Monthly Archives: January 2011

He Said, She Said

Parents seem to talk constantly.  Yesterday, I was in a relatively full elevator in very tall building with a mom and her approximately 15-month-old daughter.  The mom talked to the daughter the entire trip up the elevator.

Mom: “Is the door closing?”

Daughter: “Yeah.”

Mom: “That lady has a pretty hat, doesn’t she”

Daughter: “Yeah. Hat.”

Mom: “Do you want a hat like that?”

Daughter: “Yeah.”

Mom: “The elevator is going up, up, up.”

Daughter: “Yeah. Up.”

Mom: “The door is opening”

Daughter: “Yeah.”

Mom: “Time to get out”

Daughter: “Yeah.  Out.”

Many parents begin talking to their children before they are even born and they just keep right on talking… forever! And while many teenagers think that their parents talk entirely too much, all of this talking is actually very good for development.

According to Lev Vygotsky- a psychologist from the early 1900’s- social interaction and scaffolding are particularly important for children’s cognitive development.  Vygotsky is probably best known for two terms “zone of proximal development” and “scaffolding”.    According to Vygotsky, the “zone of proximal development” is a period in which a child can almost but not completely perform a task independently. But with the help of someone more advanced or knowledgable, like a parent, the child can complete the task.  For example, the little girl on the elevator was just learning to speak.  She clearly had a few words and she was beginning to engage in conversation with her mom.  Her mother was clearly working within her child’s zone of proximal development by asking her questions using words that the child knew and some words that the child could say or repeat, like “hat”, “up” and “out”.  The little girls’ mother was scaffolding her daughters language learning.  Like the scaffolding that is used to help workers to reach higher up when they build a building, this mother was supporting the child’s learning by prompting her with questions that had answers that she knew the child had the words to answer but that were slightly challenging and helped her daughter grow and continue to practice and develop her language.

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Research is fun… for the kids.

I read email messages, Facebook status updates, Tweets, magazines, texts, and newspapers daily that are full of fun ideas of activities to do with your children.  This week Chicago Parent posted a free museum to go to everyday this week; the Boston Central provides a calendar of fun events including Drop-in Art Workshops, TimeOut New York Kids offers a Guide to Winter Fun.  It’s amazing that with all of these fun and free ideas of activities and things to do that none of these sites ever suggest participating in research.

OK, I know that for most parents that sentence sounds crazy. Fun activities are going to the aquarium, seeing a Justin Beiber concert, building a sandcastle at the beach. I know participating in research sounds like something that you do when you are horribly sick and the current medicine isn’t working. Yes, that is one kind of research and most likely that isn’t fun or something anyone would choose to do on their free Saturday morning. The good news is there are a LOT of other fun ways to participate in research and I promise they really are fun for kids and parents!

Honestly, most research studies for kids are really fun for the kids and the parents learn a lot too.  As a researcher myself, I will admit that I have (on more than a few occasions) encouraged my parent-friends to participate in studies for primarily selfish reasons (someone’s kids had to be in my dissertation!). But, every time I have introduced my parent-friends to research they have loved it!  Parents almost always leave saying “wow that was fun!” or “it was so cool to see him do that, I had no idea my son was able to do that!”.  And the kids really do have fun (especially when the leave with a new fun toy or book, which some studies offer as a gift for participating).  There are times when we have gotten emails weeks and months after a child participates from a parent who wants us to know that her child keeps asking when they can come back and play more games (aka be in a study) with us.

Now how do you find fun studies for your kids to participate in?  Universities are a great place to look. Many child development labs are in psychology departments but you can also find research projects in the medical schools, schools of communication, education departments, human development departments, etc.  Here are some links to great labs around the country that are doing really cool research with kids!  Honestly, this is a great activity for a cold winter day (or any day)!

Amherst, MA

University of Massachusetts, Amherst Child Study Center

Boston, MA

Boston University Child Development Labs; Boston College Child Development Studies; Harvard Laboratory for Developmental Studies

Chicago, IL

University of Chicago: Center for Early Childhood Research; Northwestern University: Project on Child Development; Early Learning Laboratory

Columbus, OH

Otterbein University’s The Children and Media Project

Charlottesville, VA

UVA: Child Study Center

Los Angeles, CA

University of California, Los Angeles: Language and Cognitive Development Lab

Nashville, TN

Vanderbilt: Vanderbilt Early Development Lab

New York,  NY

New York University: NYU Child Study Center; Baby & Child@ NYU

Riverside, CA

University of California, Riverside:Childhood Cognition Lab

Seattle, WA

University of Washington: Institute for Learning and Brian Sciences

Washington, DC

Georgetown Children’s Digital Media CenterGeorgetown Early Learning Project

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K/1 Classrooms

Recently a friend  asked me a great question about Kindergarten/1st grade classrooms (known as K/1’s).  His daughter is in Kindergarten and her school is implementing K/1 classrooms next year- this just means that the classroom is half kindergarteners and half 1st graders.  Apparently some of the parents are worked up about this and he wanted to know what I thought about K/1 classrooms in general.

