By Allison Wedell Schumacher
Isn’t it fun to look at our young children and imagine what they’ll grow up to be? Look at that tower your daughter is building with blocks: Surely she’ll be a well-renowned architect! Your son is constantly asking for more bandages for his stuffies: Perhaps nursing school or med school is in his future! It’s natural to feel ambitious on our children’s behalf, but the first step is to get them into a good preschool.
Studies are increasingly showing the importance of the preschool years and how children’s experiences during that time can have repercussions for the rest of their lives. So your instincts are spot on—but make sure you’re considering the right criteria when finding the perfect preschool.
If your daughter is going to be an architect, she’ll need (among other things) good math skills. But here’s the key: She doesn’t need them now. So as tempting as it may be, don’t go looking for a preschool with a killer geometry program. (Do they even have those?) No, what you want is a preschool that teaches social-emotional learning.
I once said something like this to a fellow parent, who looked at me genuinely puzzled and asked, “Why? So she can be a nice architect?”
Well, no. Or rather, partly. I mean, I’ll take a nice architect over a mean architect any day of the week, but that’s not what we’re driving at here. If you ask ten kindergarten teachers what skills they want incoming students to have, nine of them will say they don’t really care whether the kids know their ABCs and 123s. What they need are kids who can learn.
Think about it: The transition from an environment where you’re allowed time at different play centers, naps, snacks, and exercise to an environment where you’re expected to do a lot more sitting at a desk or table to learn . . . well, that could be jarring if you weren’t prepared for it.
So how do we prepare kids to be good learners? We teach them to recognize and manage strong emotions so that in kindergarten, when they’re excited about the game of tag they’re going to play at recess, they can calm down and pay attention to the math lesson beforehand. We teach them listening skills so that when their kindergarten teacher assigns them a task, they can remember what it is and get it done. We teach them assertiveness skills so that when they don’t understand something, they can ask for help. And we teach them empathy skills so that they can get along with their peers and work in groups.
In short, we prepare kids to be good learners by teaching them social-emotional skills. Your daughter can’t learn to be an architect if she doesn’t know how to listen, focus, ask questions, or work as part of a team. Those skills form the foundation on top of which she’ll pile all sorts of academic knowledge—so make sure you look for a preschool that will teach them. Ask what sort of social-emotional learning program they have in place and make sure it includes the elements above (rather than simply “we talk about our feelings in circle every morning”). While you’re at it, ask them what sort of personal safety program they have in place (if the words “stranger danger” come up, cross that preschool off your list and move on to the next).
A preschool that teaches social-emotional learning will prepare your child for the academic learning that starts in kindergarten and will continue to aid her into adulthood. And turning her into a nice architect? That’s the cherry on top.
Allison Wedell Schumacher is a freelance writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on child abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, fitness, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at babycenter.com, MomsRising.org, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.
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