Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Her latest book examines the lives of four past presidents to understand what it takes to lead in turbulent times. Their stories, she says, hold valuable lessons for today.
Guest Host: Indira Lakshmanan
Walk into a pre-school classroom in America today and Erika Christakis says it’s likely you’ll see some familiar décor: alphabet charts, bar graphs, calendars, and schedules. It’s all part, says the expert in early child education, of a nationwide drive to make sure kids are ready for school at a younger and younger age. That effort, Christakis argues in her new book “The Importance of Being Little”, is misguided. Erika Christakis joins guest host Indira Lakshmanan to discuss what’s wrong in pre-school education today and what we can do to get in on the right track.
- Erika Christakis Author, "The Importance Of Being Little"; early childhood educator at the Yale Child Study Center
What To Look For In A Preschool
For many parents of young kids, this is a season of anxiety, as they navigate how to find the best preschool or daycare for their children while also juggling concerns about affordability, access and quality. Erika Christakis, early childhood educator and author of "The Importance of Being Little", is here to help.
Read An Excerpt
From THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING LITTLE: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups by Erika Christakis, published on February 9, 2016 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright by Erika Christakis, 2016.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANThanks for joining us. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is back tomorrow. Walk into a preschool classroom in America today and Erika Christakis says it's likely you'll see some familiar décor. Alphabet charts, bar graphs, calendars and schedules. It's all part, she says, of a nationwide drive to make sure kids are ready for school at a younger and younger age. That effort, Christakis argues in her book, "The Importance Of Being Little," is misguided.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANErika Christakis is an early childhood educator at the Yale Child Study Center. You can join our conversation with her this hour by calling 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Thanks so much for joining us today.
MS. ERIKA CHRISTAKISThank you for inviting me.
LAKSHMANANWell, I first want to start out by asking you about an article in The Atlantic that was adapted from your book that I read, as a subscriber. And there's a great illustration of a tiny hand of a child who's being crushed inside a giant book, reaching out and trying, futilely, to grab a ball. How have we gotten so off track? You say that we are adultifying young children.
CHRISTAKISRight. And there is something I call the preschool paradox, which is kind of a mismatch between what children can do, what we know the science tells us about the incredible potential of children cognitively and emotionally on the one hand, and on the other hand, a lot of signs of distress. We see kids who are being medicated for attention problems at earlier ages. We see frustrated parents. We see kids who are actually experiencing high rates of preschool expulsion.
CHRISTAKISSo there is something going on here and I would argue that we are not seeing children in a sort of child-sized, child's eye way. We have some mismatched expectations. So, for example, we often overtax them, as you elude to in terms of the preschool environment. It's very over stimulating. We have rapid transitions. We sort of march kids from one task to another and we grab them and put their snowsuits on and it takes 20 minutes and then they have five minutes of outdoor time.
CHRISTAKISBut on the other hand, a lot of things that we see in preschool classrooms are actually quite boring and silly and rather reutilized and really don't leverage kids' incredible intellectual capacities to talk, to think, to solve problems. So we have a sort of mismatch where we don’t really see children from the eyes of a child.
LAKSHMANANWell, that's interesting. I mean, you talk about adultifying children, but another end of your research is about infantilizing young adults. And last fall, just as you'd finished writing your new book, which was just released yesterday, you were calling for a revolution in early childhood education, but your research in child development inspired you to write an email on the eve of Halloween that ended up making you a lightning rod for a national debate over cultural sensitivity and free expression on campuses. Tell us what happened.
CHRISTAKISWell, I saw a kind of misreading in a way. It's similar to what I'm talking about with young children, with preschoolers, where I think sometimes we sort of underestimate the kind of problem-solving abilities that young people of all ages have. And if we look at the research on how people learn, one of the most effective ways for children of all ages and young adults to learn is through dialogue with other people.
CHRISTAKISAnd so when I sent my email in which I lauded and respected the goals of the directive about Halloween costumes...
LAKSHMANANAnd tell us what that directive was for people who don’t remember.
CHRISTAKISSure. It was a directive sent by a number of deans and senior officials at Yale University asking people to be sensitive, to be appropriate, to be careful not to offend people on the basis of all of the things that most civilized people would not want to be offensive about, religion, ethnicity, race and so on. You know, the goals were incredibly sound and understandable and I agreed with them, but I believe there is a potential downside when we offer these kinds of suggestions that sometimes can have an inadvertent effect of perhaps minimizing the opportunities for young people to actually talk among themselves and to figure out these issues among themselves.
LAKSHMANANAll right. And so what you had advocated in your email was that people make their own decisions, don't allow the administration to make decisions for you. And you wrote, "is there not room anymore for a child or a young person to be a little bit obnoxious, a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive." What did you mean?
CHRISTAKISWell, I think there's a very interesting learning zone where people have to reach -- they have to get right up to the edge in order to learn at times. And sometimes that can be uncomfortable. And I think if we always try, at any age, whether it's a preschooler or a college student, if we try to keep people from reaching that edge, sometimes we miss an opportunity for real personal and emotional growth. Now, can that be unpleasant or unhelpful or unfriendly, uncomfortable? Of course.
