Scholastic

Why social skills are key to learning

Before they can learn academics, kids need to know how to behave in a group.

By Ellen Booth Church

You may be hoping your child will learn how to read and write in the first few months of preschool or kindergarten. But there are many other skills she needs to master before an academic focus is appropriate. Studies show that the most important skills to learn in the beginning of the year are social: cooperation, self-control, confidence, independence, curiosity, empathy and communication.

In the first months of school, early childhood teachers are most concerned with children who have behavioral and attention problems. It's simple: If a child is not able to take turns, listen and sit in a group, how can she learn what is being taught? That is why teachers spend a good deal of time early in the year on the basic social skills of preschool and kindergarten. Even if your child has been in a child care center or another type of program, she still needs to learn the social and emotional dynamics of this new group. Luckily, her previous experiences with social interaction both at home and in other programs will help her make the transition. Once these basic social interaction and group behavior skills are in place, she is more ready and able to concentrate on academics.

Your child learns best with a balanced approach supporting her growth in social, emotional and cognitive (academic) skills. So if he is not yet coming home from school knowing new letters or numbers, don't worry! Most early childhood programs slowly introduce more academics as the year progresses. Recent research in brain development has shown that a child's ability to interact with others, control and express her feelings and take care of basic tasks independently are as (or even more) important for success in school as academic skills. The neural pathways needed for learning are actually constructed through positive interactions with others! Your child's teacher will use this brain research information to help your child make connections with others in the class, share and care, listen and speak in a group and feel confident when taking on new challenges.

The first basic skills: The four C's

Here are a few examples of teachers' goals for the beginning of the school year. Ask your child's teacher to tell you about her objectives and for her suggestions on how you can support these skills at home.

What you can do

Help your child develop essential social and emotional skills by making connections with school friends at home. Ask her whom she would like to invite for a playdate. It is often easier for children to make friends in their own space one-on-one than in school. Many teachers have found that a child who is having difficulties making friends or sharing in a large group often can make a close connection to a new friend on her home turf. This relationship can then carry over to the classroom setting. Once there is a connection to one child in the classroom, more are soon to follow!

The importance of play

For your young child, play is important work. He grows, learns and investigates the world through play. This happens through complex play activities that invite him to think, problem-solve and participate in fantasy. When your child engages in play, he has to plan, create a focus and strive for a goal — all essential life and work skills. Your child's teacher should provide play situations throughout your child's day. She may first introduce letters and numbers through meaningful dramatic play, block-building and literature/music experiences. So don't fret if your child comes home saying he played all day! You can be sure that with his teacher's guidance and his own innate curiosity, he was applying very important problem-solving, reading, math and science skills right in the midst of his play.

The experiences your child has in the beginning of the year provide the foundation that will enable her to become an enthusiastic, lifelong learner — enthusiastic because she has discovered that learning is fun as well as meaningful.

Ellen Booth Church is a former professor of early childhood education, an education consultant and an author.