The transition from pre-K to kindergarten can be stressful, but the preschoolers I met at a charter school in Washington, D.C., didn’t seem to know that. “We’re not scared, we were made for this!,” they chanted, reciting a poem their teacher had written for pre-K graduation. “We’re ready!” they cheered at the end. But adults can’t seem to agree on what it means to be ready for kindergarten, especially when it comes to low-income children of color like those I met in D.C.
Contrary to the recommendations of child development experts, some educators and policymakers believe that children from low-income families need a strict focus on the basics of vocabulary and counting, while their higher-income peers enjoy opportunities that encourage creativity and conversation. Experts now know that one of the most important tasks for young children is to develop executive functioning—the skills like focusing, waiting, and thinking flexibly that allow us to set and achieve goals. But as multiple early education leaders told me, policymakers sometimes believe that strategies to build executive functioning don’t work for “those kids”—meaning children of color and those from low-income backgrounds. From a very early age, many schools treat children differently based on their race, ethnicity, and social class.
That difference became especially clear to me the first time I saw the charter school’s children transition from one activity to the next. When it was time to clean up at centers, the teacher gave children a warning and then she began counting down from ten. When she reached zero, she chanted, “Everybody stop, hands on top,” and the children, all of them African American, stopped what they were doing and froze with their hands on their heads.
Shocked, I looked around the room, half expecting someone to read them their Miranda rights. But no one, not the African American teachers, their African American principal, or a white administrator, appeared to register the symbolism of a roomful of African American children complying with the authority figure by freezing and putting their hands on their heads. In fact, when I asked about it later, the school’s principal told me, “As an African American, it has never stood out to me or bothered me.”
Early childhood educators told me that stopping and putting hands on the head is a strategy borrowed from special education, which encourages the practice as a visual and sensory approach for children who struggle with language processing or comprehension. Indeed, visual cues are very helpful for all young children, and “freezing” can help build their executive functioning. But in other classrooms, I had seen kids freeze in a pose of their choosing or “become Popsicles” by clasping their hands together up above their heads and then “melting” by exhaling and shaking out their arms as they brought them down. At Charlestown Nursery School, a private school in Boston, teachers used to play a soothing chime and then call out “Freeze, please,” guiding their children to put their hands on their heads to focus their brains and bodies, but they changed the practice in 2014, after teacher Carly Reagan had the same reaction to it that I did.
Reagan grew up in Ferguson, Missouri, and she started teaching at Charlestown Nursery School about a month after riots broke out there in 2014 following the police shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager. That fall was a time of heightened awareness about race, authority, and vulnerability, and although her students were white and affluent, Reagan was concerned about the message the hands‑up strategy sent to them about power and control. Standing with hands on one’s head is a vulnerable, powerless position, regardless of how old you are. Teachers have to have a level of authority over students, but it shouldn’t be a physically controlling one, Reagan believes. “I definitely see the benefit of having a school-wide strategy for getting group attention,” she told me, but she and the other teachers wanted their messages to be about cooperation rather than intimidation. So they came up with a new strategy: after playing the chime, teachers sing “Peace, please” and hold up their fingers in the V‑shaped peace sign, and students respond in kind. (If it sounds precious, it doesn’t feel that way when a group of four-year-olds does it.) The children still stop what they are doing and look to the teacher for instruction, but it feels more about cooperation.
The freeze example is a reminder about how important, and how thorny, issues of race and class are in classrooms. Civil rights advocates worry about the nation’s “school‑to‑prison pipeline,” through which too many at‑risk children, especially African Americans, are swept into a cycle that starts with labeling and severe punishment for misbehavior at school; leads to problems like disengagement, dropping out, or expulsion; and increases the likelihood of crime and incarceration. Even for young people of color who don’t become part of that pattern, tense interactions with authorities are a daily reality.
“Stop and frisk” policies allow police to interrogate and search people they view as suspicious, usually young African American men, without specific cause, and the Black Lives Matter movement has raised national attention to the problem of police violence against African Americans.
Certainly the pre‑K teachers who I met were not trying to prepare their students to be stopped and frisked. But they were unintentionally sending messages about power and their students’ place in society, perhaps because their intense focus on teaching reading and writing clouded other crucial details. Psychologist Stuart Ablon, who specializes in building children’s self-control and self-management skills, believes teachers like those I observed are missing an important opportunity to teach their students how to deal with charged situations if they do someday get stopped by the police. “You need to be compliant in the world sometimes, but you need skills to do that,” he explains. “That’s the part a lot of people don’t get. You need to be able to manage your anger and frustration, to think calmly and flexibly, and problem-solve” to address the situation, especially if it’s an unjust one.
The education director of the preschool acknowledged that “we still have a lot of work to do on the social and emotional component, because we are really focused on the academic skills.” That focus is laudable, and critics might say that it’s unreasonable to build all of children’s skills at once. But it is possible to integrate academic skills with social and emotional ones, regardless of children’s backgrounds. The question shouldn’t be whether to do both, but how.
The freeze strategy is also a reminder of how thoughtful early childhood educators need to be about everything they say and do in the classroom. Young children are sponges not just for facts about dinosaurs and new vocabulary words but for the messages adults send them, both overtly and unintentionally, about the world and their place in it.
Reprinted and adapted from The Most Important Year: Pre-Kindergarten and the Future of Our Children by arrangement with Avery, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017, Suzanne Bouffard.