CHRISTAKISBut I think we are failing young people if we try too hard to specify in advance where that learning edge is.
LAKSHMANANWell, you know, you wrote in your email, the examples you gave of costumes that might offend people, you wrote about blondes dressing up as Disney's Chinese princess Mulan or dressing up as a black Disney princess. But a student-written petition argued that you were equating harmful stereotypes with preschoolers playing make believe and they read your defense of what you called youthful transgression as somehow implicitly condoning things like black face or Nazi uniforms.
CHRISTAKISWell, I want to be very clear that I probably would be just as offended by those kinds of examples as any of my critics. And to me, it's very important that I express my respect and empathy for the students who feel and are, indeed, harmed by offensive stereotyping. Nonetheless, I think it's really important that we understand how important it is to have dialogue, to be careful not to let other people dictate to us in advance what might or might not be offensive.
CHRISTAKISI heard from many students who said, you know, that original message actually didn't really reflect the things that hurt my feelings, socially conservative students, religiously conservative students, people with disabilities who were offended by things that we might not even have imagined could be offensive. So I think it's really important that we understand sometimes people use self expression, such as costumes, to express satire, to express critiques of things that may look incredibly offensive, but in fact, are a critique of the very thing that seems offensive.
CHRISTAKISSo, again, I think it's really important when we get back to child development and how people learn, if we can loosen the reins a little bit in the classroom and allow people the space, the time, the opportunity to get to know each other, to learn from each other, to talk to each other, to listen, I think we're more likely to have the outcomes we want than when we specify curriculum in advance that can, even with the best of intentions, sometimes not create that opportunity for dialogue and real understanding.
LAKSHMANANWell, you talk about the important of dialogue and free speech at every level in the education process, for students having that opportunity to learn and, of course, this incident rocked the campus and dozens of faculty came to your defense in the name of free speech, saying you had been misunderstood and then on the other side, offended students were demanding that you resign because of the controversy. You chose, on your own, not to teach this semester because of the controversy.
LAKSHMANANYou're an educator. I want to know what lessons have you learned from this experience? What lessons have you drawn for your own life on campus? And tell us what is the atmosphere like on campus today.
CHRISTAKISWell, I think the good news is there has been really wonderful dialogue. It has been, of course, painful for many people, but we are starting to talk and we are starting to listen to each other. I think the key lesson, to me, is that many people like to frame these issues as free speech issues. And, for me, that's too narrow a framing. I think that the right to speech also needs to include the obligation to listen. And that reflects -- that requires, rather, an environment, a culture that really respects listening.
CHRISTAKISAnd I think that goes back to the preschool classroom where we need to listen more to young children, really understand what they're thinking, what they're doing. It has to start early.
LAKSHMANANWell, talking and listening, two things that I think everyone would support, dialogue even in cases when we're offended. There was this video-taped incident that went viral where a Yale student was arguing that faculty shouldn't be overly concerned with creating an intellectual space as much as creating a home, especially for minority students who might feel like outsiders on elite campuses full of buildings named for slave owners and the like.
LAKSHMANANSo do you see, you know, any kind of classroom, from a college campus to a preschool classroom, should it be a protected space for young people, especially young people who might be outsiders?
CHRISTAKISWell, I think everyone wants a safe space and actually, I was very frustrated and irritated by some of the critique of the students at Yale and elsewhere, sort of mocking them for wanting safety. I mean, everybody wants to be safe. The question is how do we define that and is a safe space always a comfortable space. I'm not sure that's really true. Again, I think if you look at how people learn, sometimes they really have to brush up against discomfort in order to ultimately learn and be truly safe.
CHRISTAKISWhen we're really safe, it's because we are confident in ourselves and able to express ourselves and able to be heard. So I think there is a tension, but to me, safety and comfort are different things.
LAKSHMANANYou graduated from Harvard in the 1980s. You've spent much of your career on academic campuses. Just quickly, what has changed in campus attitudes towards race and political correctness in your experience?
CHRISTAKISWell, I think we've seen a lot of exciting and positive changes in terms of the diversification of campuses and I think that that is a wonderful development and it requires us all to be as open-minded and as generous as we can with each other.
LAKSHMANANAll right. I want to bring this back to your book because it's tied to the idea that adults need to allow young people to speak for themselves, make mistakes, engage in dialogue if they're offended. What happens to children developmentally if adults tell them what to do and shelter them?
CHRISTAKISI think we run a real risk. If you look at the way early childhood classrooms are organized today, there's more and more scripting of curriculum. And by that, I mean, sort of predetermined content areas, which are often quite silly and sort of uninteresting to children. You know, if you walk into the typical preschool classroom, kids spend a lot time sitting in a circle talking about what day of the calendar they're on and actually studies show that even after a whole year of this kind of behavior, kids don't know what day of the week they're on so there's actually...
