Teaching tolerance and friendship to your preschooler

PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

When parents enroll their children in a preschool program, they often ask, “How and when will my child learn their ABCs and 123s?”

While the academic portion of a preschool curriculum is indeed important, teachers often explain that the social-emotional component of a program matters more to a child’s development.

“We always tell new parents that our curriculum is geared toward social-emotional skills first, with academics skills coming in second,” said Kathleen Ronan, director of Sunny Sky & Rainbows, a preschool program in Dracut. “In order for a preschool child to be successful with peers, they need to learn cooperation and respect.”

Social emotional development refers to the skills we all need in order to manage ourselves and our relationships with others. Studies show that children who are able to listen, take turns and solve problems creatively are well-liked by their teachers and peers. The ability to initiate and sustain friendships contributes to children’s overall emotional health. When children learn to rely on these strengths, they are better prepared to cope with the rigors of school, less likely to display behavioral problems and have higher rates of high-school graduation and college success.

Like any skill, social-emotional awareness develops or wanes depending on how often the skills are encouraged or practiced. Preschool teachers may lead their students in explorations of a “feelings” curricular theme or an “all about me” unit, organizing activities and selecting stories to teach specific lessons in empathy, self-confidence and responsibility, as they learn to identify specific emotions in themselves and in others.

But whether children — or their parents — are aware of it, teachers also build further opportunities to strengthen cooperative skills into the preschool day. “We use role-modeling to help teach social-emotional skills. We show children how to recognize and appreciate the physical differences between them by ‘playing up’ the strengths of each child,” added Ronan.

“A social child is a happy, well-adjusted child,” commented Gail Fortes, coordinator for the Children’s Collaborative CPC, a program aimed at improving the quality of child care in Greater Lowell while making it more affordable for parents. “Life is easier for those who can adapt and have friends.”

In keeping with the program mandate, the Children’s Collaborative is sponsoring the purchase of the Second Step Curriculum kits for their members, as well as offering training workshops for their staff. The Committee for Children (CFC), a nonprofit group from Seattle, developed the Second Step program. Using language and problem-solving activities, Second Step is designed to help young children acquire the social and emotional skills they need to succeed in school and in life. The CFC program has received an “outstanding” rating from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Early childhood educators state that parents can help their children develop empathy and consideration toward others by setting consistent behavioral expectations at home. Parents can model respect and appropriate forms of communication by expressing their own feelings when either frustrated or delighted by their child’s actions.

In other words, parents could state to their child, “I didn’t like what you did. It made me feel angry when you didn’t listen.” Identifying the action and the way the parent felt about it teaches that behaviors have consequences, both for themselves and for other people. Educators with the Illinois Early Learning Project encourage parents to then help children “cool off.” When children are calm, parents and children can work together to produce alternative solutions to a problem and implement them. But before parents step away, they can help children recognize whether the new plan is working.

As their children’s primary teachers, Courtney Gray, a prekindergarten teacher at the Kindercare Learning Center in Billerica, reminds her students’ parents to allow them to safely learn from their mistakes, using them as an opportunity to discuss larger issues of individuality. As Gray points out, “each child develops at his or her own pace. Remember that ‘practice makes perfect’ — and your child enjoys ‘practicing!'”

Wendy Keen is the education services coordinator at the Children’s Collaborative Community Partnership for Children. The directors and family child-care providers mentioned in this article are also members of the Children’s Collaborative CPC, a program funded by the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care. Managed by Community Teamwork Inc., the Children’s Collaborative is dedicated to making child care more affordable for working parents, and to improving the quality of preschool child care in Greater Lowell.