A Smarter Beginning 

Parents of struggling middle-schooler: “Should we let her fail?”

January 31, 2016 | Blog | Permalink

This article by Meghan Leahy appeared in The Washington Post on January 13, 2016.

By Meghan Leahy January 13
Q. How can I help my seventh-grader be more responsible about her schoolwork? She is struggling in school but doesn’t help herself by seeking out what she needs to know, and low grades don’t seem to bother her. I’m getting a vibe from teachers that middle school is all about parents backing off and students taking the lead. But on her own, our daughter is disorganized, unfocused and ambivalent about the results of this behavior. Should we let her fail? (And by fail, I don’t mean an assignment . . . I mean FAIL fail, because that is a very real possibility at this point.)

A. There are a couple of key facts I am missing here. No. 1, I don’t know if this is a new phenomenon or if this has been going on a number of years. Second, I am guessing, since you don’t mention it, that she doesn’t have any known disabilities or diagnoses. Suffice it to say, before you do anything, make sure she has a thorough checkup. Are her eyes and ears okay? Is she physically ship-shape? Next, be sure she is doesn’t have any undiagnosed learning disabilities. So many “failing” children are seen as disorganized and unfocused, when really they are truly doing their absolute best to stay afloat.

And even if this is a new problem, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a disability or attention disorder underfoot. Some children scrape and fight through for quite a long while, creating elaborate coping strategies. And then they hit a wall.

 Seventh grade is also the year that many young women get their periods, wreaking hormonal and emotional havoc. I am wondering whether she is experiencing some physical and emotional changes that are feeling scary and big to her.

I also don’t know what “struggling in school” means. It is pretty well known that American children are dealing with unneeded homework stress, and the country and educational system don’t really understand what homework does or doesn’t do (and we stick with what we know, effective or not). So, as we shuffle along, our children are developing some serious anxiety and depression problems.

 On to your biggest parenting question: “Should we let her fail?” I have been writing long enough now to know that this is going to make people angry, but here goes: It depends.

You can find studies to support the importance of failure. (I have given a couple of talks on it myself.) You can find others about the damage that failure can inflict on children. I suggest skipping these articles and figuring out your own daughter.

If we remove the reductionist nature of grades and schoolwork, what is the real problem here? Why doesn’t your daughter care about her schoolwork? There is nothing you can do until you answer this question. And I get it. That is completely maddening. Nothing would make me happier than giving you some pat, easy 1-2-3 answer.

In lieu of that, here are some questions that I always wonder when a child appears to not care about her work:

 •Have you hassled, nagged, helicoptered, bothered, sat directly next to her, forced, bribed or punished her throughout her academic career? If the answer is a moderate to strong “yes,” you may have raised a child who is dependent on you to organize herself, complete her work, find her motivation. Essentially, the natural developmental drive to complete tasks has been stifled. You have a 5-year-old in a 12-year-old’s body. And if you read this and go into some kind of guilt trip or panic, let me assure you that you are not alone. Well-meaning teachers are expected to assign kindergarten students homework well before it is developmentally appropriate. This requires parents to sit next to their children and begin the cajoling and mentoring and, essentially, tutoring. One year turns to two turns to three, and poof! You’ve got a bad habit. Trust me, I have yet to meet a parent who wakes up and says, “How can I undermine my child’s learning today?” But parental over-involvement in homework handicaps children.

•You haven’t helicoptered (that’s a verb now, huh?) her work, but have you gone out of your way to prevent her from experiencing the consequences of her work (or lack thereof)? Have you run every forgotten assignment to her at school? Have you packed her backpack every morning? Have you written excuses to the teachers when they were not warranted? If so, you have not allowed your daughter to struggle, find a solution, give up, seek help at school or feel the sting of failure or the joy of success. If you leave her to her own devices now, she doesn’t have any devices. She doesn’t have any experience, self-esteem or resilience to rely upon when the going gets tough.

•How is failure viewed in your home? Have you let her know that you will support her, love her, accept her no matter what? Have you let her know that her homework is but one small aspect of her life? Is the message that failure is dire? (It is not). If failure is avoided and feared in a family, the children will either become perfectionists and anxious, or they will withdraw completely. Abdicate. Failure is so uncomfortable, it cannot be faced. What if the parents didn’t worry about failure? What if you said to her, “Hey, no matter what, I believe in you and I love you. If you fail, then we learn what needs to happen. We have your back. We are all in this together.” What if failure were welcomed?

•Is this child in danger? Depressed? Being bullied? Feeling unsafe at home or in school? So many of the behaviors of tweens and teens don’t clearly point to the actual problem. This necessitates that we become strong and compassionate listeners. We want to know about her interior world and how she is coping and maturing.

•Will this failure push her into a place of anger and deeper depression? Will she feel abandoned? Will this failure lead to a deep fracture in your relationship with her?

I hope that these questions lead you to a place of deeper understanding, whether that understanding is about yourself, your child or your entire family. I cannot answer your real question: “Should we let her fail?”

Try changing the question to “What is this scenario really about? How can I best understand, support and love my daughter in this scenario?”

Keep it simple, keep it kind and keep it easy (or as easy as you can).

Not Just Scribbles: How Tots Start Learning Text is Symbolic

January 23, 2016 | Blog | Permalink

Posted: Saturday, January 9, 2016 5:41 am | Updated: 5:41 am, Sat Jan 9, 2016.


