Clayton Early Learning
2Mar/11Off

Young Children and the Media: A New Study Confirms Old Advice

Mary Klute

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Mary Klute

Last week, our family got hit hard with the flu.  It was a week of staying home, lounging around and a lot of screen time.  My seven year old spent most of her time either watching TV or playing her DS.  My four year old spent a lot of time playing games on my laptop and watching TV.  I spent a lot of time feeling like this was not my finest hour as a parent.  While I have (dare I say, fond?) memories of lounging around all day watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch when I was a sick kid home from school, I feel like I’m definitely doing something wrong when I let my children watch a lot of TV.  But am I?

My ingrained ideas about minimizing screen time come from the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations.  Based on a review of the literature, they issued a set of recommendations back in February 2001.  There is a long list of recommendations, including:

  • no screen time for kids under age 2
  • limiting older children’s screen time to 1 to 2 hours of quality programming per day.

However, 2001 was 10 years ago—a lot has changed since then.   More research has been conducted on this topic in the last 10 years and children’s programming has changed (in part based on the results of the research).

Serendipitously, when I returned to the office after getting over the flu, I came across two recent research articles about children and TV.  The first was an article by Suzy Tomopoulos and her colleagues that was published last December in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.  She and her colleagues examined a group of six month olds from low-income families.  Their research was innovative in that they didn’t just look at how much screen time children were exposed to, they also looked at the content.  They divided media into three types: educational programming aimed at young children, non-educational programs aimed at young children, and media aimed at older children or adults.  On average, these 6 month olds viewed about 2.5 hours of media per day, and about 60% of it fell into that last category—media aimed at older children or adults.  They found that 6 month old children who viewed more minutes of media per day were likely to have lower cognitive and language skills at age 14 months, supporting the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations.

The researchers wondered if the impact of amount of media exposure would vary depending on the type of media kids were watching.  Indeed they found this to be true.  When children were exposed to more minutes of older child/adult oriented media, their cognitive and language skills were lower when they were 14 months than children who had been exposed to fewer minutes.  They found no association for the other two types of media.

This research has two main take-home messages.  First, exposing your baby to media not designed for them can be harmful. I doubt too many parents are seeking out shows like Law & Order or Hannah Montana for their children to watch intently.  It is more likely that babies are exposed to this type of media while being held by an adult or because they are doing something else (playing, eating) in a room where the TV is on.  I’d also venture a guess that many of these parents assume that their children aren’t paying much attention to what’s on the TV—and they are probably right, at least some of the time.  However, the authors hypothesize that time spent watching TV together is harmful because time spent watching TV is time that adults are not spending playing with and interacting with babies…and face to face, responsive play does wonders for babies' cognitive and language development.

The second take home message is that there is no evidence from this study of a positive effect of so-called “educational” media for children this young. Why is that?  Researchers have done a lot of experiments in recent years to try to sort that out, and that was precisely the topic of the second research article I came across recently.  I’ll write more about that next month…but in the meantime, what are your ideas for why “educational” media for children don’t seem to have a big impact?

12Jan/11Off

Talking to Babies Makes a Meaningful Difference

Rebecca Soden

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Rebecca Soden

You might have heard the National Public Radio story this week about “Closing the Achievement Gap with Baby Talk” that referenced a seminal research piece in our field.  If you’ve been working in early childhood education for many years, you are likely familiar with the book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children by Betty Hart and Todd Risley.  I know that it has a prominent place on the shelf above most of the desks here at Clayton Early Learning because this was one of the first longitudinal research studies that looked specifically at the differences in language environments for young children and what matters most about those differences.  First published in 1995, their findings challenged some widely held assumptions of the day and helped us identify children most at risk when it comes to learning language.  They found that, “race/ethnicity doesn’t matter; gender doesn’t matter; whether a child is the first in the family or born later also doesn’t matter, but what does matter is relative economic advantage”.

We learned from this work that what parents say and do with their children before they are even three years old has an enormous impact on how much language their children will learn and use.  We also learned that this way of parenting is somehow related to family income.  Identification of this opportunity gap for children provides the justification for much of our approach to early intervention and the types of programs that we deliver here at Clayton Early Learning.

If you’re like me, your next question is, “How are middle and high income families talking to their infants, toddlers and preschools and how can we support all families to talk in those same ways”?  This research gave us some ideas about how we can talk with very young children in ways that will prepare them for school.

