When I was choosing a preschool for my son, warm teachers were at the top of my list. I figured fancy materials and cutting-edge teaching philosophies didn’t matter as much as my son’s sheer enjoyment of school. Sure, I weighed the merits of Reggio versus Montessori, but were the teachers smiling? Did they get down on the kids’ level and really talk to them? That felt like a bigger indicator of how my son’s day would go than anything else.
It turns out that warm teachers don’t just make our kids feel good, though. New research suggests that a preschool teacher’s positive emotional tone supports one of the most critical mental skills our children have. In fact, it turns out that a positive teacher can be equally, if not more, important to a young child’s future academic success than learning the ABC’s and 123’s.
The research, to be published in an upcoming issue of School Psychology Quarterly, followed over 800 preschoolers in 60 classrooms, observing teachers and children at multiple points during the year. Researchers measured the children’s “cognitive self-regulation” — the ability to manage one’s behavior, emotion, and thinking (also known as “executive functioning”). A child’s self-regulation is known to be one of the most powerful predictors of academic success.
They found that, regardless of curriculum, the more approving and emotionally positive a teacher’s facial expressions and words, the greater the children’s self-regulation gains. Mary Fuhs, assistant professor at the University of Dayton and an author on the study, explains that positivity and approval turned out to be as important to self-regulation as what the kids actually spent their time doing in the classroom.
To clarify, positivity didn’t just mean being nice; it specifically meant that teachers were reinforcing the kids’ behaviors by saying things like, “I like the way everyone worked so hard this morning!” and making fewer disapproving comments to correct or change their behavior. As Fuhs and her colleagues put it, such comments would be anything with the message “Whatever you have chosen to do, I would like you to do something different.”
Why would positive teachers boost a child’s sophisticated thinking? “Our interpretation,” said Fuhs, “is that perhaps teachers who have a more positive tone in the classroom create an environment in which children feel less fear or stress about exploring new challenging tasks that help to develop their cognitive self-regulation skills.”
To put this in perspective, self-regulation is so important it’s thought to trump IQ scores when it comes to achievement. Studies show, for example, that self-regulation in preschool predicts math and literacy ability in kindergarten. Preteens with better self-regulation outperform their peers on English, math, and science measures. Meanwhile, lower self-regulation makes for more social and behavioral problems for children, and ups teenagers’ risk-taking behaviors.
Preschool is especially important because kids make big leaps in self-regulation over the first five years of life, as they go from being almost totally other-regulated (with parents and caregivers helping them manage their feelings and behaviors), to self-regulated (with a greater ability to do it on their own). To some extent, these are skills that just improve with age, but research is showing that the environment also plays a big role. In fact, scientists think that self-regulation could be more susceptible to the environment than other mental skills, because the brain’s prefrontal cortex — the hub of self-regulation — has such a long, drawn out period of growth.
Some classrooms do a better job of nurturing self-regulation than others — but the question is why? Another intervention called the Chicago School Readiness Project has also pointed to teachers’ emotional styles. The project trained teachers in classroom strategies like rewarding positive behavior and implementing clear rules and routines, and also gave them support from a mental health consultant to reduce stress. Compared to other classrooms, these kids had greater impulse control, better attention skills, and also outperformed their peers in vocabulary, letter naming, and math skills.
Not surprisingly, engaging teachers also boost self-regulation. In the current study, kids whose teachers asked more open-ended questions, encouraged participation and discussion, and generally challenged higher order thinking, as opposed to just teaching in a top-town manner, were also better self-regulators.
There’s a take-away for parents here (beyond looking for positive teachers), because a good emotional climate at home is also tied to kids’ self-regulation. For example, one study of preschoolers showed that more maternal warmth and less punishment or harsh parenting was linked to better self-regulation in elementary school. “I think the idea here,” says Fuhs, “is that contexts in which children feel more comfortable trying new and perhaps challenging activities are those that have supportive and warm caregivers, who provide many opportunities for engaging and interesting activities.”
In the end, my son did have warm and positive preschool teachers — from what I can tell, same goes for his kindergarten teacher this year. It seems, as parents, that we should follow our gut instinct about just how important that is.