Policy Resource

School Readiness Begins Before the First Day of Class: Strong Bonds Yield Strong Learners

Sep 18, 2014

The question for all of us is how we can give all babies and toddlers the best start on a life-long journey of learning?

Every child needs at least one person who is crazy about them.

Urie Bronfenbrenner

It’s back to school time, when kindergartners and increasingly, prekindergartners all over the country are shouldering their backpacks and heading off to school. The first day of school is important, and nervous parents wonder if their children are prepared for the challenges ahead. But the first day of learning—when that child began preparing for the first day in the classroom—happened much earlier, on the day she was born. During the first 3 years of life, brain development happens at lightning speeds as foundations are laid for important functions such as hearing, seeing, language, thinking and reasoning, and regulating emotions. Long before a child enters a formal school setting, formative experiences have significantly shaped not simply what a child knows but, most important, how that child comes to acquire knowledge and make sense of the world around him.

In my experience teaching preschool in Chicago community-based organizations, conversations with parents largely centered on their concern for their child’s academic success. It was clear from these conversations that no parent wants his or her child to fail, and they shed light on how we can do more to help parents feel confident in making sure their children are prepared when they enter the preK door.

Parents across a spectrum of backgrounds would ask me for specific, actionable strategies they could implement to support their child’s academic success and ask questions such as, “Which literacy app will teach my child how to read?” and “What brand of math flash cards do you recommend?” This interest heightened once preschoolers turned 4 and were on the cusp of a grueling kindergarten application process. I applaud parents for seeking out advice on how to support their child, but the truth is that there is no prescriptive list of developmentally appropriate math games or literacy apps that are guaranteed to help their child’s learning. While a parent’s focus on learning strategies is certainly key to supporting a child’s early learning, their most important role starts much earlier—and may not be as complicated or require as much specialized knowledge as they think.

The content of what a child knows is positively impacted by the relationship that child has with learning itself. And her relationship with learning starts with the attachment she forms with her caretaker as an infant. As the noted developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner stated: “Every child needs at least one person who is crazy about them.” It is within this relationship that early learning unfolds—and can become a source of joy. The best part for parents is that this early learning isn’t content-driven, but unfolds naturally during everyday moments. We acquire language when our caregivers talk about situations or objects encountered during the day, learn about colors when our caretakers describe favorite objects, and begin to understand counting while putting toys back in their box or totaling up socks in the wash. What we are really absorbing is how delightful it is to learn about what is around us.

Put simply, attachment theory says that infants develop secure attachments when a stable, nurturing caregiver consistently responds to his needs. The baby learns he can count on that person to always be there, and he feels emboldened to explore the world around him because he feels assured that he can return to his safe base. It is through this secure attachment that the infant develops and maintains a sense of curiosity, confidence, and safety that stays with him through his toddler years and right into the classroom.

Early bonds shape learning behavior. Imagine a child who has a secure attachment with her parents, boldly going wherever her fancy takes her, and then imagine this same child at 3 years old navigating the preschool classroom. This strong foundation shapes how she engages with different areas of learning, such as: how she makes friends, resolves social problems, engages in creative concentration in the blocks area, or develops an ongoing scenario to act out and build upon in the dramatic play area.

So when parents ask me what activities, games, or exercises their child should be doing, or to what books they should be exposed to, I can’t give them a definitive answer. What I can suggest is that they respond to their child’s assertions of developing identity with acknowledgement and affirmation. When children know they don’t have to choose between a parent’s emotional support and the exciting opportunities to explore something new, they are more inclined to reach out to the world around them. And when they do this, they operate with a greater sense of autonomy and learn new skills, and become confident young learners.

The question for the rest of us is how we can give all babies and toddlers the best start on a life-long journey of learning. That means advocating for public policies that support parents and other caregivers as they give very young children the nurturing care and stimulation to become budding explorers and caring people. Here are a few: federal Paid Family Leave, to give parents and babies time to bond; home visiting for families who need parenting support; high-quality child care, because that’s an important environment for relationships and learning as well; Early Head Start for families whose children face risks of falling behind; and early intervention for infants and toddlers with developmental delays or disabilities to put them on the right track and minimize the need for special education later. The first day of school might become less anxious if parents have the support they need to promote their child’s development on the day learning starts.

On September 10th, help us remind Congress of the importance of investing in early learning opportunities for young children and that learning happens from the start!

Fae Rabin is a Policy Fellow at ZERO TO THREE.

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