Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Kindergarten Didn't Go As Planned

Is your child approaching kindergarten age?
Have you prepared your child for the prekindergarten screening?
Here is some insight into the process:

My oldest is now almost 15 years old but it seems like just yesterday that we were walking in to that “Prescreening Testing Center”…

I’m still not sure whether it was because I was a foreigner or because I was a first-time mum or a working mum, it is also possible that it was because I was foreign and a first-timer and a working mum! Whatever the reason, kindergarten didn’t go as planned not, I hasten to add,
that there ever was a plan...

Joshua, my pride and joy was approaching the ripe old age of 5! Both he and I were excited about kindergarten and the prospect of this new, previously uncharted territory. Joshua stared up me, wide-eyed and innocent about this new adventure! I was excited, too, about the idea of my boy starting school. I think most new mums are excited about this major milestone. I was also excited about learning more about American schools after all, I’d only seen them in the movies for 20+ years, now I was going to see a real one!

We’d done preschool. Since the tender age of 2, Joshua had been enrolled in a wonderful preschool program, you know the type, no sugar, no guns, no hitting. Our philosophy at home matched the philosophy at preschool, use your words, play fair and share… And of course, don’t talk to strangers… Not forgetting don’t go out of the house by yourself and don’t ever, ever eat anything that a stranger gives you and never, ever go with a stranger for any reason even if he says he’s lost his doggie (we all saw the Oprah special). I assumed that kindergarten would run as smoothly…

Now I, as you know, am a developmental psychologist and not unfamiliar with the requirements for kindergarten or the screening process thereof. This, as it turns out, was of no help whatsoever. We put on our cleanest clothes and, one morning in May, we wandered up to our local school for this “pre kindergarten screening” blissfully ignorant of what we were in store for…

We registered at the desk then sat in the waiting area for our turn. A woman, a little older than myself, came over to Joshua and asked him to follow her. She offered him her hand. Well, at the tender age of 4 Joshua had memorized the rules, no hitting, no fighting (so far so good) and don’t go with strangers… Joshua looked up at this woman as if she were half mad and told her in no uncertain terms that he was 4 years old and that she was a stranger and that he, Joshua the 4 year old, did not go anywhere with strangers, ever! Good point son. We all agreed that it would be ok for Joshua to go with this “friend of Mum’s” and that mum would walk into the testing hall behind Joshua. So in we went, my rule bound son, the stranger and myself… I waited unnobtrusively by the door as Joshua sat down at the testing table. I was, I must admit, just a little bit proud of my son for following his rules and questioning a stranger and somewhere, under all the embarrassment of the day, I felt like I had parented well for the first 4 years.

Meanwhile, another storm was brewing. As I turned to leave the testing area something caught my eye, in the center of the testing table was a bowl of candy, a large round bowl overflowing with M&M’s. I see, as only a mother can, the pained look on my son’s face. It was certainly not test anxiety but rather the determination of a highly conscientious 4 year old trying to resist this chocolate temptation. Joshua knew the rules, and this was most certainly candy and these
were, without doubt, strangers. I watched in quiet desperation as my son failed to answer question after question. Now we hadn’t “studied” for the test but I was reasonably confident that even at the tender age of 4, he knew his name and could count to 10. I stood frozen at the door watching his index and middle fingers twitch towards the bowl. I think I saw beads of sweat forming on his 4 year old brow. I couldn’t watch. I prized myself away from the testing area and returned to the waiting room. What kind of parent was I? What had I done to my son? If he had just eaten the candy and bounced off the walls like a normal child…

My mind was racing, would he begin his public school career in remediation? If he had just eaten the candy then he would have heard the questions that were being asked. At least then I would be sure that he failed because he didn’t know the answers not because he was preoccupied. Should I have prepared him better for the test? As I sat in that lonely waiting room I realized that he didn’t even know his own phone number. He’d never really needed to. It had never come up. He was 4 years old, he’d never had to call home from the mall or from a friend’s house. He couldn’t read either. I thought that was the purpose of Kindergarten, to teach them to read. My mind was racing. Had I parented all wrong? I made up my mind to go home and teach him to read and count the second that we left the testing center. Maybe the M&Ms didn’t matter so much because how many questions could he answer anyway…

