Learning Together

“Why did you do all this for me?” he asked. “I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.”
“You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing.”
~ E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

Children come to school to make friends. As adults, we think of friendship as an important aspect of the school experience, but not as the fundamental purpose. When we consider why we send our children to school, we tend to think in the future tense. We send them to school to lay a foundation for engagement with learning. We send them to school to build the skills that will lead to success in academic tasks. We hope that they will make friends along the way, and we worry when they are excluded or when friendships become fraught, as all friendships sometimes do. Yet, as adults, we view friendship as separate from the academic purpose of school not intrinsic to it.

From the child’s perspective, though, school is about making and spending time with friends. When children tell us about school they don’t usually tell us what the Letter of the Day was; they tell us who they played with on the playground. Sometimes they tell us who did not want to play. They don’t tell us how high they counted when they took attendance at Morning Meeting, but they may tell us which friend was absent. The meaning of school for young children is entirely bound up in relationships. As they get older and school becomes more overtly academic, this focus on friendship only increases. The psychologist, Alison Gopnik, tells us that young children’s brains are uniquely designed for learning, and yet what we think of as “academic” is not what children focus upon. So we must ask ourselves, if children are “designed for learning,” why do they show such an intense and singular interest in friendship? What might children know about the very nature of learning that eludes us as adults?

As is often the case, our adult understanding is just catching up to children’s innate knowledge. We now know, with a great deal of certainty, that social connection is entwined with and necessary to success in all the domains of academic learning. Our brains are startlingly adept at learning about other people, and we learn best in relational contexts. All long term measures of academic and personal success in adulthood have been statistically linked to early childhood experiences that support social-emotional growth and connection through play, not to early phonemic decoding or fact retention. Literacy scores in middle school are better among children who have developed the capacity to understand multiple perspectives — a skill that takes root on the playground as children learn the give and take of turn taking and collaboration. By adolescence a feeling of connectedness, more than any other documented factor, has been shown to protect children against all categories of high risk behavior. By the time our children are adults, these social variables will matter even more than they do now; perhaps the only thing we know with relative certainty about the changing landscape of 21st century jobs is that collaboration is an increasingly essential skill.

We often talk about social-emotional learning and academic learning as if they are two separate spheres. This year, as you talk with your children about school, join us in the classroom, and confer with your child’s teachers about their development, I encourage you to begin to shift that mindset. Social-emotional learning is not the precursor to academic learning; it is the soil in which academic learning takes root and grows. So let us begin this new year with a new set of questions for our children. Instead of asking, “What did you learn today?” let’s begin our conversations by inquiring, “How were you a friend today?” And let us challenge ourselves to model friendship and care as actively and purposefully as we model reading and counting. The academic achievement of our children depends upon our capacity to value relationships.

Alicia Stoller is the Director of JCP’s Early Childhood Center.