How toddlers thrive: A conversation with Dr. Tovah P. Klein

As calls for universal preschool continue around the country, so do debates about its efficacy. Even New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio acknowledges that the additional 21,440 seats he will offer 4-year-olds in September can't guarantee success.

City officials, de Blasio told Capital New York, will have “to evaluate the program for purposes of improving quality . . . over time.”

How do young children learn best? I recently asked Dr. Tovah P. Klein, the author of How Toddlers Thrive. Klein, who has three growing boys, is an associate professor of psychology at Barnard College and the Director of Barnard’s Center for Toddler Development. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

What is the developmental difference between a toddler and a preschooler?

Between 18 months and 3, 3½, there is unbelievable brain development. Kids are starting to develop language. They’re just gaining a sense of self, which is completely new to them. Infants don’t know that they’re separate from adults. But at age 2, children really start to get the idea that “I’m my own person. I can make decisions. I’m going to decide what to wear, what to play with.” It’s a power struggle that gets heightened between ages 2 and 3, as children figure out who they are. Those raw feelings start to tame by 3½, but they clearly go on in those early years.

Young children have incredible curiosity. That’s the learning piece. They might explore very slowly. They might be observant. But they’re naturally curious, whether it’s in an observant way or a touchy, let-me-do-it way. People say that 5-year-olds aren’t toddlers, but there’s a lot of toddler in them. For many children, asking them to sit at desks, be still, and take in a lot of information is a completely unreasonable expectation. In those early years, it’s the adults’ role to set up environments where children can build on this natural curiosity and desire to know.

Given the push for preschool in New York City and elsewhere, what kinds of environments should we be creating for 3- and 4-year-olds?

Children need interactive, hands-on activities that engage their interest and learning on all levels and allow for open-ended play. Children also need to move a lot at this age. So we have to create spaces with child-sized furniture and areas that provide choices—opportunities for climbing, say, which helps with large motor skills, cognitive toys like puzzles and shape sorters, and lots of sensory experiences. Research shows that young children take in information through all their senses. Experiences with sand, water, and crinkly art help them see how things work and develop those “I can figure this out” skills.

The more children use all of their senses, the more they will learn. This is what people forget. Let’s say you want kids to be able to hold a pencil and write. You don’t give them a pencil at age 3 or 4. You have them use their fingers, whether it’s by playing at a sand table, running their hands through fingerpaint or putting pegs on a pegboard. All those experiences are giving them fine motor skills. But you’re not sitting down and saying, “Right now is fine motor skill time.”

The idea that “play is learning” does not mean connecting a dot from point A to point B. It means that there are lots of modes of learning going on at the same time. By picking up a funnel and pouring sand through it, kids learn about gravity and their own power. Learning is happening at multiple levels, but not because the teacher is saying, “Learn.” It’s because the environment has been set up to support the child.

How do we close the vocabulary gap that is driving the urge to put pencils in more kids’ hands at a younger age?

The research showing a vocabulary gap is important. It tells us that the brain learns an immense amount in those early years. By age 3, children have absorbed a great deal, or not, depending upon the amount of language they’ve been exposed to.

But the context gets left out. It’s not just that children are learning language before they go to school. They’re learning lots of things. Language is singled out because it can be measured. I don’t want to say it doesn’t matter. It’s very important, and I think it does highlight for policy makers that by age 3, a lot of important growth has occurred.

But we can’t really measure the development of the prefrontal cortex, which is also going on in the early years, or regulatory skills. Those are the skills kids need going forward: the ability to handle their impulses and feel their emotions but also express them in some kind of acceptable way. We see 2- and 3-year-olds throwing a lot of things and pushing people out of the way. That’s to be expected. By age 4, behavior is becoming more regulated—again, within a range.

Language is not learned in isolation. If children haven’t developed an expansive vocabulary, it often means that a lot of other learning hasn’t occurred. If you watch young children playing with blocks or doing a puzzle, they try, then try again. The building falls. The puzzle pieces don’t fit. They’re learning to handle frustration, often with an adult, so they’re getting support. They’re learning persistence. They’re also learning about a process. So, more important than language and number concepts are several foundational skills, like the ability to handle emotions, focus on a task or find a passion. Children learn best when they’re interested. Nobody really learns at 4 or 5 or 10 if they’re not interested.

How might young children respond to being in a classroom setting if they're not ready?

If children are overwhelmed and can't focus because they haven’t developed the foundational pieces to get there, we’re setting them up for failure. We can't ask them to sit quietly in a classroom and take in reams of information. They’ll think, “I can’t do it. I must be dumb.” We can't assume that essential skills—including being able to listen, make decisions, and handle emotions—are just going to come along. It doesn’t work that way.

