All children can learn. As educators, this is one of the most fundamental principles that we hold on to. Yet, the majority of children that begin school every year are simply not ready to learn the objectives that are required to teach.
As the Common Core State Standards require academics to be addressed earlier, “readiness to learn” is critical. Research is clear: the success that comes from a child being ready for school far outreaches their experiences in kindergarten.
Unfortunately, in 2015 only 34 percent of the children in Fresno County entered kindergarten ready to learn. While there are a plethora of reasons that may explain this, and a number of great initiatives in place addressing those reasons, the question remains, what do we do if they arrive and are not ready?
Our schools proudly welcome all children, and while we have a child sitting in front of us, figuring out or blaming the demographic factors that may predict school readiness does not help anyone in that moment. Yet, trying to directly teach the child everything they may have missed may not be addressing the entire problem, either.
I should confess something. I am both a credentialed general and special education teacher as well as a board-certified behavior analyst. While the former may bring about warm feelings and fond childhood memories, the latter generally makes people take a step back.
If you ever took an introductory psychology class, you may remember a radical pioneer, B.F. Skinner. Since Skinner, the field of behavior analysis has contributed a substantial amount of research on learning that could significantly impact kindergarten readiness.
One such example is the work of Douglas Greer from Columbia University. I have been a student of his for the past six years. He has sought to identify the capabilities needed to be successful in school, and interventions teachers can implement to remedy these deficits.
Learning capabilities develop as a result of most children’s life experiences. However, children from certain demographics, such as those that are largely represented in Fresno County, may not have the necessary experiences in childhood.
Betty Hart and Todd Risley from Kansas University outlined these differences in experiences among children from families of differing socioeconomic strands. Their work has not only inspired me, but many initiatives, such as “Talk, Read, Sing.”
A “language explosion” occurs between the ages of 2 and 3 in most children living in families with middle-class incomes and above. Quite sobering, the genesis of their work occurred when they demonstrated that without this language explosion, good teaching alone would not catch these students up.
Begging the question, if we cannot directly teach all a child needs to learn, what else do we need to address?
Two capabilities that Greer has identified as being necessary for kindergarten readiness are naming and observational learning. The term “naming” has many uses; this form of naming describes a child’s ability to learn language incidentally.
For example, a caregiver at the Chaffee Zoo may point and say “elephant,” and from that one experience, a 3-year-old could later say “elephant” when seeing one on TV, or go get a stuffed elephant out of his bedroom when asked.
We can identify if a child is able to learn language incidentally, but what is most exciting about current research are the evidence-based teacher interventions that can remediate this deficit, preparing kids to learn in school.
A child must also learn through observation. It is a flawed assumption to believe that when a teacher selects out an individual student during a lesson, that all other students in the classroom will then learn from that interaction. This simply isn’t true, and if a child does not access these learning opportunities, they will continue to fall behind.
Like the intervention for naming, we can now assess whether a child learns through observation, and when they cannot prescribe specific teacher interventions.
Teachers hold the keys to a transformative room, where opportunities to learn are always present if the child has the prerequisites to access those opportunities. Teachers are given a tremendous responsibility. Despite their students’ not being ready to learn, and despite all the factors that contributed to them not being ready, we expect teachers to catch them up.
It’s possible, that in order to do so, a couple more tools in the toolbox are needed. More importantly, educators must understand that from time to time, we may need to go to a different hardware store to find them.
Timothy Yeager is former director of the Autism Center at Fresno State, and this fall will be a faculty member in the department of Literacy, Early, Bilingual and Special Education in Education and Human Development at Fresno State.