Raising Kids who Care

An interesting article in last week’s New York Times addressed the question of empathy in children, and especially how to foster good and charitable impulses in our young people. A growing body of study is devoted to these impulses, which together constitute something called “prosocial” behavior, which is the opposite of antisocial behavior:

The capacity to notice the distress of others, and to be moved by it, can be a critical component of . . . prosocial behavior, actions that benefit others: individuals, groups or society as a whole.

Not many column inches are given to the question of how, exactly, we can help to develop these qualities in our children, although there seems to be some consensus that it starts at a very early age. Teaching kids about the consequences of their behaviors, demonstrating how what they do can make their peers feel bad or good—these are the essential building blocks of a basic empathy that may later evolve into a caring emotional foundation.

But there’s more to it than that:

[The ingredients of empathy] include the ability to perceive others’ distress, the sense of self that helps sort out your own identity and feelings, the regulatory skills that prevent distress so severe it turns to aversion, and the cognitive and emotional understanding of the value of helping.

In other words, kids need to learn not just how to care; they also need to learn why caring is important in the first place. Like so many other aspects of child development, this one requires developing a balance between the needs of the self and the needs of others; how to understand your own feelings without tuning out the world around you.

In our Los Angeles preschool, we believe encouraging prosocial behavior is a big part of our mandate and mission. Helping our students learn about the needs of others, and guiding them as they start to navigate these feelings with grace, is just about the most important lesson we can impart at this age. It all comes down to those executive functions Paul Tough has been getting so much press about these days: character is destiny, and preschool is often the first place children get to see such things outside the home.

This week especially, in light of the unthinkable events in Connecticut, we’ll take an extra moment to hug those kids and express what caring really looks like.

Preschool As a Model for Higher Education?

There are some who claim that preschool is more like daycare than elementary school, but those of us who work in the trenches with those marvelous little minds know better. I have written before about why the lessons we teach and the patience we preach aim right at the sweet spot of the so-called “soft skills” which have proven far more predictive of future success than any grade or degree. Now a new article has appeared suggesting that some of our colleagues in college are taking notice.

In a recent dispatch from the “Inside Higher Ed” newsletter, David L. Kirp, the James D. Marver Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, reports that he spent some time watching what preschool teachers do, and came away dazzled:

The time I’ve recently spent crouching in classrooms, watching how 3- and 4-year-olds explore their universe with the aid of an inspiring guide, convinces me that these teachers are the best in the business. They’re changing the arc of children’s lives — and they have a lot to teach the rest of us.

Well, shucks. I can’t argue that the work we do takes great energy and inspiration, but some credit must be given as well to the kids whose natural inclination is to explore, engage and gobble up every last thing they find fascinating. As Kirp points out, “Every teacher relishes the teachable moments, the occasions when you can almost see the lightbulbs of dawning comprehension, because for many students after their early years they’re so rare and special. Each day in a preschool classroom brings a meteor shower of these moments.”

A meteor shower is exactly right: preschool teachers often bear witness to these gathering storms of heat and light that can blaze through the classroom in a sudden shrieking fanfare. We live for such moments; many students never forget them.

Ultimately what we do that’s different from educators in later life is a kind of jujitsu: we try and harness all the energy and excitement from within and without the classroom to help turn our students’ passions into projects, and those projects, ultimately, into the building blocks of personhood. Here’s Kirp again:

Cognitive and noncognitive, thinking and feeling, Descartes’ mind-body dualism — in a good preschool classroom these distinctions vanish. The teacher is always on the lookout for both kinds of lessons, aiming to reach both head and heart.

Amen: a great preschool builds more than great kindergarteners; it can build great adults too.

I’m thrilled to run a great Los Angeles preschool for child-directed learning, and gratified to see my brilliant teachers and their ilk gaining some respect from the denizens of higher education. But for us, the real joy is in the doing.

Want to come see the fireworks in person? I warmly invite you to visit our Los Angeles preschool any weekday.

How Many Words Does Your Child Need?

Amidst a growing emphasis on the centrality of language and writing comes this article from last week about an invisible problem: the “poverty of words.” It describes a rarely mentioned phenomenon: that children in more affluent households tend to hear more words per day than less fortunate kids. The reason is simple: Educated and involved parents often teach new vocabulary instinctively, while less involved parents do not.

The children of these poorer families may suffer greatly as a result, with far-reaching consequences that can affect test taking and future prospects. This vocabulary gap can become crippling over many months and years:

As it happens, in the ’80s, the psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley spent years cataloging the number of words spoken to young children in dozens of families from different socioeconomic groups, and what they found was not only a disparity in the complexity of words used, but also astonishing differences in sheer number. Children of professionals were, on average, exposed to approximately 1,500 more words hourly than children growing up in poverty. This resulted in a gap of more than 32 million words by the time the children reached the age of 4.

