Parenting and Caregiving Litmus Test: How Am I Doing?

According to The Urban Child Institute, a baby’s brain at birth “already has about all of the neurons it will ever have,” “doubles in size in the first year, and by age three it has reached 80 percent of its adult volume.”  The period from birth to age 3 represents the single most crucial period of brain development in a young child’s life as crucial brain connections and super-highways are built in this time frame.  Ideally, then, parents and caregivers are spending a substantial amount of time observing and assessing children 0 to 36 months to be sure that brain development is on track.

But, do we, as parents and caregivers, spend enough time observing and assessing ourselves to be sure that we are on track to provide the best care and brain-boosting/school readiness activities as humanly possible? One of the best ways to assess ourselves is to ask questions regarding how our babies and toddlers see us, how they sense us and how they feel in our presence.

Below are some questions that can be asked of ourselves frequently (i.e., weekly or every other week) to be sure that the young children in our lives are getting what they need from us to be ready for school by the age of 3.  How would the babies and toddlers we love, raise and care for answer these questions if you posed them and the children were able to respond to you?

  1. Does my parent/caregiver love me?
  2. Do I trust my parent/caregiver?
  3. Does my parent/caregiver like me as a person?
  4. Does my parent/caregiver have my best interest at heart?
  5. Does my parent/caregiver care about what I have to say?
  6. Does my parent/caregiver teach me things?
  7. Does my parent/caregiver enjoy my company?
  8. Does my parent/caregiver find me funny or entertaining?
  9. Does my parent/caregiver feel relaxed when I am around?
  10. Does my parent/caregiver give me warnings when we are about to leave or change activities?
  11. Does my parent/caregiver stay true to his/her word?
  12. Does my parent/caregiver use a wide vocabulary with me everyday?
  13. Does my parent/caregiver smile at me often?
  14. Does my parent/caregiver encourage me to try new things?
  15. Does my parent/caregiver encourage me to try things on my own before helping me?
  16. Does my parent/caregiver allow me time to problem solve?
  17. Does my parent/caregiver give me time to complete tasks that I may do a little slower than her or him?
  18. Does my parent/caregiver allow me to take safe risks?
  19. Does my parent/caregiver allow me to fail?
  20. Does my parent/caregiver use words to reflect on my behavior or my feelings?
  21. Does my parent/caregiver model appropriate manners and ways to interact with others?
  22. Does my parent/caregiver seem to like all kinds of people, regardless of age, gender, church affiliation or skin color?
  23. Does my parent/caregiver listen to me?
  24. Does my parent/caregiver express affection with me?

 

If a baby or toddler would (if he/she could) answer “yes” to each of these 24 questions, there is a strong likelihood that this baby or toddler is not living in a situation of toxic stress (so damaging to brain development!) and is living in a loving, educational, nurturing environment that is preparing him or her for school by the age of 36 months.

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Conversation with Babies and Toddlers Builds Language as well as Social Thinking

We’ve heard frequently in the child development news and on social media that back-and-forth communication with the zero to three crowd is extremely important for brain development and for school readiness.  We used to think that the number of words we used with babies and toddlers mattered most to their brain and language development, but now we know better:  that it’s conversation with our little ones that matters more than just reading aloud to them or “talking at” them each day.  The babies and toddlers that experience language in a continuous, flowing format of “I say something, then you say something, then I say something, etc.” is the key for stimulating a child’s brain, boosting language development and getting a child ready for school by age 3.

One might wonder why conversations matter so much.  If a child is read to or spoken to every day many times a day, why isn’t that enough? The reason is that babies and toddlers are not simply meant to words that they will eventually say themselves.  Their brains are not file cabinets in which “food words” are stored “here” and “animal words” are stored “over there,” so that when someone asks “What’s that?,” they can label the picture or the object easily by saying “apple” or “cow.”  Their brains are built to function as super-highways of connections and pathways that help them understand and use language they have stored successfully in personal relationships and in the school setting in countless ways.  If words are not learned in a context or in relationship to other people, places and things, learning and language understanding and use will always be a challenge for a child.

If we are to have conversations with babies and toddlers, we first must build and nurture relationships with them. As adults, we only learn so much from hearing a lecture or reading a book about a topic.  But, when we sit down and have multiple conversations with someone who knows well what we are trying to learn, our learning will be much deeper because the words are heard within the context of the relationship. We humans, adults as well as babies and toddlers, learn much more about our world when we are engaged with people because there is emotion involved.  If we have the chance to engage with someone over a topic and the experience is positive, emotion enters the picture and this emotion aids learning.  On the other hand, if the experience brings about negative emotions, such as fear or anger, learning is hampered.

