Ready or not: Social and emotional skills key for academic success among young children

Tuesday, January 29, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:57 p.m. CST, Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Head Start and the Columbia Public School District work together to provide preschool education for students from low-income families in Columbia.

COLUMBIA — It was the first day a trampoline was in the classroom.

Meghan Hayes, a child and family development advocate at Columbia's Field School, which houses the Center for Gifted Education, explained the rules about using the trampoline to 15 children, whose ages ranged from 3 to 5, as they sat in a circle around the rug:

"It is safe to have just one friend on the trampoline at a time," Hayes said emphatically. "The trampoline will be a choice during work time."

The children's eyes grew wide. A few of them had to puff out their cheeks, a technique their teachers called "putting a bubble in their mouth," to avoid crying out in excitement.

About 30 minutes later, "work time" was about to start. Trey Thomas, Aniya Briscoe and Ellie Buxton immediately made their way to the trampoline. They counted to 10 in unison, the thrill of the moment in their voices. They switched places — Trey and Aniya standing off to the side and counting while Ellie jumped 10 times, then Aniya and Ellie counting while Trey jumped 10 times, and so on.

As more children started work time, the line grew longer. Eventually, the room filled with the voices of seven children counting excitedly as a classmate jumped, always stepping off the trampoline after the final, breathless "10!"

The teachers observed the play from across the room. 

Ellie said that she suggested the 10-jump maximum. Their teachers didn't remind them to take turns or intercede as more children joined in.

A new body of research shows that the social and emotional skills that children gain, or don't gain, before they enter kindergarten has a profound effect on their life trajectory — academically, economically and socially.

The research is showing that the kind of social and emotional self-regulation that Ellie, Aniya and Trey demonstrated is critical for children's long-term success.

These skills enable children to enter kindergarten ready to learn and socialize. They enhance children's ability to remain academically engaged throughout their schooling; they are more likely to graduate from high school and become productive members of their community.

Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Chris Belcher has said by ensuring that every child is ready for kindergarten, schools can help close the academic achievement gap between low-income, predominantly minority students and their peers from more affluent families.

'No longer a socialization period'

MU College of Education professor Wendy Reinke studies early interventions, such as high-quality preschool. She said kindergarten used to be considered the place where children learned the ins and outs of being a student.

However, Reinke said that as states began focusing more on standardized testing, which begins in third grade, schools began teaching academic content earlier and earlier. The expectation now, Reinke said, is that children entering kindergarten should already know what's expected of them in terms of behavior and routines.

"Kindergarten is no longer a socialization period," Reinke said.

That's where preschool comes in, said Kristina Weston, who manages Head Start's collaboration with Columbia Public Schools at Field School. The federally funded Head Start provides educational and other social services for low-income families.

"We set everything up like the classroom they'll have in kindergarten," she said.

Weston said she's spoken with kindergarten teachers who say they can recognize which students have gone through high-quality preschool programs.

"They have the social skills," Weston said. "They can sit and they can listen."

Weston said the Field School program teaches students some academic skills, like learning the letters of their name, colors, shapes and numbers, but the main focus is on developing social and behavioral skills. In an ideal world, she said, all children would have the opportunity to learn these skills even before they reach preschool.

"I believe in a birth-to-5 framework," Weston said. "Kids can never learn too early how to be social."

Weston said that her own son, who is a year old, is fussy and unhappy on his way to day care in the mornings, but that once they arrive, his entire mood changes.

"He lights up when I bring him in," Weston said.

Meaning of 'kindergarten ready'

Linda Espinosa, a retired professor of early childhood education at MU, has research that supports Weston's anecdotal evidence about her son. Espinosa said that young children without regular opportunities to play with other children have more difficulty learning social skills, like turn-taking and how to make personal requests, and, most important in her view, how to regulate their emotions. 

When children enter kindergarten with weak social and emotional skills, it can be difficult for kindergarten teachers to manage behavior in their classrooms, Espinosa said.

Espinosa said that when she was an elementary school principal in San Francisco, kindergarten teachers would tell her, "I'm playing the role of the social worker — this student does not have the skills to operate in a classroom."

Reinke, the MU researcher, studies disruptive behavior in the classroom. In one study, Reinke looked at "behavior profiles" of a group of students from low-income, predominantly African-American families in Baltimore over several years, beginning in first grade. The study, published in January 2008 in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, found that those students whose profiles showed early warning signs for behavioral and academic issues in first grade were more likely to be suspended in sixth grade and drop out of high school.

