Ross Thompson, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, U.C. Davis. Photo courtesy U.C. Davis

Ross Thompson, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, UC Davis. Credit: UC Davis


Ross Thompson is a distinguished professor of psychology at University of California, Davis. He studies healthy adult-child attachments and how they relate to learning and uses his research to inform public policy. Thompson is a frequent speaker on early childhood education and has testified in the state Legislature about the need for better funding for early childhood programs. Thompson’s wife, whom he refers to often when speaking about his research, is a preschool teacher. As part of an occasional Question and Answer series with leaders in California education, Thompson sat down with EdSource Today’s Lillian Mongeau in April to talk about early education policy.

Thompson outlined the unique psychological characteristics of young children and explained how he thinks those characteristics should inform discussions about classroom atmosphere and statewide early education policy. Thompson sees the evidence of preschool’s effectiveness as overwhelming enough to justify pushing for preschool for every child, no matter their economic status. “We know what quality looks like,” Thompson said. “We could institute if we were willing to do so.”

Read on for excerpts of the interview. Download the full transcript at the link below.

EdSource: I understand that a focus of yours is to draw a link between scientific understandings about early childhood and public policy. Can you give me an example of how the two might be connected?

Ross Thompson: Our national focus on school readiness has not surprisingly emphasized the kinds of cognitive language and numerical skills that kids need in order to function well in the classroom. Unsurprisingly, those are what most people think about when they’re considering whether children are ready for school or not.

But when you look at how children learn in the early childhood years, you realize that a lot of it has to do with their social experience in the classroom. A lot of their ability to learn has to do with their self-regulatory skill. And a lot of their learning involves emotion; emotion that is involved in the excitement of discovery or emotion that can arise from stress in their homes.

Therefore if we think of school readiness (requirements) only in terms of cognitive and language and numerical skills, we miss some of the important ingredients to what makes a lot of children really excited about learning, and what makes other children who are equally smart not as ready to learn.

EdSource: Let’s get into the psychology and the science side of things. What would you say makes 4-year-olds different than older elementary school-age children?

Thompson_1Thompson: A 4-year-old has much more difficulty focusing their attention or channeling their thinking or managing their emotions. A lot of that has to do with brain maturation. A 4-year-old is a very active learner. As any preschool educator would know, a quiet classroom means something’s wrong because there’s just a lot of activity and there’s a lot of language and there’s a lot going on. Children at this stage really immerse themselves in what they experience.

By the time you get to an 8-year-old, you can expect the classroom to be quieter as children are working. They are no less active in their learning, but they’re capable of learning in the kind of studied fashion that we often think about as true in adults.

Another key difference is that 4-year-olds are really intuitive and they’re experimental. When a 4-year-old asks, ‘How does that work?’ a smart teacher says, ‘Well, let’s find out. Let’s see if we can figure it out together. Let’s experiment with it. Let’s draw our own conclusion.’

There was a time when my wife, who is a gifted preschool educator, was showing her group of 4-year-olds an airplane and asked if anybody knew what it was called. And one child said, ‘Oh, I know, that’s a hair plane.’ And Janet thought that was very interesting, so she said, ‘Why would it be called a hair plane?’ And this 4-year-old says, ‘Well, because it flies in the air where your hair is.’ And that’s just so typical of 4-year-old thinking.

EdSource: What would be needed if we were going to have public preschool classrooms filled with 4-year-olds that would be different from what is needed in a second-grade classroom?

Thompson: I think the simple principle is that a well-designed learning setting for a 4-year-old has to look a lot different than a well-designed learning setting for an 8-year-old. In fact, there have been experimental studies that have shown that if you put younger children into a learning setting that is better designed for the needs of an older child, sitting at a desk, working on a worksheet, you don’t have the younger children learning more or faster. They end up learning less and being less self-confident. … That’s simply because kids’ brains are working differently at different ages, and the things we can do to help their brains function well are very, very different.

That 4-year-old classroom is going to involve a lot of noise, a lot of hands-on, a lot of collaboration between a child and a teacher, because it’s that teacher-child relationship that motivates a lot of the child’s excitement of learning, discovery and self-confidence and all those good things. That’s one of the reasons why an early learning setting functions better with a relatively small group size.