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, we will talk a lot more about that when we come back with Erika Christakis, specialist in early childhood education. We're gonna take a short break now, but stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, sitting in for Diane Rehm. This hour we're talking about what kids really need from grownups with Erika Christakis, author of "The Importance Of Being Little." She's early childhood educator at the Yale Child Study Center. So Erika, here in D.C. and in many cities across America, it's now annual lottery time for public charter schools, and it's also the waiting season for private school admission.
LAKSHMANANSo public, private, charter, day care, what makes for the best preschool experience for a child?
CHRISTAKISIn some ways that's a really easy question to answer, and of course in other ways it's very difficult because parents are concerned about affordability, they're concerned about access, will their child get into a program, and then of course they're concerned about quality. What I can say on the quality side is that the most important variable really has to do with the relationship between the teacher and the child. Good preschool teachers need to know child in a sort of generic sense. In other words, they need to understand child development principles so that they can say this is what a typical four-year-old looks like.
CHRISTAKISBut they also need to know the children on an individual basis, and that comes from understanding child development and also having the opportunity to build relationships with children and with their families. So I would be look at that kind of interaction between the teachers and the child. I would be looking at is there warmth, is there joy in the classroom, is there play, is the teacher getting down on the floor with the child.
CHRISTAKISThose things turn out to be more important, actually, that some of the variables that we tend to focus on, like teacher-child ratios, or does the teacher have a bachelor's degree in education or how fancy does the program look like.
LAKSHMANANSo it can be as basic as whether the teacher has a good rapport with the children and how much are the teacher and the children talking and playing.
CHRISTAKISThat's exactly right. And we really need to look carefully at play, and I think one of the key things you can look at is are children talking to each other. Do they have long, uninterrupted stretches of play? Because the thing about play, it's very strongly linked to cognitive outcomes, to academic outcomes in the long term and in the short term. But it needs a play habitat that is really conducive to the kind of rich, experience-based, language-based outcomes that we're interested in.
CHRISTAKISSo you can't just give people 10 minutes of play, tell them oh, run off, you know, have your play during the break between doing worksheets. You need a habitat that really embraces play.
LAKSHMANANWell, you know, this is interesting because of course your book is in part a preschool education book, but it's also in part a parenting book because these are four-year-olds, after all, you know, many of whom are still at home. And I'm thinking about two of the most popular parenting books in recent years were Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," about really lighting a fire underneath kids to force them to achieve, and Pamela Druckerman's book, "Bringing up Bebe," about raising children sort of French-style. How is your perspective different from theirs in terms of the parenting element?
CHRISTAKISWell, let me also just say at the beginning that I know Amy Chua, and our children are friends. So I think there is -- there are many different ways to have great outcomes for your children, and the key thing is a strong relationship between the family. I think my perspective is that learning is best accomplished in the early years when it's embedded in meaning, when children actually find meaning in what they're doing.
CHRISTAKISSo if we ask them to do some of these little cutesy crafts that we talk about, like the Thanksgiving turkey hand tracing that every adult in America has done, a lot of these kinds of activities, these kinds of curricula, can actually have so little meaning for young children. And so as a result, when they're doing these activities, they're not talking. They're not using rich language structures. They're not thinking in terms of causal relationships. And those are the kind of things you would find if they're building a fort or a castle, or if they're building a series of ramps to make a car go down, and they're doing all kinds of interesting mathematical thinking and engineering and physics.
CHRISTAKISSo I think my answer is that learning really needs to be meaning-based and relationship-based, and that's where we see the real academic and cognitive outcomes. And I think the science is very clear on that point for the early years.
LAKSHMANANWell, as the mother of a four-year-old, I immediately jumped in your book to the photo of that ubiquitous construction-paper turkey that the preschoolers proudly bring home on Thanksgiving. It's their hand outlined in crayon, then decorated with neon-colored feathers, not -- of colors not found in nature and some googly eyes.
LAKSHMANANI honestly, I've got to tell you, I loved the one that our son made, and I put it up in the kitchen, but you ridicule this turkey craft, and I'm wondering, are there not crafts that can actually be a fun learning experience? Does it have to be something the kids themselves initiate?
CHRISTAKISI think first of all we all love that refrigerator art. And as I point out in my book, I was guiltier of this than anybody. When my kid came home with these bizarre creations made out of masking tape, I was devastated. I wanted my turkey craft. You know, so I think I have a lot of empathy for that as a parent. I do think, though, that we can do better. We can raise the bar. And certainly there are wonderful crafts that children can engage in with adults.
CHRISTAKISBut we have to look at the goal. Is the goal to make something, or is the goal to make meaning? And I think you can end up with a really wonderful craft to bring home to your parents, but that really shouldn't be the goal. The goal should be how can we teach children a cognitive sequence that they can apply to anything, whether it's making a turkey, or if it's playing in the mud, or if it's going to the zoo and looking at an animal, where you learn to observe, explore, reflect and start this process again.
