Does the kindergarten really develop children's social skills?

Does the kindergarten really develop children's social skills?

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We send children to kindergarten, hoping that they will primarily learn social skills. And yet many preschool children complain, talk and even behave aggressively. Hence, spending most of the day in the company of peers seems to rather deteriorate social skills. But maybe parents are exaggerating and if not for socialization in kindergarten, children would behave even worse?

Does the kindergarten teach social skills?

Researchers at the California State University decided to check it out (Loeb et al. 2007). They conducted a large-scale study, including 14,162 children. researchers assessed the impact of attending nursery and kindergarten on social skills, self-control skills and the level of aggressiveness. They also assessed children's intellectual development - i.e. mathematical and language skills.

At the outset, researchers discussed earlier and smaller-scale research. Research by Heckman, 2000 and Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000 showed that organized forms of early childhood education have a positive impact on the development of cognitive skills of children from poor families. Many studies have shown that children from the social margin benefit more from attending kindergartens than children from "middle class" homes (Burchinal, Campbell, Bryant, Wasik, & Ramey, 1997; Campbell & Ramey, 1994; Magnuson, Ruhm, & Waldfogel, 2004).

On the other hand, researchers focused on assessing the development of social skills have detected negative impact of crèches and kindergartens. Early school children who graduated from kindergarten were compared with those who stayed at home. Students who graduated from kindergarten showed an increased level of aggressiveness, disturbing during classes, reduced ability to control emotions, impulsive behavior (compared to children raised at home). (Belsky, 2002; Han, Waldfogel, & Brooks-Gunn, 2001).

This impact was not so much dependent on the age at which the child went to kindergarten (2.3 or 4 years), but from the time he spent in kindergarten. The more hours a week, the more months a year - the worse the results (Colwell, Pettit, Meece, Bates, & Dodge, 2001, Bates, Marvinney, Kelly, Dodge, Bennett, & Pettit, 1994; Belsky, 2001; NICHD ECCRN, 2003).

Belsky, examining middle-class children, even identified linear dependence - the more time in kindergarten, the worse the behavior. (Belsky, 2002).

The aforementioned team of researchers (Han, Waldfogel, and Brooks-Gunn (2001) analyzed data from the US National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY). They found that if mothers returned to work during the first 9 months of the child's life, leaving them under the care of third parties or giving them to the nursery, these children at the age of 7 and 8 showed an increased level of aggressive and impulsive behavior. In this case, an additional factor was involved - depriving the mother of direct care, which overlapped with the influence of kindergarten / nursery.

In a series of studies discussed in the study one showed the positive effect of the preschool program on the development of emotional intelligence and social skills of children. It was a program involving children from the poorest Chicago families. As part of the program, children spent 15 hours a week in the center under the care of educators. However, the program included additional, non-standard forms of help - e.g. home visits and parenting activities. As a result the parents' involvement in the process was very high. (Clements, Reynolds, & Hickey 2004).

Loeb's and team's research program was the first large-scale program to include impact of many variables. The type of kindergarten / nursery (private, public, number of children per tutor, number, type, quality of classes under the program), education, earnings, race of parents, place of residence (village, city, and even matters such as living in a district ethnic). Among the factors examined, even parenting methods used by parents (e.g. corporal punishment) were included. The number of hours spent in the nursery / kindergarten - below and above 15h / week was also analyzed.

Intellectual development of a preschooler in the research of Loeb et al.

Both children raised at home and attending kindergartens were assessed for mathematical and language skills. The students were able to recognize letters and words, extract the syllable beginning and ending a heard word, rhymes, vocabulary and the ability to understand words. The mathematical test examined the knowledge of numbers as well as spatial orientation and ability to solve problems.

It turned out that the best in this regard were children sent to kindergarten between the ages of two and three years old, provided they were sent to a high standard institution. Children who had previously attended a nursery school or started pre-school later did not differ in this respect from children raised at home. Children who at the age of 2-3 went to ordinary public kindergartens were also not intellectually more developed.

It therefore seems that the effect of the increased level of intellectual abilities is the result of hitting the appropriate stimulating tasks at a specific moment of development.

As such, the kindergarten has also proved to be helping intellectual development for children from homes below the poverty line. The wealth of educational toys, books and intellectually developing games stimulated children's cognitive development.

The influence of kindergarten on children's social development

In this case, it turned out that nursery and kindergarten delays the development of social skills in children, thus increasing antisocial behavior (aggressiveness, egotism). It was not important whether the institution was private or public, or whether the child came from a rich or poor family. There was no significant level of education, age, race of parents. Only one variable turned out to be significant - the number of hours spent weekly in the nursery or kindergarten.