When he finally came out of the testing center I was a mess. In the car I “squeezed” him for information. Who’s kidding who, on the walk to the car I began the inquisition. He couldn’t write his name... He couldn’t spell “cat”. .. He didn’t know which number came after 10. He couldn’t differentiate between the letters “P” and “F”… Perhaps he belonged in remediation. What, realistically, should a 4 year old be able to do? What should I have taught him to do? Tears were streaming down my face. I didn’t need an exceptional child, I just wanted a normal child. I was wracked with guilt. What had I done, or not done for my son?

That little rule bound 4 year old will be turning 15 next month and let me reassure you that he is just fine. In hindsight, he had the best preparation possible for kindergarten, middle school and high school…

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Planning Ahead - What's The Point in Summer?

Why don't children go to school during the summer months? We no longer live in an agrarian culture where our children have to help in the fields or toil on the farm. Why then, don’t children attend school year round? Is it not financially viable to pay our teachers to work for 12 months in the year? Let’s be honest, for many working parents summer means scrambling to find extended supervision and a sharp spike in “working parents’ guilt”. To a child, however, summer is unquestioningly playtime!

Self Directed and Self Initiated

Summer affords children the opportunity to engage in self directed, self initiated play and discovery. Without the pressure of homework or tests they can experiment, explore and question. They can wander, cognitively speaking, wherever their thoughts take them. The entire process of learning is inverted as our children take charge. Instead of imposing knowledge upon our children or asking them to learn material that may be of little interest to them, summer creates a unique moment in time for children to learn from their own exceptional perspective. This is in stark contrast to the regular school year where the constraints of formal education, the need for accountability and testable outcomes render learning linear in form with a fixed starting and end point. To that end, textbooks have a preset order and teachers design work that has a predetermined structure. Children’s thinking, however, has a more frenetic constitution. If we could look inside a child’s mind, we would see a neural network of knowledge, beliefs and expectations that is as individual as each child. Imagine your child’s mind as a spider’s web linking ideas, memories and facts together with neural strands that are individually crafted from life’s experiences. Children learn when those webs are expanded and enhanced. Summer recess offers children the freedom to choose their own areas of interest and follow their existing neural networks in whichever direction they lead. The breadth and depth of this thought is enhanced by each interaction that a child experiences because that link is created from within an existing knowledge structure that is then linked to new information.

Sparking Interest

Lacking insight into our child’s thoughts, we do not know which activities will spark great interest or motivate our children at any given moment. We do not know ahead of time which memories they will store and which will be forgotten. Is coaxing a bored child around a museum more educationally sound than building sandcastles on the beach? Will make believe dragons make a better memory than s’mores around the campfire? In our highly pressured, fast paced society we have grown accustomed to results and end products. Try to avoid looking for a quantifiable outcome and focus on the actual event.

Neural Networks

As your child’s ice cream is melting down his or her arm and soiling a new, overpriced tee shirt on a hot summer’s day remember that your child will internalize this experience within that neural network from the unique perspective of childhood. Similarly, letting your child plan day trips to museums and historical sites turns these activities into child directed events with greater potential for significant cognitive growth. Because they are the architects of their neural networks this information is stored in a more meaningful context that can be utilized and retrieved with greater flexibility. It is not the activity itself that holds the potential, it is the execution of the act as a child centered, child directed process with no preset goal that determines its long term value.

Follow Their Lead

To maximize the benefits of summer, our charge is to listen to our children and follow their lead. Use the luxury of summer time to encourage your child to pursue his or her own ideas. Be spontaneous. Trust your child. Focus on creating a risk free environment where your child can hypothesize, plan and think as an individual.

The Illusion of Knowledge

Ironically, this type of discovery or constructivist learning that is the ideal tool for cognitive growth is often suppressed during the school year in favor of facts can be learned by rote and that give the illusion of knowledge. They tend to create superficial learning since they are not connected to the child’s existing body of knowledge in a meaningful way robbing a child of the depth of knowledge that is associated with expertise in any given field. That “ah-ha” moment of realization that Archimedes experienced when he discovered displacement while sitting in his bathtub exemplifies the complexity of thought and the distinctiveness of each person’s neural network.

