Policy Resource

To Find the Roots of School Readiness, Look Back to the Beginning

Sep 17, 2015

What makes a child ready for school? School-readiness is more than just having learned a set of facts and skills. Toddlers and young children require a “secret ingredient”—social-emotional skills.

Every year at back to school time, it is not uncommon for parents of children entering kindergarten to look back at how ready they are for the challenges of “big school.” Did their preschool experience prepare them for what lies ahead? Are they ready to start more formal schooling? Most parents watch proudly as their 5-year-old grabs her backpack and heads out the door to her first day of kindergarten—her “official” start into the world of education and learning. Few might imagine that their child has actually been preparing for this day since she first opened her eyes.

What makes a school-ready child? School-readiness and school success are more than just having acquired a set of facts and skills. They require a “secret ingredient”—social-emotional skills

More than 20 years ago, ZERO TO THREE’s seminal publication Heart Start: The Emotional Foundations of School Readiness identified the essential characteristics a child needs to take on the world of formal education: confidence, curiosity, intentionality, self-control, relatedness (being able to engage with others based on a sense of understanding), capacity to communicate, and cooperativeness. Often these attributes are called “soft skills,” although they are anything but mushy. In reality, social-emotional development goes hand-in-hand with cognitive development as the bricks and mortar of early brain architecture.

Young children develop these skills and attributes through relationships.

Starting from birth, babies are learning who they are by how they are treated. This is how they come to know the world and their place in it. Loving relationships provide young children a sense of comfort, safety, and confidence, and they offer a buffer against stressful times. They teach young children how to form friendships, experience and communicate emotions, and to deal with challenges—to develop social-emotional wellness. Strong, positive relationships also help children develop trust, empathy, compassion, generosity, and a sense of right and wrong. They also give children the confidence to explore their world, to become curious, eager learners. The good news for parents and caregivers: fostering positive social-emotional development isn’t an add-on to nurturing very young children; it’s the heart of the matter and unfolds in the everyday moments of life.

Just as babies are wired to learn, so are they wired for feeling.

They are extremely sensitive to the feelings and emotions of the adults to whom they are attached. Their ability to cope with stressful situations and their own tidal wave of emotions also depends on how their caregivers respond. To be sure, helping young children develop in a positive way isn’t easy. Many parents and caregivers may not fully understand what behavior is typical or within the normal range for an age group. As anyone who has ever coped with a toddler having a meltdown in the grocery store knows, normal behavior can still be challenging. In a Little Kids, Big Questions podcast, ZERO TO THREE Board Member Dr. Ross Thompson notes that the area of the brain responsible for self-regulation is one of the latest to develop. But he offers many insights and thoughtful advice for parents coping in the meantime.

Babies need supportive relationships

Parents’ own mental health issues, such as maternal depression, can make them less responsive to their babies, which in turn is reflected in how their babies respond to the world. And sometimes children’s environments create high levels of stress that find their outlet in challenging behaviors.

The root of challenging behaviors

Which brings us to challenging behaviors, preschool expulsion, and bullying. While these behaviors most often come to a head in the preschool or early elementary years, what’s behind them didn’t develop overnight and, left without support or access to effective treatment, children will not “grow out” of social-emotional difficulties. It is likely that there are undetected or untreated issues at play among many of these children, their parents, or in the child-parent relationship. The point is that these issues must be addressed, whether within or outside of an early childhood program. And the earlier, the better. (For more on this topic, including videos from our June 2015 briefing, visit our web portal on Preventing Expulsion from Preschool and Child Care.)

High expulsion rates and bullying incidents are an indicator that we are not helping parents and caregivers, starting from birth, to support the positive social and emotional development that is the foundation for all learning, future relationships, and school readiness. The Child Trends study, To Prevent Bullying, Focus on Early Childhood, found that when parents are more positively engaged, through interactions such as playing and reading together—in short, when positive social-emotional development is nurtured—this helps guard against such behavior.

The Administration and Congress have taken important steps to highlight issues related to challenging behaviors and expulsion/suspension both in legislation and policy. However, we cannot pay attention to social-emotional development only when it has run off the tracks. It must be a point of emphasis infused into policies that support early development and strong families, from paid family leave, to home visiting, to child care, to preschool. It is imperative to develop the capacity to support parents and early care and learning professionals in nurturing children—in laying the foundations of school readiness—before unhealthy and destructive habits and behaviors are ever formed or before children have been bypassed by the skills that will give them the best shot at success in school and in life.

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