This article by Lauran Neergaard and the accompanying photo appeared in the Post-Bulletin at www.postbulletin.com on January 9, 2016.

5690f1e89c51e.imageWASHINGTON — Celebrate your child’s scribbles. A novel experiment shows that even before learning their ABCs, youngsters start to recognize that a written word symbolizes language in a way a drawing doesn’t — a developmental step on the path to reading.

Researchers used a puppet, line drawings and simple vocabulary to find that children as young as 3 are beginning to grasp that nuanced concept.

“Children at this very early age really know a lot more than we had previously thought,” said developmental psychologist Rebecca Treiman of Washington University at St. Louis, who co-authored the study.

Wednesday’s report, being published in the journal Child Development, suggests an additional way to consider reading readiness, beyond the emphasis on phonetics or being able to point out an “A” in the alphabet chart.

Appreciating that writing is “something that stands for something else, it actually is a vehicle for language — that’s pretty powerful stuff,” said Temple University psychology professor Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a specialist in literacy development who wasn’t involved in the new work.

As for tots’ own scribbling, what they call a family portrait may look like a bunch of grapes but “those squiggles, that ability to use lines to represent something bigger, to represent something deeper than what is on that page, is the great open door into the world of symbolic thought,” Hirsh-Pasek said.

The idea: At some point, children learn that a squiggle on a page represents something, and then that the squiggle we call text has a more specific meaning than what we call a drawing. “Dog,” for example, should be read the same way each time, while a canine drawing might appropriately be labeled a dog, or a puppy, or even their pet Rover.

Treiman and colleagues tested 114 preschoolers, 3- to 5-year-olds who hadn’t received any formal instruction in reading or writing. Some youngsters were shown words such as dog, cat or doll, sometimes in cursive to rule out guessing if kids recognized a letter. Other children were shown simple drawings of those objects. Researchers would say what the word or drawing portrayed. Then they’d bring out a puppet and ask the child if they thought the puppet knew what the words or drawings were.

If the puppet indicated the word “doll” was “baby” or “dog” was “puppy,” many children said the puppet was mistaken. But they more often accepted synonyms for the drawings, showing they were starting to make a distinction between text and drawing, Treiman said.

One question is whether children who undergo that developmental step at a later age — say, 5 or 6 instead of 3 or 4 — might lag on pre-literacy skills. That’s not clear, cautioned Brett Miller, an early learning specialist at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which helped fund the research.

Scientists have long known that reading to very young children helps form the foundation for them to later learn to read, by introducing vocabulary, rhyming, and different speech sounds.

But it’s important to include other activities that bring in writing, too, Treiman said. Look closely at a tot’s scribbles. A child might say, “I’m writing my name,” and eventually the crayon scribble can become smaller and closer to the line than the larger scrawl that the tot proclaims is a picture of a flower or mom, she said.

Previous studies have shown it’s helpful to run a finger under the text when reading to a youngster, because otherwise kids pay more attention to the pictures, Miller said. If the words aren’t pointed out, “they get less exposure to looking at text, and less opportunity to learn that sort of relationship — that text is meaningful and text relates to sound,” he said.

Make sure children see you that you write for a purpose, maybe by having them tell you a story and watch you write it out, adds Hirsh-Pasek. “That’s much richer than just learning what a B or a P is.”

Electronic Baby Toys Associated with Decrease in Quality and Quantity of Language in Infants

January 19, 2016 | Blog | Permalink

This article is from Neuroscience News, December 31, 2015.

Electronic toys for infants that produce lights, words and songs were associated with decreased quantity and quality of language compared to playing with books or traditional toys such as a wooden puzzle, a shape-sorter and a set of rubber blocks, according to an article published online by JAMA Pediatrics.

Image shows a baby playing with toys.

The reality for many families of young children is that opportunities for direct parent-child play time is limited because of financial, work, and other familial factors. Optimizing the quality of limited parent-child play time is important.

Anna V. Sosa, Ph.D., of Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, and colleagues conducted a controlled experiment involving 26 parent-infant pairs with children who were 10 to 16 months old. Researchers did not directly observe parent-infant play time because it was conducted in participants’ homes. Audio recording equipment was used to pick up sound. Participants were given three sets of toys: electronic toys (a baby laptop, a talking farm and a baby cell phone); traditional toys (chunky wooden puzzle, shape-sorter and rubber blocks with pictures); and five board books with farm animal, shape or color themes.

While playing with electronic toys there were fewer adult words used, fewer conversational turns with verbal back-and-forth, fewer parental responses and less production of content-specific words than when playing with traditional toys or books. Children also vocalized less while playing with electronic toys than with books, according to the results.

Results also indicate that parents produced fewer words during play with traditional toys than while playing with books with infants. Parents also used less content-specific words when playing with traditional toys with their infants than when playing with books.

The authors note results showed the largest and most consistent differences between electronic toys and books, followed by electronic toys and traditional toys.

The study has important limitations, including its small sample size and the similarity of the participants by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

“These results provide a basis for discouraging the purchase of electronic toys that are promoted as educational and are often quite expensive. These results add to the large body of evidence supporting the potential benefits of book reading with very young children. They also expand on this by demonstrating that play with traditional toys may result in communicative interactions that are as rich as those that occur during book reading. … However, if the emphasis is on activities that promote a rich communicative interaction between parents and infants, both play with traditional toys and book reading can be promoted as language-facilitating activities while play with electronic toys should be discouraged,” the study concludes.


