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A Good Beginning

A Good Beginning: Sending America’s Children to School
With the Social and Emotional Competence They Need to Succeed

Chicago Tribune
September 6, 2000

By Ronald Kotulak, Staff Writer

People Skills, not ABCs, Aid Kindergartners, experts say

For years, educators have been encouraging parents and child-care workers to teach children letters, numbers, and colors before sending them off to school.

But new research to be released this week suggests that being ready for school really means being friendly, attentive, and curious, and failing to instill these qualities sets up children for failure.

A new report, the combined work of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and a number of government groups and philanthropic funds, brings together the latest scientific evidence identifying the risk factors linked to school failure, such as low birth weight, poor day care, abuse, neglect, poor parenting, and early behavioral problems.

It sets out to establish new priorities for parents and to call for an overhaul of the federal programs designed to prepare children for school. Evidence continues to mount that despite these programs, children are increasingly showing up for the first day of kindergarten unprepared to learn.

The report finds that parents can improve a child’s chances of success in kindergarten by fostering a strong relationship that enhances confidence, independence, curiosity, motivation, persistence, self-control, cooperation, empathy, and the ability to communicate.

The report recommends that child-care centers and government policies on early childhood development refocus to promote emotional and social development.

New brain research shows that how children learn to get along with others and control their feelings is greatly influenced by their earliest experiences, and that social and emotional competence are more important for school success than learning the ABCs and 1-2-3s.

“What the basic science is telling us is that simple counting, colors, and the alphabet are really not how kids get ready for school,” said Dr. Peter Jensen, and expert consultant for the report and director of Columbia University’s Center for the Advancement of Children’s Mental Health.

“If you look at what teachers say in kindergarten and 1st grade, it’s not that kids don’t count and know their numbers and colors. It’s that they don’t sit still, they can’t behave, and they don’t have the behavioral and emotional skills that allow them to be motivated to learn,” he said.

“This report is absolutely on target,” said Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, a developmental psychologist at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy.

The report titled “A Good Beginning,” which is to be presented Wednesday at a news conference at the New York Academy of Sciences, also points out a growing gap between the new understanding of school readiness and federal policies intended to help children overcome academic barriers.

“It is untenable that the science…on risk factors for social or emotional difficulties among young kids is largely disconnected from the policies or programs for these children,” said Kimberly Hoagwood, associate director for child and adolescent research at the National Institute of Mental Health. “We know that these risks can be identified and the programs and policies should go after them.”

The problem of school failure has taken on a new urgency because it is getting worse, said Doreen Cavanaugh, associate director of Brandeis University’s National Maternal and Child Health Center and author of the report’s resource guide.

In 1994 the Educate America Act committed the nation to the goal of making sure that every child in America starts school ready to learn by 2000. It is a goal that has not yet been met, Cavanaugh said. An example of government policies that have failed to live up to their potential are Head Start and Early Head Start. Head Start, which is intended to help children ages 3 to 5, covers only half of the children who are eligible. Early Head Start, designed for children from birth to age 3, only enrolls 2 percent of eligible children, she said.

The report points out that children who do not begin kindergarten socially and emotionally competent are often not successful in the early years of school and can be plagued by behavioral, emotional, academic, and social development problem that follow them into adulthood.

Studies indicate that these kinds of problems are increasing. Forty-six percent of kindergarten teachers say that half of the children entering kindergarten have a behavioral of learning problem and 1 out of 13 children fail kindergarten or 1st grade.

“Trends like this take time to build and become obvious, like global warming,” Jensen said. The educational system prepares children for kindergarten by focusing on their cognitive skills to the exclusion of the emotional and social development.

When children play they construct their own knowledge of the world, physically, cognitively, socially, and emotionally, and this is the most meaningful type of knowledge. Every time you do something for a child, you rob him/her of the opportunity to feel competent.

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