About the Author
The late Joan Beck wrote the award-winning "You and Your Child" column for The Chicago Tribune for many years, in which she pioneered coverage of new research on brain development, the battle against birth defects, and the struggles of parents to balance family and careers -- all the while, raising two children herself. Later, she became the first woman member of the Tribune's editorial board and her twice-weekly op-ed columns were syndicated in hundreds of newspapers nationwide. A member of the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame, Ms. Beck was also the author of four books: Best Beginnings, Effective Parenting, Is My Baby All Right? with Dr. Virginia Apgar, and How to Raise a Brighter Child, which has been translated into eight languages and published widely around the world.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Your Child's First and Best Teacher: You
How much is your child capable of learning before he's six years old and ready for first grade? What happens to his brain during these preschool years when his body is growing and changing so rapidly?
Is your youngster's intelligence level fixed for life by the genes she inherits? Or can it be raised by the way you care for her at home, long before she ever meets a teacher in a classroom?
As a parent, what can you do to give your child ample opportunity to grow in intelligence during these irreplaceable early years of life?
An explosion of new research into how the brain grows is yielding exciting answers to these questions. The discoveries add up to a larger, happier, and extremely important role for parents in fostering the mental development of their children before school age and to the promise of lifelong higher intelligence for these youngsters.
Most child-care books concentrate on helping parents learn how to raise children who are physically healthy and emotionally well adjusted. They have detailed directions about how to become a competent diaper changer, tantrum stopper, rash identifier, bathroom attendant, and referee between rival siblings. But parents receive almost no help or information or credit for their role as teacher and nurturer of their offspring's developing intelligence. Much more has been written about what should go into a baby's stomach than what should go into her growing mind. More emphasis has been put on teaching a child to use the bathroom than to use her brain.
Today, the evidence is overwhelming that the quantity and quality of learning experiences your baby has -- even before he is out of diapers -- can greatly influence how well his brain works all the rest of his life. Scientists have made astounding discoveries about how rapidly a baby's brain grows in the first few years of life -- forming trillions of connections every second that will later serve as the pathways of thought. Learning experiences and loving, one-on-one attention strengthen those connections, actually shaping the neurological structure of the brain. But scientists also know conclusively that without ample, appropriate stimulation, those neural connections will wither and die. In fact, the optimum time for many kinds of learning may already be past by the time a child reaches age six and enters first grade.
These findings provide important information for families trying to balance work and child care. More than half of mothers with young children now work outside the home and fear missing out on some of the best learning opportunities. Fathers increasingly want to play a bigger role in their children's development but face time pressures of their own. Yet helping enhance a child's mind often takes no more time than caring for her physical needs, as later chapters of this book show.
The new neurological discoveries have profound implications for national policy as well. Growing numbers of children are at serious risk of not getting proper stimulation that will help their brains grow. Today, nearly 3 million infants and toddlers under age three live in poverty. More than 25 percent are born to unwed mothers, many of whom are still adolescents themselves. Yet study after study has shown that early learning can go a long way toward making up for those early setbacks and help children of all socioeconomic levels grow up more intelligent and capable than they otherwise would have been.
Not surprisingly, these discoveries have infused new passion into the old political debates over day-care and family-leave policies. They have also attracted the attention of educators, philanthropists, and politicians who see a rare opportunity, and an urgent need, to help ensure that children grow to their full intellectual potential. Governors in several states have championed expanded preschool programs. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton sponsored a White House conference calling for greater investment in young children aged zero to three. Even the prestigious Carnegie Corporation of New York has focused its resources to call fresh attention to the critical years between birth and age three, calling for a "national investment" in the nation's youngest children to give all babies and toddlers the opportunity for optimal neurological development.
"The risks are clearer than ever before: an adverse environment can compromise a young child's brain function and overall development, placing him or her at greater risk of developing a variety of cognitive, behavioral, and physical difficulties," a Carnegie task force concluded. "In some cases these effects may be irreversible. But the opportunities are equally dramatic: a good start in life can do more to promote learning and prevent damage than we ever imagined."