CHRISTAKISAnd I think that's what's missing in a lot of the sort of cutesy crafts, where we say okay, kids, you're going to make a coffee mug for Mother's Day. That's very different than saying let's teach you what this new material is. Here's some clay. What can we do with it? What happens when you press it? What happens when you add water? That's a very different cognitive sequence. So we can still get to the end product if we want, but I think the goal shouldn't be the hand tracing of the turkey.
LAKSHMANANWell, I suppose sometimes it can be directed by the child him- or herself, and I'm thinking of yesterday my four-year-old took a stick, took a roll of toilet paper with no prompting from anybody else, glued a bunch of pom-poms onto it and told us it was a light saber. And I thought that was pretty cool. I mean, it wasn't -- nobody initiated it. So maybe some of this is about being student-driven.
LAKSHMANANBut I'm wondering, it seems like schools want deliverables, metrics by which to judge teachers. You know, how did that come about that we've started holding kids at younger and younger ages to rigid readiness standards?
CHRISTAKISWell, I think there are a couple of answers to that. First of all, I just want to quickly add that when the environment in the classroom is well prepared to leverage and take advantage of those spontaneous little sparks, that's when the real learning happens. So if you have a classroom that has lots of materials that are organized for kids to access themselves, you know, collections of recyclables or loose parts, then they can go over and say, oh, I'm going to make a dinosaur rather than oh, let's take out the dinosaur kit. So that's the first point.
CHRISTAKISI think the anxiety about learning outcomes has come from a lot of different sources. People are very concerned about achievement gaps between children who grow up with fewer advantages than wealthier children. These are all legitimate concerns. But I worry, and I think many experts do, that we've adopted the wrong solutions. And so we're often looking for very short-term and superficial measures of learning, such as something like alphabet awareness, which honestly is not a terribly sophisticated cognitive skill.
CHRISTAKISI mean, many animals can recognize visual symbols. You know, a skill like alphabet awareness should be an outcome that is embedded in a much bigger outcome, which is language learning and being able to construct a sentence and being able to think about cause and effect and to have a rich vocabulary. So that's where I think the anxiety comes from, that we are -- we're looking for outcomes, and we're looking for short-term solutions, but we need to think more deeply.
LAKSHMANANIt's true maybe for people who don't have kids in preschool classrooms today, it's interesting, you know, I discovered that with your report card, you get this little sheet about check marks on which alphabet letters does your child recognize, and which ones does he or she not recognize. And that sort of surprised me.
LAKSHMANANRight, it is surprising because that's a huge sea change from the way that preschool used to be. But, you know, I have to say as a parent, and my kids are grown up now, but it's very easy to get competitive, it's easy to get anxious, and if you're aware of the little kid next door who knows all of her alphabet letters, you know, it can be a total bummer to feel like your kid isn't doing that. And so I understand the anxiety, I really do, but I think we have to get familiar as a society, as parents, as policymakers, as teachers, with a lot of the research that shows that some of these short come -- outcomes may be coming at the cost of longer-term language learning success, for example, downstream. And the studies show that.
LAKSHMANANWell, let's take a step back for a moment. What do we even mean by preschool? How many kids are in some form of preschool in this country?
CHRISTAKISThat's a good question, and it's kind of a blanket term, which obviously includes what people call day care. About almost 75 percent, a little more than two-thirds, of four-year-olds in the United States are in some kind of non-family care for part of the day, and that's a huge shift from even 20 years ago or 10 years ago.
LAKSHMANANWell, I think that there's probably a lot of parents who are listening now, thinking, well, as long as it's safe, and it's affordable, then, you know, that kind of care works for me.
CHRISTAKISYes, and I think that's actually quite legitimate, to be very honest, because one of the key messages that I would like to convey to parents today is that schooling and learning are two different things. And we've all been sort of hoodwinked in a way into this notion that learning happens in institutional environments. And I think we have to really push back on that, and I say that as a sort of anti-establishment kind of person. So you can take that with a grain of salt.
CHRISTAKISBut the evidence is very clear that high-quality preschool is very helpful for pretty much everyone. Low quality is really not helpful for kids. And there are a lot of children who do quite well without any preschool, if they have the right kind of learning environment. So I think that's freeing, in a way, for parents. They can be reassured that if they are more concerned with cost and convenience of a preschool option, I think that's entirely legitimate.
CHRISTAKISWhat we need to do, though, is stay focused on children's needs and the child-sized, child's-eye view. And so if you have a program that's maybe doing a lot of scripted stuff and worksheets, for goodness sake don't do that at home. You know, compensate by just being a normal parent with a normal kid. Play with your child. Have fun with your child. But I think it's actually quite legitimate, and we do need to push back on this idea that somehow real learning is only in school environments. It's just not true.
LAKSHMANANWell, it's funny, I ask my four-year-old every day, you know, what did you do in school today, how was it, and every day the answer is exactly the same. It was great, I played. That's his answer every single day. And at first I thought oh, you know, are they not, are they just playing, but reading your book, it's now making me feel like, well, maybe that's exactly what they're supposed to be doing.