Editorial: Keeping Children’s Attention

“Electronic toys that make noises or light up are extremely effective at commanding children’s attention by activating their orienting reflex. This primitive reflex compels the mind to focus on novel visual or auditory stimuli. The study by Sosa in this issue of JAMA Pediatrics suggests that they may do more than just command children’s attention; they appear to reduce parent-child verbal interactions. Why does this matter? Conversational turns during play do more than teach children language. They lay the groundwork for literacy skills, teach role-playing, give parents a window into their child’s developmental stage and struggles, and teach social skills such as turn-taking and accepting others’ leads. Verbal interactions of course are only part of the story. What is missing from this study is a sense of how nonverbal interactions, which are also an important source of social and emotional skills, varied by toy type,” write Jenny S. Radesky, M.D., of the University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor, and Dimitri A. Christakis, M.D., M.P.H., of Seattle Children’s Hospital and a JAMA Pediatrics associate editor, in a related editorial.

“Any digital enhancement should serve a clear purpose to engage the child not only with the toy/app, but also transfer that engagement to others and the world around them to make what they learned meaningful and generalizable. Digital features have enormous potential to engage children in play – particularly children with a higher sensory threshold – but it is important the child not get stuck in the toy/app’s closed loop to the exclusion of real-world engagement. Bells and whistles may sell toys, but they also can detract value,” they conclude.

Funding: This study was funded by a research grant from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation.

Source: JAMA Network
Image Source: The image is in the public domain
Original Research: Abstract for “Association of the Type of Toy Used During Play With the Quantity and Quality of Parent-Infant Communication” by Anna V. Sosa, PhD in JAMA Pediatrics. Published online December 23 2015 doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.3753


Association of the Type of Toy Used During Play With the Quantity and Quality of Parent-Infant Communication

Importance The early language environment of a child influences language outcome, which in turn affects reading and academic success. It is unknown which types of everyday activities promote the best language environment for children.

Objective To investigate whether the type of toy used during play is associated with the parent-infant communicative interaction.

Design, Setting, and Participants Controlled experiment in a natural environment of parent-infant communication during play with 3 different toy sets. Participant recruitment and data collection were conducted between February 1, 2013, and June 30, 2014. The volunteer sample included 26 parent-infant (aged 10-16 months) dyads.

Exposures Fifteen-minute in-home parent-infant play sessions with electronic toys, traditional toys, and books.

Main Outcomes and Measures Numbers of adult words, child vocalizations, conversational turns, parent verbal responses to child utterances, and words produced by parents in 3 different semantic categories (content-specific words) per minute during play sessions.

Results Among the 26 parent-infant dyads, toy type was associated with all outcome measures. During play with electronic toys, there were fewer adult words (mean, 39.62; 95% CI, 33.36-45.65), fewer conversational turns (mean, 1.64; 95% CI, 1.12-2.19), fewer parental responses (mean, 1.31; 95% CI, 0.87-1.77), and fewer productions of content-specific words (mean, 1.89; 95% CI, 1.49-2.35) than during play with traditional toys or books. Children vocalized less during play with electronic toys (mean per minute, 2.9; 95% CI, 2.16-3.69) than during play with books (mean per minute, 3.91; 95% CI, 3.09-4.68). Parents produced fewer words during play with traditional toys (mean per minute, 55.56; 95% CI, 46.49-64.17) than during play with books (mean per minute, 66.89; 95% CI, 59.93-74.19) and use of content-specific words was lower during play with traditional toys (mean per minute, 4.09; 95% CI, 3.26-4.99) than during play with books (mean per minute, 6.96; 95% CI, 6.07-7.97).

Conclusions and Relevance Play with electronic toys is associated with decreased quantity and quality of language input compared with play with books or traditional toys. To promote early language development, play with electronic toys should be discouraged. Traditional toys may be a valuable alternative for parent-infant play time if book reading is not a preferred activity.

“Association of the Type of Toy Used During Play With the Quantity and Quality of Parent-Infant Communication” by Anna V. Sosa, PhD in JAMA Pediatrics. Published online December 23 2015 doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.3753

Why Johnny Can’t Name His Colors

January 8, 2016 | Blog | Permalink

This article by Melody Dye about young children learning the names of colors appeared in Scientific American on July 13, 2010.



No, the kid’s probably not color blind. A trick for teaching children colors at a younger age–and why it is otherwise so hard for them.


Subject 046M, for male, was seated nervously across from me at the table, his hands clasped tightly together in his lap. He appeared to have caught an incurable case of the squirms. I resisted the urge to laugh, and leaned forward, whispering conspiratorially. “Today, we’re going to play a game with Mr. Moo” —I produced an inviting plush cow from behind my back. “Can you say hi to Mr. Moo?”

In the Stanford lab I work in with Professor Michael Ramscar, we study how children go about what is arguably the most vital project in their career as aspiring adults—learning language. Over the last several years, we’ve been particularly taken with the question of how kids learn a small, but telling piece of that vast complex: color words. We want to know how much they know, when they know it, and whether we can help them get there faster.

046M was off to a good start. I arranged three different color swatches in front of him. “Can you show me the red one?” He paused slightly, then pointed to the middle rectangle: red . “Very good!” I said, beaming. “Now, what about the one that’s blue?”