In these verbal exchanges within a conversation and relationship, babies and toddlers learn other crucial skills that are important for school readiness and success.  Beyond learning words, they learn to coordinate their social skills, much like they learn to coordinate their muscles to crawl or run.  They learn how to talk about and reference the emotions of people in their lives and in books that are read aloud to them. Babies and toddlers also learn to think flexibly, to use declarative language and memory to imitate others, and to process information in terms of relationships between people, places and objects.  Conversing with others also allows babies and toddlers to learn to solve problems that lack clear-cut solutions by using past experiences and context to help them do so.  That is, they learn to see possibilities based on past experiences.  These examples of babies’ and toddlers’ social thinking are all learned in the context of a relationship with parents, caregivers, siblings and others around them.

So, the next time you use your words and take a turn with a baby or toddler, remember that you are not just building language skills, but you are also building social thinking skills that will support school readiness and success as well as life success!

 

 

The World Needs More Observers and Sharers: How Parents and Caregivers Make a Difference in Babies’ and Toddlers’ Lives

Writers and photographers who travel make observations and take what they see to others.  They are “noticers” and “see-ers,” as well as “share-ers,” extraordinaire!  By way of their written or spoken stories or their photos, these amazing observers share their experiences with those who have not had the same experiences or with those who have not travelled to the same place to see what they have seen and know what they have come to know.  When travel writers and photographers tell us about new people, places and things, our lives become richer because our thinking expands.  They show us new ways to think about the world around us.

Parents and caregivers are the travel writers and photographers for the under 3 set.  Babies and toddlers have not seen and have not experienced the world that parents and caregivers know about, so parents and caregivers must take what they notice and see and share it with children in order for the brain development for school readiness to happen.  When parents and caregivers observe or notice what is around them and share it with the babies and toddlers in their lives by way of pictures, objects and stories, the grown-ups build necessary brain connections in children that support expanded thinking about the world in which the children live.  Then, when these children arrive to preschool to begin learning to read, count, and think in more advanced ways, they have the background knowledge about the world around them that is necessary to succeed in a 21st century classroom.

So how can parents and caregivers accomplish what travel writers and photographers do?  First, take the time. Observing the world and sharing what we see, hear, feel, touch, taste and smell with babies and toddlers by showing them what we have observed or talking to them about is time-consuming.  But the more time that is spent, the better prepared a child will be for school.  That said, it doesn’t need to take much or all of one’s time.  Observing for 30 seconds 10 times a day only adds up to 30 minutes out of each busy day.  Short, but frequent observations and “sharings” work well for babies and toddlers due to their short attention spans.  Rather than observing and sharing observations with babies and toddlers once a week for 60 minutes or twice a day for 15 minutes at a time, parents and caregivers can observe/share once or twice every hour for 10 or so seconds with observations/sharings such as “Hey, do you see that red bird?” or “Mmmm, this ice cream is sweet and with crunchy nuts.”  Parents and caregivers can write down or take a photo of what is observed in order to share experiences with other parents/caregivers or with the child later on in his/her development.

So parents and caregivers, get out there and “observe, observe, observe” and then “share, share, share” with the babies and toddlers in your lives, just like travel writers and photographers do!

 

 

 

Basic Tech Rules at Home Make More Time for Verbal Communication with Children

With new data showing that a majority of speech-language pathologists say children’s preoccupation with today’s personal technology is qualitatively different from past generations’ distractions of choice, such as television—with greater potential for harm—speech-language pathologists urge parents to implement some basic tech rules in their households to make time for verbal communication. This advice is especially timely given that May is Better Hearing & Speech Month.

Among the top concerns for surveyed speech-language pathologists is that excessive technology use by children is replacing conversation and human interaction. The most basic of activities, such conversation and interaction is essential to children’s speech and language development as well as future academic and social success. Unfortunately, the availability and convenience of tablets and other kid-friendly devices may be supplanting time for talking, reading, and interactive play. This is where the concerns to communication development come into play.

A trip to the supermarket, downtime in a doctor’s waiting room, or a ride in the car are ideal times to point out new objects, ask your child questions, and generally converse—all of which contribute to children’s speech and language development. It’s important that parents stay mindful of these learning opportunities, and not allow tech time to encroach on such daily opportunities—tempting as it may be to keep a child occupied. Even if a child is playing an ‘educational’ game on a device, nothing replaces what is learned through person-to-person communication.

