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Sunday, February 29, 2004

Early assessment prevents problems


Children everyone's responsibility

By Stephanie W. Byrd
Guest columnist

For anyone concerned about the future of our community's children, the recent series on school discipline was compelling.

At Success By 6, a community initiative coordinated by United Way of Greater Cincinnati, we are particularly troubled by the number of children suspended and expelled from kindergarten. These young children are not failing in school because they aren't cognitively prepared. They are unable to succeed in kindergarten because they lack the age-appropriate social and emotional development necessary for interpersonal and group interactions.

During the years before school entry, children learn through their play to make friends with other children, to share and cooperate, to follow rules, and to behave in ways that please other children and significant adults in their lives. By kindergarten, the typical child should be able to exercise self-control, understand that others have feelings and know how to resolve conflicts with adults and other children. These developmental milestones are just as important to school readiness as children's physical health and their ability to learn. Clearly, as the Enquirer articles point out, learning cannot take place when a child is ill-prepared socially and emotionally for the school environment.

There are many reasons that children may not be socially and emotionally prepared for school by age six. Commonly assumed causes include poverty, family turmoil, inadequate parenting, and poor quality child care. However, recent research in child development points to a strong attachment with significant adults as the single most important factor contributing to healthy development in the crucial years before age six.

Relationships are the foundation upon which all development is built. Blaming children for their lack of social skills and underdeveloped emotional capacity will only cause greater harm to the child and the community in the long run. Expelling and suspending kindergartners won't help them grow socially and emotionally. Constructive and loving intervention at the first sign that a child has limited social and emotional skills can set the child and, indeed, the family, on the path toward school and life success.

Long before kindergarten, parents, other significant caregivers and the community must value our children. Thankfully, it's not too late for kindergartners. Intervention and guidance can have a profound effect. But, just as important, we cannot wait until kindergarten to determine whether a child is prepared for school. We must pay attention to the children who haven't yet reached the age of school entry. Healthy child development begins before birth. Using early detection and ongoing assessment, we can identify children whose developmental needs are not being met and avoid tragic stories of kindergarten suspension and expulsion.

If we, as parents, as professionals and as a community pool our resources to meet the needs of all children from birth to age six, we won't need to intervene at kindergarten. Is it everyone's responsibility? Certainly. If we don't take responsibility as a community, we will surely, as a community, pay the consequences.

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Stephanie W. Byrd is executive director of Success By 6 (http://www.uwgc.org/successby6.cfm)




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