Children remaining under the exclusive care of their parents develop socially better than attending kindergarten even for several hours a week. AND the more time children spend in kindergarten, the more antisocial behavior, less motivation to learn, self-control, empathy, etc. etc. The negative impact on social skills was greater the earlier the child was sent to kindergarten / nursery.

"In our study we asked the question - how much is too much - in relation to the number of hours the child spends in the nursery and kindergarten. Our data shows that the answer depends on what area of ​​child development we assess. We have found that the average (15h / week) number of hours spent in kindergarten is beneficial in terms of developing mathematical and language skills. On the other hand, attending kindergarten seems to have a negative impact on social development, including motivation to learn, emotional self-control and a number of other interpersonal skills. (The pupil's assessment by the tutor in the primary grades of primary school was taken into account). (...) In addition, the negative impact of kindergarten / nursery is related to the number of hours spent there (compared to children raised at home) and is stronger for children who started attending the nursery before the age of two, and the strongest for children sent to the nursery before the age of one. " (Loeb et al. 2007)

Very similar results were obtained from a previous study from 2003 conducted by the American National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The long-term effects of attending kindergarten were studied there. And in this case the scientists' conclusions were shocking - the more time children spend away from their mother during the first 4.5 years of life - the greater are behavioral problems. specifically: yelling, tantrums, refusing to cooperate, aggressiveness, cruelty, destroying toys and other objects, getting into fights.

What is the likely mechanism behind the problems?

Of course you can ask a question - is it only the result of being in kindergarten? Perhaps busy parents do not pay enough attention to the child and that's where the trouble comes from? And yet scientific research shows that long-term contact with peers is the lion's share of the problem.

Can it be objectively checked? one can examine the level of stress hormone, or cortisol. The level of this hormone depends on the time of day - the lowest at the time of falling asleep (Sapolsky 2004). However, the experience of chronic stress causes that it is constantly elevated. In the short run, elevated cortisol levels help cope with a difficult situation. It adds energy needed to escape from stress or overcome its source. Chronic stress and chronically elevated cortisol levels, however, cause health and developmental problems - including behavioral disorders. (Sapolsky 2004).

Measuring cortisol levels is fairly easy, which is why many teams of researchers have decided to compare stress levels in children raised at home and in kindergarten. Subsequent studies showed the same. Children who stay at home show a healthy cortisol cycle - high in the morning, low before falling asleep. In children attending nursery and kindergarten, the hormone level pattern changes - it increases during the day (Geoffroy et al 2006).

This is not an issue separation from parents. A study from 200 showed that children raised by grandparents or individual babysitters do not have elevated, unhealthy cortisol levels (Dettling et al 2000). Nor is it about, for example, compulsory maturation in kindergarten at a certain time (Watamura et al 2002).

Megan Gunnar, a psychobiologist who has been studying cortisol in children for 20 years, summarizes the results of these studies: "Some factor associated with having to deal with the complexity of a peer group for a long time causes stress in young children." (ResearchWorks 2005).

What's wrong with a peer group?

For many educators and parents the results of the cited studies seem to contradict logic or common sense. After all, thanks to contacts with other people, we acquire social skills. It is hard to imagine better learning conditions than enabling a child to contact peers. It is indeed true that contact with people is needed to learn social skills. The question is - with what people?

To function well in a group, community, we need to learn many emotional skills - self-control, patience, positive attitude towards people, empathy, compassion, constructive conflict resolution. A group of peers is not enough for that - especially if they are two or three years old. Children of this age cannot manage emotions by themselves. They act on impulses. You don't have to be a psychologist to observe this. Small children, for example, do not understand the concept of time well. A hungry child who will be told that he will get food in 15 minutes sinks into despair. They often experience variable, intense emotions. At the moment, the laughing toddler may soon cry or get angry. Small children cannot control their emotions well, empathize with the emotions of others, and the subtleties of savoir vivre or being polite are foreign to them. (Gopnik et al. 1999).

It means that preschoolers can provide valuable social experiences to each other, but they are not good skill teachers. Children learn mainly through imitation. Yes, they can copy someone's good behavior, but they also copy the negative one. In addition, the company of peers does not give the most important learning tool - feedback and positive reinforcements.

A basic, lopological example. What happens when mom plays with a child, e.g. with blocks? "A red brick please," he says, teaching the toddler how to recognize colors and how to use polite phrases. The child passes the block. "Oh thank you!" Says mom (positive reinforcement of the desired behavior), and toddler rays of joy. In a situation of fun with peers, the needed block will simply be picked up by the stronger or faster. And even if a child shares toys with the other one, they will rather not hear praise or the usual "thank you". When there is no positive moderation of behavior by an adult, children learn jungle law, not courtesy. Of course, there are adults in the kindergarten and they are professionals educated in the field of pedagogy. There are classes focused on specific sentences, and casual fun is just an element of preschool life. However, even in the most exclusive kindergarten there is at least 10 children in the care of one teacher. It is as if she were the mother of decades. He simply can't pay attention to every child. This is a completely different situation than, for example, a large family, where older children, who already have more developed social skills, become models and role models for younger children.