Children need to be guided and supported for who they are. Take any group of children, regardless of their socioeconomic level, and there’s going to be a huge range in temperament and approaches to the world. But if a child hasn't had a lot of support by age 4, he or she may need the guidance that some other child needed at age 2. Basic steps can't be skipped.

Many children are growing up in difficult circumstances. If your parents are under tremendous stress or struggling just to put food on the table, or you can't go outside because your neighborhood is dangerous, it makes a huge difference. You're not getting crucial physical and sensory experiences. You’re not learning how to interact with other children on the playground. Children can’t learn without knowing how to play.

What effect does living in a digital world have on young children?

We don’t know, but we have lots of anecdotal evidence to guide us. The biggest concerns that developmental psychologists like me have are centered around interaction and the ability to read social cues. One of the things we know that young children get from the back-and-forth with adults, and then with other children, is how to read social cues. There are a lot of stories in the news about bullying and children who don’t have social skills. You learn to read cues by conversing, by interpreting others' emotions and intentions (what we call non-verbal cues) and making eye contact in the course of interacting.

When a child, or an adult, is absorbed in technology, they're not interacting in these important ways. Adults also provide comfort for children. Comfort for a young child can mean just glancing over at a parent to get reassurance. When the parent smiles, the child goes back to playing. You get less and less of that comforting interaction when the parent or child is looking down. I was just at a wonderful preschool, and they said that the teachers of 4- and 5-year-olds had decided to remove pretend cell phones from the play area because the children were making less and less eye contact with each other.

Yes, technology is here to stay. Still, you don’t have to teach it. The one real concern is for kids who don’t have access to it as they get older. That's not the case with young children. You can give a 2-year-old or a 5-year-old an iPhone, and they'll figure it out quickly. But technology has to be just one tool and should not take away from what we know about children’s development—that they learn in a three-dimensional world. They learn by touching, tasting, looking, and trying things out in many different ways. This interaction with the world and with people provides learning in all modes—social, emotional, physical, and cognitive. A tablet or an electronic device can't provide that hands-on, multi-sensory learning that is essential at this age.

Think about what children master by playing with blocks, which is the most open-ended thing kids do. They learn about weights when they’re picking up the blocks. They learn about balance and gravity. Can you get that from a flat screen even if it has interesting and colorful block-building apps? I don’t think so. A lot goes into really grasping the concepts of balance and gravity, not to mention mathematical skills like the angles at which blocks can be stacked. 

Does 20 minutes on an iPad hurt a child? No. But if children's brains take in information on many, many levels, and you’re giving them a flat surface, well, it’s entertaining. That’s fine. But it’s not the same kind of learning. It’s information coming at them, and they merely respond.

Can you tell me about the Center for Toddler Development at Barnard?

The children are between the ages of 1½ and 3, 3½. They're here once or twice a week for sessions that last about two hours. This is truly a laboratory of toddlers. It's almost like a pre-preschool.

Everything in the classroom is at the children's height. Everything is accessible to them, and they're guided by a routine. The same toys are in the same place every day. The children build trust from the predictability of it all. That also helps them regulate. They start off as strangers, and they get to know the teachers and the room. Eventually, they think, "I know what I know. I can come in now and make decisions and choices."

Up to the age of 5, even beyond, children are not in our social world. They're in their world. So, for example, what parents think is rude is not rude from a child's point of view. If I want something, and it's over there, I may reach past you and even swipe you along the way. Why? Because I needed that.

Children are in a whole different realm. They may demand something and refuse to back down. A parent's instinct is to say, "Don't be rude." From an adult's point of view, it's rude. From a child's point of view, they're trying to assert what they need. So it's a very different environment for a young child. If we focus just on behavior in young children, let's say in all of these new preschool classrooms, without understanding why they're doing what they're doing, it's going to be a battle.






Earth Day resources for teachers, parents and students

Scholastic is committed to educating children and ensuring a safe environment in which they learn. Just last year Scholastic surpassed its company-wide goal of strengthening its sustainable paper procurement practices

To share our beliefs and passions around preserving the environment, we’ve compiled everything you need to celebrate Earth Day (April 22) and Earth Week (April 16-22).

Educators: Visit for lessons and activities to help build student awareness around our planet. Promote environmental awareness on Earth Day, and throughout the year, with these teaching ideas, lesson plans, and student activities.

Parents: Discover 6 green ways to celebrate Earth Day with the family.

Children: Learn how to make a recycled egg-carton flower, or save your home from “energy vampires" with these kid-friendly activities

Readers: Check out these great environment-themed books.

