Taking a Page from the Preschool Playbook

As an author myself, I have always had a very healthy respect for the fact that people not only judge books by their covers, but that coming up with just the right title can make or break a book. Much like the marketing slogans you simply can’t get out of your head (think “where’s the beef?” or “yo quiero, Taco Bell”), a really great book title can convey the essence of a book long after the details contained within are all but forgotten.

Whether I’m interacting with business leaders or functioning in my role as a pediatrician, early educator, or parent – the book title that keeps coming to my mind is Robert Fulghum’s All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. This was certainly true when I sat down to catch up on the morning’s national news and saw the lead story about Rutgers University’s head basketball coach “behaving badly.”

My first reaction to the videos, which if you didn’t see them can be summarized as a whole lot of yelling, kicking, shoving, name calling (in the form of homophobic slurs) was to find them quite disturbing. My immediate thought was that perhaps the coach – who was reportedly instructed to get some remedial sensitivity training – had missed learning a few really important lessons in early childhood. What would clearly have served him well was simply to take a page or two from what I call the “Preschool Playbook.”

Having clearly recognized many years ago that what we teach children in early childhood is immensely important to their future life success, my strong belief that what happens in Preschool does not stay in preschool, but rather impacts children’s social, emotional, and cognitive competency for life. This belief is now being supported by everyone from the top brain scientists and academic institutions in the world to the military, the juvenile justice system, and the business community.

With respect to the representative viral video footage released by ESPN on Tuesday, let me just share with you a few fundamentally important lessons we routinely teach from said preschool playbook, and let you be the judge of just how important they are for future life success.

  1. Keep your hands to yourself. The fact of the matter is that children are not born with the ability to control their impulses. While this leads predictably to a certain amount of predictable hitting, biting, throwing and other socially undesirable behaviors, the ability to overcome these urges is unquestionably important for future life success. That said, most children who get proper encouragement and teaching of this important life skill, can be expected to master the impulse to push, grab, throw and/or shove sometime between the age of three or four.
  2. Use your words. Early childhood language development isn’t simply a matter of how early and many words a child can master for the sake of parental bragging rights, but rather how many words a child has at their disposal so that they can better communicate and interact with others. Every parent and child care provider knows the challenge of having a toddler who knows what they want, but has yet to develop the language skills to communicate it. The predictable result? A short fuse, frequent and unexplained “meltdowns,” temper tantrums, and all of the other behaviors so common during toddlerhood and what has long been referred to as “the terrible twos.” By age three, however, children can be expected to reach such fundamentally important developmental milestones as following instructions with 2 or 3 steps, carry on conversations using at least 2 to 3 word sentences, and talk well enough for strangers to understand them most of the time.
  3. If you can’t say something nice…. I’m willing to bet that the second half of these useful words to live by goes without saying. Preschool is all but defined as a time when children are learning and testing out social dynamics. They may (and often do) say some hurtful things to each other, but usually to test them out and see what happens when they say them. When in the care of adults who help them learn what is and isn’t socially acceptable, children soon learn necessary skills such as empathy and the awareness of how what they say effects others. As the parent of a teenage athlete, I’ve often wondered if the “old school” (loosely translated = belittling) coaches perhaps either missed this lesson or simply forgot it.
  4. Use your indoor voice. Sure, this phrase is often applied in preschool to the goal of keeping the decibel level down to a manageable level in closed spaces. But it is also a very important skill to remember when dealing with conflict and disagreement. In fact, whenever I help parents or teachers learn to instruct children more effectively, I routinely remind them that no one – child, adult, or college basketball player – responds well to being screamed or yelled at.

While the Rutgers basketball coach happens to be the story of the day, it is my sincere hope that the public interest fueled by social media isn’t just a flash-in-the-pan. Unless we want to raise a generation of adults who push, shove, belittle and have little-to-no impulse control, can’t control their reactions under stress, and whose overall behavior we find equally as disturbing as what we’ve just witnessed by the Rutgers basketball coach, we need to permanently raise our collective awareness of just how important early childhood education and stop discounting the importance of the preschool playbook.

Originally posted on Omaha World Herald’s Live Well Nebraska