It is an extraordinary number, and one which several educators echo in the article. And it points to the incredible power of exposure: kids are sponges, and they excel when they are given access to the fullest possible world of words and ideas.

Parents who read, who teach, and who spend time talking with their kids may be giving them more than a strong emotional foundation. They may also be giving their kids the gift of language, and all the riches that come with it.

When No Teaching is the Best Teaching

A fascinating article in the New York Times last week discussed the intersecton of preschool and amateur science.  Its conclusion?  That kids learn more when they can explore on their own.

Based on the research of Alison Gopnik at Berkeley, the study in question observed young children as they experimented on, and ultimately deciphered, various toys. As it turns out, showing kids the “correct” way to use something was a good way to ensure that they never discovered further uses. Conversely, leaving children with minimal direction encouraged far more creative discovery and mastery:

Other studies have found that when children are simply taught, they don’t explore and test multiple hypotheses, Dr. Gopnik said, adding:

“There’s a lot of pressure from parents and policy makers to make preschools more and more like schools. This research suggests the opposite.”

Chalk this one up as another point in the “freedom” column in the Great Debate over what kind of education is most likely to produce effective and self-reliant people. Once again, we witness the beauty and simplicity of a simple truth: that more than drilling, recitation, heavy instruction and lectures, often the best pedagogical approach is the one with the lightest touch. Our kids are hardwired to learn already; all we have to do is love them, and get out of the way.

My own Los Angeles preschool is proud to encourage child-directed learning and exploration as a matter of principle. To learn more, feel free to contact us here.

The Homework Industrial Complex

Burnout. It’s a word we typically associate with adulthood, or maybe late adolescence. It is not a word one often hears used to describe children, especially very young children.

And yet here we are. The Los Angeles Times published a provocative article a few years back called “My Kid, a Burnout at 5.” The piece struck a chord and became something of a rallying point for parents who were fed up with what they saw as the new grind: a growing trend toward homework in preschool and kindergarten, including frequent testing by age 5.

The author explains:

When I was in kindergarten, there were ABCs, finger painting, a nap, and mommy picked you up at noon. Now kindergarten is a 30-hour-a-week job. There’s nightly homework; finger painting is a rare treat; and as for naps, there just isn’t time.

Have the needs of 5-year-olds really changed that much? Not according to [my son] Ricky. When I asked him what he liked most about school, he said, “Recess.”

Who could blame him? Sadly, homework remains a mainstay of many Los Angeles kindergarten programs, and some parents have even told me that it’s slowly creeping into the world of preschool as well. The justification may sound familiar: everybody just wants a head start.

But there are two big problems with homework for preschoolers. The first is daily: this is a miserable way to live, not to mention an overwhelming burden to place on little minds. The second is long-term: once your kid hates school, good luck ever trying to get her back.

Those of us who are lucky enough to work in childhood education, in Culver City preschools and beyond, have a unique opportunity to instill an early love of learning. Priority One during these first few years should be to preserve the wonder and the delight that come with acquiring new knowledge. It goes without saying that anything that sucks the fun out of school and home simultaneously should be off the table.

Few kids will retain this passion all the way through high school, but a more measured, reasonable and exhilarating head start can go a long way toward developing into adults who champion curiosity over distraction, and engagement over complacency.

So let’s all get it right the first time. And leave homework for the homeschoolers.

What are 21st Century Skills, Anyway?

Ever hear that old saw, “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten”? To some, it is a precious whimsy, to others a well-loved book. But to early childhood educators like me, this particular phrase is an unshakable truth.

Preschool (and kindergarten) is the time when higher-order skills like collaboration and creativity first arise, when life’s complex social dynamics present your children with countless new challenges to discover and master. It’s the time when children learn to manage their feelings, develop empathy, engage their peers and discover the ineluctable magic of unstructured play.

And now there is solid proof that we were right all along.

The Harvard Education Newsletter recently published a widely cited piece on the challenges of 21st century education. The thesis, which has been repeated often in the last decade, is that the world is moving away from a manufacturing economy and toward an information economy—one that rewards creativity and collaboration over test-taking and memorization. Here’s The Global Achievement Gap author Tony Wagner:

“Our curriculum is information-based and the emphasis is to acquire information first and foremost, and secondarily acquire skills . . .We have it exactly backwards.”

As it turns out, students who excel in traditional fact-based learning find themselves foundering in an economy that prefers go-getters, entrepreneurs and original thinkers.

The answer, according to researchers? Highlight novel classroom exercises that encourage uncommon solutions and strong collaboration. Examples include bridge-building, movie-making, even student-directed literature seminars. If this all sounds a bit ambitious, take heart: we are already doing every one of these things in the best Los Angeles preschools.