Coming soon! Buried Sunlight teaches readers how coal, oil, and gas are really "buried sunlight," trapped beneath the surface of our planet for millions and millions of years.

Falling out of the lead, a new report

Continued proof that there is more work to be done when it comes to serving disadvantaged students has been brought to my attention in a new report, Falling out of the Lead. From The Education Trust, this report examined the paths of high-achievers and found that depending on student backgrounds the achievement gap widens during high school. Many black and Latino students as well as students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds who enter high school as top academic performers ultimately graduate with lower grades, AP pass rates and SAT/ACT scores when compared to their more advantaged peers. 

A helpful infographic helps translate these important findings:



Let’s clarify: Standards or curriculum?

Whether you love the Common Core or hate the Common Core, recent debates about an unclear, frustrating math problem have led to confusion in more than just math. The terminology used in these debates often interchanges the terms standards and curriculum, which are two distinct aspects of the discussion.

Standards, grade-level expectations, are “the end” while curriculum is “the means.” States decide on standards, while curriculum is chosen or created by local districts. See how the Common Core addresses this myth about implementation:


In Confusing Math Homework? Don’t Blame the Common Core, Jessica Lahey dives deeper into the difference between the standards and curriculum in the context of math. Lahey points out that while the Common Core has been implemented in all but five states, the decisions on how to teach the standards (a curriculum) remain local.

Is the distinction between standards and curriculum clearly stated in the debates you’re hearing and reading about? 

An ode to New Jersey poets

The title seems like an oxymoron. But my home state has more than its share of poets.

For starters, there's Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Dorothy Parker and Allen Ginsberg. If you count metaphorical poets, the list includes Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen and Junot Diaz, among many others.

We even had a Poet Laureate, Amari Baraka, who was so outspoken that he almost got fired. Absent a legal way to dismiss him, the State Senate had to abolish his post.

That was back in 2003. But the law couldn't keep ballads from coursing through the veins of New Jersey residents. The place is too rich with material. Look at Springsteen, who finds inspiration on the New Jersey Turnpike, "ridin' on a wet night, 'neath the refinery's glow, out where the great black rivers flow."

There's a muse, it seems, at every toll booth, exit and jughandle—the latter a word that New Jersey invented. Jazzman John Pizzarelli sees poetry in "betting halls, shopping malls" and "good old Rutgers U," not to mention the "47 shoe stores [that] line Route 22."

In honor of National Poetry Month, here are five lyrical selections from the Garden State:


What Think You I Take My Pen In Hand?  Walt Whitman, 1819-1892

What think you I take my pen in hand to record?
The battle-ship, perfect-model'd, majestic, that I saw pass the
offing to-day under full sail?
The splendors of the past day? Or the splendor of the night that
envelopes me?
Or the vaunted glory and growth of the great city spread around me?--
But I record of two simple men I saw to-day, on the pier, in the
midst of the crowd, parting the parting of dear friends;
The one to remain hung on the other's neck, and passionately kiss'd
While the one to depart, tightly prest the one to remain in his arms.


The Red Wheelbarrow  William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

so much depends



a red wheel



glazed with rain



beside the white



Alfred, Lord Tennyson  Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)

Should Heaven send me any son,

I hope he's not like Tennyson.

I'd rather have him play a fiddle

Than rise and bow and speak an idyll.


Homework  Allen Ginsberg (1925-1997)

If I were doing my Laundry I’d wash my dirty Iran

I’d throw in my United States, and pour on the Ivory Soap, scrub up Africa, put all the

   birds and elephants back in the jungle,

I’d wash the Amazon river and clean the oily Carib & Gulf of Mexico,   

Rub that smog off the North Pole, wipe up all the pipelines in Alaska,   

Rub a dub dub for Rocky Flats and Los Alamos, Flush that sparkly Cesium out of Love


Rinse down the Acid Rain over the Parthenon & Sphinx, Drain Sludge out of the

Mediterranean basin & make it azure again,

Put some blueing back into the sky over the Rhine, bleach the little Clouds so snow

   return white as snow,

Cleanse the Hudson Thames & Neckar, Drain the Suds out of Lake Erie   

Then I’d throw big Asia in one giant Load & wash out the blood & Agent Orange,

Dump the whole mess of Russia and China in the wringer, squeeze out the tattletail

   Gray of U.S. Central American police state,

& put the planet in the drier & let it sit 20 minutes or an Aeon till it came out clean.