The test was not designed to trip kids up. Far from it—we only tested basic color words, and we never made kids pick between confusable shades, like red and pink. To an adult, the test would be laughably easy. Yet, after several months of testing two-year olds, I could count my high scorers on one hand. Most would fail the test outright. 046M, despite his promising start, proved no exception.

Before the test would begin, the child’s parents were told that today we would be testing color words. Responses were typically enthusiastic. “Oh, that’s great! Margie’s got her colors down pat.” At which point, we leveled with them: if they wanted to sit through the study, they would have to be blindfolded. Such measures may seem extreme—but then again, so were the reactions we got from parents during the pilot study, as they watched their little ones fail to pick out the right color, over and over again. The reactions ran the short line from shocked to terrified, and back again. Some parents were so dismayed they started impatiently correcting their children mid-test. One mother, in particular, couldn’t seem to stop herself, and took to nervously grabbing her little boy’s hand whenever it veered away from the correct choice.

Then, inevitably, would come the post-test breakdown: “Is my child colorblind?”

Divorced from context, most two and three-year olds might as well be colorblind; certainly they look that way when asked to correctly identify colors in a line-up, or accurately use color words in novel contexts. What’s more, psychologists have found that even after hours and hours of repeated training on color words, children’s performance typically fails to noticeably improve, and children as old as six continue to make major color naming errors. This is seriously bizarre when you consider all the otherthings that children at that age can do: ride a bike, tie their shoes, read the comics, and – mistake a blue cupcake for a pink one? Really? Does that actually happen? Apparently yes – which is where 046M, and his color-naming compatriots came in. Armed with the tools of cognitive psychology, and a gang of nineteen year-old Nancy Drews (“research assistants”), we decided it was high time to figure out 1) why it takes so long for children to learn colors, of all things, and 2) whether we couldn’t shortcut the process.

As ever, just because something seems easy, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. For one thing, knowing which range of hues counts as which color is something that can’t be purely innate, since color categories are not universal across human cultures. Different languages vary both in the number of basic color distinctions they make (ranging anywhere from two to over twenty) and in the ways they draw those distinctions on the spectrum. Comparing how Himba speakers and English speakers distinguish colors on a map is a bit like comparing how Democrats and Republicans might gerrymander the same district: there’s just not much overlap. In Himba, a northern Namibian dialect, the color “zoozu,” cuts straight across what we would think of as black, green, blue and purple, while “serandu” encompasses much of pink, purple and red. Even in languages with highly similar color vocabularies, a given color won’t necessarily pick out the exact same set of hues in one language as it does in the other (check out Korean and Russian for starters).

What all this means is that the learning problem consists in not only learning a word to color mapping, but also in learning the peculiar color “maps” your language uses in the first place. The task is further complicated by the fact that color is ubiquitous in everyday life. At any given time, we are surrounded by a multitude of hues, as we move through a world of faces and places, objects and surroundings. This overwhelming ubiquity is not a feature of other common words, such as nouns. Imagine, for example, that a child is trying to learn to distinguish “dog” from “bear.” The learning problem isn’t so difficult in this case: unless you’re watching Old Yeller, dogs will tend to be seen and talked about in contexts in which bears aren’t present, and bears will tend to be seen and talked about in contexts in which dogs aren’t present. This means that if you’re three, and you’re trying to learn what things out there in the world you might expect to match to the word “dog,” you’ll fast learn that bears aren’t one of them.

We can contrast this with the problem of learning color words. Whenever a three-year old hears “red,” it can be virtually guaranteed that there will be a whole bunch of other colors around just to make things confusing (writing this, I can make out at least a half dozen colors on my colleague’s shirt). This means that the sheer ubiquity of color presents a problem: it makes sorting out which hues a toddler should expect to be “red” and which “orange,” a lot harder than figuring out which furry beasts she should expect to be “bears” and which ones “dogs.” This may explain why children, across every language studied, invariably learn their nouns before their colors. As it happens, English color words may be especially difficult to learn, because in English we throw in a curve ball: we like to use color words “prenominally,” meaning before nouns. So, we’ll often say things like “the red balloon,” instead of using the postnominal construction, “the balloon is red.”

Why does this matter? It has to do with how attention works. In conversation, people have to track what’s being talked about, and they often do this visually. This is particularly so if they’re trying to make sense of whatever it is someone is going on about. Indeed, should I start blathering about “the old mumpsimus in the corner” you’re apt to begin discretely looking around for the mystery person or object.

Kids do the exact same thing, only more avidly, because they have much, much more to learn about. That means that when you stick the noun before the color word, you can successfully narrow their focus to whatever it is you’re talking about before you hit them with the color. Say “the balloon is red,” for example, and you will have helped to narrow “red-ness” to being an attribute of the balloon, and not some general property of the world at large. This helps kids discern what about the balloon makes it red.

But, you might wonder, won’t a kid figure out that the red in “the red balloon” has to do with the balloon? How is this different? There’s a lot of theory that goes into this, but to give you a rough idea, in the first case (“the balloon is red”), kids learn that “red” is the name of a property, like wet, or sharp, while in the second case (“the red balloon”), kids learn that “red” is more like a proper name, like “Tom” or “Heather.” Think about it this way: knowing someone’s name doesn’t usually tell you that much – it’s just a label that happens to get attached to them – but knowing whether someone is funny or boring, or whether a dish is mild or spicy, tells you a lot. Funny enough, whether kids learn “red” as something like a name or something like a property, depends entirely on how their attention is directed when they hear it.

