The previous installment of this series on DAP ended with a quote that really resonated with me. It perfectly encapsulates the ironic environment we find ourselves in today. There’s a well-intentioned rush to avoid failure, by putting kids in situations that actually increase the odds of failure.
In a fascinating TED Talk, What Do Babies Think?, child development psychologist Alison Gopnik points out an interesting fact about brain development. Across many animal species, “there’s a relationship between how long a childhood a species has and how big their brains are compared to their bodies, and how smart and flexible they are.”
In other words, the more intelligent species tend to have longer childhood periods. The example she shares is the crow, a bird with a childhood as long as two years and considered rather intelligent, and the domestic chicken, which matures in a matter of months and well…it’s not that bright. The disparity in childhood, she says, is the reason why “the crows end up on the cover of Science, and the chickens end up in the soup pot.”
With this information, it is ironic that there are still some who seem to believe that the faster you can move your child through childhood, the more advanced they’ll be.
Learning and knowledge are related to that childhood period. It takes time and a variety of experiences to fully develop a complex, flexible brain. There are no extra points for circumventing childhood.
That’s why I’m so passionate about protecting childhood and a proponent of Developmentally Appropriate Practice.
When we ignore or interrupt healthy development, we tend to have problems. Exposing kids over the long term to environments, programs, and expectations that are not appropriate to their development has some clear effects.
Here Comes Trouble
The first effect is an increase in behavior problems. This comes from two fronts.
First, kids who are given inappropriate situations tend to behave inappropriately. Too much seat time or work that is beyond the zone of proximal development leads to frustration. Kids – particularly those who are younger and less likely to be willing or able to verbalize this frustration or problem-solve the situation – tend to release this frustration physically. A child becoming wiggly, disruptive, or aggressive is much more likely to occur in a classroom that is not developmentally appropriate. It’s not structured to meet kids’ developmental needs or support their developmental growth.
When needs aren’t met, you can be fairly certain you will get undesirable behaviors. Think of it from a personal level. How is your own behavior and attitude when you are fed vs hungry, rested vs tired, or validated vs ignored?
The second way the lack of DAP leads to more behavior problems is in perception and approach. Without DAP we find ourselves in a culture of “Zero Tolerance” behavior management, where preschoolers are being expelled (yes, expelled) at alarming rates. (Read my rant about that here.) I’m not suggesting we need to tolerate and allow bad behavior, but when typical behavior challenges push kids out of the very situation that is supposed to support their burgeoning social development there’s a problem. And it isn’t the kids.
When we recognize certain behaviors as developmentally appropriate (even when they aren’t socially appropriate), we can approach behavior with a teaching mindset. We promote growth and progress rather than punishing kids for going through typical growing pains that are designed by their developmental drive to create teaching moments.
A Shaky Foundation
Another unintended consequence of a “sooner is better” approach is that it often overlooks the foundational skills that are typically developed in early childhood. I explain it in the context of building a house. People tend to get pretty excited to see a new structure pop up out of the earth where there was once nothing. Rarely does anyone say, “Wow, did you see that foundation? It was amazing?” And yet, what would happen if a builder, in his anxiety to erect the perfect building as soon as possible, simply skipped over this vital step?
While pouring a foundation may not be as visually exciting as seeing a building go up in its recognizable form, it is critical to get it right. No one would ever risk putting hours of work into building a house if it lacked a foundation to keep it solid, strong, and immovable. Unfortunately, that’s what happens when we dive right into teaching children benchmark skills, without recognizing the critical importance of the foundational skills that have to come before.
As just one example, phonemic awareness has been shown to be an extremely strong predictor of reading success, and the lack of the skill has been linked to reading failure and dyslexia. It begins before a child learns the ABCs and is developed without ever looking at a printed word. Yet it is a skill that can be taught, if we’ll just take the time. Time to talk, read, sing, and chant. Time to simply play with words.
But the simpleness of it is not nearly as appealing as seeing kids pull words from a page where none seemed to exist before, so we’re tempted to skip it and get on to the skills that are more noticeable and universally appreciated as actual reading skills. While that may produce “readers”, their foundation will be shaky.
If you want the proper foundation for reading, take it from reading experts Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell who said it best in their (outstanding) resource, Literacy Beginnings: A Prekindergarten Handbook*:
“The knowledge that forms the foundation for reading and writing is built throughout early childhood through play, language, and literary experiences.”
Similar foundational skills are critical for other learning areas as well, and they are built — almost imperceptibly to some — through developmentally appropriate, hands-on, playful learning experiences. If our anxiety is about having successful learners in the future, it seems we should give them the right start today.
Race to the…Bottom?
If we look at other countries that top the US in the international metric (PISA scores), it seems we’re trying to catch up to them by doing the opposite of what they’re doing.
In Finland, for example, formal, direct instruction doesn’t begin until age 7. In the preschools and kindergartens that preface that, you won’t find the country’s next crop of top students drilling through flashcards or poring over worksheets. More likely, you’ll see them singing, playing, and painting. In Finland, the focus for early education is on learning how to learn. Children are encouraged to experience, explore, and play. The Finns value the development of curiosity and social competency in the early years. They know that the “academics” will come more easily later if the foundation is there. It seems that while we’re in a rush to give our kids too much too soon, Finland is actually getting ahead by starting later.
I was surprised to learn that even Singapore, consistently near the top of international rankings, values a social-competency model, holistic development, and a play-based structure over academics in the early years. According to the country’s Ministry of Education (and yes, you really should click here and read this position statement):
“Significantly, these Desired Outcomes emphasi(z)e social skills and attitudes and not so much… academic skills. This demonstrates the fact that social skills and expressions of communication are of paramount importance. While basic intellectual skills are important and should not be overlooked, the enduring effects of a child’s social and emotional competence are of even greater importance, for the holistic development of the child. The latter determine the effective functioning of a person more than his/her IQ or academic prowess. We should devote more of the time in pre-school to the acquisition of positive dispositions for this will carry children far and prepare them for future learning. We should not be preparing children for the next stage in learning. The pre-school years are important in themselves.” (Emphasis mine.)
If we are indeed so anxious about our children becoming academically successful, why would we push increasingly for models that seem to directly contradict the programs that have been proven to yield the results we desire?
I believe part of that answer lies in tomorrow’s post.
Tomorrow we’ll talk about what is causing our hyper-drive to push kids too far too soon, and what we can do to fix it. Make sure you stick around!
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