On the Roof  C. K. Williams (born 1936)

The trouble with me is that whether I get love or not

I suffer from it. My heart always seems to be prowling

a mile ahead of me, and, by the time I get there to surround it,

it's chewing fences in the next county, clawing

the bank-vault wall or smashing in the window

I'd just started etching my name on with my diamond.


And that's how come I end up on the roof. Because even if I talk

into my fist everyone still hears my voice like the ocean

in theirs, and so they solace me and I have to keep

breaking toes with my gun-boots and coming up here

to live—by myself, like an aerial, with a hand on the ledge,

one eye glued to the tin door and one to the skylight.

Putting a stop to red ink in the classroom

Colors are a form of nonverbal communication. The color red is generally associated with passion or anger and green is often described as calm and safe. According to traffic signals red means stop and green means go.

Subconsciously, the meanings of color transfer over to other aspects of our lives. So it comes as no surprise that some schools are banning the use of red pens. Red ink inadvertently gives students the idea that the teacher has the final say and triggers them to scan their papers for their final grade.

The grading process should be a way for educators to provide constructive feedback and start an open dialogue with their students, right. After all, what is the purpose of grading if students do not understand the reason behind why they earned a certain grade?

Mounts Bay Academy, in Cornwall, England, encourages teachers to use green pens—signaling students to “go” and promote engagement. While teachers mark papers in green ink, the students are expected to leave their comments in purple ink to continue the conversation around their work.

Do you agree that using red ink can minimize student engagement? Why or why not?

It isn't just one thing that defines great teachers

We hear about this intangible "it" factor that celebrities have to make them stars. We ask business leaders what their key to success is and parents of amazing kids for a piece of advice on how to raise children. We are all seeking a magic bullet it would seem and in education, we are no different. We yearn for the definition of great teaching and what makes a great teacher. It's frustrating at times because "we know it when we see it" don't we? I think I have one key to unlocking this mystery and it is that there is no one thing. Now, I know this is no surprise to teachers whatsoever because they are experiencing new challenges and teaching new lessons every day. Naturally they do not rely on one skill or attribute. The quote I'm sharing today is a great one when it comes to articulating this reality.

The quote came to us through the research report Primary Sources: America's Teachers on Teaching in an Era of Change, a project of Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In the same report, we asked teachers about the characteristics a great teacher and, you guessed it, they reported a combination of talents as important rather than a singular item rising to the top. Managing the classroom effectively is cited by 100% of teachers as very or extremely important to being a great teacher but then 99% of teachers say the same about creating an environment where students feel safe making mistakes, delivering content clearly, maintaining high academic expectations, and anticipating and responding to student learning needs. Making the contest for the most important skill even tighter, the next three on the list are at 98% and we never go below 83% when looking at the complete list which you can find in the full report downloadable at And you'll see items that are not purely academic including being interested in students' lives inside and outside of school which is a reflection of the stat in which 99% of teachers tell us teaching is more than academics; it is about reinforcing good citizenship, resilience and social skills.

When you've experienced great teaching, how did you know? Teachers, how would you define a great teacher?

Children and trauma: a new approach

There's a big difference between normal, everyday stress, which can build resilience in a child, and "toxic stress," which often stems from abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction. Toxic stress can impair a child's mental and physical health—and disrupt the lives of everyone around him, both at home and at school.

"What the science is telling us now is how experience gets into the brain as it's developing its basic architecture, and how it gets into the cardiovascular system and the immune system," Jack P. Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University says in The New York Times column linked above. "These insights provide an opportunity to think about new ways we might try to reduce the achievement gap and health disparities—and not just do the same old things."

Such advances offer hope in the wake of a new report by the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. Statistics from the 2011-12 school year paint a disturbing picture of school suspensions and expulsions, even among 4-year-olds in preschool, with minority children faring the worst.

In this New York Times column, author David Bornstein discusses ways that young children who have suffered "significant chronic adversity" are benefiting from an experimental program developed for Head Start Trauma Smart. The program trains teachers, parents, and guardians to respond to anger and aggression with compassion and systematic strategies, like offering "safe corners" and "breathing stars."

Bornstein tells about a 5-year-old boy named "Luke" (his name was changed for the column), whose parents struggled with drug abuse and neglected him. Luke's participation in a program in Kansas City, Missouri, has led to significant improvements in his behavior.

"Before, I was always the bad guy," Luke's grandmother says. "Whenever I made [him] sit quietly by himself, he said, 'Grandma, I hate you.' Now I know that's not what was needed. And he's also able to step back and look. He even says, 'Thank you, Grandma,' and gives me a hug after he calms down. He's a very intelligent person if he can get past the anger."

To learn more about Head Start Trauma Start, click here.


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