I should first say that I am extremely passionate about education.  I think our education system generally needs a lot of work and that young children are not getting the opportunities to learn and grow the way they deserve.  I also think that as a society we are starting to overcompensate and push little kids into unnatural learning environments before they are developmentally ready.  I believe play is crucial to learning and I am concerned that American children are being pushed into structured learning classrooms where kids are required to sit at desks for large portions of the day before they are ready and when other learning opportunities can be equally, if not more, effective.

Also,  I should note that I was in a K/1 classroom for both Kindergarten and 1st grade.  I actually had the same teacher for both years, Mrs. Comeau (undoubtably one of the best teachers I ever had) and shockingly enough I remember my K/1 experience extremely well. I remember being in Kindergarten with 1st graders and really loving it.  I remember wanting to be like the “big kids” which pushed me academically to learn to read.   I actually vividly remember when I was in 1st grade there was a Kindergartener (I still remember her name but won’t include it here) who already knew how to read and that made me really competitive to be better than her and to learn to read more than she could.  (For those of you that know me, this could have been the spark that started my competitiveness!)

So with that said, here are my thoughts on K/1 classrooms:

If they are going to split classes, K/1 is the time to do it.  Academically and developmentally putting 5 and 6 year olds together makes sense -especially in co-ed classrooms where girls tend to develop faster than boys.  Both Kindergarten and 1st grade should be years when children are getting used to school and new social situations (even though 60% of children under 6 are in some sort of childcare).  K/1 classrooms can be good for the kindergarteners in that they may push them a little bit more academically. It can also be really good for the 1st graders if it’s a better fit developmentally or if you are feeling like your child still just needs more time to play and be a kid (obviously it’s not dramatically different in terms of this or they wouldn’t do it, but it likely will be slightly less push, push, push academically).

I think there are three things you need to think about when deciding whether a K/1 classroom is the right fit for your child.  Consider where your child is in regard to these three factors  (1) academically, (2) socially, and (3) age/developmentally:

If your child is going to be a 1st grader in a K/1 classroom:
1. Academically.  If she is super smart, already reads easily, and you are truly concerned she might be bored or slowed down by slightly younger kids learning to read etc, you may want to reconsider a K/1. If not, there is a nice benefit of being a “big kid” academically because you can help teach the little ones (or at least think that you are helping) and that can boost academic confidence and as we all know teaching something can actually help you learn it.

2. Socially. Just think about how she is with younger kids in general and how she interacts with her fellow classmates. Kindergarten is a great place to learn social/emotional skills and to develop things like sharing and playing together. Also understanding other people’s perspectives and how other people feel and act. A second year of experience practicing these skills never hurts anyone! In terms of social stuff, if she is sort of a bully or takes advantage when she has the opportunity then you may want to reconsider a K/1 as being a “bigger” kid can lead to opportunities where she can have the upper hand.

3. Age/Developmentally. Is she already young or old for her class? (For example, I was born in January so I was on the older end of my class).  If she is younger, again I think it’s a benefit to do the K/1, if she is already older, you may want to reconsider. And of course, don’t just think about age- if she developmentally (or even physically-if she is bigger) seems older than the other kids or younger, consider that. If she has already mastered things like sharing, sitting still, listening to directions, respecting others feelings and needs and thoughts, then she might be better off in a full 1st grade.

If your child is going to be a Kindergartener in a K/1 classroom:
1. Academically.  If he already knows the alphabet and counting and is comfortable and eager to learn new things, K/1 might be a good choice as it might push him along a little faster.  Also, if he actively enjoys learning and wants to be able to read on his own and doesn’t mind practicing with other kids or on his own, K/1 might be a good option.  If your child is intimidated by other children or practicing and making mistakes in front of other kids, especially “big kids” then K/1 might not be a great option.  If he is getting bored in pre-school and needs to be a little more challenged a K/1 might be a good choice.

2. Socially. Again, think about how he interacts and plays with his classmates and children that are older.  If he is timid or shy and needs more time to warm up or to interact with a group, more time in a more play focused environment might give him more experience with social interaction and social settings.   Kindergarten is a great place to learn social/emotional skills and to develop things like sharing and playing together. Also understanding other people’s perspectives and how other people feel and act. If your child needs more practice with these skills, then a K/1 environment might not be ideal. But if these play and social skills have already been  mastered, learning to share with a bigger child or interacting with a 1st grader might provide a Kindergartener with increased opportunity to learn language and other social skills earlier.

