As a Pre-K teacher preparing the children in my classroom for kindergarten, I am asked the same question by parents throughout the year: “Will my child be ready for kindergarten?”. When I worked with a younger age group, parents always asked: “Will my child be ready to transition to the next age group?”. The expectations of each age group and the classroom activities and the routines that educators establish may vary; however, every educator agrees that a child’s social-emotional development involves critical skills that need to be fostered.
Children need to be in environments where they can learn skills that pertain to safety, security, and self-control, and childcare settings offer excellent opportunities for children to learn how to interact with other children and trusted adults. Because children are around other children and adults, they have more opportunities for social interactions that require and enhance effective social skills. There are three main areas that involve social skills in the preschool setting: children by themselves, children interacting with another person, and children interacting in a group.
Children by themselves
As children grow and develop, a sense of autonomy becomes an important goal. The social-emotional goals that pertain to autonomy include how children manage their own feelings, follow the expectations and routines in the classroom, and take care of their needs. For example, being able to separate from a parent during drop-off is an important goal. Both parents and educators want to see children enter the classroom and start their day motivated to learn and play.
Sam, who was four years old when he entered my classroom for the first time, had never been to preschool before. He cried for an hour after drop-off, every single day. It took him a long time to be able to confidently walk into the classroom without getting upset. Unfortunately, Sam’s schedule was unpredictable, and he was often absent for a week at a time. This lack of consistency proved to be a detriment to his success, however, since he had to regularly re-learn his ability to enter the classroom confidently.
Children thrive in environments where they know what will happen next, so routines are important. I’ve seen children as young as two years of age walk into the classroom, put away their things, wash their hands, and sit down to eat breakfast. Babies can convey what they need when they learn to hold up their arms to be lifted out of a high chair or open their mouths to be fed.
When it comes to illustrating how preschool offers a space for children to learn social-emotional skills, I often think of a child in my three-year-old classroom. He would often act very impulsively in the classroom. One day, without provocation, he walked up to a child and pulled the child’s hair. When this behavior became a regular occurrence, we scheduled a conversation with the child’s parents. They were surprised, and responded: “Well, he doesn’t pull our cat’s hair at home”. Since he was the only child in his immediate and extended family and had never had to share his time, space, or anything else with other children, his parents never had the opportunity to see how he would interact with his peers.
Children with another person
Helping children learn how to appropriately interact with their peers requires extensive modeling, repetition, scaffolding, and patience. Social-emotional goals for children interacting with another person involve forming relationships with adults, becoming aware of others’ emotions, interacting with their peers, and developing friendships.
Children in preschool settings learn to form attachments with the adults who care for them, which is incredibly important. Children need to trust that the adults around them are going to take care of their needs, comfort them, and help them when challenges arise.
Being aware of others’ feelings is paramount when children engage with others. To help teach this awareness, I regularly use phrases like this: “Do you see how his face looks?”. “Does it look like she is happy, sad, angry, frustrated, etc.?”. Young children are inherently egocentric, so it takes a lot of repetition for them to realize that the other person’s feelings might not match their own.
Positively interacting with peers is also an important goal as children learn how to successfully play with other children. Learning how to ask a child to play or ask to join a group of children who are already playing forms a foundation of cooperation, collaboration, and inclusion. Friendships are formed as children grow and develop. While these friendships may be brief, it’s important for children to recognize those qualities in others that are important to them, such as common interests, kindness, and acceptance. These qualities become easier to articulate as children get older and they are around more children.
Children in a group
Elementary school teachers consistently tell us Pre-K educators that self-control is the main skill they want children to have. Teaching children in a large group setting can provide challenges when an educator is trying to keep 18 children engaged in the same activity. Children can have a hard time sitting still and waiting their turn. Being able to successfully be a part of a group setting requires children to be cooperative, manage conflict, listen, delay gratification, practice participating in a conversation, and use self-control.
Self-control in a group setting always reminds me of a child named Benny. Benny is exceptionally intelligent with a memory that rivals that of the proverbial elephant. He has been reading for months, and he’s only five years old. Academically, he is above the norm compared to his peers. He can identify most large numbers and do simple addition and subtraction. He’s very creative when it comes to building structures and drawing detailed characters. Despite his academic prowess, Benny struggles during large-group time. He has a lot to say and requires numerous reminders to quietly wait his turn. He often has to be excused from the group to take breaths to regain his self-control. However, because he continues to build a strong foundation of self-control in preschool, I feel confident that Benny will be successful in kindergarten.
Managing conflict can be one of the hardest skills to learn, and teach. It requires patience for, and from, both children and adults. Adults have to be able to control themselves as they help children learn to appropriately and safely navigate their big emotions.
Sports offer many examples of managing conflict. It’s not unusual to see a referee throw a flag during a football game because one player pushed an opponent. Often, when the play is reviewed, it’s clear that the opponent had provoked the player on the opposing team first, leading to retaliation. Unlike the referee, who can’t always stop the game to have a back-and-forth conversation with the players involved, we, as educators, do have the time to stop and talk with children to better understand what happened. Unfortunately, we often respond just as the referee does, throwing a flag after seeing only part of a conflict. We need to remember that children react the way they do for a reason. When you can understand the reason for the reaction, you can teach children safer, more effective skills.
As children become older, it becomes harder to teach them effective social-emotional skills. Making sure children are in care with highly qualified educators ensures that children can learn and develop a solid foundation of the social-emotional skills they will need not only in the classroom but also for the rest of their lives.