  • Just talk. The number of words parents say makes a difference and if we can provide a variety of different types of words (nouns, verbs, modifiers) that is even better.  Children who do well in school hear their parents say an average of 382 words each hour.  They talk in the car.  They talk during dinner.  They talk while they are cleaning up the house.
  • Show encouragement for your child to talk and learn. Parents of children who do well with language use a lot of positive and affirming words when they’re conversing with their children.  They support their child’s attempts at language by repeating and extending what their child says.  When their child points and says ‘dog’, they say something like, “Yes sweetheart! You see that big furry dog across the street.”
  • Tell your child about things. Children who do well have parents who make language important.  They name and explain things to their baby whether or not their baby is able to fully understand it yet.  They talk about what they are doing while they’re doing it, “I’m changing your diaper because I know how much you like to feel fresh and clean.”
  • Give your child choices. Parents of children who do well in school seem to encourage autonomy from very early on.  Even before their child is three, they tend to ask for compliance more often than they demand it.  This is not to say that they set no limits, just that they provide options when a child is able to make safe choices.  For example, “It’s time for us to leave.  I can either hold your hand while we walk to the car or you can hold onto the shopping cart.”  Some people believe that encouraging these choices for children allows them to build initiative and self-regulation which helps them to cope with a variety of life experiences.
  • Listen. Children who do well with language have parents who are fully engaged with them.  In today’s world of instant communication and cell phones, this is a real challenge for most parents.  My own four year old son recently said to me, “Mommy, please listen to me with your eyes too!”  Parents of kids who do well in school make time to be fully present with their children, even if only for ten minutes a day.  When a toddler is first learning how to say words and create phrases, “wait time” where the parent is giving eye contact, nodding and smiling is an important form of listening.  It’s all too easy to rush in and finish a child’s sentence or thought, so we sometimes need to remind ourselves in those moments that this listening is helping our child to succeed and thrive when they enter school.

What parenting strategies have you found to work well related to language and conversations?  What ideas do you have for making a meaningful difference for the children in your care?

5Oct/10Off

What About the Children?

Geri Mendoza

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Geri Mendoza

You can’t open a newspaper or visit a blog that doesn’t have something to do with educational reform in our country. President Obama has asked that schools show that they are improving outcomes for all students, closing achievement gaps, and boosting high school graduation and college enrollment rates. I am on board with all of that, who wouldn’t be? Where the debate may lie is how do we do this and what budget is there to support it. Right now there is a national wrangling contest to see who we can blame because the achievement gap is not closing. These discussions come to light because our national test scores don’t measure up to those of other countries and some of our schools are failing. Unfortunately, in my view the first person faulted is the classroom teacher. So here we are, heading into the second month of a new school year. This should be a time where the teacher is excited to be setting up optimal learning environments, developing relationships with the children and their families, and planning opportunities to impart new knowledge. Instead, my fear is that well intentioned task force committees designed to assess the education situation only end up creating more accountability systems for the classroom. Well, the pressure is on, Teacher.  There is a lot at stake and your job may be on the line, nothing new I know. If teachers are being asked to learn new skills and teach with new strategies (administering tests, using assessments, engaging with families, learning new technology), how will we help them keep the focus on the children?

According to Ellen Galinsky , commenting on Education Nation, a recent nationally broadcast, in-depth conversation about improving education in America, we should make it our business to put children as our first priority. Here are three recommendations from Galinsky:

1) Plan for child engagement. There will be a need for creative and innovative ideas to jumpstart learning for children and to keep them motivated to learn. Even in high performing schools, children have lost their love of learning. Galinsky points out that our classrooms models for education were based in the agricultural and industrial age. Our children are more connected to technology.  Perhaps we need to find systems of measurement and support for classroom teachers to motivate students using a variety of techniques that expose children to technology.

2) Start early. Include early childhood teachers and parents at the table when discussing what works. I would offer that we tap into the Head Start Centers of Excellence, where early education programs are implementing comprehensive, innovative and targeted approaches to learning, and producing positive, measurable outcomes for children. And then share the information with our local public school system.

3) Develop 21st century thinkers with a focus on literacy, science and math, but give thought to how we teach our children to self regulate and maintain focus, be critical thinkers and problem-solvers so they can apply their new knowledge to change the world. I believe we want children to be literate in higher level thinking, but we want to make sure that they have a strong sense of self in order to be successful.

In my opinion, our work as instructional leaders is to create environments that build individual capacity as a parallel process for teachers and children. Instead of the deficit lens in which we view what’s wrong with our classrooms, perhaps strengthening what is going right and telling that story might work. We could create learning environments where teachers share expertise, while questioning and engaging in critical reflection for the shared purpose of the best learning for children. What a great model for children who are engaged in the same questioning and critical reflection dialogue with their peers and teachers. Perhaps the panel of experts involved in the debate need to participate in the classroom, viewing learning through the eyes of the child. What do you think?

