Author shines a light on America's broken education system.
Erika Christakis believes that "young children are smarter and more capable than we imagine." In her new book, The Importance of Being Little, Erika shines a light on America's broken preschool education system.


Mother and former preschool teacher, Erika Christakis, uses her academic research and personal experience to explain the shortcomings of current preschool education in the U.S. She answers the question that so many of us moms have: Why is my child - bright, talented and enthusiastic - having a hard time in school?

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As a former pre-school educator and someone who is passionate about child development, I couldn't put this book down. Although it focuses on the U.S. education system, the parallels between the Canadian and South Korean systems I have taught in are uncanny. Well researched and well written, every parent and teacher should read this book.

I had the chance (and pleasure) to ask Christakis a few questions about The Importance of Being Little. Here's what she had to say:

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: I wrote The Importance of Being Little from the perspective of a former preschool teacher and mother. I was puzzled by what I call the "preschool paradox," namely: Why, when children are hard-wired to learn almost anything and in almost any setting, do they seem to be having so many struggles in preschool? (And by "preschool," I'm referring to the large range of settings, including center-based care, where young children spend significant time outside their homes).

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These struggles include the growing problems of preschool expulsions and medical diagnoses, and treatment for young children with behavior challenges. Families at all income levels are reporting stress, with some polls suggesting that today's parents are significantly less happy than those of previous generations. I wanted to understand some of these factors and dig into the question of why, when children are so smart and so capable, a lot of them are having a hard time.

Q: From your research, observation and experience with children, what is like to be a child these days?

A: We have another paradox here, which is that young children are, in general terms, physically safer and healthier than in previous generations. We have clear data to demonstrate that.

At the same time, the psychological challenges seem to be greater. A significant sub-set of young children face challenges such as poverty, trauma, or other adverse life experiences, which we know can interrupt healthy brain development and lifelong learning potential. But even among children who don't face toxic levels of stress, life is indeed quite stressful for our preschoolers.

I think one reason is that young children are living in an increasingly "adultified" world where schedules, pacing, routines, and activities are designed for and by adults. To me, this adultification is evident in foolish suggestions such as giving kindergarteners treadmill desks in the classroom instead of just letting them play outdoors.

The expectations of early childhood have changed dramatically in the last 30 years as we see from checklists of first-grade readiness in the 1970s, when children were expected to enter school with strong social and physical readiness skills, such as being able to talk clearly to a new adult or know how to ride a bike, but they weren't pressured to know the alphabet.

We've really lost something in this shift. A lot of complex early learning is hiding in plain sight, but we are wary of it because it's harder to quantify than the shapes and colors on a checklist.

For example, when children build a castle out of blocks, they develop geometry and spatial skills, number sense, complex vocabulary; they learn to negotiate and compromise and think about another person's ideas; they are doing fractions as they substitute four square blocks for two rectangles, and on and on. We really don't need to worry about whether preschoolers are learning as long as they are emotionally secure and have ample time for play and exploration.

But parents and teachers have lost faith in the extraordinary cognitive potential of young children, so we subject them to a lot of poking and prodding to make sure they are "really" learning. In preschool classrooms, this vigilance takes the form of endless assessments and ever-more taxing and granular skills development. A lot of this so-called skills work is both really boring and exhausting for young children.

I see this mismatch of expectations in classrooms where teachers are doing most of the talking, and preschoolers are doing worksheets and other forms of "seat work" rather than acting out a story or digging for worms.

Children are subjected to a lot of rapid transitions and draining activities at home, too, and I think it's really hard on the adults to interact with children this way, and it's even harder on the kids. Missing children's emotional cues -such as signs of fatigue or over-stimulation- can create real stress that interrupts learning pathways in the brain, so it's enormously counter-productive.

The end result is less room for exploration, imagination, relationships, and even less space to experience negative emotions such as boredom or frustration, which can be real catalysts for growth.

Q: What are some things that preschoolers need from grownups that they aren't getting?

A: The number one thing we need to give children is emotional responsiveness. Early learning is primarily social, so building strong relationships has to be the top priority in all settings in which we find young children.

Q: What do you think is the biggest problem with America's approach to early childhood education?

A: Early education in the United States is too focused on goals and outcomes that are disconnected from the child. We've lost sight of the young child. We've forgotten that emotional health is inextricably linked to cognitive and other development. A child who is stressed or has an insecure attachment can't learn optimally. A child who doesn't feel known by her teacher can't fully participate in her own learning process. Preschoolers' brains contain the ingredients for learning; our job as educators is to create the best environment to leverage that learning capacity.

Q: What's the biggest change you'd like to see in early education?

A: Teachers in high-quality programs understand that "the environment is the curriculum." They see their role as a facilitator of learning - creating the conditions where learning can happen - rather than as an information-delivery system. More concretely, I'd like to see a much greater emphasis on authentic conversations in the classroom and more ways for little children to tell their stories and to be heard.

Early childhood teachers talk far too much, and when they do talk, there is too much of what we call scripted teaching or "direct instruction" with the teacher setting the parameters of what will be learned. This is a losing strategy in the early years. We need flexible and responsive environments where children are free to ask questions that interest them, free to explore, and to reflect, and to color outside the lines.

Q: What's the one thing you want readers to take away from your book?

A: Young children are smarter and more capable than we imagine. Our job is to trust and encourage them.

Q: Is there anything you'd like to add?

A: Observation is the first step in becoming more emotionally responsive to young children. If you watch them patiently and without judgment, you will discover their strengths and vulnerabilities.

erika-christakis_credit-andrea-reese
Erika Christakis