The only difference is that we don’t call it an educational crisis. We just call it fun.

The Los Angeles Preschool Offseason

And just like that, our little preschool is quiet. Stealth mode. No more sharing, no more not sharing, no more shrieks of delight, no more enveloping thrum of focused study. It’s just…dark.

Summer is a strange time for any Los Angeles nursery school. This brightly colored, vital place, this great groaning vessel of toys and manipulatives whose sole purpose is to deliver fascination to little minds, is suddenly without its cargo. Walk by the building and you might imagine that it’s shuttered, in stasis. A cocoon.

But like any cocoon, there is plenty going on inside. Summer is when Culver City preschools take a week or two off so their teachers can relax, recharge, and promptly begin planning the coming year. What does your preschool do in August?

Review, Review, Review

We talk about the year gone by, discuss the progress of our students and explore the various ways we might improve. This free-ranging postmortem can cover anything from the tools in our classrooms to the methods we employ for conflict resolution and individual care. The goal every year is simply to get better—more effective, more inspiring. Preschool is a formative time when kids are learning how to manage their feelings while they’re learning how to count. It is a moving target, and one can always learn from mistakes.

What’s Next?

Then the fun part begins: planning the curriculum for the year to come. Different Culver City preschools do this part differently; our approach is a lively collaboration between my wonderful teachers and myself. We comb through possible topics in search of the best mix of interesting facts and enjoyable activities, rigor and revelation. This past year included some great units on dinosaurs, outer space, communities and water. Who knows what 2013 will bring?

Adventures

Of course no curriculum is complete without a chance for the kids to get their hands dirty beyond the walls of preschool. Field trips and planned events are popular features at Butterfly Garden, those “big deal” special opportunities to touch and see everything we’ve been learning about. Certain sojourns are perennials by now: the Natural History Museum, the zoo. Others may arise from the opportunity of a touring exhibit or a local kid-friendly event. Filling the calendar this way is a joy for us.

Everyone on Board

And then there is the matter of filling up our school. I am grateful to run an organization that has been called one of the best preschools in Los Angeles, and thankfully, interest remains high. Pulling together all the documentation for our newest parents is a full-time job in itself—we create an updated handbook every year, send out forms, applications, legal documents, and of course the latest CD of every month’s classroom music.

Busywork

Finally there are dozens of logistical tasks to be squared away before any school year. Permits and plumbing, fees and financials—California’s not the easiest state to navigate for a home-based preschool, but I can say with some hard-won pride that I am an old pro. We manage to remain fully accredited and ready to go by September every year, and I am especially proud of our sterling safety record.

Lay the Foundation

In a sense, summer is a little like preschool itself: a chance to lay the groundwork for everything to follow. We approach this season with the same love and energy we bring to every class we teach. Truth is, it’s a pleasure for us, and worth it when I see all the little kiddos show up in their tiny finery on day one. That’s a day no parent ever forgets.

Is Failure the Key to Happiness?

I read a number of terrific articles over the past year, but two of them stood out. One, called “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” caused a significant stir when it was published. Its message that parents who overprotect their children are actually doing them a disservice provoked an outcry in some corners, and a cry of relief from others. The second article, “Can a Playground Be Too Safe?” was somewhat less prominent but no less affecting, focusing on just one area where many of the same battles are playing out: the neighborhood playground.

Both articles discuss a fascinating subject: the unique benefits of hardship. By hardship, of course, I don’t mean abuse or negligence. I mean the experiences that generations of children once simply accepted as a matter of course: losing at sports, receiving lower grades than desired, experiencing the disorienting anguish of minor injuries, and navigating a world of disputes without constant adult intervention.

There’s no question about it: these things are hard, especially in childhood. But an increasing body of evidence suggests that they may also be essential to developing into the kind of adults who can metabolize disappointment and rejection without falling to pieces.

The watchword here is inoculation, as in the same process that steels your immune system to better handle pathogens once they have been encountered. Childhoods spent free of difficulties seem to produce children who are unable to manage and channel these feelings in a healthy way. Here’s the Atlantic article:

Observing this phenomenon, my colleagues and I began to wonder: Could it be that by protecting our kids from unhappiness as children, we’re depriving them of happiness as adults? Paul Bohn, a psychiatrist at UCLA who came to speak at my clinic, says the answer may be yes. Based on what he sees in his practice, Bohn believes many parents will do anything to avoid having their kids experience even mild discomfort, anxiety, or disappointment—“anything less than pleasant,” as he puts it—with the result that when, as adults, they experience the normal frustrations of life, they think something must be terribly wrong.

