Deborah Stipek: What Parents Can Learn From Preschool

By Christine VanDeVelde Luskin, Writer and Bing Alumni Parent

What is the most common word school children use to describe school? “Boring!”

And yet that’s not how children start out. Preschoolers are enthusiastic, confident, eager learners. So what happens? Why do children lose their joy of learning when they leave the playrooms of preschool?

In May, Deborah J. Stipek, PhD, the I. James Quillen Dean and Professor of Education presented the 2010 Distinguished Lecture—“What Parents Can Learn From Preschool”—addressing how and why most children lose the motivation to learn and what parents can do at home to maintain their children’s enthusiasm and self-confidence in the classroom.

The research is clear: Many children go from being avid learners to being diffident and indifferent students.

In studies where children took part in game-like activities where it was clear there was a performance outcome and were asked how well they thought they were going to do, very young children had high—bordering on unrealistic—expectations. Yet as they progress through school those expectations decline, and along with it, their enthusiasm.

One four-year-old was asked, “How do you know you’re the smartest kid in the class?” His response: “I can catch a lot of worms.” Young children focus on what they can do, not what they can’t do.

On average, children’s perception of their academic competence—“Do you think you’re smart?”—“Do you think you can do school work?”—declines every year from preschool on.

These underlying beliefs—children’s perception of competence and expectations for success—are strongly associated with their behavior in learning environments.

The question Stipek and her colleagues have studied is whether these declines are inevitable, or are they a function of the educational environment?

In repeated studies, it has been shown that a young child’s high level of confidence, high expectations for success, and willingness to take on challenge can literally be beaten down by the classroom environment.

There are often stark changes from preschool through elementary school and beyond—from the physical environment to the way children interact. In a preschool—such as Bing, Stipek is careful to point out—children have choices about what they do. They spend most of their day engaging in activities that they choose, not activities that they are directed or have to perform.

There’s no penalty or consequence for taking on challenging tasks, says Stipek. There is no bad grade if a child can’t get the puzzle together, as long as he puts it away in the box and puts the box where it’s supposed to go on the right shelf. With no negative consequences, there’s no reason to avoid challenge.

In the preschool classroom, success is not defined as doing better than other children. It’s self-focused. It’s what can I do now that I couldn’t do before: tie my shoelaces, write my name, recognize some letters of the alphabet, draw a picture with lots of different colors. The child who is tying his shoes isn’t thinking, “Oh my gosh, two-thirds of the kids in this class were tying their shoes before I did.” They’re not making comparisons. So they take pride and feel mastery and accomplishment in learning to do things.

And finally, in preschool, Stipek says, children can work together. They can collaborate. They don’t have to worry about being accused of cheating. They learn about things in a social-collaborative way.

Think of Bing as your model—the diversity of experience, lots of opportunities, choice, focusing on mastery, working collaboratively.

However, in most classrooms after preschool and kindergarten, all the children in a class typically pursue the activity at the same time. This makes it easier for children to compare themselves to their peers. Their performance and what they know and understand become quite public. In the elementary school classroom, everyone knows who doesn’t know the answers and who always knows the answers, which can be tough on a child.

Another characteristic of classrooms as children advance in school is that the teacher is in control and there is little opportunity to choose an activity or task. “Think of the preschool classroom where one child is at the computer, another child is reading a book, and the third child is building with blocks,” says Stipek. “They were doing what they wanted to do. But past preschool, most kids spend most of their time doing what they’re told to do, and in fact in our research, when we ask kids, “Why are you doing this?” they almost never tell us, ‘Because I’m learning…’ or ‘I’m learning how to …’ It’s always, ‘Because the teacher told me to.’”

So what are the consequences? They’re bored! They daydream. They become afraid to ask questions. They don’t want to reveal that they don’t understand or know the answer. They don’t ask for help and will sometimes go to amazing lengths to hide the fact that they don’t know or understand something. Not understanding the material and not knowing the answers, especially in settings that are quite public, is something they don’t want to admit.

Children will also pretend to be working when they’re not, according to Stipek. By looking busy, they don’t call attention to the fact that they don’t know what they’re doing. Or they will pretend like they didn’t try. Sometimes they actually don’t try. Most kids would rather be known as not trying than as dumb. And if you do do well, then you look like a genius, because you didn’t even study!

But none of these coping strategies help children learn. They get in the way of learning. That’s what happens in an educational environment where there’s a premium on getting the right answers, on doing well, on being smart, and on being smarter or doing better than the other kids in the class.

Is there any environment where it’s not expected that you make mistakes when you’re learning something new? Tennis, your first job, speaking another language… You simply have someone who gives you corrective feedback and pretty soon you get better. But in school, there’s a premium on getting everything “right,” instead of understanding and mastering a skill.

In addition, there’s the anxiety that is seen as early as first grade—stomachaches, crying about attending school, battles over homework. Stipek says in the past these symptoms usually occurred after third grade, but are now being seen as early as kindergarten. By high school, it becomes serious. Depression, anxiety disorders, sleeplessness, and other psychological problems are rampant.

So what can parents do to mitigate this powerful decline in children’s motivation as they progress through school?

