Kindergarten lessons are all that’s needed

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 13, 2010

It may surprise you to know that what middle school and high school students learn these days matters little to their future. No matter how much chemistry, trigonometry and advanced English students study in high school, it’s kindergarten where success is determined. At least that is what a group of researchers are proposing.

Of course, author Robert Fulghum already knew this. The writer of the 1988 best selling book of essays “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” knew that the lessons learned in those formative years remain well after the graduation caps are tossed into the air.

I remembered Fulghum’s words of wisdom when I visited one of our local schools on the first day of classes.

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“All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” was the ubiquitous graduation gift in the late 1980s. It so dominated the New York Times Bestsellers list in 1989 and 1990 that Fulghum’s words peppered countless commencement speeches in the following years.

Fulghum’s book revealed universal truths with wit and wisdom. His words clearly struck a chord with readers.

The book began with these words: “All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pile at school.”

Fulghum continued with a list of the simple rules he learned: “Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess.”

Of course, the first day of school is about these basic lessons. At Trinity Episcopal School Monday, one teacher in the lunchroom was detailing a list of rules very similar to Fulghum’s list.

“Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush,” Fulghum writes.

They sound like simple rules to remember. Yet, teachers from kindergarten on up were giving students a refresher course all over the town this week. Classroom rules were the order of the day.

A group of Harvard researchers presented a study at an academic conference in July that suggests these lessons and others learned in kindergarten are critical to adult success.

These researchers looked at the lives of 12,000 children from 1980 to the present. They discovered that it wasn’t what students learned in junior high or high school that was the greatest predictor of success. Surprisingly, it was how students performed in kindergarten — how much they learned — that had the greatest influence on future success.

Students who succeeded in kindergarten were more likely to go to college, less likely to be single parents and were more likely to be saving for retirement. They were also more likely to be earning more at age 30 than students who did not succeed in kindergarten.

Just what makes kindergarten such a predictor of adult success, the researchers did not speculate.

But if you look at Fulghum’s 1988 essay, it is hard to ignore those simple, yet essential lessons.

“Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living,” Fulghum writes near the end of his essay.

As I watched teachers lead a group of kindergartners into the lunchroom, I thought maybe there is something to this kindergarten thing.

As Fulghum writes, “And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.”

Ben Hillyer is the Web editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or by e-mail at