Preschool maturity

The last piece of the puzzle is a matter of preschool maturity. It's not just about self-service matters.

Do you know what the first day looks like, the first weeks in kindergarten? Many kids sobbing pathetically, asking when their mother will come back. Others do better, but for most three-year-olds it is a traumatic experience. As Dr. Szymon Grzelak writes in "Dziki father": "I do not treat preschool initiation as part of the strategy of positive initiations. It is difficult to consider the first day in kindergarten as a positive initiation. (...) It is good when the foundations of a child's personality can be built in a circle of loved ones, safe people with whom he has close ties, and who will constitute his social base for many years to come. The institution, which is a full-day kindergarten, is more a necessity of life for some families than something optimal for a child. "(P. 43)

Author of the article: Bogna Białecka, psychologist, wife, mother of four children, president of the Foundation for Health Education and Psychotherapy. Author of many psychological books, mainly on educational issues.

The above article is published with the consent of the author. The main part of this article was published in Nasz Dziennik on November 10, 2010.

Footnotes:Bates, J. E., Marvinney, D., Kelly, T., Dodge, K. A., Bennett, D. S., & Pettit, G. S. (1994). Child care history and kindergarten adjustment. Developmental Psychology, 30, 690-700.

Belsky, J. (2001). Developmental risks (still) associated with early child care. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry & Allied Disciplines, 42, 845-859.

Belsky, J. (2002). Quantity Counts: Amount of Child Care and Children's Social-Emotional Development. Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 23, 167-170.

Burchinal, M. R., Campbell, F. A., Bryant, D. B., Wasik, B. H., Ramey, C. T. (1997). Early intervention and mediating processes in cognitive performance of children of low-income African-American families. Child Development, 68 (5), 935-954.

Campbell, F.A. & Ramey, C.T. (1994). Effects of early intervention on intellectual and academic achievement: A follow-up study of children from low-income families. Child Development 65, 684-698.

Clements, M., Reynolds, A., & Hickey, E. (2004). Site-level Predictors of School and Social Competence in the Chicago Child-Parent Centers. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 19, 273-296.

Colwell, M. J., Pettit, G. S., Meece, D., Bates, J. E., Dodge, K. A. (2001). Cumulative Risk and Continuity in Nonparental Care from Infancy to Early Adolescence. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 47, 207-234.

Dettling, A. C., Parker, S. W., Lane, S. K., Sebanc, A., & Gunnar, M. R. (2000). Quality of care and temperament determine whether cortisol levels rise over the day for children in full-day child care. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 25, 819-836.

Geoffroy M-C, Cote SM, Parent S, and Seguin JR. 2006. Daycare attendance, stress, and mental health. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 51: 607-615.

Gopnick A, Meltzoff AN, and Kuhl PK. 1999. The scientist in the crib. New York: Morrow.

Grzelak Szymon (2009) Wild father. How to use the power of initiation in education. On the way

Han, Wen-Jui, Jane Waldfogel and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn. 2001. "The Effects of Early Maternal Employment on Later Cognitive and Behavioral Outcomes." Journal of Marriage and Family 63, February, pp. 336-354.

Heckman, James (2000). "Policies to Foster Human Capital," Research in Economics, 54 (1), 3-56

Loeb, Susanna, Margaret Bridges, Daphna Bassok, Bruce Fuller and Russell W. Rumbergerd. "How much is too much? The influence of preschool centers on children's social and cognitive development. "Economics of Education Review 26, 1 (February 2007): 52-66.

Magnuson, K. A., Ruhm, C. J., & Waldfogel, J. (2004). Does pre-kindergarten improve school preparation and performance? National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 10452. Cambridge, MA: NBER.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Early Child Care Research Network (ECCRN) & Duncan, G. (2003). Modeling the Impacts of Child Care Quality on Childrens Preschool Cognitive Development. Child Development, 74, 1454-1475.

ResearchWorks. 2005. How young children manage stress: Looking for links between temperament and experience. University of Minnesota website. (access date 2.11.2010)

Sapolsky R. 2004. Why Zebras don't get ulcers: An Updated Guide To Stress, Stress Related Diseases, and Coping, third edition. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Shonkoff, J. P. & Phillips, D. A., Eds. (2000). From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Child Development. Washington, D.C .: National Academy Press.

Watamura, S. E., Sebanc, A. M., & Gunnar, M. R. (2002). Naptime at child care: Effects on salivary cortisol levels. Developmental Psychobiology, 40, 33-42.


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