That was the idea, anyway, and the prediction was simple: using color words after nouns should make colors far easier to learn, and should make kids far faster at learning them. To test this, we took a couple dozen two-year olds and gave them some quick training on color words. Either we trained them with prenominal sentences (the standard variety) or postnominal sentences (helpful, we hoped). In both cases, we would simply show them familiar objects and say encouraging things like “This is a blue crayon” or “This crayon is green.” Then we would test them again, with the same standard battery.

We found that the kids who got the postnominal training improved significantly over their baseline test scores, whereas the ones who got the prenominal training still looked just as confused as ever. Given that previous studies hadn’t found much improvement after hundreds of explicit training trials, it was hard to believe that such a simple manipulation could make such a clear difference—and yet, it did!

Which brings me to the simple, take-home point: if you want to make your two-year old the color-naming talk of the party, watch your tongue. It might seem faster to ask Charlie not to pop “the red balloon,” but if you want him matching colors with aplomb, best rephrase with, “I mean, the balloon that is red.”

image: istock/Dawn Mayfarth

Do Your Children Experience the Joy of Learning at School?

September 5, 2014 | Blog, Uncategorized | Permalink



Or this?

Or this?





We often hear the phrase, “the joy of learning.” We accept that this is an important and worthy goal that educators and parents should have for children. When people enjoy doing something, they do it more and they do it better.So why is it that so many children, when asked whether they like school, say no? Is there a joy of learning in classrooms today?  When there is, what does it look like? What engenders it?

“God Loves a Joyful Teacher”

A recent article entitled, “’God Loves a Joyful Teacher” – and So Do Pupils,”  (www.academicreserchjournals.org/IJARER/PDF%202014/April/Rantala%20et%20al.pdf) examined the connection between teaching and learning, what produces joy in learning situations and how teachers bring this about. They concluded that the two most important components of joy in learning are self-directed learning and teachers’ self-esteem.  “Teachers with poor self-esteem use traditional, teacher-led methods. Teachers with good self-esteem let pupils shine and step aside preferring work methods that support pupils’ activity and self-direction.” They go on to say that self-directed students “regulate and understand their action…and finish their tasks” and while “Not all pupils are equally self-directed…they can learn and develop that feature with the teacher’s guidance.”

They also found that while the joy of learning looks different in different teachers’ classrooms, some common elements are being aware of students’ varying abilities, providing cooperative learning experiences, allowing time to complete tasks, permitting play and giving students the opportunity to experience success. But they stressed that this occurs only in classrooms where teachers have positive self-esteem, where they are optimistic about what they are doing and about what their students are doing, where they believe they can overcome obstacles and where they “favor methods that necessitate abundant interaction” with their students, with parents and with colleagues.

The Joyful Classroom

So what does the joy of learning look like in the classroom? It’s probably a busy, lively place where the children are involved and engaged. In other words, it’s a stimulating environment. It’s a place where children’s natural curiosity is allowed to thrive, where they are comfortable and feel free to explore and play. It’s also a place where there is warmth, kindness and respect, where children feel safe and where there is plenty of fun and smiles. In short, it sends out good vibes and just feels right.

What are your thoughts about what joyful classrooms look like and what produces them?

Photo credit: Cayusa / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Photo credit: horizontal.integration / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


Children’s Sleep Routines: Communicating with Parents

August 23, 2014 | Blog | Permalink

6756197311_fd551a1a93_nIn my last blog article, “With Irregular Bedtimes, Children’s Learning and Behavior Suffer,” August 5th, I reported on two recent studies about the negative impact of poor sleep routines on young children’s learning and behavior. My question was, “What role should you [child care professionals] play in helping parents regarding regular bedtimes for their children?” The comments I received were interesting, informative, and indicative of the importance child care professionals give to sufficient sleep and regular sleep routines for children’s development and well being. I am grouping many of the important ideas received into four categories and sharing them with you.

Suggestions for Sharing Information With Parents

The suggestions from child care professionals about how to inform parents of the importance of regular sleep routines ranged from workshop and meeting topics, to sending home newsletters, notes and relevant articles, to one-on-one discussions.

At workshops and meetings, “We should educate parents, preferably at a group forum, on the importance of sleep…[where] we share its benefits for wellness, alertness, productivity as well as the disadvantages attached to lack of sleep for brain development and brain function” (Bolande Adewole, Founder/Executive Director at The Learning Place).

This implies that parents need to be informed about sleep and sleep routines because they “do not have an understanding of why sleep is important and how much sleep children should be getting.” (Heidi German, Child Care Nurse Consultant)

This information “Needs to be on a graph so parents will ‘get’ a visual picture that will stick in their memory….In parent meetings, perhaps have parents write down their ideas for evening/bedtime routines….Then post ideas and share a few. Could also ask parents to write down their biggest challenge with nighttime routines, then pick a few of those questions and address them in group.” (Tanene Kurtenback, MA, Advocate Early Childhood/Training Management)

Another way to have the parents share their experiences is to “ask them questions pertaining to the topic, for example, ‘What is your bedtime routine like?’ I would try to always be positive….Or I would divide them into groups….provide questions for them to discuss…and ask volunteers to report to the group.” (Leah Davies, M.Ed. Author, Kelley Bear Resources)

There were also suggestions to disseminate information in newsletters or by distributing articles, telling parents that “I read this great article on the importance of bedtimes. I have some copies here if you would like to read it. I would love to know what you think of it” (Barbara Harvey, Parents, Teachers, and Advocator, Executive Director) Also, “Having a simple checklist or notebook for them to track sleeping habits and results might be a helpful tool” (Jenni Clark, Professional Learning Consultant).

