Soft skills now, strong foundation later

Last Thursday, U.S. News and World Report published an article that I believe is long overdue and is music to my ears. In it, the article calls attention to the contrasts between early childhood education (i.e., preschool) and the education of children in early childhood (which the article defines as children birth to eight years of age). Moreover, the article calls out the education community for the visible distinction between preschool and elementary school programs, instead suggesting that perhaps an integration, rather than a separation would be beneficial to our nation’s youngest students.

The article continues by highlighting approaches that are increasingly considered and used in preschool classrooms but are not on the radars of many elementary school teachers and administrators. Namely, the higher-order cognitive processes involved in manipulating complex information, sustaining attention during learning and task completion, and inhibiting impulsive responses, collected grouped as executive functioning, deserve considerable focus. Within the developmental and educational psychology literature, strong executive functioning has repeatedly demonstrated close ties to both academic and social achievement, including math achievement and social adjustment. Moreover, as CPE highlights in an upcoming report to be published later this summer, executive functioning seems fundamental for some skills that teachers and administrators might be more familiar with given the current climate regarding college- and career-readiness. Specifically, critical thinking, which is a much desired skill that many children and students are hoped to be able to demonstrate by the time they graduate high school, appears heavily reliant on one’s ability to manipulate complex information and to follow through multi-step problem-solving procedures.

Although the U.S. News and World Report article offered several areas in which childhood educators should address (or rather continue to address beyond just preschool), one which I believe deserves specific recognition is that of social-emotional development. Research shows that children who demonstrate social and emotional competencies, showcased, for example, by being able to regulate one’s emotions and to exhibit prosocial behaviors such as cooperation and sharing rather than aggressive behaviors such as hitting and yelling are generally better adjusted in formal schooling settings (i.e., elementary school) and less likely to be held back in later grades.

Looking forward, I am eager to see more articles such as this that highlight just how important processes such as executive functioning and social and emotional skills are beyond the preschool classroom. –David Ferrier

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