Preschoolers can be taught reading skills for later school success, and imparted socials skills for making friends and avoiding conflicts, according to a new study.
The findings address long standing concerns on whether preschool education programmes should emphasise academic achievement or social and emotional development.
"Fostering academic achievement in preschoolers need not come at the expense of healthy emotional development," said Duane Alexander, director of Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), which funded the study.
Researchers compared the progress of students who received a traditional 'Head Start' curriculum to those who received a curriculum with enhancements in the areas of social and emotional learning and pre-reading skills.
The new programme is known as REDI (Research-Based, Developmentally Informed) 'Head Start' programme. The researchers developed the REDI curriculum by combining a programme that fosters social and emotional development (Preschool PATHS) with curriculum components that promote language development and pre-reading skills.
Like traditional preschool programmes, the REDI programme emphasises such pre-reading skills as learning the alphabet, and learning to manipulate the sounds that letters represent.
Earlier research has shown that children with such skills are more successful at learning to read than are children who lack them, according to a Penn State release.
The REDI programme also allows ample time for teachers to read interactively with children, asking them questions and encouraging their active involvement in story telling, which builds the vocabulary and language skills needed for later school success.
In the REDI programme, many of the reading sessions focus on social problems and involve fictional characters who learn to master the emotional frustrations and conflicts common among groups of preschoolers.
For example, in one lesson, Twiggle the Turtle learns techniques for controlling his temper. An older turtle happens by after Twiggle has just shoved a classmate who knocked over his building blocks.
The older turtle teaches Twiggle, that, instead of shoving someone, he should go into his shell, take a deep breath, say what's bothering him, and say how it makes him feel.
From this, the children learn that when a conflict erupts, they stop what they're doing, cross their arms, take a deep breath, state the problem, and tell the other child how it makes them feel.
Other lessons involve learning how to recognise such emotions as anger and sadness in oneself and others, sharing, and taking turns.
"The lesson teaches them to take a time out from their emotions, to avoid acting impulsively," Karen Bierman, professor of psychology, Penn State University, who led the study, said.
"Stating what's bothering them, and how they feel, is the basis for self control and problem solving in stressful social situations," she said.
The study took place at 44 'Head Start' centres in Central Pennsylvania. Half the centres used the REDI programme enhancements, half used the traditional 'Head Start' programme without the enhancements.
The study will appear in the November/December issue of Child Development.