Regarding having one-on-one discussions with the parents, “I would…discuss it when registering a child….” (Christine Wood, Educational Consultant, Child Care Health Consultant). Also, “We can talk with parents about the routines we have in our program and ask them to talk about the routines they have at home” (Dr. Donna Hinkle, Founder, Picky Parents).

The Need for Sensitivity in Dealing with Parents

Many of those who commented cautioned that sensitivity towards parents is very important. “I find that if I ask the parent, without sounding accusatory, then it is well received and the parent feels free to open up about what could possibly be going on ay home….I’ve found that broaching the subject with a positive spin (‘Kate is usually such a happy girl, but today she seems a little off Is everything OK?’) most of the time will open the door for a parent to let you know” (Angela King, CEPC at YMCA of Greater Charlotte).

“As always, building a positive relationship with parents is key before approaching potentially difficult topics. Only then do I feel comfortable talking about bedtime routines….I can tell them their child seemed tired, but unless we have that relationship, parents may become defensive….” (Andre Howard, Mentor Teacher/Preschool at University of Rhode Island).

To add to this, “As a teacher it is important not to go accusing but to keep the door open to communicate….There is not one answer to the problem of being a parent, it is so difficult, so the teacher has to speak about the child’s bedtime but also know that most parents try to do their best….Communicate…” (Francoise Walter, Enseignante chez Education Nationale).

And finally, “As an educator and parent, I say first and foremost TREAD lightly…Educate and inform in a non-threatening manner is best…” (Annett Simmons, M.Ed, Academic Consultant Interventional Educator Trainer Neuroscience in the Classroom).

The Importance of Sufficient Sleep and Regular Sleep Routines

Regarding the importance of sleep and sleep routines, there were several interesting comments. “When I work with children who are brought to me for behavior problems I always begin with asking about sleep” (Amber R. Martinez, BA, CD[ICTC], MS).

“Bedtime has a special routine that is consistent night after night. If done constantly babies just naturally learn bedtime and rarely experience problems” (Wanda Wallace, Newborn Care Specialist). And to sum it up, “I always emphasize to parents the importance of a routine before bed so the child gets used to when it’s time for bed….” (Cheryl Reed, Ofsted Registered Childminder at Helping Hands Childminding, Ruislep).

Special Difficulties of Working Parents

The particular needs of working parents were pointed out in several of the comments.  “Acknowledging and supporting the reality of working parents can go a long way toward building positive relationships and opening up conversations about compromise and solutions” (Andre Howard).

Add to this “the chaos of modern life [which] makes it a challenge to be really consistent with naps and bedtimes. Especially for low-income families, where parents are probably working jobs with shifts that change every week, they need understanding and compassion and encouragement to be consistent with bedtimes. I think we often make the assumption that parents are permissive when they are in fact overwhelmed” (Alice Hale, Early Childhood Education Professional).

To Conclude

One of the comments I received effectively provides a conclusion: “In my family childcare, an important part of our job is about providing timely/current and scientifically correct information to parents to support their efforts in raising their children. I discuss what family routines and expectations around sleep are. I pass along resources and make suggestions based on experiences achieved over 25 years working with children and families” (Deborah Arcaro, M.Ed, Teacher ECE/Owner Country Fun Child Care).

To all of you who joined in the discussion about this topic in response to my blog article, thanks a heap. I always look forward to hearing your ideas.

Photo credit: Vee-vee Foter Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)

With Irregular Bedtimes, Children’s Learning and Behavior Suffer

August 5, 2014 | Blog | Permalink

347065933_44ffcb7a9d_nMany people, both parents and educators, may think that irregular bedtimes for children is not an important issue and that it isn’t necessary for young children to go to sleep at a set time. Children’s irregular bedtimes just go with a more relaxed, flexible attitude about child rearing. Yet, two recent studies show that irregular bedtimes have negative effects both on children’s learning and on their behavior. Both studies were conducted by the same group of researchers and included over ten thousand 3, 5 and 7-year old children. These studies show that when children have regular bedtimes, they do much better.

Effects of Irregular Bedtimes on Children’s Learning

The first study examined whether bedtimes in early childhood, namely at 3, 5 and 7 years, are related to cognitive test scores in 7-year olds. To do this, they looked at the test scores of the 7-year olds in reading, math and spatial abilities. While the results of the study varied for girl and boys, the irregular bedtimes having a more significant negative effect on girls than on boys, the researchers were, nevertheless, able to conclude that, “The consistent nature of bedtimes during early childhood is related to cognitive performance. Given the importance of early childhood development, there may be knock on effects for health throughout life.” (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3812865/pdf/jech-s012-202024.pdf)

The researchers explained why they thought they got the results cited above. There were two reasons. First, irregular bedtimes interfere with the body’s circadian rhythms, its internal clock which regulates body rhythms. Disruption of circadian rhythms can have strong negative effects on daily functioning such as work performance. Secondly, irregular bedtimes can result in not getting enough good quality sleep. This, in turn, affects the brain’s ability to learn, to think and to concentrate.

