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Happier Teachers = Smarter Kids

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Development & Learning

The key focus these days in education circles is on “executive processing” skills of persistence, attention, and self-control. The truth is that learning the alphabet and numbers, even learning to read, are fairly simple for a teacher to orchestrate.

More difficult and more important are development of children’s attitudes towards learning. The problem has been that no one knew if some children are just born more disposed to learn or if teachers could do things to help executive processing skills along.

Now we have an idea. A study just published in School Psychology Quarterly found that teachers who support a “positive emotional tone” in their classrooms have students with better ability to pay attention, to stay on task, and to control themselves and who wind up learning more.

Researchers measured the achievement and executive processing ability of 800 preschool children enrolled in 60 schools in five school districts across the Southeastern United States. They also measured interactions between teachers and these children. Children whose teachers were more positive and less negative in their interactions developed children’s executive processing skills and their academic abilities. Lead researcher Dale Farran said, “Oddly, a positive tone in the classroom does not just affect children’s social development. The more positively welcoming classrooms are, the more children are going to learn in them.”

“Positive interactions” include being aware of children’s likely reactions to learning assignments and being proactive in guiding them to effective behavior before disruptive behavior occurs. What the researchers call “behavior disapproval” – signaling to a child that she is doing something wrong – has a negative effect on learning. Farran said, “The teacher must anticipate what’s coming up and not redirect after the fact. It’s a more subtle kind of planning that takes a lot of skill on the part of teachers.”

It’s a straight line between how teachers interact with children and the development of children’s ability to learn and their actual level of learning. Positive, proactive teachers get better results.

What does this mean for us? We usually have little control over how our child’s teacher does her job. What can we do?

  1. If you do have a choice, choose a preschool experience or a teacher who is socially skillful and child-centered. Look for teachers who are calm and who seem able to think one step ahead of the kids.
  2. If your child’s preschool or kindergarten teacher seems harsh and demanding, strongly consider other options. Executive processing skills and attitudes towards learning form early and last a lifetime. Early learning should be positive. If your child’s situation isn’t, then see if you can find another classroom for him.
  3. Practice positive interactions at home. You know your child even better than her teacher does, so you have an advantage. You understand what she will find difficult, where she is likely to get confused, and when she is likely to give up on a task. Be one step ahead of her. Guide her development of persistence, attention, and self-control by being positive and proactive, not negative and reactive.

Keep in mind how important executive processing skills are, for getting along at school and also for academic success.

Pay attention. Be persistent in your guidance of your child. And exert self-control so your guidance is positive, not negative.



© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.