How Preschool Can Help Our Most Vulnerable Children

Most experts say that children benefit from “quality” instruction at an early age. But as preschool programs around the country expand, questions are being raised about how to stay true to the developmental needs of early learners at a time when demands on them are growing, perhaps too quickly.

I recently asked Lesley Koplow about the intricate work of educating—and nurturing—young children, especially those who live in high-stress environments. Koplow is the Director of the Center for Emotionally Responsive Practice (ERP) at Bank Street College of Education in New York City and the author of several books, including Bears, Bears Everywhere; Supporting Children’s Emotional Health in the Classroom and Politics Aside: Our Children and Their Teachers in Score-Driven Times.

Here are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

Q: What does the term “Emotionally Responsive Practice” mean?

A: ERP addresses emotional and social development in young children, from toddlers to 8-year-olds. We have some programs that go as high as fifth grade, but most of our work centers on early childhood.

ERP uses a deep knowledge of child development and respect for each child’s life experience to inform classroom routines, teacher-child interactions, and curriculum. ERP schools have an enduring commitment to creating classroom climates that view emotional well-being as foundational for learning. In ERP classrooms, children learn that play, reading, writing, social studies and art are all tools for self-expression, for making sense of the world around them, and for connecting with others within their school and home communities.

Q: What is the role of your program at Bank Street?

A: We do consultation, professional development and staff support through the Department of Education in New York City to make sure that everyone who is with little children understands development in a deep way, so that their practice is not coming from something that the outside world thinks should be happening. The goal is to cultivate classroom climates that are meaningful for children. This is especially critical for kids who have had a lot of disruption and trauma and upheaval in their lives.

Being in school for several hours every day creates an opportunity to establish foundations for learning that children may not have had the chance to develop beforehand.

Q: How might the push for universal preschool [UPK] affect children who are vulnerable?

A: UPK is great. It’s just that the UPK experience has to be informed by knowledge of development and life experience.

Teachers have an amazing power to ameliorate stress for young kids and to provide an early childhood education that changes outcomes for them—in terms of learning and well-being.

One of the studies that I really love is one that follows children who have had warm relationships with kindergarten teachers as their first teachers. This is in the olden days before PreK was more available. Positive outcomes—socially, emotionally, and cognitively—persisted through the eighth grade, as opposed to children who had relationships with early teachers who were harsh or inattentive. We’re just talking about the relationship here, so anything that supports positive, nurturing, teacher-child relationships in early childhood, in PreK, is preventive practice. It protects kids from the risks that they may have upon entering school.

Principals, assistant principals, and the public sector really have to be educated about the needs of young children so that they can support teachers and help create environments that allow early learners to thrive.

Q: How can early learning programs help children with vocabulary deficits catch up?

A: The vocabulary research is interesting and important. How do kids who are well supported in their families and communities develop language? How do they develop vocabulary? Language comes from relationships. The first words are intimate. The next words come from shared experiences. A toddler points to something, and the parent lets them know what that is. When children are well supported, and their parents talk with them about what they see and hear and experience and take in, their vocabularies are enriched.

If kids aren’t able to get that kind of input before they come to school, that means that it’s really important for them to get it once they start school. But vocabulary development can’t be a separate subject. It has to come from a process of connecting with the teacher in the room, having a shared vocabulary about what is being seen and heard and done, taking little trips into the community, and coming back and talking about them. Word acquisition has to come from experience. You can’t have four-year-olds sit down and memorize a bunch of giant words.

Q: What about the role of play?

A: Language and play develop in tandem. What you see in a child’s play, you should hear in their language, if things are going well. And what you hear in their language, you should see in their spontaneous symbolic play. So language, play and, subsequently, drawing, are symbols for children’s thoughts and feelings, their inner life and their process of making sense of the world around them. You can’t feed language without feeding play. That doesn’t work, especially when children are stressed by life experiences. They need play to integrate and make sense of their experiences the way adults do. Adults talk about a frightening event so that they can make sense of it. Kids need to play about what happened so that they can make sense of it.

The most stressed children have so much more to make sense of and are often deprived of the opportunity to play because people think that they have to teach them to read when they’re three years old. As a result, the experiences stay with them on a sensory level and prevent new learning from coming in.

Q: What role do you see for technology in the PreK classroom?

A:  My preference would be for there to be no technology because children need to play and have things in their hands. They don’t need a virtual world. They need a real world. They need to create their world, and technology distracts them from that developmentally.