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Op-Ed: We Don’t Want Kindergarten Cops


December 19, 2003

Imagine a “terrible twos” mindset, but in a stronger 5-year-old, a more
irritable 13-year-old, or a much more cocky 19-year-old. Aggression
doesn’t peak sometime in the teens as many think, but when we are much
younger – just before the age of two, according to research on the brain and
behavior.

Time magazine reports in its December 15 issue on “kamikaze kindergartners”
throwing temper tantrums, shrieking, and hurling books, referring to the
trend of younger and younger children acting much more aggressively in
school. These problems with aggression are real as teachers and parents are
well aware.

Plenty of reasons come to mind – too much violence on TV, too much time in
poor quality day care, and increased academic pressures from an early age.
Away from home we give kids time out when they need time off. At home they
spend too little time practicing impulse control and parents give too much
latitude to the children’s impulses, letting them eat whatever they want or
stay up as late as they want.

We must not allow the increasing emphasis on academics to overshadow or
neglect children’s social and emotional development – a world that is ‘in
with drills and worksheets, out with play!’

The kind of aggressive behavior we see in preschoolers and kindergartners is
just the tip of the iceberg of a larger problem. Lack of self-regulation
translates into problems far beyond the more startling aggressive behaviors.

To learn in a preschool or school setting, young children must be able to
pay attention and remember things on purpose. For example, they need to be
able to ignore the other children around them who are fun to play with while
concentrating their minds on the story the teacher tells. This kind of
self-control, or self-regulation, represents one of the major developmental
accomplishments of the preschool years.

The preschool years offer the optimal time to teach children how to control
their own impulses. Along with language and motor skills, in their first
five years, young children learn social and emotional patterns that stick
with them for life. Patterns of behavior get wired into the brain as webs
of neurons make connections and the brain discards unused ones. Young
children who do not acquire develop sufficient self-regulation turn into
adults who never adequately learn how to control their impulses and, more
generally, how to regulate their actions on their own.

Most children spend time in a preschool classroom, whether it is Head Start,
childcare, or a public or private nursery school. We could improve
children’s self-regulation through these programs, but we do not. Too many
teachers of young children don’t know how to help children learn
self-regulation.

As this country moves to adopt the systems of early education that will
likely be in place throughout the 21st century, we must demand high-quality
preschools equipped with preschool teachers who have the knowledge and
training to provide young children with a quality education – one that
balances academic development with emotional and social development.

As we work to strike that balance it’s important to keep in mind that
teachers shouldn’t have to be wardens, and children shouldn’t be subjected
to others around them throwing temper tantrums or worse. Let’s give our
children the tools they need to be responsible and thoughtful neighbors as
well as eager readers and model mathematicians.

W. Steven Barnett, Ph.D.
Director, National Institute for Early Education Research

Dr. Barnett’s research has focused on the long-term effects of preschool
programs on children’s learning and development. He is a professor of
education economics and public policy at Rutgers University.