This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 10 table of contents.

Continuity from Age 3 to 6

Does the success of securely attached children end with nursery school? Apparently it does not. The Preschool Project at Harvard University found that winner 3-year-olds turn into winner 6-year-olds. Burton White and a dozen other researchers spent years making natural observations in kindergartens, nursery schools, and Head Start centers. They wanted to find out "what the beautifully-developed three-to-six year old looked like." They came up with a profile of exceptional competence in a six-year-old:

What were the findings of the Harvard Preschool Project?

1. Such children are good at problem solving.

2. They have an elaborate command of language.

3. They are both leaders and followers...complete social animals.

4. They know how to use adults as resources.

5. They engage freely in imaginative play with other children. (Trotter, 1976)

Then came a surprising discovery: the three-year-olds in their study showed the same patterns. Already some three-year-olds were doing better than others, and the successful three-year-olds showed the same pattern of characteristics as the successful six-year-olds.

What did Burton White recommend for the first three years of a baby's life?

Such differences were not visible in 1 year olds. Evidently something important happened in a child's life between the age of 1 and 3. Burton White reviewed a large amount of evidence and concluded that parent-child relations had a big effect in the first three years of life. His book, The First Three Years (1978), was quite influential but also controversial. White wrote that babies should not be left in day care centers during the first three years, when attachment to a caretaker was so important. Mothers and grandmothers, he noted, were the traditional caretakers for children, and they seemed to have the best record of supplying the intensive love and attention needed by toddlers.

To stimulate the development of an active, curious, socially competent three-year-old, White recommended baby-proofing a house (making it safe for exploration) when a baby reached crawling age, then simply letting the baby explore the house at will. The parent, he said, should remain alert for emergencies and dangers and should serve as a "consultant" when the baby needs help. Being a consultant means staying nearby and being available to the child for help on short notice. Actual periods of contact between parents and roving 1 year olds may be only 10-20 seconds long, White pointed out. Yet these interactions come at crucial times: when the baby is hurt or something desirable is out of reach.

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