LAKSHMANANI think that really is what they're supposed to be doing, and that's where we see the high-level language coming out during play and other great outcomes. And also I just have to tell you, my son used to always say, when I asked him what he did every day, he'd say, we had snackers. That was his word for what he did, which I think was obviously crackers and snack somehow melded together.
LAKSHMANANKids are notorious. They don't tell you what they did all day, and it's very frustrating. But I want to be clear, a lot of really important learning is going on, even when we don't see it. When my son was little, he would come home, in his backpack he'd have these little pieces of string and paperclips, and he had a collection of wine cork -- you know, corks from wine bottles, and I thought this was all weird. But actually it was real learning. He was experimenting and doing things.
LAKSHMANANI'm Indira Lakshmanan, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. You know, I was thinking that my friends from Finland like to politely remind all the overwrought American parents and competitive parents who they know that Finns aren't even taught to read in school until they're seven years old, and yet Finland schools consistently sit at the top of international rankings. Why is that?
CHRISTAKISWell, it's very interesting. I was in Finland last June and went to visit a preschool, which blew my mind in a lot of ways, one of which was that they had a gigantic, room-sized clothes dryer because they have the kids outside all day long. And the teacher said to me, when I expressed astonishment at this room, she said, well of course we do. How else would we get them outside multiple times a day in our climate?
CHRISTAKISI think Finland is a great example of how learning and schooling really can be different things. They -- Finland's curriculum is very interesting. Their learning goes for children are very broad, and they don't have specific learning outcomes that children have to meet until about age seven, and they don't teach reading formally until then. However, many, many Finnish kids are very good readers long before that.
CHRISTAKISAnd it's because of this idea that their environment is really the curriculum. It's -- you know, the learning habitat they're in is so rich and so child-sized that that's where their learning is coming from, and they're leaving most of the world in the dust, quite honestly, educationally.
LAKSHMANANSo even the South Koreans and the Chinese and the Japanese, who focus so much on testing?
CHRISTAKISI think they're very different philosophies, and we have to look at what those philosophies are producing. But I think in the United States, we have a long tradition of early education that creates creative children who think flexibly, dynamically, can apply a cognitive sequence to new things, new situations, new challenges. That's the American way, and we need to reclaim that notion of early learning.
LAKSHMANANAll right, well you say the American way of early learning, and you spend a lot of time in your book on the importance of play, which again to me seems like the most natural part of childhood. But how should we be thinking about the class time that they spend? How should it be divided up between play time versus a focus on, for example, learning to read or pre-reading skills?
CHRISTAKISWell, at the preschool and kindergarten level, we have to be very careful not to make a false distinction between play and work. And I think unfortunately we all fall into this trap. People talk about soft skills versus academic skills. This is a ridiculous way of understanding emotional regulation, for example, which is so clearly linked to cognitive development. So I think this idea that there's a tradeoff between play and work is really problematic, and it's so easy to fall into it, but...
LAKSHMANANAnd kids shouldn't be thinking about school as work, I would hope, at the age of four.
CHRISTAKISAbsolutely, and I would say that many of the so-called academic skills that we see in early childhood classrooms are actually very anti-intellectual. They are very uncognitive, to be very honest. So I don't think -- I think that...
CHRISTAKISMeaning rote skills like filling out a worksheet.
CHRISTAKISMeaning rote skills, filling out worksheets where you're matching, one side of a piece of paper with some numbers to a picture of, you know, grocery carts. Playing grocery store is a lot more educational. More learning is involved in that.
LAKSHMANANWhat about technology in the classroom? Is there a place for it?
CHRISTAKISI think there is a place for it, and we have to be careful. I think that when technology enables human relationships and human connections, I think that's a good thing. I think if you're Skyping with an astronaut, or you're Skyping with a grandparent, or you're using technology to communicate photos of the day to parents to that they can be connected, I think that's great. But there are only so many hours in the day, and every minute that were spent in front of a screen is one minute less time to be outside and having rich experience-based learning. So we do need to be careful.
LAKSHMANANWell on that note, we have an email from April in Raleigh, North Carolina, who says, I'm very sad to see that in my son's kindergarten class, there's only 30 minutes of outside play worked into the day. I love our school and his teacher, but I think if they were given the choice, they would also want to see more creative play and opportunity to explore their worlds. But they are only doing what they're ordered to do, which is prepare a class of six-year-olds to be ready for the next level. It's sad.
CHRISTAKISI agree, April, and I wish that we could empower parents like you to really take back childhood. And the message I want to give to you is that the science base is there. It supports what I'm saying, and it supports what you're feeling. And so I think parents and teachers need to just say enough, enough. And I think change is happening, slowly, but it is happening.
CHRISTAKISNow outdoor play is a really interesting example because so many good things happen for connections to nature, from what we call big-body play. These things are very important.
