Kristin Tenney-Blackwell, M.A., LLP, IMH-E, has been working with children, families and educators for over fifteen years. As a Consultant, she is passionate about promoting young children’s social and emotional development in an effort to support resiliency. She has been active in providing consultation and guidance for organizations such as Vanderbilt University, the National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning, ZERO TO THREE, the Devereux Center for Resilient Children, Head Start and other early childhood programs on issues related to early childhood mental health and school readiness. Her portfolio includes work in early childhood education and mental health initiatives, design and delivery of professional development, and evaluation of early childhood projects.
It is fascinating to be part of a time where science and practice are coming closer together! While we have a great deal more to learn in an effort to create environments that support children’s ongoing skill development and learning, it’s wonderful when we see ideas in place about how to help children feel safe, successful, and competent and experience joy. Nurturing children to experience these things is not something of chance. It requires dedicated individuals who are committed to research based practices and are able to set egos and agendas aside in order to keep the greater good in mind; the greater good being children. We know early experience matters. The question today is not whether early experience matters, but rather how early experiences shape individual development and contribute to children’s continued movement along positive pathways.
Research has shared that the true foundation of quality teaching and learning is engaging interactions and environments. Only then do efforts in ongoing child assessment make connections to and guide curricula and teaching practices that truly make a difference. I am concerned this very foundation has been left out of recent discussions.
Our elementary schools are neighborhood schools; therefore, reflections of the community. I’m unsure how we expect to solve school issues and challenges without first examining and taking into account our community, in addition to reflecting on what school readiness for all children truly means. I’m unsure how we expect children to thrive and feel safe, successful, competent and experience joy without first considering developmental needs, as well as the impact of engaging interactions and environments (which includes relationships with teachers, adult caregivers and peers).
How we support transition for children into kindergarten and during early elementary years is of significance. Its success has a lasting effect on children’s school success in later years (Pianta, & Cox 1999; Ramey et al. 2000). Clearly, educators, schools, and communities must work together and it is well worth the effort to find ways to support children and families during these crucial transitions.
Transition is a process and according to Pianta and Kraft-Sayre, “most important for the transition process are the relationships—those between children and teachers, parents and teachers, children and their peers, and children and their parents” (1999, 52). Effective practices should be planned locally and take into consideration community characteristics and the developmental needs of young children. By using what we know about young children and transitions, we can adapt strategies to promote children’s successful transition to kindergarten and school success in the years after.
Many of us know the transition from home to school has been found to be one of the most difficult transitions for children and can lead to children’s ongoing worries and anxieties if not supported appropriately. In the book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky highlights that most of our stress today comes from mental processes; in other words, from worrying about things. High levels of worry in childhood can produce very serious and long-lasting negative effects including physical, psychological and neurological. In fact, research has shown that levels of stress impact areas of the brain. The part of the brain most affected from early stress is the prefrontal cortex, which is directly involved with self-regulatory activities, both emotional and cognitive. As a result, children who experience varying levels of stress early in life generally find it more difficult to concentrate, harder to attend, sit still and follow directions. When you are overwhelmed, distracted and worried, it’s difficult to learn the alphabet and how to divide.
Brains and bodies are the most sensitive to the effects of stress during early childhood.
Asking young children to experience multiple changes and transitions during their early years is not supportive of their developmental needs, nor does it support their readiness for school and lifelong success. Schools’ readiness for children is conceptualized as providing an environment in which all children are ready and able to learn. High quality classrooms with integrated learning contribute positively to student outcomes, in reading and math for example(Rimm-Kaufman, Fan, Chiu, & You, 2007). We also know that research and theory strongly suggest that children’s initial academic and social success at school can lay the foundation for their long-term adjustment and progress, leading to a cycle of achievement and success (Fabian & Dunlop, 2007).