3. Age/Developmentally. Again, is he already young or old for his class?  If he is younger in terms of age, you may want to stay in a full Kindergarten class so the children are closer to his age, size, and developmental level.  if he is already older, you may want to go for a K/1 where he can have the opportunity to play with kids closer to his age. If developmentally he seems younger than the other kids, consider that. Or if he has already mastered things like sharing, sitting still, listening to directions, respecting others feelings and needs and thoughts, then developmentally he may be ready for the K/1 classroom.

In general, I think K/1 classrooms can be extremely beneficial to children in both Kindergarten and 1st grade if it is a good fit.  Like any classroom decision it is important to make sure the teacher is a good fit (both for the child and for the K/1 environment).  Make sure the teacher understands the needs both academically and developmentally of  both kindergarteners and 1st graders.  Finally, really make sure you are making the right decision for your child, not for you.  In general, you want children’s early experiences in school to be positive so that they like going and learn to love learning.  If you push them into something that is not a good fit, your child’s early experiences with school will not be happy and it will make for a very long 13 years of education to get through high school!

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Science: Cause and Correlation

I was planning on holding off on discussing research and science on this blog.  I felt like it was important to make sure people were interested in what I had to say before I risked overwhelming people with the science of stuff. But after today I just couldn’t keep it in any longer!

Given, my background it’s hard for me to not discuss science and research and given that I do scientific research about child development everyday, it definitely plays a role in what I blog about here.  What’s interesting is that many people don’t really think about what scientific research is or how it is conducted when they read findings in their local newspaper or on their favorite websites.  Most people read a finding like, “TV Causes Autism” and think oh great, I better turn my TV off immediately or else my kid is going to get Autism.  Its unusual for people (myself included) to stop and think about exactly what these findings mean as you read them.

It’s easy to fall into just believing findings and not looking into the details of the studies- especially when they are “finding” scary things like cancer or autism or even language delays. But today, I just want to make a push for looking into the details of studies when you see words like “findings” and “causes” and today I “found” the perfect example for why this is important.

If someone was interested in the research I am doing today and wanted to publish it, I can almost guarantee the headline would read “Books Make Babies Taller”.  Yes, today I was running analyses on some data- I was interested in understanding if there were any relationships between media and health outcomes.  I happened to include the variable “baby’s length” in my analyses and to my surprise, I found a shockingly strong correlation (statistically significant, in fact) that the more books the family had the longer (taller) the baby was.  So like I said, this correlation would likely be reported as “Books Make Babies Taller”, implying a cause and effect relationship.  The more books you buy the taller you child will be. Now, this would be great news for me!  I’m 5’3″ so genetically I’m not doing a whole lot to help my future children become NBA basketball starts, but if owning more books causes babies to be taller, well, then my children will be dunking on Shaq! 🙂

Unfortunately for me, my finding was just a correlation and an incredibly odd one at that.  So what is the difference between a correlation and causation and what types of scientific research can determine causation?  How can we really understand the findings that we read about?  Here is a very quick tutorial:

Correlation:  two or more things that vary together.  If one thing increases so does the other.  Examples of things that are frequently correlated: height & weight (when your child grows 3 inches, usually she gains a few pounds too); grades in school and class attendance (as attendance decreases, grades decrease); crime and outside temperatures (crime increases in the summer when temperatures increase).

Causation: when something causes something to happen- a direct impact.

Correlations exist when there is causation but not necessarily the other way around.  Yes, growing in height can cause you to gain weight, and these things are correlated, but gaining weight doesn’t cause you to grow taller (we all know this one from personal experience, especially after the holidays!).

So how does science determine these differences?  Well, you have to scientifically test  to determine causation whereas with correlations you can just look at how things change over time.  If I wanted to determine if TV caused Autism, I would have to take two identical groups of young kids and require that the only difference between the two groups be whether they watch television or not.  Then, if significantly more children in one group were diagnosed with Autism compared to the other group we could say that TV caused Autism.  However, it is extremely difficult to control for  all the factors that may also play a role in Autism.  In the study that was discussed in the article “TV Causes Autism”, the researchers didn’t even attempt to conduct a scientific study like I described. Rather, they looked at correlations.  They asked parents of children  how much Television their children watched and if their child was diagnosed with Autism .  And yes, they found a correlation between Autism and TV- so that means that kids with Autism were more likely to watch TV than kids without Autism.  But that is not causation! Kids with Autism may be soothed by television, or maybe parents of kids with Autism are more stressed and rely on television to calm their child more than parents of children that do not have Autism- this doesn’t mean that watching TV is what caused Autism.