The Point

The point of summer, then, is to offer our children the intellectual, social and emotional freedom to experience their own “ah-ha” moments. They may not be as grandiose as displacement theory but the potential for creativity and genius none-the-less exists within those long, hot lazy days of summer.

Can Your Infant Read Yet?

Before you know it your precious bundle of joy will be running off to kindergarten. You may still measure her age in months but in no time at all the government will be measuring her test scores in hard, fast, quantifiable statistics so there’s no time like the present to get started…

Don’t panic if you didn’t read to your child in utero – although research clearly shows that this is advantageous you can catch up! The effects were, after all, short lived and only applied to recognition not comprehension anyway.

If you forgot to play classical music to you infant to capitalize on the much publicized “Mozart Effect” rest assured that it wasn’t a real phenomenon anyway. As appealing as it sounds, to think that playing classical music will make your prodigy smarter, there is no data to support this myth. Do however play music to your infants and toddlers because it is soothing and great to listen to…

Before you plop your precious bundle of joy in front of the television for some neural enhancement courtesy of Einstein or the like remember the words of the great developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, who said that children learn by doing – not watching. I know, I know he seems to love the stimulation but any interaction between you and your child is worth far more than any program on television. You provide vital feedback and hands on interactions that are both key components of the learning process. Remember that children think and learn differently than adults. You have to think as a child thinks.

Forget the computer too. She won’t learn to read with all the latest software, gyzmos and gadgets. Sorry to burst that technological bubble but there are no pixel tricks to ease the process.

Reading takes time, human interaction, patience and trust. Read to your infants and toddlers. Read to them at breakfast, read to them at playtime and recite poetry to them while you are out walking. Expose them to print and introduce them to the joy of reading. Be a good role model. Let your children see you reading. Snuggle up close and make it an enjoyable experience that your child will eagerly anticipate. Turn reading into an adventure. Solve mysteries together and anticipate what characters will do next. Discuss the people and the events that you are reading about. Read about events and people that your infant and toddler has experience with – create a shared imaginary world together.

Reread stories and poems so that your child gains familiarity with the words. Let her predict the next word by pausing – remember, long before she speaks, she can comprehend. Ask her questions even if she is too little to respond verbally. Act out the stories and bring them to life.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verse” is a great place to start for poetry. Odgen Nash has some fun and nonsense rhymes that children love. Sandra Boynton’s books are an ideal introduction to print. They are fun, lively stories with bright, colorful and inviting illustrations. Dr. Seuss is another great source. His nonsense words and ridiculous themes turn reading into adventure, mayhem and madness – the good kind! Look out for Horton, the Sneeches and Sam-I-am to name but a few.

Talking also nurtures that vocabulary growth that is essential to reading and learning. Remember, your infant will utter one or two words by her first birthday and within a year you should hear over 400 utterances. You are charged with the responsibility of exposing your child to a rich vocabulary filled environment. Don’t forget, those words are experience long before you hear her utter them and there is no time like the present to get started.

Laying the foundations for reading can be an exciting journey. Focus on stories, plots and characters and avoid the urge to teach letters and sounds. The brain is not mature enough yet. Consider instead, how you can spend those quality interactions.

You may feel pressure to spend those toddler and preschool years on drill and practice that is narrowly focused on letters and sounds. The decoding process needs to wait until 2 key elements are in place. Firstly, your child’s eye sight needs to mature – this can take until around 5 years of age. Remember, you can discern a “p” from a “q” or a “d” from a “b” but to the immature eye they are all so very similar that it is not a good use of your time to focus on those minor differences. If you rush this process then you risk a sense of frustration and failure that may show itself in behavior problems or a reluctance to learn. Secondly, the brain has to develop.

Let’s not forget, your child has to have a need to read. What, after all, should toddlers do with print; follow a recipe? Read the newspaper? Your goal during these formative years is to develop a “need to read” within the risk free and nurturing environment of your home. Unlock the magic of literature and the rest will fall into place …