"We can identify children very early on who are going to have issues in school," Reinke said in an interview. "You can meet a little guy who is 3 years old and have a pretty good sense of what issues he's going to have later on."

Reinke said students who drop out of high school end up costing all of us. Because it's much more difficult for them to get a job and they are more likely to have children earlier, they're more likely to depend on social welfare programs, she said.

Obstacles to kindergarten readiness

Reinke said one of the primary factors that can keep a child from developing is a lack of exposure to a nurturing environment.

"Lower-income families have fewer resources, fewer books, and tend not to talk to their babies as much as middle or upper-income families," Reinke said.

She recalled a parenting class she taught for young, low-income mothers in Columbia a few years ago:

"It was really eye-opening for them to see videos of mothers really engaging with their babies. One of them saw a video of a mother doing dishes while her baby sat in one of those bouncing seats, and the mother would periodically turn around and talk to the baby. The young mother watching the video was amazed; she told me she had never thought about talking to her baby."

In the class, Reinke encouraged the mothers to get down on the floor and play with their child, to describe what the child was doing rather than tell them how to do something right — something like "Oh, I see you're using the blue marker to draw a line," she said.

By engaging with their child, Reinke said, parents can help children build a larger vocabulary and develop early listening skills, which she said are key to academic and social success once children start school.

"If a child comes to kindergarten without exposure to the expectations and routines of school, he'll quickly develop the idea of 'I'm bad at school,'" Reinke said. She said research published in December 2011 in the journal Advances in School Mental Health Promotion shows that children who perceive themselves as academically incompetent can develop depression as early as third grade.

The power of preschool

For the many children who enter kindergarten from homes where they have not had these kinds of experiences, preschool is a form of early intervention that can help develop these skills, Reinke said.

Espinosa agreed that many young children from low-income families lack exposure to the kind of responsive, nurturing care that can help them develop the social skills necessary for success in kindergarten. In addition, she said, many of these children are living in less than desirable situations and have experienced traumatic relationships.

"Before a child can learn, she must have a sense of trust, a belief that the world is a good place, a safe place," Espinosa said. "Children cannot learn unless their mind is free of this stress."

Her assertion is backed up by the research of Robert Anda of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Vincent Felitti of Kaiser Permanente, a health care provider based in Oakland, Calif. Their studies studies show that early traumatic experiences are a major risk factor for depression, alcoholism, drug use and poor job performance. They came up with a way of measuring a person's exposure to these traumas, which they called the ACE, or Adverse Childhood Experiences, score.

In a September 2012 article, "Promoting Social Mobility" in the Boston Review, University of Chicago economist James Heckman wrote that high ACE scores among children from low-income families are really a reflection of high ACE scores among children who come from nonnurturing environments.

The purpose of Reinke's parenting class was to help young mothers create nurturing environments at home. They're also the kind of environments she said high-quality preschool programs can help create for children, both at school and at home through regular visits.

Home visits are an important part of the curriculum in Columbia's Title I/Head Start preschool classrooms, said Lindsay Massie, who manages the programs at the Park Avenue Child and Family Development Center and Field School.

Students at both locations receive five home visits a year, each of which lasts about an hour and a half, Massie said. Teachers talk with family members about nutrition, create academic and family goals for students, and do a hands-on learning activity with both the preschooler and family members. 

A question of accessibility 

For many low-income families, in Columbia, across the state and nationwide, high-quality preschool isn't a possibility.

Mernell King is the Early Childhood Programs Director for Central Missouri Community Action. She supervises Central Missouri Community Action Head Start, which provides services to prenatal parents, infants and toddlers, and preschool children and their families who meet age and income requirements according to the Federal Poverty Guidelines.

"Our families are working families," King said.

King said that in the 2011-12 academic year, Head Start served 702 individuals through its prenatal, infant-toddler and preschool programs in an eight county service area.

She said the infant-toddler program has more than 200 children on its waiting list. Cuts to the state budget reduced Early Head Start services to families by 50 percent last year, King said.

"It's hard to determine which children and families won't be able to participate, it's not a good picture," King said.

Limited access to the infant-toddler program, King said, makes it more difficult to provide early social, emotional and developmental interventions for young children. She said that Early Head Start has made a huge difference in getting children ready for preschool, which ultimately leads to kindergarten readiness.

"When they enter the preschool program, these kids are, on average, about 18 months behind in terms of health, social-emotional and academic indicators," King said.

Reinke said that taxpayers should think of funding preschool as a long-term social investment.

