Today I got to speak with Suzanne Bouffard, author of the book The Most Important Year: Pre-Kindergarten and the Future of our Children. If you haven’t read the book yet, you really should. It can be purchased at this site: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0399184945?tag=randohouseinc20568-20
Please tell us a little about yourself and what drew you to early education.
I’ve always been passionate about education and helping children, so I pursued a Ph.D. in developmental psychology to learn as much as I could about supporting kids to be healthy, happy, and successful. After graduate school, I began to work on social and emotional learning programs for kids (and their parents and teachers). I realized how important social skills, self-regulation, and emotional competence are for every aspect of children’s (and adults’!) lives. Skills like being able to express your feelings, manage frustration and other difficult emotions, get along with others, and make a plan and stick to it help kids develop strong relationships and they also help kids learn and grow in school. The foundation for those skills is laid in early childhood. You can build them later, but it’s much easier to get kids off on the right foot when they are young, and it can prevent a lot of problems. In early childhood, the brain is building a million new connections per second! That means it is much easier to learn new things. It also means young children are fascinating and rewarding to work with!
In your book, The Most Important Year, you discuss why you think it is important for children to learn emotional skills as early as Pre-K. Can you share with our readers why Pre-K is such a crucial year?
Emotional skills like being able to stay calm, manage frustration, and express feelings in productive ways are important for many reasons in and out of school. At school, those skills help kids get along with their peers, follow directions from teachers, handle transitions, be a part of group activities, and stay focused and engaged in learning new things. Preschools are (or should be) set up to help children develop these kinds of skills, because the preschool years (roughly 3-5 years old) are a time of rapid brain development and a critical window for developing the ability to self-regulate and manage oneself. But those skills don’t happen automatically, and we adults sometimes forget that kids have to learn how to handle conflicts, frustration, anger, etc. Good preschool teachers have strategies for helping children develop those skills and they give kids lots of practice rather than punishment (which doesn’t tend to build young children’s knowledge or coping skills). They also see children in group social situations and the challenges that come with that; parents are enormously important, of course, but some of the challenges kids face and the skills they need simply don’t come up at home.
Preschool is a crucial time period, but people should know that developing emotional skills is a life-long process, and no child leaves preschool having mastered skills like sharing and coping with anger! Unfortunately, though, too many elementary and secondary schools are not set up to help children continue developing those skills. That makes it more important than ever for preschools to focus on them.
How do you suggest we scale up and get programs about emotional learning or mindfulness into every school in the country?
I am encouraged by the increase in programs and efforts I see in schools, but there is lots more room for growth. Schools and educators have so much on their plates right now that it can feel overwhelming to add one more thing. I think it’s important for them to see that these skills actually help them achieve all of their other goals, including critical thinking, achievement, and college access. When students don’t have these skills, they have more trouble focusing and overcoming challenges; plus, there are more behavior problems, which distract teachers and schools from learning. Research is starting to show the benefits of social and emotional learning (SEL) and mindfulness programs for academic achievement and other outcomes like student health, and that is very important for demonstrating the value of this work to school leaders. Nothing begets success like success.
While programs can be valuable, it’s also very important that we send the message to schools that students benefit the most when teachers weave social and emotional learning into everyday practice, for example in the way they give feedback, interact with students when they are upset, and deal with behavior challenges and peer conflicts. That’s where the learning really happens and gets reinforced. The good news is this kind of work doesn’t require adding programs that take up time in the school day. But it does take investments in training teachers and leaders, and getting educators to help each other stay focused on how they teach, not just what they teach.
If you had to pick one mental exercise for kids to do in Pre-K to help positively shape their future behavior and health, what would it be?
I have to pick one?! I think it’s really important to give kids strategies for getting calm and managing stress. A simple deep breath can go a long way toward staying or regaining calm so that kids can try again when their block tower falls down or articulate what’s bothering them rather than screaming. With little kids, you have to make everything a fun game, and there are many fun ways to turn a deep breath into a game, as you probably already know. (It’s worth noting that you have to teach these kinds of strategies when kids are already calm; over time, they will learn to use them when upset, but it’s very hard to learn something new when their brains and bodies are already ramped up.) We should acknowledge that deep breathing alone is not going to solve big problems like family crises and trauma, but it is a simple and effective first step toward making kids aware of their bodies and their ability to self-regulate, and toward a lifelong process of learning to manage stress.
What advice do you have for teachers, administrators, healthcare practitioners, and parents as it relates to early learning?
Remember that young kids are learning literally everything – that’s both wonderful and exhausting for them. I think the number one thing we need to have when working or living with young children is empathy. It’s hard being a little human! And kids often don’t know how to express that. Most of the time when they are acting out, being oppositional, or melting down, they are not doing it to make us crazy or manipulate us, but to tell us something they don’t yet know how to communicate in words. They need us to try to get inside their heads and understand why they are doing what they’re doing. That can help us give them the tools and strategies they need to communicate and behave more effectively in the short-run and become well-adjusted people in the long-run. It can also really help us adults stay calm during tantrums and other stressful moments. Empathy is good for kids and for us at the same time – what could be better?
Thank you Ms. Suzanne Bouffard for speaking with me. Everyone go get her book, tell your teachers and schools, we have to be teaching this stuff in Pre-K! The future of our planet probably depends on it.
About Adam and Wuf Shanti: Adam is the [now] 14 year-old creator of Wuf Shanti, Yoga Dog for Kids. He wants to help get this message out to kids everywhere, and their parents, teachers, and doctors, because he thinks it is so important right now with everything going on in the world, and he wants to help stop the violence. Wuf Shanti is a character that was created by a kid for other kids, and travels to schools and children’s hospitals to share yoga, meditation, and mindfulness with children to promote health and wellness, and encourage peace and positivity. Wuf Shanti videos can be seen on the Children’s TV Network in children’s hospitals across the country, on local PBS stations, on the Wuf Shanti Yoga Fun Machine mindful mobile app, and on the Wuf Shanti YouTube Channel. Wuf Shanti videos, books, and mobile app were awarded the Mom’s Choice Award for “Best in Family-Friendly Media, Products, and Services” and the mobile app was named “Best Health App for Kids” by Common Sense Media. To learn more about Wuf Shanti, visit www.wufshanti.com and/or join us on social media. www.facebook.com/wufshanti