LAKSHMANANAll right, well, we're going to take a short break, but when we come back, we're going to go to your calls and your questions with Erika Christakis, early childhood specialist. Stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm. And joining me here in the studio for the whole hour is Erika Christakis, author of "The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups." She's an early-childhood educator at the Yale Child Study Center. So, Erika, before the break, we were talking about technology in the classroom, is there a place for it, the balance between, you know, play and pre-reading or other kinds of classroom skills.
LAKSHMANANI also want to ask, though, isn't there a socioeconomic issue at play here? Parents who have the luxury to stay home and not work outside of the home, can give their preschoolers a lot of what you are talking about themselves, without even sending them to school. But not everyone has that option.
CHRISTAKISThat's right. But I think if we get back to the idea that the child's environment is their curriculum and that learning and schooling are two different things -- this is actually a really freeing message for parents at all socioeconomic levels. Because I think that we need to sort of fight back to reclaim our child's learning habitat. And that really is the relationship, fundamentally, it's the relationship between the caregiver, the parent and the child. And that's a message that everyone can take confidence and hope from, I believe.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Let's go to the calls. Robert, in Daytona Beach, Fla. Robert, you're on the air.
ROBERTHey, how's it going?
ROBERTThis is a great topic 'cause, oh, I have a three and a half year old and I think I'm stressing more than he's stressing.
LAKSHMANANI'm sure that's true.
LAKSHMANANHopefully he doesn't know what stress is.
ROBERTYeah, so like I'm going around to these different schools and stuff. And, you know, you guys brought up the whole play thing and all that and the technology. And, you know, I remember when we went to school it was kind of fun. You know, like kindergarten. Now, I go in these kindergarten classes and it's like overwhelming to me the amount of stuff that's being thrown at them, as far as learning. And I'm always like afraid, like, you know, is my son not gonna be up to par with these kids or are, you know, am I not teaching him enough 'cause he gets to stay home.
ROBERTHe's kind of lucky. And, but he gets to enjoy life. He's not burdened by all these stresses of, like, hey, man, you got to learn this, this, this and this. It just seems like -- are we throwing too much at the kids? 'Cause I've also been in the situation where, you know, we started off with my son later on in life. But I've also dated females with kids. And the amount of, like, schoolwork has changed drastically since I've been in there. And I was just wondering, like, I mean, are kids really even happy at school, as far as -- 'cause there's just so much being thrown out there.
LAKSHMANANOkay. All right. Good question from Robert.
CHRISTAKISWell, you're very right, Robert. And first of all, let me just say I think your child is probably a very happy, lucky little guy. Kids are doing more and I believe they're learning less. And I think that there's this issue, as I said earlier about this sort of mismatched expectations where we kind of expect too much of kids in some ways, in terms of the rote learning. And really expect too little of them in terms of how smart and creative they are.
CHRISTAKISAnd so if we can resize the learning environment, we would absolutely get rid of all of this pressure. Because we know from the science, from the research studies that are coming out weekly that kids are learning from experience-based exploratory play-based environments. And that just is a fact that we need to get reacquainted with. So I think you can rest assured that your lucky child is in a very good spot.
LAKSHMANANAll right. We have an email from Ann, who asks you to, "Please address the recent study that seemed to indicate that children who went through Tennessee's pre-K program ended up, ironically, performing behind their peers who did not participate in pre-K by the third grade." She wants to know, "How valid is this study? Is Tennessee's program developmentally appropriate and high quality?"
CHRISTAKISI think there are a lot of different ways to look at that study. But my understanding of it is that one issue is that as kids are starting institutionalized care earlier and earlier, they run the risk of actually getting bored by some of the very scripted, rote kinds of activities that they're subjected to. So, you know, the calendar time, checking off the day of the week and that kind of activity. If you're doing that from age three, four, five, it gets terribly tedious.
CHRISTAKISAnd there's been a failure of imagination in terms of some of the curricular content that we subject kids to. And I think we're seeing that with the Tennessee study. I'm not an -- I want to say that I'm not an expert. I haven't analyzed that study in great detail, but my understanding is that that's one hypothesis about what was going on, that kids are literally being turned off by some of this very simplistic learning.
CHRISTAKISAnd that's where -- to return to my idea about learning and schooling not being the same things. We have to be very cautious when we see these short-term outcomes. You know, recognizing three or four additional letters per year as an outcome in a research study. You know, does that lead to long-term success in school academically, not to mention emotionally? I think it does not.
LAKSHMANANSo it's really about kids being bored to tears. I mean, being given a boring curriculum turning you off from education. And yet, it brings us back to that question of the Common Core, standardized testing, particularly public schools really wanting to set standards, whether it was No Child Left Behind or something else, wanting to make sure that kids are ready for school. And that ends up in your telling, pushing down to the youngest of the young ones, forcing them to meet certain checkboxes.
