Social and Emotional Foundations of Transitional Kindergarten
How do we help children learn?
Ross A. Thompson
Department of Psychology
University of California, Davis
Hello, I'm Dr. Ross Thompson. I'm professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis. I'm a developmental psychologist who studies children's social and emotional development and that's what we're really here to talk about -- Social and Emotional Foundations of Transitional Kindergarten.
Transitional Kindergarten is a wonderful first year of a two-year Kindergarten program. It provides a unique and important opportunity to strengthen children's social and emotional skills as it relates to their development as young students. And the question we are really asking here is, "How do we help children learn?" And to answer that question, we've got to answer another question that's even more fundamental, "What do young children need in order to succeed in school?"
[Slide 2 - What do young children need to succeed in school?]
As you know, this has been a topic of considerable discussion in our society lately. And its been the topic of journalists and academic work -- much of it summarized recently in the work of the New York Times reporter Paul Tough, in his book "How Children Succeed." And one of the things Paul Tough talks about is the fact that as most of you most of us, are already aware school success requires much more than simply the mastery of literacy and number skills. School success requires much more in at least two ways.
[Slide 3 - School Success Requires more than Literacy and Number Skills]
First of all, school success requires that children master cognitive skills that are not just a matter of literacy and number but extend to a full range of capacities including: growth and memory; skills in language and language arts; numerical skill, of course; a mastery of causal reasoning; adeptness at problem-solving and being able to devise your own solutions to new issues, new problems; skills in classification and spatial reasoning.
But researchers have also discovered that school success is more than literacy and number skills. Because in addition to these cognitive skills that we teach in a classroom, children are also needing to master a variety of what we call "learning skills." And those learning skills include capacities like: the ability to focus your attention to the topic at hand; the capacity to persist, especially when your initial attempts at problem solving are not successful; curiosity as a motivator to children's innovative and engaged learning approach; the development of work habits that enable children to be able to apply their cognitive skills to new academic challenges.
Learning skills include: emotion regulation because emotion is so much a part of their learning experience especially in the social environment of the classroom; self-confidence and the ability to believe that you can find the answers to the questions that are really important. And finally, because all learning occurs in a social context, these learning skills also include children's social competence -- their ability to interact well and successfully with both teachers and with other peers.
These learning skills fit together well with the cognitive and numerical skills that are all part of what contributes to children's school success. Like the meshing of gears of a finally oiled machine, all of them are necessary to function optimally for children to be successful in the classroom.
Both of these skill sets are based on a child's developing experience and on the maturation of the child's brain.
[Slide 4 - Children as learners]
So if we think, for example, about children as learners -- one of the things that is apparent is that Transitional kindergarten is really the bridge between children as preschool learners and children as they become the kinds of learners they will be in the K to twelve grade-school system. And when we really think about it, what is so important about Transitional Kindergarten is that it forms the bridge between the characteristics of children as young learners and the characteristics of children as more mature learners as their brains are developing and as their abilities to benefit successfully from classroom instruction are also growing.
So here's some of the ways in which Transitional Kindergarten is a bridge in this way. If we think about preschoolers and their learning in a classroom what we find is that support is really needed for them to be able to manage their attention, to focus their thinking, to regulate their feelings. They really require the support of other people around them to help them in these basic self-regulatory skills.
By contrast, children in grade-school, once they've reached the middle primary grades, are much more self-regulated learners and Transitional Kindergarten is there for the bridge between these two aspects of a child's development as a learner.
Preschoolers learn a great deal by doing, by their active and behavioral engagement in situations that promote new thinking and new growth and understanding.
By the time children have made their way into the primary grades system they also learn by doing, but they also learn by instruction. They learn by what they are told, how they are taught and they become very adept at learning from the benefits of what they are told by others. Transitional Kindergarten is a transition bridge, between these two forms of learning.
Preschooler learning requires collaboration. It's very social in nature where children's interest and motivation and excitement and discoveries are important, in part because they are shared with others -- teachers and peers. That is also true for a grade-school learner. But also at this age, at the older age, learning can occur individually as children are self-regulated learners discovering, increasingly by themselves, the kinds of things that are important for them to know. Transitional Kindergarten is a bridge in the development of children as learners.
Where preschoolers are concerned, much more learning occurs through the child's initiative and the adult's capacity to capitalize and build on what has captured a child's interest in order to make that a learning opportunity. Capitalizing on children's interest is also important for grade-school learners, but they are also capable of responding to the teacher's initiative in learning situations, to respond to a careful curriculum for example that a teacher has devised in order to promote learning goals.
One of the wonderful characteristics about preschoolers as learners is how intuitive and experiential they are in their learning. They are really wrapped up in the questions and the experiences and the discoveries that interest them and sometimes their intuitions lead them astray. There is that intuitive quality that is also apparent in grade-schoolers but one of the distinguishing things about children in the primary grades is they are, what people in my field call, metacognitive. In other words, they're aware of their thinking processes. They love the game of thinking and learning. They enjoy deliberately applying their mental skills to solving problems. Transitional Kindergarten is a bridge between these different forms of learning, these different ways that children grow cognitively.
And finally, of course, any preschool teacher will tell you that preschoolers are easily distracted or deterred. If something else captures their interest, if their initial problem-solving attempts are unsuccessful, they can easily go in another direction. That is less true of grade-school learners who are more characterized by persistence, by working on problems that are difficult and continuing to keep on until they've reached a solution. Transitional Kindergarten is a bridge as children's brains are developing, as children are growing as learners, between these different kinds of learning.