Another interesting conclusion that they were able to draw from the study was that those 7-year olds who went to bed later (after 9 P.M.) had more negative routines in other areas such as skipping breakfast, watching more than 3 hours a day of TV, having a TV in the bedroom and not being read to each day.

The Effects of Irregular Bedtimes on Children’s Behavior

In the second study, the researchers looked at the effects of irregular bedtimes on children’s behavior. This research was designed to investigate whether bedtime schedules are related to behavior problems, whether the effects of bedtime schedules on behavior build up during early childhood and whether irregular bedtimes are related to changes in behavior. (www.pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2013/10/09/peds.2013-1906.abstract?sid=9f9aeb7d-4dcb-44fa-9b6f-3b42eee97e65)

Here again, they found that irregular bedtimes have negative effects. These include hyperactivity, poor conduct, social problems with other children and emotional problems. (Note that children with ADHD and autism spectrum disorder were not included in the study.) The researchers compared the effects of irregular bedtimes to jet lag because the symptoms are similar.

They also reported that betimes among 3 to 5-year olds were the most irregular. For 7-year olds, fifty percent of the children had irregular bedtimes while the others had bedtimes between 7:30 and 8:30 P.M. On the positive side, the behavioral problems were reversed once parents set up regular bedtimes for the children. Those 3 to 5-year olds who had irregular bedtimes showed better behavior at 7 years old if their bedtimes became regular. If their bedtimes remained irregular, their behavior became worse.

The Role of Parents

Certainly there are many reasons why young children don’t have regular bedtimes and sleep schedules. For some parents, this is a difficult challenge. They don’t know how to go about it. Others just don’t think it’s important. In addition, many parents work and when they come home, they want time to be with their kids, so the children’s bedtimes fluctuate. Or the parents are so overwhelmed with things to think about and take care of that it’s not always easy to get the kids to bed at a particular hour, especially if it has become a battle.

But the results of these two studies strongly suggest that regular bedtimes are  important for a child’s physical, emotional and cognitive growth. Parents need to be made more aware of this and helped to implement it.

If you have ideas about this, I would love to hear from you.

Photo credit: LuluP / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)




The Wonders of Puppet Play for a Child’s Development

July 19, 2014 | Blog | Permalink

3326808458_e397fb54f8_nWith so much of the current focus on electronic media for children, the wonders of puppet play are often overlooked. What a shame! Both at home and at school, puppet play offers tremendous benefits for a child’s development. Not surprising considering puppets have been around for about 3,000 years. Yes, they’re old but to last for that long, they must provide something very special to people. “Puppets are both entertaining and captivating.” (www.creativityinstitute.com/puppetsineducation.aspx)  In fact, they’re not only extremely useful as an educational toy that connects play with learning but also in supporting children’s development in several important areas.

Puppet Play Supports Language and Literacy Development When a parent or a teacher uses puppets, stories come to life so that the telling of the story becomes an enriched, fun-filled learning experience that is even more meaningful for children. The puppets can sing, dance, speak in rhyme, touch, laugh, or cry. By capturing children’s attention, they strengthen listening skills and vocabulary development. Puppets are also “a valuable means for promoting oral language skills and confidence in public speaking” (www.earlychildhoodnews.com).  They encourage creative play by stimulating the imagination. Turn the puppets over to the children and let them recite and retell the story or use their imaginations to create a story of their own.

Puppet Play for Social/Behavioral Development In the social/behavioral sphere, the benefits of puppet play are noteworthy. Emotions such as pain, fear, joy, aggression, frustration, shame, anxiety, and problems such as illness or death in the family etc., many of which a child may be reluctant to share, can be expressed through puppet play. “Through puppets, children feel empowered to speak and behave on behalf of the character [puppet]  they are portraying” (www.earlychildhoodnews.com). A child’s sensitive feelings and concerns can be acted out with puppets and this can help attentive parents or teachers better understand what is bothering a child. Sometimes timid, shy or non-assertive children will use puppets to express and work through emotions or problems that are difficult for them to talk about or deal with directly. With puppets, all of a sudden, it becomes easier to communicate. This builds confidence.

Puppet Play for Conflict Resolution In addition, the use of puppets invites role play where a teacher or parent can explore with children issues such as conflict resolution, empathy, how to deal with aggression and bullying from others, how to be kind and helpful, etc. There is a variety of social/behavioral issues that are important for children to learn and that are of concern today where the use of puppets is very useful.

Puppet Play for Thinking Skills When children use puppets to tell stories, a number of cognitive skills come into play. They can retell stories using their memories and sequencing the events. They can also alter the stories, thinking of different endings, additional events, and projecting the characters’ lives and events into the future. And then, there’s the creation of their own stories, further stimulating their creativity and imagination, developing their problem solving skills and their ability to narrate.

Puppet Play for Motor Skills Whether it’s a marionette, a hand puppet or a finger puppet, learning to manipulate the various parts of the puppet requires fine and in some cases gross motor skills. Without a doubt, puppets offer a multitude of learning opportunities and fun for children from the earliest age up through adolescence. And although it hasn’t been discussed here, having children make their own puppets provides additional un and opportunities for creativity. Puppets “help children to be inventive and artistic, and they allow for children’s visions and inspirations to come to life” (www.teachmag/archives/5618).

Do you use puppets with children?  If so, how? I’d love to hear from you.

