karen Bierman, who led the study.

Face it, 4-year-olds are lovable but self-centered, impulsive and prone to meltdowns.  Teaching them not to whack a classmate who snatches a toy is tricky.  It’s also necessary.

Turning to Head Start, they divided 44 Head Start classrooms with about 350 4-year-olds into two groups.  Half were taught a traditional Head Start curriculum.  The other half added a program called REDI Head Start that included weekly special social lessons — puppets or stories that teach specific problem-solving skills.

Twiggie the Turtle

For example: Twiggie the Turtle, who pushed his friend after she knocked over his tower of blocks.

A wise old turtle tells Twiggie that when he gets upset he should go inside his shell, take a deep calming breath, and say what bothered him and how it makes him feel.

“It really made me mad that you knocked my blocks over.”

Teachers tell their preschoolers to cross your arms and be like Twiggie in his shell.  Then practice what James might say if Suzie takes the toy he wants, or if Billy says something mean to Tommy.

Instead of the vague advice that parents tend to say to their kids(“use your words”) , “be like Twiggie” is concrete and helps them behave in ways that become internalized.

“What’s really beautiful is you’ll see children over in the blocks center and someone stands up and does the turtle and talks, and someone else does the turtle and talks, and then they sit down and play again,” says Bierman.

Bierman and her group also offered more intense reading-readiness instruction, including interactive reading.  The teacher asked questions after each page or so to work on vocabulary and comprehension.  In addition, there were listening games to tease out discrete sounds in words.

Both require self-control in order to focus.

By year’s end, preschoolers given this enriched instruction scored higher on tests of school readiness, both social and academic. Bierman’s results have been reported in the journal Child Development.

Here are some examples:

  • 70 percent of kids in the enriched classes showed little or no disruptive behavior (compared to 50 percent in the regular classes).
  • Although 12 percent of the enriched students still struggled to focus attention on academics, that is smaller than the 21 percent in regular classes who were struggling.
  • 20 percent of enriched-class students exceeded a national vocabulary norm (compared with 15 percent in regular classes).

James Griffin of the NIH’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development says preschools always aim to teach good behavior, but they use a “crowd control” approach.  “Stop doing that, put that down, don’t pull his hair!”  Such phrases don’t help children learn to resolve conflict.

According to Griffin, the new study shows how to teach children positive steps and not just what to avoid.   And it does so in a way that’s easy for busy teachers.  Much of the enriched curriculum is commercially available, along with similar programs also being studied in Head Start. 

“You can impact both social, emotional and the pre-academic skills at the same time, in the same classroom, with the same teacher, without overwhelming the teacher,” says Griffin. 

The ages 3 to 7 are a key window for learning self control.  Bierman says talk to youngsters daily about their feelings and how to work through problems.  Who did they play with?  What made them happy?  What made them sad?

Perhaps get a misbehaving child to take a deep breath and calmly explain his or her feelings.  This doesn’t mean giving in; you can say “I see you’re sad, but it’s still bedtime.”  Such an approach helps a child learn that they can feel upset but still meet expectations.

Bierman notes that parents should calm down too.  “It doesn’t help to use your words if you’re just yelling.”

source: Associated Press article by Lauran Neergaard on 11/14/08

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