Maintaining a realistic approach, a vast majority of speech-language pathologists (73%) say the solution to children’s tech overuse is to encourage parents to set reasonable parameters and model safe technology usage at home. A very small number (2%) advocate for tightly restricting children’s technology usage. We know that technology is here to stay, but consider when you can carve out some dedicated tech-free time each day.

In addition to implementing basic tech measures, speech-language pathologists ask parents, especially those of young children, to use May as a time to assess their children’s communication development and familiarize themselves with the signs of speech/language disorders. These are among the most common conditions young children experience, and they are highly treatable. However, it is important that parents not delay should they have concerns.

Some parents may not take action about a speech delay until a child is 3 or older, even though they may have had concerns for a year or longer at that point. Any parents with a concern should seek an assessment from a speech-language pathologist right away for the best possible outcome.

For more information about communication milestones, visit http://identifythesigns.org

Early Care and Learning Programs for America’s Children: What’s Good on a Local Level is Good for the Nation

The longterm gains of early childhood programs for children 0-5 years of age have been proven again and again.  American economists, such as James Heckman at the University of Chicago, remind us frequently that the greatest return on investment with regard to children happens in the years before a child begins school.  It’s a greater gain than investing in K-12 education as well as investing in students who attend college.   The issue is that investment in early childhood, and especially the birth to 3 period, pays off in the long run.  However, because it does not pay off in the short run, there is little motivation to invest.

When taxpayers, businesses, religious institutions, policymakers and politicians don’t see a short-term gain in their investment, it results in less interest and fewer dollars. With the current climate in American politics, politicians are worried about re-election.  They spend much of their time attending meetings with key power players and fundraising for the next election cycle.  Policymakers are focused on making a name for themselves or dealing in the here-and-now.  They spend time paying for and analyzing research as well as writing about their policies, the research and stating possible solutions.  Organizations and activists plan marches and events, such as the Strolling Thunder event that took place yesterday in DC, in order to draw attention to the need for funding that supports babies, toddlers and preschoolers and their families and caregivers.  Despite all these efforts, very little of the “taxpayer dollar pie” available for the government to spend gets spent on early care and early childhood programs.

So what can be done while American families wait for financial support that is already slotted for other important federal government programs (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, WIC, TANF, etc.)?  We can aim to reduce short-term costs of programs that are currently in place.  If we streamline costs by using items in nature, in the everyday environment of a child, or in most households to stimulate brain development, then the need for expensive curricula or toys/devices in early care and early education settings are decreased. Second, we can turn to local governments and businesses for support. If states and cities adopt economic development strategies that help children and families, these localities and businesses are then guaranteeing a better educated, more skilled and better prepared workforce in the future.  Third, we can balance high-quality business incentives   with high-quality early care and early childhood programs.  With a balance in benefits to families as well as to shareholders of a company, it is a win-win situation.  Fourth, businesses can aim to provide child care on-site, and, even better, partially fund child care of the employees’ choosing.  Finally, we can make use of resources from the US Chamber of Commerce and other entities across America which provide resources via their websites that can help businesses strategize about providing access to affordable, high-quality early care and education to children of employees in a way that benefits shareholders, employees and their families.

When we think about empowering businesses, families and local stakeholders to solve the problem of providing early care and education for America’s babies, toddlers and preschoolers, it is easy to envision the benefits that will result for entire communities, cities, states, and the whole of America.

Sensory Processing In Babies and Toddlers

Sensory processing is a frequently overlooked skill in the under 36 month old set.  Newborns arrive into the world with an already established preference for taking in the environment around them.  They are born with a sensory processing preference either for visual (looking), auditory (listening) or kinesthetic (movement) processing, and this preference will greatly affect how their brain is wired throughout their development from birth to age 3 as well as affect a child’s relationships and learning.

Often, a baby or toddler can have a sensory processing preference that is different than parents and caregivers’ preferences (The majority of us have a preference, which affects the way we take in our world and the way we learn as grown-ups!).  It can be a different sensory processing mode than siblings or playmates.  Sometimes that can lead to troubles in parenting, caring for or interacting with a baby or toddler.  It can lead to trouble establishing a bond or a relationship between young children and their parents, caregivers, family and friends. It can sometimes be tricky for parents, caregivers and early care professionals who work with babies and toddlers to figure out which of the three processing modes a baby or toddler prefers.  But, as Audre Lorde (American writer, 1934-1992) said so well, “It is not our differences that divide us.  It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences.”

