November 20, 2009
In an address to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan pushed to “get schools out of the catch-up business” by preventing the achievement gap that emerges before children ever set foot in school. He reminded his audience:
You have all heard President Obama speak of the need to develop a seamless cradle-to-career educational pipeline. But as the President has pointed out, that pipeline will never work properly unless the road to college begins at birth. (transcript)
Secretary Duncan was cognizant that the achievement gap opens well before children begin school. However, rather than focusing on parents, who wield by far the greatest influence during these early years, he focused instead on early learning programs like Head Start and Early Head Start. The problem with this approach is that it is not prevention, but treatment. That early education is receiving the attention of top policy makers is surely a good thing. The question now is how well they will use their influence.
November 12, 2009
At the fourth African International Conference on Early Childhood Development in Dakar, Senegal researchers convened to consider this finding:
“Early Childhood Development (ECD) has been identified as the number one social economic investment that will enable developing nations to quickly attain sustainable development.”
The leaders who gathered presented the implications of early childhood development for civil society:
“Investing in young children pays off very highly because healthy citizens participate in national development. The quality of services offered to a child between ages 0-8 determines brain development and a strong foundation for the future.”
They note that those whose early development is stunted ”will become unproductive, depressed citizens and a dangerous force for future cyclical social unrest.”
Recognizing the importance of early childhood as the most important social economic investment in critical. The pressing question is whether the ensuing policies will foster a culture of dependence on government programs, or empower citizens and families to nurture healthy development. This will be a critical test of whether these well-intentioned policies will be well-designed and successful.
October 29, 2009
Walt Disney has made headlines in the New York Times by offering a refund to buyers of their Baby Einstein videos. The New York Times estimates that one in three families in the United States owns at least one of these videos, which is one reason that this story is getting so much press.
Of course there will be lots of hype and mud-slinging at a refund being offered for such a prominent popular product. The question, however, should be: What can we learn from Baby Einstein?
Products can’t replace people
The Australian government recently made headlines by calling for no television for children under 2 years old. Their rationale is simple (summarized by The Guardian):
Experts in child development have found that three things optimise brain development:
- face-to-face interaction with parents or carers;
- learning to interact with or manipulate the physical world; and
- creative problem-solving play.
Electronic screens do not provide any of this. At the most basic level, then, time spent watching TV has a displacement effect and stops children spending time on other, more valuable brain-building activities.
One of the most salient lessons from Baby Einstein is that products can’t replace people. There is no substitute for authentic human interaction through which children learn to make sense of their world. A flat screen is a poor substitute for a person.
October 15, 2009
Australia’s government has been attracting attention and criticism of its new recommendation that children under two years of age not watch any television. What is the rationale behind it? The Guardian supplied this helpful explanation:
Experts in child development have found that three things optimise brain development: face-to-face interaction with parents or carers; learning to interact with or manipulate the physical world; and creative problem-solving play. Electronic screens do not provide any of this. At the most basic level, then, time spent watching TV has a displacement effect and stops children spending time on other, more valuable brain-building activities.
The question for parents is not just what to exclude during these critical brain-building years, but how to intentionally nurture those three critical elements. Then, and only then, this recommendation will make sense and be helpful.
October 10, 2009
In a recent article on funding early childhood education, Susan Urahn, Managing Director of Pew Center on the States, issued the following call for the Early Learning Challenge Fund, which the U.S. Senate will take up in October:
Add conditions to increase family engagement in early learning. Any state that receives federal money should have a well-defined process for implementing, monitoring and evaluating policies that actively engage parents and families in their children’s pre-k education.
There is no question that pre-k offers many learning opportunities for children. What is often missed is that these gains are far more modest – and fade out over time – if parents are not engaged. Ms. Urahn’s recommendation is essential to a well-considered early learning initiative.
September 8, 2009
How much do the early years matter? The World Health Organization provides this summary in their early child development fact sheet:
Early childhood is the most intensive period of brain development during the lifespan. Adequate stimulation and nutrition are essential for development during the first three years of life. It is during these years that a child’s brain is most sensitive to the influences of the external environment. Rapid brain development affects cognitive, social and emotional growth. Such development helps to ensure that each child reaches his or her potential and is a productive part of a rapidly changing, global society.
In other words, if a child does not receive appropriate nurture and nutrition during the early years, his potential will be altered. Since brain development during this period is so sensitive to the external environment, the way parents interact with their children affects the physical structure of their brains.
What are the optimal conditions of healthy development? Love and language. Since language, emotional and cognitive development are so tremendously influenced during this window, children who experience appropriate affection and loving language from their parents thrive. It is not a formula to turn your child into a genius. It is simply the way that children grow to their natural potential. It is what parents can, and must, provide.
September 7, 2009
There are many champions of innovative methods for nurturing children. Some will advocate technology, others high quality pre-school, and still others one of any number of methodologies for ‘optimizing your child.’ In contrast to all of those, Urie Bronfenbrenner, an esteemed scholar in developmental psychology came to this simple conclusion:
“The family seems to be the most effective and economical system for fostering and sustaining the child’s development. Without family involvement, intervention is likely to be unsuccessful, and what few effects are achieved are likely to disappear once the intervention is discontinued.”
Technology, pre-school, and child development methodologies all have their place. Yet if the family does not wield its influence for good, they can do little to help.
September 3, 2009
The World Health Organization (WHO) early childhood fact sheet unambiguously states that what happens in the family during early childhood is critical for virtually every aspect of human life:
During early childhood (from the prenatal period to eight years of age), children undergo rapid growth that is highly influenced by their environment. Many challenges faced by adults, such as mental health issues, obesity, heart disease, criminality, and poor literacy and numeracy, can be traced back to early childhood.
They have identified the roots of intergenerational poverty. In the context of a family, a child develops in the context of real human relationships. That means that children whose parents or caregivers speak clearly, frequently and respectfully with them will enjoy language development gains that their peers whose parents use a limited vocabulary, or engage infrequently or disrespectfully will not attain. As a result a “parenting gap” emerges early and persists through life. Far more important than socioeconomics or maternal education is the way parents nurture their children in whatever context they are.
While speech and language development is the most influential component of development, the WHO identifies a host of other impacts, from obesity to criminality. The pressing question is not whether these things are so; anyone who has worked in public health or poverty alleviation can validate the claims. The question is how to engage parents in a way that acknowledges their dignity and responsibility for the care and nurture of their children. There are no short-cuts out of intergenerational poverty. It starts with the family.
September 2, 2009
Last week the World Health Organization issued a fact sheet on early childhood development which included this summary:
- Early childhood is the most important phase for overall development throughout the lifespan.
- Brain and biological development during the first years of life is highly influenced by an infant’s environment.
- Early experiences determine health, education and economic participation for the rest of life.
- Every year, more than 200 million children under five years old fail to reach their full cognitive and social potential.
- There are simple and effective ways for families and caregivers to ensure optimal child development.
That’s about as clear as it gets. We will highlight facets of the fact sheet and their implications for families, communities and policy makers. It is easy to expand on their theme. However it is difficult to futher simplify their conclusion:
“Parents and families are the key to early child development, but need support to provide the right environment.”
Parents, you can do it. And we can help.
August 26, 2009
What are the most pressing problems that parents of young children face? We’ve identified four, and you can tell us if you agree and what we might have missed! Participants in our online survey will be registered in our giveaway. One participant will win a free Skip Hop Duo Deluxe or Skip Hop Dash diaper bag (their choice of bag and color) from All Modern Baby, which highlights the Stokke Sleepi collection.