By Allison Wedell Schumacher
Years ago, when I was casting about for a job, I ended up as a part-time nanny to a three-year-old boy named Logan. I got the impression that his parents, who had listed the job on Craigslist, had met some . . . less-than-satisfactory candidates in their search for someone to take care of their only child during the day. They seemed pretty relieved as we sat down to talk, and they offered me the job on the spot.
When I asked if they needed me to do anything besides the basics (feeding Logan, bathing him, making sure he pulled the dog’s tail as little as possible, and keeping him from falling down the stairs), my new employers said, “He doesn’t know his colors or his numbers yet. You could work on those with him.”
I dutifully attempted to do so, but after several months of being my charge, poor Logan still didn’t know the difference between orange and blue, and any number of items above one stubbornly remained two. “How many bears do you see with Goldilocks?” “Two.” “Let’s count how many cookies are in this baker’s dozen!” “One, two, two, two . . . ”
For one thing, I am not a trained early childhood educator (a fact about which I was candid with Logan’s parents from the get-go). But it wasn’t until Logan was no longer my charge and I started writing and editing for a company that created social-emotional learning curricula that I understood that my priorities had been off. Yes, colors and numbers and letters are important. But what I should have been teaching Logan—and reporting to his parents about—was social-emotional learning.
It may sound “touchy-feely,” but it makes sense when you consider it from the perspective of a kindergarten teacher. Imagine you have 20 five-year-olds coming into your class this fall. Imagine that your job is to make sure they are prepared for first grade, which includes imbuing them with the basics of literacy and math. Now imagine that few of them have ever been expected to sit at a table or desk for anything longer than a meal (and maybe not even that long), and that some of them haven’t even spent much time around other kids.
In short, it doesn’t really matter how many letters or numbers or colors those kids know if they can’t calm down strong feelings, listen to and follow directions, ask for help when needed, or sit quietly and focus on a task. If they can’t do those things—a combination of executive function and social-emotional skills—they can’t learn.
And to make things slightly more complicated, kids aren’t born with these skills. But they are certainly capable of developing them, which is where we come in. If we start kids young, teaching them to identify and manage strong feelings, learn listening skills, strengthen working memory, develop and use assertiveness skills, and nurture self-control, we can set them up for success in kindergarten and beyond.
If you’re worrying about Logan, don’t; he turned out happy and healthy. And my experience with him (and my subsequent experience in the field of social-emotional learning) certainly made me a better parent when the time came. For one thing, when we read about Little Bo Peep, we weren’t counting how many sheep she had or talking about the color of her dress. We were looking for clues on her face about how she felt about losing her sheep. For the record, Bo Peep was very happy when they came home, wagging their tails behind them.
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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