Photo credit: lindsayshaver / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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Your Child: Creative and Self-Confident

July 4, 2014 | Blog | Permalink

small__4422854500As good parents, we want our children to be happy and confident, to think creatively and to have positive self-esteem. How do we produce this? By focusing on process rather than on product.

How  Can We Encourage Children To Be Creative Thinkers?

1. Let them play and explore freely without being too helpful, hovering or dominating.

2. When they come up with an unusual idea or one that doesn’t fit  into our thinking, don’t judge them negatively. Be open-minded.

3. Allow them the time they need to think and explore all the possibilities. Creative thinking takes time.

4. Don’t focus on their mistakes or on what they produce. Focus on the process, on their effort, on their improvement and progress, on their enthusiasm and on their strengths and assets.

5. Don’t look for perfect results It’s too difficult if not impossible to measure up.

6. Don’t compare them to others.

When we respect children’s ideas and novel solutions, we encourage them to think for themselves, to explore, to risk, to solve problems, to learn, to be self-confident, to invent and create, and to build healthy self-esteem.

Anything you’d like to add? I’d love to hear from you.

photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/archetypefotografie/4422854500/”>Vincent_AF</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>

For Children, the Pressure Is On

July 1, 2014 | Blog | Permalink

small_8514447719The pressure is on – for parents, for teachers, and for schools but the pressure on children does the most damage. Just look at the vocabulary commonly in use today regarding learning. We’re told that children need to be “evaluated” during the early childhood years. Moreover, teachers and schools need to be “evaluated” more than ever. They also have to be “accountable” in producing the “competitive” populace of the future than can take on the world. Parents are expected to put in a day’s work, either outside the home or as stay at home parents (equally demanding) and then, as the day wears on and everyone returns to the nest tired, to don their other hats and start overseeing and helping their children with homework. The result is that parents, educators and children are increasingly stressed as the message, “Not good enough,” continues to ring loud and clear and the pressure mounts to be more productive, to be better.

Children learn early on that they’re expected to get the highest marks. They’re also expected to be terrific athletes, to be assertive, to be popular, to be physically attractive, to live up the all the ideals and to keep working, working, working until they get better and better. That’s right. Most of them aren’t good enough as they are. In fact, when you’re the best, you’re number one. You have to win. For children, the pressure is on.

The problem is not everyone can be number one. Ironically, the competitiveness this breeds — in children who are made to feel they have to get the highest marks, in schools that have to get the highest ratings on student achievement, in teachers who have to teach to the exams used to evaluate, in parents who have to make sure their children receive everything they need in order to excel – this competitiveness does not produce happy, creative, thinking children who become happy creative, thinking adults. And while children are told that they all have to work together, be team players and get along, the competition that is created works against this. After all, when we compete, we compete “against” others.

Process, Not Product

What does produce happy, confident, creative, thinking children with healthy self-esteem? An upbringing and education that focuses on process rather than on product. “Creativity focuses on the process of forming original ideas through exploration and discovery. In children, creativity develops from their experiences in the process, rather than concern for the finished product. Creativity is not about doing something better than others, it is about thinking, exploring, discovery, imagining” (www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=349).

Unfortunately, we seem to be suffering from “right answer fixation” (Treffinger, Donald J. “Creative Problem-Solving for Teacherts.” Lecture, Radford, VA, April 1984). This leads to conformity rather than to original responses as the children crave approval for giving the commonly accepted right answers rather than an original, creative response. This approval, given in various ways, is a reward and “Rewards…seem to reduce the quality of children’s responses and the flexibility of their thought” (www.education.com/reference/article/Ref_Creativity_Young/?page=2).  Rewards, incentives and overly structured materials inhibit creativity and the flexibility of thought on which it depends. They also discourage students who don’t respond well to rewards and who become unmotivated. Many of these unmotivated students are quite talented. What happens to them? Often their talents go undeveloped.

Creativity is a kind of special problem solving where new connections need to be made, where ideas need to be examined and worked with, where the usually accepted answers don’t work. Children need to be encouraged to pursue ideas and to accept challenges where they may fail but where they are free to search and seek and there is an excitement in trying.

What this means is that if parents and educators want children to think creatively, they have to remove the risk of negative feedback for giving wrong answers. They have to accept different, unusual ideas without evaluating them and without criticizing them. Children have to be free to come up with new ideas. In other words, the focus should be on the process rather than on the product.

Is the computer the answer for our children? Before attempting to answer that, we should ask: “Is the computer the source of endless creativity? Is it the new process? Or is the computer a tool best used as part of the process?”

How Can We Encourage Children To Be Creative Thinkers?

What do we do to try to get children to be as creative as they can be?

  1. Let them play and explore freely without being too helpful, hovering or dominating.
  2. When they come up with an unusual idea or one that doesn’t fit into your thinking, don’t judge them negatively. Be open-minded.
  3. Allow them the time they need to think and explore all the possibilities. Creative thinking takes time.
  4. Don’t focus on their mistakes or on what they produce. Focus on the process, on their effort, on their improvement and progress, on their enthusiasm and on their strengths and assets.
  5. Don’t look for perfect results. It’s too difficult if not impossible to measure up.
  6. Don’t compare them to others.

When we respect children’s ideas and novel solutions, we encourage them to think for themselves, to explore, to risk, to solve problems, to learn, to be self-confident, to invent and create, and to build healthy self-esteem.

Any comments? I’d love to hear from you.

photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/ap-photographie/8514447719/”>AP Photographie </a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a>