"Eventually, we will end up paying. Why not use preventative interventions such as preschool? All those kids out there in the prison system, wreaking havoc in neighborhoods, it's already our responsibility," she said.

"Universal preschool would be a great investment if the state would require it. But if the state mandated preschool, we would have to fund it," Reinke said.

According to the 2011 "State of Preschool" report from National Institute for Early Education Research, Missouri ranks 34th out of the 39 states with state-run preschool programs. The ranking is a reflection of per-pupil spending by the state and federal funds for programs like Head Start.

"In the U.S., Head Start never reaches more than 40 to 50 percent of children who are eligible," Espinosa said. She said the state with one of the highest rankings, New Jersey, has a 12-month, 11-hour-a-day program in 32 school districts, known as the Abbott Districts, with a 1-to-10 teacher-student ratio in every classroom.

"Kids there are getting consistent, high-quality early childhood education," Espinosa said. In Tulsa, Okla., which also has universal pre-kindergarten, she said the quality is also quite high, but they have limited services for young English language learners. 

"Just providing a preschool doesn't guarantee that it's going to be effective," Espinosa said.

Valorie Livingston, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of the Columbia Area, said she believes that her organization, which is best known for its after-school program for children from low-income families,  has a role to play in making high-quality preschool available to more children.

Livingston participated in the Columbia Public Schools' World Cafe discussions on how to close the achievement gap between low-income, predominantly minority students and their more affluent peers, which began in 2010. 

"Research shows that when they start behind, they never seem to catch up. In fact, they just get further and further behind," Livingston said.

Her idea for how the Boys and Girls Club can help close the gap — opening up a pre-kindergarten program inside the organization's new facility. 

"By day, our building is empty," Livingston said. "We're in a perfect position to look for a partner to support our pre-k program." 

Her experience running the center has convinced Livingston of the importance of early intervention such as high-quality preschool in putting children from low-income families on a path to success. 

"We need to do something before they start coming into our program as kindergarteners," Livingston said. 

She said when kindergarteners with little previous exposure to preschool come to the Boys and Girls Club for their after-school program, it's hard for them to communicate with adults and participate in activities with other children. 

"That stems into behavior problems," Livingston said. "Then we're talking about behavior, rather than focusing on what a child is able to academically learn." 

Like Reinke, Livingston said she worries that these difficulties can lead to a self-perception among these children that they are bad, which perpetuates the spiral into deeper social problems. 

With an in-house preschool program, Livingston hopes to take advantage of the strong relationships she believes her organization has built with many of Columbia's low-income families. 

"We have a lot of role models that come from the same community as the families we serve, which can really have an impact," Livingston said. While public schools often have trouble getting families to come to parent-teacher conferences, she said the Boys and Girls Club has an easier time drawing them in.

"They don't look at us as a school. There's more trust, more of a relationship," Livingston said. 

What's kept the preschool program from getting off the ground is money, Livingston said. As a nonprofit, the Boys and Girls Club has a difficult time getting the kind of government funding that pays for public schools, Livingston said. 

State of preschool in Columbia

According to its website, Columbia Public Schools' Title I preschool program is designed to serve children ages 3 through 5 who have developmental needs. Only those children who are screened and determined to have special needs in speech and language or in vision or hearing, for example, are eligible to participate.

For children whose families cannot afford private preschool but do not qualify for Title I, the options are somewhat limited. The district's partnership with Head Start provides enough funding for six full-day classrooms for 3- to 5-year-olds, split between the Field School and Park Avenue locations. In all, the partnership serves about 100 preschool-aged children.

Meghan Hayes works in one of those six classrooms. On the December morning that seven of her students were waiting to use the new trampoline, Hayes sat on the floor with a 4-year-old girl in her lap, howling, crying and facing away from her.

Eventually, the girl stopped screaming, and Hayes asked her if she was ready to talk. The girl nodded.

"I'm so glad because I have some things I want to say and be able to see your face," Hayes said.

She turned the girl around in her lap and placed her hands on the girl's shoulders.

"When you kick and shove, your body is not being safe. I noticed when you were writing your name, you got frustrated. I know it's hard, but I see you working very hard at it every day and I'm very proud of you. Are you ready to try again?"

The girl nodded, and Hayes led her back to the circular table, where she once again gripped the crayon and began to form the first letter of her name, hunched over her paper in concentration while her classmates counted excitedly, "Seven, eight, nine, 10!" and rotated positions on the trampoline.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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