CHRISTAKISThat's right. And to be clear, I think standards are entirely appropriate. It's the question of whether they're developmentally appropriate or not. And as I said before, I do think this mismatch, where sometimes our standards, our expectations are too low for children, intellectually. And other times they're just too demanding, and frankly, too ridiculous.
LAKSHMANANAll right. We have a tweet from Rebecca, who says, "My partner is an early-childhood educator. She participates in curriculum, schedules, technologically advancing little people's experience in the classroom. But when is her pay gonna catch up for what she does as an educator?"
CHRISTAKISGosh, I wish I had an answer to that. You know, people always ask me, what are the big predictors of preschool quality and early learning, you know, kindergarten as well. And one of the absolute most important ones is salary. And we have not figured out yet as a society how to pay early childhood educators. Now, some of the state-funded preschools are now paying preschool teachers in the public school system. And so they're doing a little bit better, in terms of benefits and salary. But we really haven't cracked this nut yet. And we have to figure it out.
LAKSHMANANWell, it's about monetarily valuing the work that is so important, teaching children. I mean, I've heard some people talk about we let people from the Armed Forces board airplanes first, shouldn't teachers be also invited to board airplanes first. I mean, that's not gonna give them the money to pay their mortgage. But it's about respecting the job.
CHRISTAKISThat's right. But the funny thing about respecting, you know, we have a kind of peculiar relationship with teachers in the United States where we have a lot of sort of romantic fantasies about how wonderful they are. And we have sort of these cutesy commercials at the beginning of the school year about teachers. But actually we don't really treat them well in the one area that really matters.
LAKSHMANANAll right. All right. Well, we have a lot of people who are asking about the Montessori method. And I want to go to Jessica, in Pittsburg, Pa. Jessica, you're on the air.
JESSICAHi. Thanks very much for taking my call. And I really look forward to reading your book soon.
JESSICASo I had actually two quick questions. And one was about the Montessori method and another was about the mnemonic value of music in preschool. And I wondered, first of all, if your research takes account of the Montessori method, because it seems to spring from a perspective of being little. It seems to be a very student-centered kind of environment. Although, my daughter, who's three, comes home and tells me that she does work every day.
JESSICABut her work -- she -- what she describes as her work is pouring water into different containers or building towers out of blocks. You know, her work is this kind of imaginative play because the classroom is set up for that environment. And yet I do feel that there's some kind of value in her actually calling it work. There's a discipline associated with what she does. I mean, she respects other people's work, you know. There's a measure of self-control involved in that. So I didn't know what you had to say about Montessori and the way that they use that imaginative environment combined with a kind of discipline of respect, respect of others, respect of everybody else's work.
JESSICAAnd then the second question about the mnemonic value of music. I was laughing when you were talking about the calendar, but by the same token, again, my daughter comes home and we sing the calendar song together. I don't know if you, you know, January, February…
LAKSHMANANOkay. Thank you, Jessica. Go ahead.
CHRISTAKISWell, Jessica, Italy has been a real gift to early-childhood education. And Montessori is certainly one of a number of wonderful pedagogies. The other one, of course, is the Reggio Emilia pedagogy. And I think there's something wonderful about the intentionality and the child-sized focus in some of these pedagogies, some of these approaches. I think other people would put the Waldorf schools in there. And, you know, there are all kinds of -- Tools of the Mind. I mean, there are all kinds of programs that really focused on intentional learning.
CHRISTAKISAnd so what's interesting about that is that we often think, as adults, that play has to be fun. But, in fact, it's really the quality of the engagement that is most interesting to me. You know, sometimes you see kids who are involved in an activity, like you were describing with the containers, pouring the water, where the child is highly engaged. You know, they're not necessarily having a really fun experience, but they're deeply engaged. And I think that is what we really are looking for when we design good early-childhood curriculum, is the child engaged. You can see it right away when you walk into a classroom. If kids are engaged you just feel the energy.
LAKSHMANANWell, let me ask you, you know, kids being engaged feeling the energy, all of that, of course a lot of this varies from teacher to teacher.
LAKSHMANANBut I want to know, are there some concrete policy changes that can be made on a state or district or national level that you would recommend?
CHRISTAKISWell, I think, first of all, the pay issue. You know, we have to figure out how childcare can be affordable for parents and also have high-quality teachers who have, you know, it's not just the pay that's important. We need an environment where teachers have time in their schedules to plan together, to collaborate, to talk about what they're seeing. So those are issues at the policy level that we need to fix.
CHRISTAKISI think at the lower level, though, in terms of individual teachers and parents, there are a lot of things we can do. One of them is that we just have to become better observers of children. It's so important that we understand what they're doing and a lot of times we miss that. And so we miss these opportunities when kids are, you know, if you have a child who's rushing out of the door every day and you're frustrated and you feel like this kid can just never find his shoes or can't get his backpack.
CHRISTAKISAnd then you sit down and observe the child in a different setting, where they're really playing in a very intentional way, they're calm, they're focused. That comes from the observation where we see kids' power and their strengths, not only their weaknesses.