Multiple changes and transitions, teacher capacity, systemic issues without trust, communication and understanding, large class sizes, high teacher-child ratios, and lack of an individualized approach to learning does not equate to schools’ readiness. It simply fails to provide an environment, which enables all children to learn effectively. By holding tight to what we know children need, we have the opportunity to stay connected to the ultimate purpose of developmental research which is to improve children’s lives.
Children entering kindergarten and through second grade (roughly age 7) increase in identity formation and gradually begin to see the world as a place with its own rules and customs, about which he/she must learn and into which he/she must assimilate. The child shifts from seeing himself as at the center of the world to realizing that the world is complex and that he must find his place in it. Children during this developmental stage need:
· Ongoing support for language and learning skills as they enter an academic setting;
· Continuation of nurturing, sensitive, responsive relationships with family and other important adult caregivers;
· Consistent and supported social experiences that help them to develop peer relationships (coached for success); and,
· Help in organizing their life story, social contexts and increasingly complex worlds.
Children ages 6 ½ to 8 are asking themselves, “How am I the same and different as other children?” While truly two different and separate developmental stages, there is also an overlap in tasks of normal development during this short period of time. Children entering these stages of development are rigid in defining what is normal and what standards they use for group inclusion. This is an age of mastery and social development: finding one’s place, cooperating with groups, and accomplishing tasks. Children during these developmental stages need:
· Safe, consistent, and nurturing environments;
· Experience-rich environments that help them to develop a sense of mastery with consistent support through trusting relationships;
· Social successes giving them friends and a fit with their peers;
· Building of moral development and empathy; and,
· Consistent environments and structure in order to move smoothly through the cycle of the day.
Asking children to cope with stress and conditions that do not match and offer what they need during specific stages only increases the risk their development will be compromised. School-age children respond with anxiety to some of the same situations that are troublesome in early childhood: separation, worry about losing control, fear of body damage, and confusion about reality. In summary, some the overall tasks of middle childhood development (6-12 years of age) are:
· To develop and utilize a sense of calm and self-control (supported by consistent adults and environments)
· To develop real-world skills and a sense of competence
· To establish oneself in the world of peers
· Rituals symbolizing attachment persist
· Proximity seeking is activated in situations of severe stress or during transitions
· Attachment needs are increasing expressed in teacher relationships and in friendships with peers
· Attachment remains salient as children move through preadolescence
· Play continues to be an important source of pleasure and release, but becomes increasingly ritualized into games
· Increasingly accurate perception of reality
· Improving understanding of cause and effect
· Internalization of values, expectations, rules and social norms fosters self control
· Desire to receive approval of peers sets limits on impulsive behavior
· Identification with important adults and peers as role models
· Capacity for self-control influences self-esteem and self-concept
Transition is a process…an ongoing process…not a one-time event for children. Children’s transition to school presents a critical time and unique opportunity to lay the groundwork for their long-term academic and social success, as development is truly the outcome of transactions between a child and his/her environment. At critical points, determined by periods of developmental change or by external influences, junctures appear and the child may move off the path he/she was traveling and onto a different path. How and whether development may be affected by increased risk or opportunity depends on the timing of external factors in relation to current developmental tasks. Developmental capacities that are currently emerging or have very recently been achieved are most vulnerable to disruption to stressors.
Adults who continue to learn about children make the best parents, teachers, administrators, etc. Quality teaching and learning has a foundation in engaging environments and interactions. Adults learn from observing children, planning activities that support their development and then evaluating and planning the next activities and experiences. High quality education programs work when administrators, teachers and families act as researchers – observe children and then reflect on what works and what does not work. We are constantly learning and assessing what we do so that we can do better…do better for children.
Remaining consistent is that children need to feel safe in order to learn. If children are fearful and stressed, they are less able to pay attention, to remember and to develop self-control. The security in consistent, nurturing and responsive environments make it possible for children to feel safe, try new things and learn new things; it’s going to provide just the kind of support children need to be able to master what is being offered.