Stipek’s prescription for how parents can help maintain their children’s self-confidence and enthusiasm for learning is “the three C’s”—competence, control, and connectedness. These are the three major ingredients of a motivating environment, whether it’s the home, school, a performance situation such as a sports team or dance class—or even in the adult workplace. “If any of these three ingredients are missing,” says Stipek, “I can guarantee that motivation will not be at its maximum.”

The first “C” is a sense of competence and confidence. “I say ‘competence’ and ‘confidence’ because competence doesn’t always bring confidence,” says Stipek. “In our research, for example, girls, on average, underrate their mathematical competencies. They do so from a very early age. So being competent doesn’t necessarily mean being confident.”

One of the key pieces of a sense of competence is the “just-right challenge.” If children do easy work all the time, that doesn’t give them a feeling of competence. They never get a sense of pride or mastery. “When the parent says, ‘Oh, my child is doing so well. She always get A’s!’” says Stipek, “I say, ‘You better complain to the teacher, because if your child is always doing well, then he or she is not being challenged.’ They’re being denied the opportunity to feel a real sense of accomplishment. Many teachers and parents believe they need to protect children from failure. Well, get rid of the word ‘failure.’ It’s ‘haven’t figured it out yet.’”

In preschool, no one worries about failure. You just can’t do that puzzle—yet. But if you stick with it—maybe a week or a month later—you’ll be able to do it. Children should not have a steady diet of success. The competence or confidence that is built without being challenged is paper thin, and it erodes as soon as children are in a situation that isn’t easy for them. A robust self-confidence is built when children have plenty of opportunity to engage in activities that provide a little challenge, resulting in the experience of overcoming difficulty.

Parents should also focus on learning instead of performance. When a child comes home and tells you there was a social studies test, what is the first thing parents say? They ask, “How did you do?” That’s normal. But it doesn’t have to be the first thing asked. Because what that conveys to the child is that the only thing that matters is how he or she did. “You’re saying to them that you don’t care what they learned, what the topic was, whether it was relevant or interesting,” says Stipek.

This puts unnecessary pressure on children because learning is about exerting effort, developing skills, and moving in the right direction. And all children can do that. But if it’s performing better than their peers, only half the children can perform better than their peers.

“So make ‘How did you do?’ the fourth thing you ask!,” says Stipek. “Instead, ask them to tell you about the test, what was on it. ‘Oh, it was on the westward movement. Did you learn about the Oregon Trail? I remember learning about the Oregon Trail in fifth grade.’ Have a conversation about substance and content. And somewhere down the line, ask ‘How did you feel about how you did? Did you feel like you understood most of the stuff?’”

One of the things you can do as your children grow older is think, “Now, what would a Bing School teacher do in this circumstance?” And I think you’ll find that there’s some wisdom there that you can apply at any age. The answer is to go back and look at the qualities of a preschool environment. What are the things that children are experiencing in preschool that we want to promote and support throughout our children’s lives?

The second “C” is a sense of control. People enjoy doing things when they feel they’re doing them because they want to, or choose to, as opposed to doing something because they feel they have to do it. You can take the very same activity and take away the enjoyment when you are told what to do, how to do it, and when to do it all day long. That’s what school is often like for kids, so don’t make your home that way.

For example, the natural reaction when children are not making wise decisions is to take away control, to clamp down. So when a child gets a bad grade, what does the parent do? They take away the Gameboy or football or TV. But remember, it’s motivating to choose—to feel like you’re doing something because you decided to do it. Instead of seizing control, problem-solve with your children. Engage them in the solution. Ask questions. Give them hints about what might be an acceptable solution.

It gives children a greater sense of control and ownership. Then there is a greater likelihood that they’ll follow through with the solution and children learn strategies for addressing problems.

The third “C” is a sense of connectedness. People don’t feel comfortable and aren’t motivated in situations where they feel excluded, disliked or marginalized. We’re much more likely to feel comfortable and engaged and interested when we feel like we’re valued for what we’re doing, that we’re cared about, that we’re liked.

When you want your child to pay attention to what you think, they’re going to be much more attentive if they feel like you’re their partner, rather than the enemy—the person who’s trying to control them and tell them what to do and make them do things that they may not want to do.

A lot of life is about asking the right question. The wonderment of the four-year-old, the desire to know and understand—“How does that work? Where does the moon go during the day?”—these are things we should cherish. You can model a love of inquiry in your home—ask questions, have conversations, consider the puzzle of where the moon goes, and discover the answers together. That’s the kind of home that is going to raise a child who is passionate about learning.

Remembering the challenges that children have in a preschool, the choices children have in preschool and the problem-solving that goes on in preschool is a very good model for parenting. It’s also a way to counteract some of the negative effects that seem inevitable even in the very best of schools as children begin to be concerned about their performance.

If our homes can be made more like preschool, children will be healthier, happier, take joy in learning, and continue to have confidence and high expectations for success—just as Bing preschoolers do.

The I. James Quillen Dean and Professor of Education at Stanford University, Deborah J. Stipek joined the Stanford School of Education in 2001. Her scholarship concerns instructional effects on children’s achievement, motivation, and early childhood education. A member of the National Academy of Education, she is the author of two books on motivation  —Motivating Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning, written for parents and Motivation to Learn: Integrating Theory and Practice for teachers. She previously was on the faculty at UCLA for 23 years where she served as director of the Corinne Seeds University Elementary School and the Urban Education Studies Center. Her doctorate is from Yale University in developmental psychology.