LAKSHMANANI'm Indira Lakshmanan and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." So observing children individually is great. It's not something, of course, that government can do or the secretary of education. But is there something that the secretary of education can do in their position or state education commissioners to make preschool more about play, more about interaction, less about rote metrics?
CHRISTAKISYeah, I mean, I think we could take a good look at a lot of these state standards, which tend to be chopped up into little -- I call them the Flintstone vitamin approach to early learning, where the standards are very decontextualized, they're chopped up into little kibble-sized pieces. So if you wanted to do something like build a castle with kids out of blocks, you know, is that a mathematical activity, where they're measuring and they're counting? Is it a literacy activity, where they're using new words, you know, to describe things like a moat or a -- whatever those castle words are. I can't even think of them. Crenellations, whatever.
LAKSHMANANWell, the example you use that I loved was the idea of this curriculum that's very popular in boxed sets, that you were asked to analyze, that asked kids to learn about the ocean by memorizing words like tube feet and…
LAKSHMANAN…exoskeleton versus, you know, you said there's some much more profound questions that kids could be asking themselves about the ocean instead.
CHRISTAKISThat's right. And I think…
CHRISTAKISSuch as why is it blue? It's really scary.
LAKSHMANANIt's so profoundly beautiful, but frightening at the same time.
CHRISTAKISExactly. What is water?
CHRISTAKISYou know, why can I see my face in the water? What's that all about? These are really big questions. And kids think that way. At a policy level, we need to have more faith in kids and stop dividing our learning standards into these tiny little pieces. And just have faith that learning is really happening.
LAKSHMANANAll right. We have an email from Sarah, who says, "We're rushing our children from one activity to another, building their resume at the earliest ages. We're so busy we don't take the time to stop and listen. And we're not teaching how to build relationships, how to listen, how to have empathy. For toddlers what's the best way to teach them these important traits and to make them feel heard?"
CHRISTAKISWonderful questions. The first thing is just the relationship between the caregiver and the child. If you're listening, if you're asking open-ended questions, by that I mean instead of telling your kid, oh, that's a nice picture you just drew. If you say tell me about your picture. That little tweak in how you interact with your child is huge. I think we need to have kids playing in mixed-age groups. That's really important. We need to declutter their environments. We need to let them go off-script. And we need to give them time, time to play.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, Alexandra sends an email that addresses one of the issues we had talked about, about parents needing to place their kids in preschool or daycare because of needing to go to work. And it's great to be able to provide play and learn environment at home, but many families don't have the option. So she brings up the socioeconomic issue. I want to ask you, combine that with the question of what is at stake if we don't do anything to change the way that we're now teaching kids, predominately, in preschools? What are the long-term consequences for our kids?
CHRISTAKISWell, they're very consequential. You know, one expert from the University of Virginia estimates that right now in the current system of early learning in the United States we can only close the achievement gap between advantaged kids and children with fewer economic advantages by about 5 percent. And he estimates that we could close the gap by 30 to 50 percent if we actually implemented developmentally appropriate research-based practices.
CHRISTAKISThat's a huge missed opportunity. It's really an epically big missed opportunity. So I think the stakes are really high. But I also want to reassure parents that we need to overcome the fear that we don't have control. The most important learning environment is the relationship between the parent and the child. And they may sound like a cliche, but it's only a cliche because it's absolutely true. And anyone can do that.
CHRISTAKISNow, of course, many parents face stresses. They have family illnesses, they work two jobs. It's not easy and I understand that. But we need to really have confidence in our love of our children because that truly is the biggest fuel for learning.
LAKSHMANANWell, we have a listener, Noelli, in Germantown, Md., who's a 74-year-old former teacher, who has wonderful memories of her own Montessori preschool teacher who taught her, she says, social skills and most importantly compassion. So these are relationships that can last a lifetime, memories that can last a lifetime and form who we are.
LAKSHMANANI mean, I think in the end the majority of the comments we're getting are from people who are saying, I don't know what to do. I feel pressured. Should I put my kid in a preschool or keep them at home? Or I'm discouraged by all this standardized testing in preschools and elementaries, what changes can parents themselves make? How can they take ownership of this, in the minute we have left?
CHRISTAKISWell, just keep holding on to that strong relationship because that's where the learning really happens. And I would also say start getting active, push back. You know, if you're seeing that recess has been taken away, if you're feeling like your child is being assigned homework that is just too much, frankly, no early-childhood setting should be assigning homework.
CHRISTAKISGet active. Pushback. Ask for the evidence. Say, show me, show me where you're operating from, where is this coming from, can we adjust this, can we change this expectation. Parents have power, at home and in school.
LAKSHMANANAll right. So both in what you say to your children, how you communicate with them, ask them questions, and also how you communicate with their teachers.
CHRISTAKISThat's exactly right.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Erika Christakis, author of "The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups," and an early-childhood educator at the Yale Study -- Child Study Center. Thank you so much for joining us. And thank you for all the wonderful calls and emails and questions. Thanks for listening. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm.
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