As with my data from today, it could be that tall children like books and therefore their parents by more books, or it could just be a funny statistical anomaly. There are many explanations for correlations and it’s important when you see a correlation to look at the ways in which it can be interpreted and how it was measured!

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“Oh, like Baby Einstein?”

I seem to be travelling a lot these days and whenever I travel I end up meeting people.  Just the other day when I was “travelling” home from work (also known as commuting) a guy was waiting for the train and asked me if I was a graduate student.  I explained that  I finished graduate school and our conversation continued, as it frequently does, with me explaining that I wrote my dissertation on how toddlers learn from media.  “Oh, like Baby Einstein?” the man on the train platform asked.  Yes, like how kids learn from Baby Einstein (but I really looked at how toddlers learn from Elmo).  It’s funny, a version of this conversation has happened with almost every person I have sat next to over the past 5 years.  I’ve been on planes home from Singapore, buses to New York City, ferries to Cape Cod, and even on a motorcycle in Cambodia.  It seems that no matter where I am, when I tell people what I study almost everyone can relate and almost everyone has a question or an anecdote about their kid watching TV or their friend’s kid who doesn’t.  And just about every single person asks a variation of the same question.  “Well, what about ‘baby videos’?  Should I be showing them to my kid?”

This question, and answering it every time, played an active role in my starting this website.  Originally I was thinking of calling this website, “ThingsI’mAskedOnAPlane.com”  And to be honest, I’m sure a lot of what will drive this blog will be based on the great questions that parents, nannies, teachers, researchers, uncles, and grandpas have asked in the past.

So What about baby videos? Well, like almost everything in our lives that we want a “yes/no” answer to, the answer to the question is, “we still are not exactly sure”.  But the good news is we are getting there.  And the short answer is baby videos and media products for babies are probably a lot like cookies – you don’t want to only feed your kids cookies, but a cookie every once in a while is not going to kill them either.

So what do we know?

First, we do know that for preschool-aged children quality educational television, like Sesame Street,  Dora the Explorer, and Blue’s Clues have been associated with positive outcomes for children (both during the preschool years and even through high school!).  This is discussed in Malcolm Galdwell’s book Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference as well as in multiple academic journal articles.

The question that has arisen since the creation of Baby Einstein and Teletubbies in the late 1990’s is: What is the impact of “baby videos” on our babies?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) (yes, this is the group that tells your pediatricians what they should be telling you) recommended about a decade ago  (in 1999) that children under age 2 not watch any screen media and children older than 2 should be limited to 2 hours of screen time a day.  Just this fall the AAP updated their recommendation but  maintained that parents should still try to avoid TV and video viewing for children under 2.

Social Scientists are also very interested in this question and have now conducted dozens of studies in order to understand how/if infants and toddlers can learn from a screen like their preschool-aged siblings. I could write forever about these findings (or I could just upload my dissertation) but I won’t, I’ll keep it as brief as possible.  Early research found that children under age 2 learned better when an adult demonstrated an activity in front of the child in “real-life” than when they saw a video-taped version of the exact same demonstration.  Other studies have found that younger infants (around age 6 months) might actually learn equally well from an adult in real life as from a video, but that as they get older they need to see the video repeatedly in order to learn the task as well as they learn from an adult in real life.    More recent research is beginning to understand what types of factors may help young children learn from video and screen presentations.  Factors like seeing the video repeatedly, slowing down the presentation of the material, making the videos feel like they are interactive (sort of the way that Dora from Dora the Explorer stops and speaks to the audience), and using familiar characters to perform the tasks on the screen (like a mother or Elmo), seem to help young children learn material from a screen.

Unfortunately, most of the research that demonstrates ways in which young kids can learn from screens never makes it to the public.  The newspapers and reporters love to grab on to scary titles about media: “TV Really Might Cause Autism” “It’s Official: TV Linked to Attention Deficit”  Recently Time Magazine came out with a great article discussing the actual study that was reported in the “TV Really Might Cause Autism” article.  Time Magazine discussed that among other problems with the study TV watching was never measured in the study!

So my advice, is to make sure you think twice when you read any news article reporting about a research study.  Ask your pediatrician about media use with your young babies and do some research on your own as well.  There are great scientific and child development resources on the Internet these days that can help you to understand what the science says.  Also, Lisa Guernsey did a lot of the work for parents and came out with a great book called Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Effects Children from Birth to Age Five and summarizes the research that has been done in this area. Finally, remember that sitting with your child and talking about whatever you are doing, whether you are playing with blocks or watching Sesame Street is a good way to help your child get the most out of each and every one of their experiences.

