There’s no question that parents want their preschoolers to grasp the basics of colors, numbers and letters to foster a lifetime of learning.
They also should strive for broader social-emotional benchmarks that are just as crucial for development, says Dr. Laura Jana, a pediatrician and author of The Toddler Brain: Nurture the Skills Today that Will Shape Your Child’s Tomorrow.
Among them: patience, curiosity and strength.
Named after the Chinese concept of qi — which translates as positive life force or energy — Jana’s seven-point skill set is rooted in core childhood experiences.
“What happens in the early years doesn’t stay there,” Jana says. “It’s the foundation on which everything else is built.”
She spoke more about the value of QI (pronounced “key”) skills and easy ways to introduce them at home.
“Me skills”: Awareness and self-control
Children who are aware of their own thoughts, feelings and actions are more likely to speak up or ask for help in a difficult situation — instead of, say, biting or throwing a tantrum. Which is why adults must help kids learn to acknowledge their emotional state and cope accordingly.
One helpful approach: asking a frustrated child to pause and take a few deep breaths. “What you’re doing is helping switch from part of the brain that’s impulsive to the part where executive functioning sits in order to slow down and be in control,” Jana says.
“We skills”: Teamwork and empathy
Very young children may play next to each other but not necessarily with each other. Learning to interact with kindness, cooperation and active listening helps support a lifetime of positive social growth. That journey starts by understanding the perspectives of a child’s peers.
Says Jana: “When you’re reading together, you might say, ‘Wow, the big red dog looks sad. Why do you think he’s sad?’ You want kids to learn how to read other people and realize their emotions may not always be the same.” Playing dress-up or pretend roles also builds empathy.
“Why skills”: Boundless curiosity
Asking questions — yes, even incessantly — is a vital way for kids to learn about the world around them. Whether they’re asking about the planet, about their bodies or for a later bedtime, children are born curious. Support that inquisitiveness and your role as a trusted resource.
But don’t give away the answers. “Instead, I’d say, ‘Why do you think that is?’” Jana says. Propose a trip to the library or go online to research the answer together. That sets the stage for young minds to proactively seek answers to their questions in the future.
“Will skills”: Sticking to it
Practice makes perfect. For milestones such as tying shoelaces, printing one’s name or using the toilet, “the goal isn’t just to get it right but to go through the motions it takes to get it right,” Jana says. This helps encourage the persistence and patience needed to hone a new skill.
That said, a reward or treat shouldn’t be the endgame. Rewards can stifle motivation, enforcing the idea that every effort requires a prize. “Celebrate the accomplishment of the task itself and the work it took,” Jana says. “A lot of kids get really excited when they master a task.”
“Wiggle skills”: Movement and touch
The negative connotation of “ants in the pants” is misguided. “Physical and intellectual restlessness go hand in hand,” Jana says. “The younger kids are, the more important it is for them to use their senses to figure out the world — touching, poking, tasting, grabbing.”
Make learning an active experience rather than a passive one by incorporating hands-on activities and movement. Touch tree bark and dig in the dirt to explore nature, for example. For little ones who can’t sit still for story time, have them act out parts of the book in real time.
“Wobble skills”: Never giving up
Whether your child is facing a toppled block tower or just tumbled from a two-wheeled bike, “it takes failure to start over and try again,” Jana says. Instilling the value of resilience is crucial to helping kids realize that tasks aren’t always easy — and that hurdles aren’t a reason to quit.
The notion might be tough for cautious parents eager to shelter their little ones from obstacles. “You have to gradually lose that mentality and let them start to make mistakes and figure it out,” says Jana, who named the skill after the classic roly-poly toy that always stands upright.
“What if skills”: Robust imagination
A child’s power to envision something different — be it the world around him, a new idea or invention, or in the form of creative expression — is “imagination at work,” Jana says. This can be done via make-believe (using a sheet to build a fort, for instance), art projects or imaginary friends.
Shared conversations can help young minds stretch. When reading a story, discuss alternative storylines or endings. Or make up your own fanciful tales and describe what each character might say or do next. Keep the fun going with an improvised puppet show or backyard play.
Helping your child develop QI skills builds a strong foundation for academic achievement and interpersonal progress. Read more about your role in the journey: