Thursday, February 21, 2008

Rush, Little Baby

This morning on NPR, I was listening to a story on Morning Edition on about self-regulation in kids. It was pretty fascinating. So continuing on the raising kids theme...

The story notes,

We know that children's capacity for self-regulation has diminished. A recent study replicated a study of self-regulation first done in the late 1940s, in which psychological researchers asked kids ages 3, 5 and 7 to do a number of exercises. One of those exercises included standing perfectly still without moving. The 3-year-olds couldn't stand still at all, the 5-year-olds could do it for about three minutes, and the 7-year-olds could stand pretty much as long as the researchers asked. In 2001, researchers repeated this experiment. But, psychologist Elena Bodrova at the National Institute for Early Education Research says, the results were very different.

"Today's 5-year-olds were acting at the level of 3-year-olds 60 years ago, and today's 7-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a 5-year-old 60 years ago," Bodrova explains. "So the results were very sad."

Sad because self-regulation is incredibly important. Poor executive function is associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime. In fact, good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child's IQ. Children who are able to manage their feelings and pay attention are better able to learn. As executive function researcher Laura Berk explains, "Self-regulation predicts effective development in virtually every domain."

Basically, these researchers have shown that a main reason for this diminished ability to self-regulate is that independent playtime has been lost for today's children. They note that imaginative play helps develop a child's ability to function independently in the world today. The New York Times, in an extensive article on play, noted,

Yet for humans, pretend play is one of the most crucial forms of play, occupying at its peak at about age 4 some 20 percent of a child’s day. It includes some of the most wondrous moments of childhood: dramatic play, wordplay, ritual play, symbolic play, games, jokes and imaginary friends. And it is the kind of play that positively screams out for hyperbole when outsiders try to describe it.

At the same time as the recognition of the possible value of play grows, we live in an era where parents are pushing to give their child every advantage they can. In fact, it can probably be stated without hesitation that today's American parents care more about their childrens' success than ever before. Many claim that via the right developmental aids you can help give your child an advantage. And often, this 'pushing' comes at the cost of time spent playing. In a fantastic article, from which I took the title to this post, the Boston Globe reported on the overwhelming trend to provide your child with infant academic assistance. They state,

This desire on the part of many middle-class and affluent parents to help their kids get ahead is understandable. We've all heard the predictions about how, in the downsized and outsourced economy of tomorrow, our children may be the first generation of Americans to be worse off than their parents. Into this vat of anxiety, two forces have been poured that are turning up the heat even more. First, advances in brain research have offered tantalizing clues about the magic at work in our infants' gray matter. Second, market forces have exploited these tantalizing clues and used them to sell billions of dollars' worth of educational toys and programs, often by making claims wildly beyond the conclusions drawn by the scientists who did the actual research.

They go on to talk about the (sometimes subconscious) competition between moms of babies and preschoolers as they compare the advancements of their children. They note, however, that sometimes what seems worth bragging about may not be such:

Spend enough time in suburban preschools these days, and you're bound to hear one parent or another uttering a boast masquerading as a complaint about how they just can't keep the books coming fast enough for their precocious 3- or 4-year-old reader. Odds are, there's probably no reason to boast. Researchers who've been marinating in reading studies for years say a tiny percentage of children - maybe 3 percent, maybe a little more or less - can be classified as truly early readers. These 3- or 4-year-olds understand phonics and context, and they will likely keep up their accelerated reading pace throughout their school years. Bravo to those kids. Reading is the gateway to so much of life's important learning, so a few years more of it can't hurt them.

But most of the other early readers bringing smiles to their parents' faces aren't really reading at all. They're demonstrating merely that they've memorized lots of words by sight. Instead of understanding the discrete sounds and segments that make up the word CAT, and understanding that each letter in the word has both its own name and its own sound or group of sounds, these children - like our early ancestors - see it as just a whole symbol for the furry feline. Change the first letter to E, and they might still think feline, until they memorize the new word. Studies have demonstrated that the early reading advances these kids show typically wash out a few years down the line.

They continue,

A classic study in the 1930s by noted researcher and Illinois educator Carleton Washburne compared the trajectories of children who had begun reading at several ages, up to 7. Washburne concluded that, in general, a child could best learn to read beginning around the age of 6. By middle school, he found no appreciable difference in reading levels between the kids who had started young versus the kids who had started later, except the earlier readers appeared to be less motivated and less excited about reading. More recent research also raises doubt about the push for early readers. A cross-cultural study of European children published in 2003 in the British Journal of Psychology found those taught to read at age 5 had more reading problems than those who were taught at age 7.

Interestingly enough, I can possibly attest to this. As a kindergartener, I went to an elementary school that needless to say was not academically advanced. It actually ended up being one of the reasons my parents decided to move to another town. So I didn't learn to read my kindergarten year. That said, my parents were content to let me advance at my own rate. They didn't push me to read at home and entering the first grade at a new school, I didn't know how. I just wasn't that interested in learning yet. That changed the first day of school when I realized that all my classmates at the new school knew how to read. Literally, according to my parents, I learned to read in a few weeks. I was not going to let myself be behind these other kids, and that was all the motivation I needed. Those who know me can probably attest to the motivation that competition can be for me. I didn't turn back and quickly came to absolutely love reading. A love of reading that endures to this day. I devoured books throughout my youth, and continue to, as much as time now allows.

Did I love reading more because I wasn't pushed to learn and possibly learned when my brain was more optimally ready? I don't know, but I know I wouldn't change it.

They conclude the article, which appropriately enough was subtitled "How the push for infant academics may actually be a waste of time - or worse," by noting,

This doesn't mean that early exposure to learning isn't important for kids. It is vitally important. It should just be the right kind of learning, and the right kind of exposure. Study after study shows the best thing parents can do for their children is give them a nurturing, rich, vibrant environment, reading to them often and exposing them to lots of language in organic ways...

[But] fact, ...this heightened push for early learning might even slow down normal brain development through a phenomenon known as neurological "crowding," where information jams up the synapses in the brain that might best be reserved for more creative tasks in later years. Remember that in his early years, Einstein was considered just an average student.

All of this brings us back to that surprising brain study giving late bloomers cause for celebration. Researchers from the National Institutes of Mental Health performed periodic MRI brain scans on children and teens ranging in age from 5 to 19, tracking the relationship between the thickness of the brain's outer mantle, or cortex, with the subject's IQ. They found that the people whose IQ scores put them in the "superior intelligence" category had cortexes that matured much later than those of average intelligence. The cortexes of the smartest kids peaked by around age 11 or 12, whereas the average kids' peaked by around age 8. Jay Giedd, one of the lead researchers, says he and his colleagues were initially taken aback by the findings, but with more reflection they realized they made all kinds of sense. "By having this peak period of plasticity later," he says, "the brain is adapting to the 12-year-old world, which is more complicated, more similar to the adult world, than the 8-year-old world."

The idea is, patience pays off.

So, in an era where children are pushed more than ever to develop academically and athletically, it just may be that these efforts are backfiring. And ironically, these pushes may be stealing time from what a child may truly need. NPR summarizes,

It seems that in the rush to give children every advantage — to protect them, to stimulate them, to enrich them — our culture has unwittingly compromised one of the activities that helped children most. All that wasted time was not such a waste after all.


Chairman said...

Westy - look at some of the stuff by Sternberg, particularly the books, which are more accessible than the academic articles. He does work on thinking styles. Creating an environment that utilizes the styles that people prefer is very helpful.

As far as kids go, the other thing that you have to consider is that part of the bell curve you're really getting at. The stuff that they're saying isn't looking at the stuff at the very far right end. What they're getting at is the pretty smart folks, not the true geniuses (the folks who are 1 in 100, not the folks who are 1 in a billion), or the savants.

For the rare cases that are the outliers, you see that doing structured things as a young child can be very helpful. But, often that same treatment is harmful in the long run for people who are merely very good, since they may get bored of what they're doing, or worse, frustrated that they aren't as good as the "should" be. Think of Tiger Woods or Andre Agassi playing golf and tennis when they're 3. Those guys are the 1 in a billion case. They had a gift that needed to be nurtured when they were 3, and they kept growing. If you put me on a tennis court at age 3, I'd get good early, but once I hit my plateau at age 15, and realized that you can only do so much at 5'11" and this body structure, then I'd be left without much else (many stories of flameouts of teen prodigies - we'll see where Michelle Wie ends up)

A huge problem is that parents think their kids are smarter than they actually are. This likely stems from the fact that parents think that they, themselves, are smarter than they actually are.

clauff said...

I would leave a comment, but I don't have the attention span to get through the whole post :)

Westy said...

A huge problem is that parents think their kids are smarter than they actually are. This likely stems from the fact that parents think that they, themselves, are smarter than they actually are.

Herein lies the problem, I do think.