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When it comes to preschool education, there are two lines of thought. One says that preschoolers need to be taught early academic skills in order to get a leg up on future school achievement. Another says the focus should be on social and emotional development. But, new research from Penn State University says it doesn’t have to be exclusively one way or the other, and in fact, a high quality preschool program does both.
Penn State researchers found that students taught with a curriculum that included social lessons, such as sharing, listening, and self-control, scored higher in both the social and academic areas of school readiness.
Karen Bierman, Penn State Professor of Psychology, and her team studied 350 Head Start preschoolers. Half were taught the traditional Head Start curriculum. The other half were given the basic Head Start curriculum fortified with social and emotional teachings—called REDI.
The results, published in the November edition of Child Development, show that 70 percent of kids who went through the REDI program showed little disruptive behavior, versus 56 percent of kids in the regular Head Start classroom. Twelve percent of REDI students struggled to focus on academic tasks, compared to 21 percent of regular students. And 20 percent in the REDI class exceeded the national vocabulary standards, while only 15 percent exceeded it with the traditional curriculum.
Bierman says one of the most exciting findings of the study is that when you work both academic and social-emotional skills, you get stronger gains in both areas. “You get synergy when you put both together, so neither area is weakened,” she says.
Clearly, knowing how to share, develop healthy friendships, and learn side-by-side with others is essential to a child’s academic achievement in the classroom. But, Bierman says the importance of social and emotional education goes beyond that.
Preschool is primetime for the development of self-regulation, which is what tells a child not to hit another child, but which also tells a child how to set personal goals and focus himself enough to follow through with those goals. “Learning how to sit, listen and learn in a social group is central to the development of self-regulation,” she says.
And the ability to regulate behavior is what helps children get motivated at school. “When they get upset, board, or frustrated it doesn't overwhelm them. They’re able to control and organize themselves,” she says. “Plus, the capacity to organize emotion is the same part of the brain that regulates the development of language skills that allow them to identify differences in feeling. Knowing those differences helps them to organize meaning.”
Goal-oriented and motivated learning is best taught in preschool, Bierman says, when the prefrontal part of the brain, which controls decision-making, is at the height of development. “First grade teachers can teach letter names, but preschool is when that impulsive-aggressive behavior is peaking and language is just beginning to develop,” she says.