Thompson_2EdSource: So hands-on materials, small student-to-teacher ratios, and lots of time and room for exploring?

Thompson: That’s right. And choices, because we know (young children) can learn better from things that capture their interest with adult teachers functioning much as tour guides and helping to exploit learning opportunities as they naturally arise.

EdSource: You’ve talked about the importance of emotional bonds between teachers and very young students. I’m sure that feeling like you have a trustworthy teacher is important to kids at all ages. But why is that particularly important for the youngest students?

Thompson: An older child can become fascinated by something they’re doing or learning about or reading about completely on their own or with peers. For young children, a lot of their involvement in a learning activity derives from the quality and the warmth of the relationship they have with the adult who shared that experience.

Part of this comes from what I spend a lot of my time studying, which are attachments between children and adults. Those are so powerful early on, and we still see that in a 4-year-old sharing a discovery by telling a teacher about it.

EdSource: So when a child makes a discovery and shares it with a teacher, is there something that happens that cements the moment as a learning experience for the child once they’ve shared it?

Thompson: Some of it is the response of the teacher. And this can actually be the difference between a high-quality and a not-so-high-quality early education setting.

A child might turn to an adult and say, ‘How does that work?’ And one adult can offer the explanation, and another adult can say, ‘Let’s find out,’ and those are very, very different learning options.

EdSource: That’s particularly interesting because the adult that gives the explanation probably thinks she’s doing the right thing.

Thompson: That’s exactly right. And yet as I said, it’s a very different learning option.

Again, we’re talking about the idea that there is a teacher to whom a 4-year-old can turn in the classroom. But of course, that’s less likely to happen if there are two teachers and 30 kids or 35 kids compared to a group of say, 15. That’s why the group size and the adult-to-child ratio really makes a difference.

EdSource: I’m looking into the public options for preschool. There’s mostly state preschool and Head Start right now, and there’s this new push for universal preschool in California. What’s your take on that?

Thompson: We’ve been down this road before. We had a referendum in, what was it, 2006, where the voters decided not to go in that direction.

I’ll just speak for myself. I am pulled in two ways on this issue. It’s very clear that the value-added benefit of a high-quality preschool is greatest for children at greatest economic risk, because usually that also means they’re at greatest educational risk. So if we need to be selective, if it’s not universal, we clearly should be targeting (preschool investments) towards those kids.

Thompson_4The problem is that as a country, we have been involved in a more than 50-year national experiment with targeted preschool education and it’s called Head Start. And Head Start has never, ever, ever been funded adequately for the number of kids who need it and who are eligible for it. And so a lot of the reason to argue in favor of universal preschool is that everybody has skin in the game. That is, every parent of a young child would have a universal preschool program as an option for them, and therefore they would have an interest in the quality and the acceptability of such a program.

So I’m torn. I think that the economics of universal preschool are formidable. But I was in favor of that referendum in 2006 because I worry about watching a targeted program that may suffer some of the same fate of Head Start – which is because it’s for ‘other peoples’ kids,’ it will not be adequately supported.

EdSource: Knowing what you know about 4-year-olds developmentally, do you think all children would benefit from a high-quality preschool program?

Thompson: I think the evidence is pretty clear that all children would benefit. We know that all children can benefit.

Thompson_3I do have to say to remember that we’re talking about high-quality early education. We’re not talking about poor-quality preschool programs. Poor-quality programs can hurt kids. So we are talking about an emphasis on quality, and the remarkable thing and what makes this a historic moment for our culture is that for the first time we know what quality looks like. We can articulate both what the classroom environment looks like and which characteristics of teachers distinguish a high-quality, early education setting from a poor-quality one.

So we don’t even have to speculate about what goes into creating those settings. We’ve analyzed controlled trials of children’s outcomes from those kinds of settings. We know what the results are and we have evidence-based practices now that we could institute if we were willing to do so.

Complete interview transcript here.

Lillian Mongeau covers early childhood education. Contact her here and follow her at @lrmongeau.

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  1. Paul Muench 10 years ago10 years ago

    Where do I find more information on creating quality preschool programs? Is Dr. Thompson’s confidence in the understanding quality preschools making him optimistic that universal quality preschool is a realistic possibilty in CA?