What is perhaps most exciting in these discoveries is the critical role that you, as a parent, can play as your child's first and most important teacher. You have the unique opportunity to boost your youngster's intelligence when it is most subject to change, to teach her individually, at her own pace and by what means she is most likely to learn, to shape your relationship with her in ways that can actually help her become brighter. It's time you got more help in this vital role. That is the purpose of this book.
Parents who have tried using early-learning techniques with preschool children often report delightedly about the results. Some cases in point:
- In a small town in Indiana, Jeanne Jenkins is giving a birthday party for her four-year-old daughter and six friends. Toward the end of the party, Ms. Jenkins leaves the young guests alone in the living room while she dips up the ice cream and lights the candles on the cake. From the kitchen, she hears nothing but a worrisome quiet. Anxiously, she peeks into the living room and sees that one of the guests has pulled a Smokey the Bear book from the shelf and is reading with great delight to the other children, who are fascinated by the story.
After the party, Ms. Jenkins telephones the small guest's mother. "Oh yes, Meagan learned to read last summer," replies the four-year-old's parent. "No, she'd never read a Smokey the Bear book before. But she does read everything she can get her hands on."
- In a New York City park, 22-month-old Emily is exploring a large bronze statue of Alice in Wonderland. She announces to her baby-sitter a surprisingly complex thought for someone still in diapers: "I'm going to climb up on mushroom and say hello to mouse."
- In suburban Connecticut, Andrea, age five, scrambles into her father's desk chair, switches on the family computer, and uses her own password to sign onto the Internet. In the space for key word, she types in dogs and is soon clicking through Web page after Web page, printing out color pictures of the breeds that catch her eye. "This is the one I want!" she triumphantly tells her father.
- In Ann Arbor, Michigan, a third-generation Armenian couple -- she a grade-school teacher on extended maternity leave and he a teaching assistant finishing work on his Ph.D. -- want their son, Jack, to appreciate and profit from his Armenian heritage. So they have spoken only Armenian to him since his birth. Outside his home, Jack hears -- and learns -- English effortlessly. Now, at age four, he is happily fluent in both languages and switches from one to the other when it is appropriate.
- In a nursery school outside Los Angeles, Danny, four, walks purposefully over to a supply cupboard and pulls out a box of beads and numbered cards. Sprawling on a little rug on the floor, he arranges a set of the numbers in order from 0 to 9. Beside each he places a little glass dish and into each he drops a corresponding number of beads.
Next, Danny puts another set of numbers in "tens place" making his figures read 11 to 99. With ready-made chains of 10 beads each, he lays out matching rows of 10 to 90 beads beside the tiny dishes. Then he adds a third set of numbers in "hundreds place" and the right number for 100-bead units. When he finishes, he has correctly created and labeled rows for 111, 222, 333, 444, 555, 666, 777, 888, and 999 -- and, with obvious satisfaction, taught himself a major lesson in number concepts.
None of these children was born a genius. But because someone who loved each youngster knew about the importance of early learning experiences, each had the opportunity to learn more than most children usually do at the age when their fast-growing minds could absorb knowledge readily. All of them appear to be developing above-average intelligence and a joyous love of learning as a result.
Meagan's mother taught her to read for fun, using a series of phonetic games and cartoons published by a Chicago newspaper. "We had no idea a four-year-old could learn so fast or enjoy reading so much," she wrote to the newspaper's editor.
Emily's attentive baby-sitter -- and her busy parents, both professionals -- made a point of conversing with her as much as possible and expressing their delight whenever she learned new words and put them to use in sentences.
Andrea has played games on the family computer since she was three and watched her older sister use the Internet for research. Her parents let her set up her own password and watched -- at a safe distance -- as she explored the Internet on her own.
Jack's parents are deliberately using early-learning principles to preserve an ethnic heritage that is important in their own lives and that they want to pass on, with all its cultural richness, to their children.
Danny attends a Montessori school, where he can choose freely from a wealth of early-learning materials.