So, how can grown-ups tell which sensory processing mode a child from 0-36 months prefers?  We need only look at the way a child responds to different kinds of visual, auditory and kinesthetic input from his or her environment.  For example, we can watch how a baby or toddler responds to bright lights versus how s/he responds to dim or low lights, or even complete darkness.  Other clues about a baby’s or toddler’s sensory processing preferences include whether s/he likes to look at faces or turns away from faces, whether s/he does not seem to hear words when s/he is looking intensely at an object or person, or whether s/he seems to prefer to watching leaves move on trees or watch vehicles go by versus listening to a parent or caregiver sing a song.  We can observe how s/he responds to loud or soft voices, classical music versus rock music or environmental sounds such a pot dropped on the floor, a phone ringing or a dog barking. How quickly and accurately a baby or toddler imitates animal sounds such as “woof-woof” for a dog or speech sounds s/he hears spoken can tell us that s/he may prefer processing auditory information.  We can note how a baby or toddler responds to being held or not, being rocked or gently bounced, or being swaddled (or left free to move) in order to observe a possible preference for body movement processing. We can observe whether a baby or toddler prefers movements such as crawling, rolling, climbing or jumping so much that s/he may not be processing visual or auditory input around him or her, putting the child at risk for delayed speech, language or pre-literacy skills.  On the opposite end of the kinesthetic, or movement, processing spectrum, we can observe that a baby or toddler is hesitant to explore the world physically and that s/he prefers to stay in the safety of a parent or caregiver’s arms or sit on a bench at the park rather than slide down the slide or attempt to climb a ladder.

Once we are able to recognize sensory processing differences and preferences in babies and toddlers from 0-36 months of age, we can accept and celebrate those differences and preferences in order to shape brain development best as well as to guide learning for school readiness by the age of 3.

 

 

 

 

Government Is Not The Solution For Babies and Toddlers

Babies and toddlers make one million neural connections per second in the first 3 years of their lives.  They are laying down the foundations of their brain circuitry for learning, thinking and taking in their world that they will have for their entire lives.  Emory University and the state of Georgia’s “Talk With Me Baby” informational sheet tells us that 85% of brain growth occurs in the first 3 years of life.  By age 5, it’s 90% formed, according to First Things First, a public funding source in Phoenix, Arizona dedicated to early childhood development so that Arizona’s children can succeed in school and life.  Brain connections made in the early years of life will be the foundation on which all future brain connections will be built.

Currently, there are countless public-funded groups, non-profit organizations, activists and individuals who aim for government and public funding to be the solution for babies and toddlers.  They are working hard to address such issues as paid family leave, high-quality early care and early education to make sure all children get the best start as possible in life.  These groups and people want solutions, to be sure. 

However despite all of their efforts, the cogs of government to approve government programs at the local, state and federal levels turn very, very slowly.  Even when groups achieve some or most of their intended noble goals, whether that be writing early childhood policy, funding research that proves the crucial learning that happens from birth to age 3, contacting lawmakers, and/or building public awareness of the importance of birth to 3 development, the next step is where they typically stumble and, too often, fail:  to secure funding for government programs for all babies, toddlers and preschool-aged children.  As Cynthia Nixon, actress and public school advocate, tweeted recently regarding the state of New York’s universal pre-K achievements, “it would take 57 years to fund full-day universal pre-K” at the current funding levels that Governor Cuomo has dedicated to universal Pre-K in the New York state budget.  

Obviously, the babies and toddlers of today don’t have 57 years to get the right brain stimulation and to have high-quality interactions with caretakers and parents. They have 3-5 years to build 85-90% of their brains in the care of the grown-ups in their lives.  If these children don’t get what they need in the early years, the odds have it that they will go on to a lifetime filled with struggles and challenges, such as poor school performance, special education needs, young parenthood, juvenile delinquency, and low-paying jobs.  Then, out of their own experience of struggle and challenge, these children will go on to have their own children who will also struggle and be challenged in school and in life.  And, from there, the cycle repeats itself generation after generation.

The babies and toddlers of today don’t have the luxury of waiting one more day for government programs, policymakers, lawmakers, and funding to come through for them.  Every day that little ones go without real-time, free or low-cost solutions to meet their needs for high-quality care, conversation and interactions with parents and caregivers, that is one less day that babies and toddlers’ can spend getting prepared to succeed in school and life.