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!

 

 

 

Advertisements

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.

Communicating and Interacting with Children 0-36 months in an Age-Specific Way

We’ve all heard the advice given to parents and caregivers to “talk, read and sing” to babies and toddlers to get them ready for school and life.  We hear experts remind us that it’s never too early to start talking, reading or singing to children and that the more we do these activities with children, the better off they will be.  The landmark study from Hart and Risley in 1995, titled “The 30 Million Word Gap” , told us that children from disadvantaged homes, poor families and certain family backgrounds hear 30 million fewer words than those from privileged backgrounds or wealthy homes.  The study informed us that those children who hear far fewer words will be far less prepared for school than those who heard more words.

Recently, a study from Harvard found that it isn’t just the number of words a child hears before his or her third birthday that makes the biggest difference in school success, but it is the turn-taking that parents and caregivers do with babies and toddlers.  We now know that children whose parents and caregivers engage in back-and-forth conversations with them are better prepared for school than those children whose parents and caregivers “talk at” or “speak to” them without engaging in turn-taking.  Babies and toddlers who participate in the back-and-forth, flowing and pleasurable communication with their parents and caregivers learn more easily, have richer, bigger vocabularies and learn to read earlier and more easily than those who do not participate in conversational and turn-taking activities with parents and caregivers.

But, as we know, conversing with a 1-month old baby looks very different than conversing with an 11-month old, which in turn looks very different than conversing with a 21- or a 31-month old child.  It’s not enough for parents and caregivers to be advised to “talk, read and sing to your baby or toddler.”  It’s bland advice that will not prepare all children equally for school by the time they are 36 months old.

So, what should we do?  We need to give advice to parents and caregivers that reflects the ages and stages of a baby or toddler in their care in order to have the greatest impact on the child’s brain development and school readiness.  We need to encourage grown-ups to observe when a baby or toddler is in a “listening mood” and ready to hear language, which looks very different at 3 months of age versus 23 months of age.  For example, a 3-month old may have just woken from a nap and is awake, but is not alert and ready to hear a story.  Or, in the reverse, a 23-month old may be exhausted and ready for a nap, and, therefore, is not ready to hear a story.  When thinking about babies and toddlers taking turns and staying engaged, we need to support parents and caregivers in observing that a baby at 6 months of age will kick its feet with a smile on its face to request that a conversation or interaction continue and then provide specific tips as to how to keep the conversation with a 6-month old going.  A 26-month old child will stay in a chair to let grown-ups know that he or she wants the story (and the questions the grown-up is asking about the story) to continue.  If he or she doesn’t “stay put,” we need to offer specific tips about how to keep the toddler engaged in the story and questions-asking activity.

The words we choose or how we use them matters greatly at different ages and stages.  Parents and caregivers can use the phrases “Open them” and “Close them” while opening and closing their own hands in front of a 4-month old baby to help build understanding of the words “open” and “close.”  Parents and caregivers can gently open and close Baby’s hands while saying the phrases “Open them” and “Close them” to Baby.  Turns are expected be taken in this type of “conversational” activity for about 30 seconds with a child 4 months of age.  However, with a 24-month old child, parents and caregivers can use questions such as “Can you open the door so we can go to the park?” or directions such as “Close the lid on the toy box” in the context of conversations in order to build language and literacy skills for school readiness.  Moreover, this 24-month old child should be able to, and be expected to, interact and play in activities involving opening and closing boxes, doors or containers with a play partner for 10 minutes.  A by-stander should be able to describe these 10 minutes of interactive play with a grown-up as easy-going, effortless and enjoyable.

In order to truly prepare babies and toddlers for school by the age of 36 months, parents and caregivers need more age-specific guidance than most current advice gives them.  Parents and caregivers need to understand how to converse and share language, social skills and emotions with a 2-month old, a 12-month old and a 22-month old.  Some may think this will bog parents and caregivers down with too much information, so they stick with the weak advice to “talk, read and sing to your child.”  But, if we truly want all children to be ready for preschool, pre-K and beyond, then we must provide parents and caregivers with specific, rather than insufficient, advice.

All babies and toddlers, regardless of their socio-economic status or family background, depend on their parents and caregivers to be armed with the best information available at the present time from such fields as early childhood development, neuroscience and speech-language pathology in order to be successful in school and life!

Photo credit:  Jelleke Vanooteghem jelleke.com @ilumire

Character Development in Young Children Matters

In his article titled “The Character Factory”, David Brooks reminds us that character and behavior (e.g., resilience, conscientiousness, prudence, perseverance, ability to delay gratification, having a growth-mindset, personal drive, self-control, ability to maintain focus and attention, etc.) influence academic achievement as much as cognitive skills do. He tells us that “sages over years have generally found at least four effective avenues to make it easier to climb.” He delineates them as follows:

First, habits. If you can change behavior you eventually change disposition. People who practice small acts of self-control find it easier to perform big acts in times of crisis. Quality preschools, K.I.P.P. schools and parenting coaches have produced lasting effects by encouraging young parents and students to observe basic etiquette and practice small but regular acts of self-restraint.

Second, opportunity. Maybe you can practice self-discipline through iron willpower. But most of us can only deny short-term pleasures because we see a realistic path between self-denial now and something better down the road. Young women who see affordable college prospects ahead are much less likely to become teen moms.

Third, exemplars. Character is not developed individually. It is instilled by communities and transmitted by elders. The centrist Democratic group Third Way suggests the government create a BoomerCorps. Every day 10,000 baby boomers turn 65, some of them could be recruited into an AmeriCorps-type program to help low-income families move up the mobility ladder.

Fourth, standards. People can only practice restraint after they have a certain definition of the sort of person they want to be. Research from Martin West of Harvard and others suggests that students at certain charter schools raise their own expectations for themselves, and judge themselves by more demanding criteria.

What Brooks does not emphasize in his article is that the best way to get to the character development and necessary behaviors for academic achievement and societal mobility is via language and social-emotional modeling. He lightly brushes broad strokes on a canvas, telling us that quality preschools, K.I.P.P. schools, parenting coaches and exemplars for children make a difference in children and families with regards to increasing upward mobility and realizing dreams. However, he doesn’t tell us about the details of how and why these programs or ideas work. Unless children, families and communities get what the those in the top income quintile already get (e.g., top-notch exposure to the language, social, emotional and sensory stimulation, excellent role models, amazing mentors, etc.), they will continue to flounder or move at a glacial pace toward change for the better.

In the U.S., experts do a great job giving broad advice. Doctors tell us to eat a healthy diet. Educators tell us to read and talk to our children right from the start. The media, presenting us with evidence from research, tells us what needs to happen for this, that or the other thing to happen. But, rarely do we get specific details about what one needs to do consistently and across time to be successful and to make for real and permanent change.

I agree with Mr. Brooks whole-heartedly that success in life has to be about helping children and adults learn the character and behavior skills proven to lead to success in life in terms of being happy, self-motivated and self-sufficient, and a good citizen, amongst other revelations of success. But what the next 1 or 2 generations of children, families and communities from the bottom quintile of society need is specific, detailed, carefully taught advice that is then monitored and encouraged by those who know, specifically, what it takes to succeed and who have achieved success themselves.

I can’t use words such as “specific” or “specifically” enough on this matter. The bland advice parents, families and communities have received is clearly not working. It’s time to get to the nitty-gritty of what leads to success.