Interest in early learning and research about it are coming from many different scientific fields and forging exciting new connections among them. Neuroscientists are using new imaging technology to actually watch the brain in action, and they are finding neurological explanations for what pioneering educators had long noticed about how eagerly young children learn. Biologists are conducting experiments probing the effects of early stimulation on young animals and demonstrating how experience shapes the brain. Psychologists are learning more about the biological basis of behavior and studying how a "bad upbringing" may actually change the chemistry of the brain.
Sociologists and teachers are urgently searching for ways to help disadvantaged children, many of whom reach first grade with learning abilities already stunted for lack of adequate stimulation during the first six years of life. Educators are reaching out to some of those children and contributing to the growing volume of evidence that preschool learning experiences can raise their intelligence levels. Many parents are discovering upon thoughtful observation that their own small children are ready and eager for learning previously assigned only to first grade level or beyond.
Computer experts are looking with fresh excitement at the potential that computers offer young children for unprecedented kinds of learning opportunities. "Children take to programming like ducks to water, especially if they are offered a gentle approach to it," wrote Seymour Papert, the Lego Professor of Learning Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and developer of LOGO, a computer programming language.
Research about early learning emerging from all of these sources, from the fields of neurology, physiology, psychology, biology, and education, and from specialists working from many divergent points of view, can be summed up like this:
- We have greatly underestimated what children under age six can and should be learning.
- It is possible, by changing our methods of child rearing, to raise the level of intelligence of all children and to have happier, more enthusiastic youngsters as a result.
- That chance does not last forever. Without ample, appropriate stimulation, unused neurons in a young child's brain atrophy and disappear. Vital connections between brain cells never develop. The brain loses much of its capacity and potential -- permanently.
"To get to the heart of the matter, it appears that a first-rate educational experience during the first three years of life is required if a person is to develop to his or her full potential," said Dr. Burton White, who founded and directed the Harvard Preschool Project, a research study focused on how children develop during the first six years.
Early learning doesn't mean that you should try to teach your three-year-old to read to make him a status symbol, or because your neighbor's four-year-old can read or because you want to be sure he gets into Harvard 15 years from now. You aren't trying to make a six-year-old out of a four-year-old or turn a nursery school into a first grade or deprive your youngster of the chance to be a child.
Early learning does mean that you try and understand your youngster's innate drive to learn, to explore, to fill her developing brain's urgent needs for sensory stimuli and satisfying learning experiences, just as you try to understand and fill the needs of her body for nourishing foods. You aren't stuffing his brain with facts so he'll make Phi Beta Kappa at Yale any more than you give him vitamins to force his growth so he'll make the Chicago Bears' backfield.
Early learning simply means using new knowledge about what your youngster's brain needs during the crucial first years of life so that his mental development will come nearer to reaching its potential and your child will be brighter and happier for it.
Research is showing that traditionally accepted child-care practices may even be inadvertently curtailing children's mental development in some ways. Parents may leave an infant alone and crying with boredom in his crib or playpen, in an attempt to train him to be "good" and undemanding. Yet a baby's needs for sensory stimuli and motor activity -- to look at a variety of things, to listen to myriad sounds and voices, to move and be moved about, to touch, to hold -- are as great as her hunger for food and for love.
Parents may spank the hands of a toddler who is not trying to be destructive but merely trying to satisfy some of her insatiable desire to explore, to climb, to push, to pull, to take apart, to taste, to experiment.
"Curtailing the explorations of toddlers between nine and eighteen months may hamper the children's rate of development and even lower the final level of intelligence they can achieve," wrote Dr. Joseph McVicker Hunt, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Illinois.
Researchers have discovered that even well-read, educated, and intelligent parents have probably handicapped their children in the past because of child-rearing practices that ignored the needs of the developing brain. These are the parents who were most aware of prevailing child-care theories, who heeded the warnings about not "overstimulating" a child, and who read the books that said a youngster would develop "readiness" for learning on his own inner timetable regardless of the amount of stimuli in his environment. Many of these parents feared to stimulate their children intellectually for fear of, "pushing" or "pressuring" them and be...
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