Now as I mentioned these changes take place both because children are growing in their understanding, in their experience in the classroom, but also because of transitions that are occurring in brain development.
[Slide 5 - Brain Development]
So if you consider the things we are talking about today; the growth of learning and school achievement in children through the kindergarten and primary grade years. If we're also considering their social and emotional functioning, which is our topic for today, we can find that both of these are related to developments in the child's rapidly growing brain over this developmental period.
We know, for example, that children's learning and their social and emotional functioning are deeply connected to each other. Learning is an emotional experience. How well you're getting along with others in the classroom makes a difference to your feeling of self confidence as a learner and your excitement about being in school. And we also know that the explosive growth of the brain is part of what accounts for the incredible drive to learn, to understand, to make sense out of the world that we see in children from a very early age.
We also know that brain development is related to some of the social and emotional achievements we're talking about now. That as the brain grows, so also do children's capacities to respond sensitively to the emotions of others, to manage and regulate their own impulses and feelings, and their ability to concentrate their attention all are developing at the same time and Transitional Kindergarten is just a tremendously exciting bridge as the brain is developing and children are becoming ready to become more competent and effective students in the classroom.
Our task is to help understand both how Transitional Kindergarten can be used as a way of helping children develop the social and emotional skills necessary for their school success but also how to do so in a developmentally appropriate manner. And in this respect, thinking about how children in the early foundations provided by school are given a foundation for successful learning, we turn to the Transitional Kindergarten Implementation Guide.
Because it gives us some good ideas about what constitutes developmentally appropriate practice. What does it mean, in other words, to provide children with a classroom experience that really makes sense in terms of where their minds are growing, in terms of how their brains have developed, in terms of what they're ready for, and in terms of the new discoveries they're on the verge of making?
Well what we find from the Implementation Guide is that there are several characteristics to developmentally appropriate practice and one of these is a realization that children construct their own understanding based on active learning through direct experience. That again, it's that sense of children being active learners who are personally engaged in the experiences that they encounter in a classroom, often in a social context, from which they create their own answers, from which they test those answers against experience and the inputs of others. And this is something that in the field we call constructivism because it's almost as if children are constructing and understanding based on their experiences and that that construction of understanding includes the inputs of others, but it also includes the conclusions they're deriving from their own active thinking and exploration. That's developmentally appropriate practice for T.K.
It also means that children do learn through social interactions with adults and through peers. That adults and social interaction with peers become really fundamentally important to children's experience in a classroom. Where interaction with adults are concerned, which we will talking more about later, when you think about it in terms of the adult providing guided participation in joint activities that help encourage a child's learning and discovery in a classroom. Doing it together, doing it collaboratively, when a child see's something that's interesting and an adult says 'let's find out more', that's what guided participation looks like.
And where peers are concerned, we think about this as collaborative learning where children are building on each other's inputs and discoveries and comments and thoughts and ideas in order to strengthen their understanding and both of these are developmentally appropriate.
We also realize that new learning and skills build on previous learning. That learning is incremental and progressive in this way. We often think of it as skill-building-on-skill and that is part of what Transitional Kindergarten can provide children as a foundation to the kind of learning skills they'll be able to bring into a primary grade classroom.
Developmentally appropriate practice also means that learning advances when children are challenged to achieve at a level just beyond their current mastery in skills. In other words teachers, to some extent peers, but mostly teachers are helping to bring children to the threshold of new discoveries that they're just about ready to learn. It's what researchers call that zone of proximal development, that zone of almost being there, that is where the learning opportunities arise.
And of course learning also occurs when children have many opportunities to practice the skills that they are acquiring in order to master them and get ready for the next transition. That's a part of a T.K. classroom experience for children.
And finally we recognize that all aspects of development are important and they interact as they contribute to learning. As I mentioned earlier the cognitive skills that children are acquiring, the self-regulatory skills, the social and emotional capabilities, even their physical health are like gears that in optimal circumstances mesh well together and support each other in helping to support children's learning.
We can't take one part of children's development and isolate it from any other aspect because children's experience in the classroom is all together. Their experience encompasses all aspects of development and therefore teaching them successfully requires recognizing all those aspects of development.
So with the notion of developmentally appropriate practices a little bit better clarified, let me turn to the original question with which we began.
[Slide - How do we help young children become successful learners?]
How do we help young children become successful learners? And in the time we have what I would like to do is to draw further ideas from the Transitional Kindergarten Implementation Guide to offer some suggestions about how we do that and what kinds of practices we might institute in the classroom.
Well one way we help young children become successful learners is we assist in their self-regulation. A major academic committee at the National Academy of Sciences more than 10 years ago described self-regulation as key to so many aspects of children's successful development and we're going to find that to be true. We're also going to find Transitional Kindergarten to be an important period for the development of these self-regulatory skills.
How do we help children become successful learners? We promote their cooperation and responsibility; another important social emotional skill in the classroom that helps to make their classroom experience something that is rewarding, that contributes to children's looking forward to being in school and to learning there.
We also create, ourselves, warm and supportive relationships with them or we help their teachers to do so; because, so much of a child's experience in a classroom is tied up with the kind of relationship they have with the teacher.
We encourage cooperative peer relationships recognizing the significance of the social context of learning and how much peers build upon each other's learning. So the peer relationship network is an important part of children's classroom experience in T.K.
And we support their own initiative in learning. We help children in this remarkable transition when they're beginning to be self-confident in their own ideas, when they're beginning to think more creatively and incisively for themselves, we support that initiative in the ways that we help to encourage their own ideas and help to reward and support their own asking the questions that lead to new discovery.