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Sesame Street for Kids and Parents!

Technology is pretty amazing these days.  The other day on the train, I sat behind a mom and her young daughter (about 3.5) listening to music on the mom’s phone (the mom and daughter each had one earphone in their ear) and the little girl was dancing and singing to the music.  Another day, there was a father with his young son on the train and the little boy was playing a puzzle game on his father’s iphone. On a plane I sat next to mother and daughter (her husband and son were in the seats behind us) and she showed me the various games and online books that her Kindergartener likes to play on her iphone as she discussed why she doesn’t allow her children to watch TV.  Kids, even really little ones, are using these new technologies and parents are letting them. There was a very moving article in the New York Time back in October about Toddlers and iPhones.

So if kids love these technologies and parents have them, how can we use some of these technologies in ways that support child development rather than act as distractors or babysitters?  SesameWorkshop has a Parents page that offers wonderful video clips and games that you can watch on your computer or smartphone with your child.  After watching each video model an at home activity around it!

For example,  Sesame Street offers Math is Everywhere

Here, watch this video about patterns “Wiggle Wiggle Hop”.  After, see if together you and your child can create other dance move patterns!

Each of the clips on this site can provide an example (both for you and your child) of a lesson, after you watch or play the games, try to come up with your own creative ways to do something similar in your home!

Sesame Street also offers a Get Ready For School Section with videos about sharing, anger management, sleep, etc.  Also they offer opportunities to help parents explore these concepts by providing ideas about questions to ask your kids after you watch each video.  For example, Care a Lot Share a Lot talks about the importance of sharing.  Sesame Street suggests you watch the video and then ask your child about what things they can share at school.  They also include activities that you can play with your children related to each topic! Great parenting tips!

Sesame Street offers fun activities and videos to help your children develop their literacy skills: See Words Words Words!

Potty Training? Sesame Street offers videos and parenting advice for that too!

Have a two year old? Here are some videos and activities that you could play with them!

Remember, kids learn by playing and experiencing things first hand.  Videos and games online can be a great resource to help give parents ideas about lessons and to give children a bit of information about a new topic, but as a parent you want to expand upon the ideas you get from websites like Sesame Street.  If you watch a video showing The Count counting bats outside, next time you are at a park with your child, remind them of the video and ask them to count the birds they see in a tree or how many slides there are to slide down!

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Practice Babies

Just the other day NPR’s All Things Considered talked about a new book by Lisa Grunwald called The Irresistible Henry House. Her novel, which I’m now dying to read, is about the home economics programs that were offered at colleges in the early 1900’s.  Considering my post  yesterday about the importance of teaching parents to parent, are “Practice Babies” the solution I was looking for?  Should one of the General Education requirement for college be “Practice Parenting”?  You know what, yes, I think it should be.  But, if I was going to offer this class there are a few things I would change from the 1950’s model presented in this NPR article. 🙂

About the article: In the 1950’s there were more than 40 colleges that offered programs where college students learned mothering skills.  Babies from local orphanages would be lent to the school so that students could practice caring for them.  The programs varied by college but basically one mother would be in charge of caring for the baby for a certain period of time (either a few hours or a few days at a time!).  Once that student/mom’s shift, or “class” was over, the baby was handed off to be cared for by the next student. (More details about these “Practice Babies” Programs can be found here; about Cornell’s Practice Apartments and Practice babies, here; Time Magazine 1954 article about Resident Baby, here ).

Well, if I wanted Driver’s Ed for Parenting, these programs are offering just what I wanted- mothering skills classes and “on the road” experience caring for a real baby!!!  Luckily, we are now in the 21st century and instead of loaner babies, parenting classes and practice parenting experiences are now being offered in some high schools with computerized baby dolls (phew!).  At Monroe High School in Monroe, WI, a course is offered called “Baby Think It Over” in which students are given a programmable baby doll to care for.  I think this programs and computerized babies are great first steps in recognizing how hard it is to care for a baby and to get some practice, however, I hope these courses (both the ones in the 1950’s and the ones today) provide students with information about what to expect from your baby as it grows and develops.  How should you talk to a baby? What toys are helpful for cognitive development? What do you do when your baby is crying all night long and can’t seem to be soothed? Is reading your child important and if so why?  Should your baby be watching “Baby videos” like Baby Einstein? Is music good for children? What developmental milestones should  you expect and when should you worry about delays in development?

Maybe Practice Babies are not the way to go, but Practice Parenting could be- but lets take advantage of the digital age and use the computerized babies please!

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