National speaker says high-quality childcare can protect against youth violence

November 09, 1999

BOZEMAN, MONT--Early childhood is the best time to promote the social skills that can protect kids from violence, said a keynote speaker at last week's Montana Early Childhood Conference.

Noting that the Centers for Disease Control has called violence "an epidemic" in American society, Diane Trister Dodge called on Montana's childcare providers to show young children how to become capable people.

"Children with good social skills are more likely to succeed in school and life," the president of Teaching Strategies, Inc., in Washington, D.C., told about 500 of the state's childcare practitioners meeting in Bozeman Oct. 28-30. "Emotional intelligence is a better predictor of success than IQ."

Television is a major contributor to a culture of violence, Dodge said, and is where many young children learn how to carry out aggressive acts.

"Basically, we need to change to whole culture of our country," Dodge said.

She asked practitioners to think ahead and name the qualities they'd most like to see as the children in their care become adults. Audience members listed responsibility, ability to establish relationships, empathy, respect, good communications skills, problem-solving abilities and a good sense of humor.

"No one said SAT scores," noted Dodge. Audiences around the country consistently name social achievements over intellectual ones, she said.

Descriptions of violent offenders like the Unabomber often include words like "loner" and "anti-social," Dodge continued, adding that adults should first worry about children's social competence before focusing on academic skills.

"We have known this in early childhood education for a long time, that people who work with children from birth to age 8 are really laying the foundation for how people should treat one another and resolve conflict," she said.

Strategies for developing capable, confident children are already imbedded in high-quality childcare programs, she said. Good programs promote a feeling of community in the classrooms and build relationships with families. They create structure so young children know what to expect and feel safe. They set the stage for later learning and acknowledge how children's thinking changes as they get older.

"Children construct knowledge all the time," said Dodge. "Pay attention to what a child at different levels will connect with, pay attention to what they are able to understand and assimilate."

But sometimes good practices aren't enough, she acknowledged. Some children will still exhibit alarming behaviors.

"It's scary," Dodge said. "They can hurt other children. They can hurt you. It's not something you can ignore."

She recommended several resources for teachers and parents including "Teaching Young Children in Violent Times, Building a Peaceable Classroom" by Diane E. Levin, and "Building Your Baby's Brain: A Parent's Guide to the First Five Years." These and other publications can be found on the world wide web at www.naeyc.org or www.teachingstrategies.com .

Teachers should also be worried about children who are victims and don't know how to assert themselves.

"Often they grow up to be victims," Dodge said. "Role play with them...Intervene when you see something happening. Rehearse with the child how to be assertive."

Noting that it takes $1 million to imprison a violent teenager for life, Dodge called for larger investments in early childhood care when social habits are formed.

"Pay people who care for kids a living wage," she said.

To highlight the importance of a child's early years, a national media campaign like the one promoting seat belt use will soon begin, Dodge said. The campaign, called "Reason to Hope," will focus on the daily interactions of influential adults who shape the future of young children. The National Association for the Education of Young Children, the American Psychological Association and the Ad Council are heading the project.

Montana State University

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