The second article describes how a similar phenomenon is affecting our play areas. We’ve all watched asphalt give way to foam rubber and towering metal slides to shorter plastic substitutes. Many parents instinctively see this as a good thing: safer is always better, right? There is no question that fewer kids get scalded by metal slides today, or that fewer injuries result from long falls. But what’s being lost may be even more valuable: many of the newest playgrounds do not allow the kind of boundary-testing behaviors that children have long attempted, behaviors which experts believe can help them conquer fears, develop inner strength, and learn to trust themselves in daunting environments. Here’s the New York Times:

Sometimes, of course, their mastery fails, and falls are the common form of playground injury. But these rarely cause permanent damage, either physically or emotionally. While some psychologists — and many parents — have worried that a child who suffered a bad fall would develop a fear of heights, studies have shown the opposite pattern: A child who’s hurt in a fall before the age of 9 is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights.

By gradually exposing themselves to more and more dangers on the playground, children are using the same habituation techniques developed by therapists to help adults conquer phobias, according to Dr. Sandseter and a fellow psychologist, Leif Kennair, of the Norwegian University for Science and Technology.

Here it is again: inoculation. Read between the lines of both articles and the conclusion is clear: kids need to experience obstacles if they are to develop essential life skills. They also need a foundation of love and support to let them know that they can try and fail. Somewhere in the balance between these forces lies a promising avenue toward self-reliance. These articles provide a powerful rebuke to this era of helicopter parenting, and a good reason to burst the protective bubble that so many of us labor to create around our children.

My own Culver City preschool facility exceeds all appropriate safety standards, and of course we take pains to ensure none of our students ever face true danger or harm. But a skinned knee? Yes, we are there within moments bearing ice and a hug, but we also endeavor to provide these kids with something even more valuable than a Band-Aid: the tools to manage stinging pain on their own terms, no matter what comes.

How Young is Too Young to Read?

It is an all-too-common desire nowadays: the head start. No longer is it acceptable to raise a child who is average or even gifted; today’s high-pressure culture demands virtuosic performance from our kids—think red-shirting, Bach-playing, tiger moms and Kumon. Now the forces of balance have struck back: Last week one brand that had capitalized unusually well on this cultural moment abruptly announced that it is folding. Carlsbad-based Your Baby Can Read, purveyor of DVDs, flash cards, books and fear, has gone the way of the dodo.

What brought down this marketing behemoth? A consumer complaint, or rather, several of them. Like Baby Einstein before it, YBCR was flagged for several dubious and vaguely terrifying claims, including the promise enshrined in its name, and the phrase “Seize this small window of opportunity” in marketing materials that implied that a child who doesn’t start reading instruction by age three months will miss out. Here’s the Boston Globe:

The website had said the best time for children to learn to read is when they are infants and toddlers, before they go to school; it said they could start as young as 3 months old. ‘‘Seize this small window of opportunity,’’ it urged parents.

The complaint filed with the FTC rejected this ‘‘window of opportunity’’ statement, as well as many of the other assertions in the ads.

Look. I know every baby is different, and lord knows our own Culver City preschool kids arrive with every possible skill, gift and advantage, but three months? Really? Had these people met an actual three-month-old before?  Needless to say, the great majority of us who somehow learned to read at the ripe old age of Normal might respectfully disagree.

There is a never-fail way to determine when kids are ready to learn a new skill: pay attention to the kids. They’ll let you know. If your child indicates an interest in spelling “Hop on Pop,” by all means feed that curiosity, and nurture it. The same goes for a nascent interest in dinosaurs, or in music, or math. But if you find yourself imposing pedagogical milestones on a timetable that was conceived before your child was, it may be time to take a deep breath.

My advice as a Los Angeles preschool proprietor: create a home where unstructured time flourishes and where your child can organically explore the wonders of learning, and I guarantee he’ll learn to read. He might even do it without a DVD.

When Parents Go Too Far

Some of you may have already heard about this: a horrifying brawl between parents at a Los Angeles preschool graduation. Yes, you read that right: preschool graduation.

Eyewitness accounts hold that two of the moms got into a shoving match because their kids were supposed to share a single cap and gown for pictures, and apparently the sharing didn’t go too well.

I am grateful to report that I have never experienced anything like this as an educator or proprietor, although I must also admit that the impulse and intensity are all too familiar in this day and age. Today’s parents seem more invested than ever in their kids’ total happiness, and sometimes even our best intentions can become twisted when obstacles arise.

The story is a horrifying reminder that communities work best when we care for each other’s children instead of defending our own to the death. It bears repeating that we model good behavior and sharing through our own temperance and maturity, and that sometimes grown-up disputes can be teachable moments too.

Still, I’m glad we switched from caps and gowns to shorts and hugs this year.