Packing more into the school day may matter far less than parents think, particularly when children are young. Parents turning to preschool to help their kids get a leg up academically may be looking in the wrong places.

There’s been much discussion about how to determine which kinds of educational systems give the best results. On one side are those who believe that learning is primarily about content; they emphasize giving kids plenty of opportunity and material to learn.

Others feel that learning is a dynamic process and that classroom interactions matter as much as or more than the subject matter, particularly when children are young.

Focusing on kids’ needs in a general way — with responsive teaching — may be more beneficial than focusing on more specific aspects of education or academics.

A new study supports this second approach, finding that, just as parents' interactions with toddlers help them learn language, interactions with teachers make a big difference in what young children pick up in pre-K.

Researchers looked at the different strategies used by preschool teachers when interacting with their kids in the classroom. One of the methods was called “responsive teaching.” The term applies to a teacher who responds directly to a child’s unique behaviors and concerns, and offers the child appropriate on-the-spot feedback.

Encouraging the child to be an active participant in learning and picking up on subtle behavioral cues and supporting a back-and-forth relationship with the student are two other qualities of responsive teaching. It’s considered a “general” method because it does not promote specific instructional styles.

The researchers, from the University of Virginia, Oregon State University and Clemson University, also noted several specific strategies in the study. “Motivation-inducing supports” attempt to enhance a child’s motivation and persistence on a task. “Management and routines” stress the importance of rules and execution and making sure the classroom runs like a well-oiled machine. Finally, “cognitive facilitation” focuses on learning new information and on cognitive development.

Overall, responsive teaching skills had strong positive effects on several factors in the child’s development — from language to memory to developing strong social relationships — suggesting that this general method can help in multiple areas.

Teachers whose classrooms were well-managed and well-structured (who were strong on “management and routines”) tended to foster a child’s ability to regulate his or her own behavior. Those who stressed cognitive facilitation, answering questions and helping children understand the task at hand, helped kids with academic performance.

Obviously, learning the basic skills of nursery school — the shapes and colors and processes it teaches — are very important. But the study hints that addressing kids’ needs in a general way — with responsive teaching — may be slightly more beneficial than emphasizing more specific aspects of education or academics, particularly because kids who are more involved in school at an early age are less likely to drop-out.

“The results provide new insight into the ways teachers' interactions with young children support their growth in a variety of areas,” said lead author Bridget K. Hamre in a news release. “An exclusive focus on enhancing instruction in preschool classes may fail to have as meaningful an effect as a more balanced approach that also emphasizes responsive interactions.”

Though this study concentrated on the classroom, what it found suggests strategies we can all use with our kids at home. Responding to their needs, strengths and weaknesses is critical at any age, in any area. It can strengthen not only their cognitive development, but our relationship with them as well.

The study is published in the journal Child Development.