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April 03, 2007

Bad Behavior Solved, Not Made, in High-Quality Pre-K

I was concerned last week when a recent report linking child care to later behavioral problems in children grabbed headlines.  I can only imagine the guilt that parents who have children in such programs felt upon hearing this news.  But the reality is far from the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” picture painted in the media.

High quality pre-k offers the chance for young children to learn how to express themselves appropriately in a wide range of social interactions, how to solve conflicts with peers, and how to function productively in a structured school environment.   

The first thing my children learn is how to follow set routines.  Many come in without any previous childcare experience.  Their first week behaviors have included children leaving the class to run down the hallway laughing and screaming and others simply wandering the classroom unresponsive to my efforts to give directions.  I consistently implement classroom procedures and routines designed to make the students capable of working on their own and with others. 

By the end of September they could do everything from sitting on the rug to disposing their lunch tray.  They also knew what would happen if they did or did not follow our classroom rules, why it was important to follow the rules, and how to “use their words” to solve conflicts.  Their awareness of what to expect, desire to receive positive praise, and investment in our “we are all friends” classroom culture curbed negative behavior.  Moreover, our emphasis on the rationale behind wise choices such as peaceful conflict resolution made our teaching more lasting. 

Parents can certainly also teach their children about solving problems and behaving appropriately.  Yet pre-k offers the opportunity for young children to practice these strategies with a large and diverse group of their peers on a daily basis.  Kevin, aka “the anti-sharer,” who frequently threw temper tantrums when he did not get a turn at something, frequently exhibited similar behavior at home.  Pre-k gave Kevin the chance to practice working out problems with other children, a skill that will help him in school and at home.  Moreover, we used our knowledge of his learning style based on our extensive anecdotes to develop an outlet for his negative energy and an opportunity for him to take ownership of the solution within the context of our daily routines.    

High-quality pre-k offers high-quality teachers focused on analyzing student behavioral problems and implementing enduring solutions. Without such attention, I could see the problems getting worse and producing the kind of results captured by this latest research.  For me, this study and my experiences are a call for educators, parents, and policymakers to support efforts to make all early care and education programs high quality.       


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