Friday, October 28, 2016

Mental Shift 8: The Rush to Get Ahead Leads to Failure in Early Intervention

To remind you of the context for this mental shift: Some months ago, I proposed that 12 "mental shifts" were needed to advance our practice and study of early intervention for children 0-5 and their families:

1.       All the intervention occurs between visits.
2.       Whose child is it anyway?
3.       Children are learning from their caregivers, whether you want them to or not.
4.       Anyone spending time with the child has the opportunity to teach the child.
5.       Passing judgment on parents or other caregivers is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
6.       Parent failings don’t exist; only professional ones.
7.       What matters is how children function in their everyday lives. Function = participation = engagement = learning.
8.       The rush to get ahead leads to failure in early intervention.
9.       It’s about getting children engaged, independent, and in social relationships.
10.   It’s about helping families feel confident in their competence with their children.
11.   Too many cooks spoil the broth.
12.   Teamwork can work through collaborative consultation.

 The rush to get ahead leads to failure in early intervention.


Three ways of getting ahead have had a negative impact on our field: (a) rushing children into academics or meaningless activities, (b) rushing to help parents, and (c) rushing to compete with the big boys and girls in research. In 1981, the first edition of David Elkind’s classic book, The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon (Elkind, 2007) alerted parents to the dangers of hurrying children through life.

In early childhood education, various forces compel teachers and parents to push children into academics, when they could be learning equally or more effectively through play, exploration, and the arts. One force is the concept of “school readiness” or “readiness for kindergarten.” As though children should show up in kindergarten already knowing the rudiments of the three Rs! Another force is societal competition and status, with some parents wanting their child to be ahead or at least not behind the neighbors’ and friends’ children. Yet another force in some places, especially large cities, is being able to get into tony private schools, where a criterion for admission is the display of academic prowess. Researchers who should know better haven’t been innocent: The reading and writing researchers don’t understand why we shouldn’t be using direct instruction to give children an early start. The hurried-child atmosphere makes it difficult for children with disabilities to fit in, whereas a more play-based environment has more latitude in the kinds of activities and child engagement that adults encourage.

In early intervention/early childhood special education (EI/ECSE), we sometimes rush children into boring, meaningless tasks in the belief that these activities are good for them. Examples are isolated work stations in classrooms, task baskets, discrete-trial training, passive therapy, and noncontingent therapy. This rushed approach to early intervention decreases children’s motivation for learning, decreases sophisticated engagement, and takes away opportunities for children to enjoy being children. 

We rush to help parents by giving suggestions too early, rather than asking plenty of questions before making a suggestion. Before we give suggestions, we need to know context, such as what the parent has already tried, what time of day the parent wants the child to display the skill, what the child usually does, whether the child shows interest in the skill, and so on (this is my Hoosiers Rule). If we take the time to get this background, (a) our suggestion is more likely to be helpful and (b) we’ll have come up with the solution with the parent instead of for him or her. I’ve blogged about this before!

For the past decade, the research the federal government has funded in our field has been randomized control trials and little else. This began with Russ Whitehurst’s determination, when Commissioner of the Institute of Education Sciences, to improve the quality of educational research. Unfortunately, this determination was born out of a contempt for other kinds of research and of the field of educational research. Now, the same people are getting funded over and over; they have either cracked the code or achieved favored status. Regardless, the rich history of funded field-initiated and even student-initiated research has gone down the drain. We succumbed to the gold rush—the rush to the gold standard of randomized control trials.

I do not advocate slowing down. There’s so much to do, and the kids are growing up fast. But we need to stop rushing ahead heedlessly.

Elkind, D. (2007). The hurried child: Growing up too fast too soon. Boston, MA: Da Capo Press.



Sunday, October 2, 2016

MENTAL SHIFT 7: What matters is how children function in their everyday lives.

Function = participation = engagement = learning

Yes, children should learn about the world, learn to move, learn to speak, learn to manipulate objects, learn to solve problems, learn to get along with others, and learn to take care of themselves. The curriculum of early childhood is clear. It shows up in state early-childhood standards, in tests, in curricula, and in parents' expectations. The question is What's the best way for children to learn this material? Or perhaps the philosophical question is whether this curriculum is what we aim for, or is it the natural outgrowth of normal development? Maybe we just made it the curriculum, because it's what we saw happening in early childhood. The outcome.

This question has bigger implications than you might think. If it's what children "should" learn, then adults will move heaven and earth to teach children these skills. It also becomes the framework for assessment and individualized program planning, usually based on the child's deficits. If a child is behind in one or more of these areas, those become targets for intervention. This can lead to making the child do what he or she is no good at.

If the areas of learning I outlined above are the outcome rather than curriculum, then we know children learn the content at different paces and in different ways and sometimes not at all. We call that developmental disability. Interesting.

Now let's turn our attention to how children learn best. If we take a curricular approach to functioning, as I mentioned above, we might be tempted to take an academic approach; I use that term to refer to the "academy"--the school, with lessons and a fair amount of adult direction. If we take an outcome approach, we let learning happen, supposedly naturally, which sounds almost as frightening. The classic constructivist philosophy endorses this approach. If the child is a curious, active, intelligent being with a good environment, naturally occurring learning will be fine. But if the child has inherent difficulties in learning or a poor environment, we need to pay attention.

So what do we change? We can't cure the biophysical condition, including what's going on in the brain--at least not efficiently. Brain science does claim we can restructure brains, but--and here's the kicker: We do it by changing the environment. The environment is comprised of social, nonsocial, and temporal conditions around the child. Included in the social environment are the interactions the child has with adults or even other children--interactions that can enhance or impede learning. The nonsocial environment includes safe or unsafe spaces, things to play with (they don't have to be toys), places to move around in or on, and so on. The temporal environment has to do with the sequence of routines, which in some families is predictable and in others is not.

The quality of the child's environment for enhancing learning is what Bruder and Dunst have discussed in their work on learning opportunities.

Mental Shift 7 is about understanding that learning does happen in everyday routines. If a child is functioning in a routine, it means he or she is participating meaningfully, whether cuddling with the mother at wake-up time, eating independently at breakfast time, helping to get dressed at dressing time, putting on shoes at going-out time, pointing at trucks in the car ride, playing independently during dinner preparation, using words or signs at dinner time, playing with a parent during hanging-out time, putting a washcloth to the face at bath time, or turning pages in a book at bedtime. And I listed only one of a score of skills a child could display in each routine--and there are more routines than these. A child's day is full of learning opportunities--of opportunities to participate meaningfully. When a child is so participating, we say the child is engaged. And if the child is engaged, the child can learn. As Dunst, Trivette, and I wrote (on papyrus, I think) back in 1985, a child cannot learn if a child is not engaged.

We do want children to learn and we do want them to function in their environments. Fortunately, these two things go together, joined by participation and engagement.