Aisha Sultan: A different view of preschool, from the trenches
Aug 2, 2015
I worried about all the wrong things when my children were in preschool. I came to this realization after spending four months observing preschool teachers toil through a difficult year with a few hard-to-manage students.
Eight years ago, my husband and I were entrenched in raising preschoolers. The 0-to-6-year-old dogma was drilled into us: This is peak brain-development time. Their physical safety and health, their general happiness and academic progress consumed much of my attention during those preschool years. The latest research, however, suggests it’s the soft skills of social and emotional development that are strongly correlated with long-term academic and life success. Preschool teachers have probably always known this. But parents may have underestimated the importance. Years of headlines screaming brain development and “Einstein” learning for babies shifted our attention to academic skills.
Like most parents, I wanted to make sure my kids were having fun, making friends and excited about learning in preschool. But like many other parents, I was caught up in all the learning that is easiest to measure. How well were they reading? Did they have basic math concepts? How well did they write their names? How far along were their gross and fine motor skills? I embraced perhaps the most plaintive middle-class vexation: Were they being challenged enough?
My experience of what happens in a preschool classroom was limited to the parties, the teacher conferences and stories I heard from other parents. During the daily drop-off and pickup, I chatted with the teachers and heard highlights of the day. Observing a classroom for hours over a period of months provided new insight. When I watched Christine Grosch and Paula Ayers, of the University City Children’s Center, run their pre-K class, I saw day-to-day teaching we don’t see when our own children are in preschool. I saw skirmishes and victories that aren’t as easily measured as progression on a reading chart.
This is what I saw Grosch and Ayers spend most of their time and energy focused on:
Preschool teachers narrate a lot of what they are currently doing and what will happen next. They talk about what they are seeing. They ask children to wonder aloud about what might happen. Preschoolers are learning five to six words a day, and teachers are introducing new words constantly.
They ask their students a lot of questions. What did you like best? What did you do? What happened in that story? What was that song about?
Grosch sings a lot. They read aloud frequently and with exaggerated emotion.
They don’t jump in and do things for their students. They brainstorm with them to solve problems, and they praise a child for figuring something out on his own.
They talk aloud in situations where a child’s self-control is tested. They play games, like board games and card games, which require taking turns and following rules.
They are often over-the-top in their enthusiasm.
They have simple, step-by-step problem-solving procedures in place. Often they say, “How can we solve this problem?” Or “What do you need to make this happen?” Or “Did you talk to the other person?”
They hug or carry or have children in their lap constantly.
They give shy kids words like “Can I play with you?” to use when they want to enter a situation where other children are playing.
They study what the children are interested in and make an effort to seek answers to questions that bubble up every day.
When a child gets hurt, they ask the offender to ask what he or she can do to help the other child feel better. They encourage the same thing when a classmate sees someone who is sad or crying. They point out feelings of characters in books and talk about what could happen in certain situations.
They instruct children to get their coats on and hang them up. They tell them to go the bathroom and wash their hands.They give the children opportunities to cut, color, paste, paint and play. “It’s important to strike a balance between doing and not doing. Sometimes not doing is just as important as intervening,” Grosch explained to me.
I should have focused more of my energy on letting my children at 3 and 4 years old attempt to do things for themselves that may have seemed a little above their abilities at the time. I should have asked their teachers more questions about social development and how to nurture those skills. I should have put as much energy into helping them learn a robust vocabulary to describe emotions.
Luckily for me, my children thrived with excellent preschool teachers. But I wish I had understood how skilled teachers impart those critical social skills necessary for lifelong success. I would have worried a lot less.