27Aug/10Off

Educating ELL’s

Geri Mendoza

Posted by Geri Mendoza

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Geri Mendoza

I just read the weekly blast from Colorin Colorado, a weekly newsletter featuring articles about teaching English Language Learners. Two pieces caught my eye: one from the New York Times about NYC parents preferring to hire nannies who speak another language; and the second from NPR, highlighting Daniel Pinkwater’s latest children's book about Yetta, the Yiddish-speaking chicken and her encounters with a colony of Spanish-speaking parrots. Newsworthy, in my opinion, in that both pieces promote the upside of learning a second language. Current trends and a shift in the make-up of our communities has made it necessary to redefine the melting pot of America, and our views toward language acquisition. Consequently, creating a positive school climate as well as an academic experience for all children has become a more pressing issue for the current education system. Schools have yet to define how to best meet the needs of children who speak a language other than English. The process of learning a second language and maintaining home language can be cognitively and socially challenging for young children. Additionally, becoming proficient in the second language takes time. However, with the help of parents and their teachers it is possible for children to become bi-lingual. So, how do we support young English Language Learners (ELLs)? In early education there is a unique opportunity to create programming that will include partnership with parents and community to serve the needs of the whole child as they grow and develop.

We have been all over the map in our approach. English-only, or English immersion programming has not been effective, this according to Dr. Linda Espinosa, author of Getting It Right for Young Children from Diverse Backgrounds. She concludes that there is evidence that challenges our common beliefs about the development of young English Language Learners (ELLs). For example:   learning two languages at an early age will confuse children and could cause delays. MYTH. Or, total immersion in English, post preschool is the best way for children to learn English. MYTH. Research done by Dr. Espinosa and others suggests approaches that promote English acquisition for young children, while preserving home language, can actually support the development of the second language. Dr. Espinosa recommends teachers use effective instructional strategies as a foundation for promoting learning for all children, but provide differentiation or accommodations to support ELL children. Effective strategies include the following:

• Active engagement
• Connections to existing knowledge
• Opportunities to practice and apply new information
• Frequent review and practice
• Direct instruction on certain aspects of literacy
• Attention to English vocabulary and English oral language development
• Instructional accommodations tohelp children keep pace with their native-English speaking peers (p.95)

On a recent visit to the Clayton Early Learning campus Dr. Linda Espinosa gave me (and a room full of early childhood educators) an opportunity to engage in dialogue on how to provide successful education for dual language learners. Here’s a brief video excerpt from that discussion on Bracketing.

Creating bi-lingual learning communities for young children is dependent on the attitude of the educators who teach them and is fundamental to academic success or failure. (Note: Yetta, the Yiddish-speaking chicken did quite well among her parrot friends and learned a little Spanish too.)  What strategies are you using to promote second language acquisition?

11Aug/10Off

Back to School Parenting

Rebecca Soden

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Rebecca Soden

I was at our neighborhood playground with my three year old son this week.  I was hovering over him, attempting to explain why keeping rocks on the ground is a better idea than throwing them, when another young child walked up beside me.  He couldn’t have been much older than five, but his words were wise beyond his years.  He shook his head from side to side and said, “It’s hard work bein’ a parent.”

I smiled back at him and thought of how true that simple statement is, especially at this time of year, when our kids are returning to school (or starting school for the first time).  It isn’t merely the stress related to coordinating schedules, purchasing school supplies and figuring out transportation that fills our minds at this time of year.  It is the awareness that the hopes and dreams we have for our children rest in the experiences that they will encounter at school (both positive and negative).  It is the recognition that when I walk my child into his new classroom, he will be just one of many students joining a teacher who may or may not see the sparkle in his eye that I see, may misunderstand his potential or even think of him as a “difficult child”.

Good teachers and quality schools are very important contributors to our kid’s success, but we (as parents) have a far greater impact on the trajectory of our children’s lives than any other factor.  During this busy time of going back to school, I would ask each of us to think about providing the kinds of supports for our children that go beyond backpacks, pencils and composition notebooks.   Here are some questions to ask yourself when thinking about how to support your child’s literacy development and life long love of learning:

  • How do I find ways to enjoy reading and learning myself? Your child sees you as a role model and will grow to understand that reading is important in your life.  Let her see you read your email, the newspaper, magazines and books.
  • How do I read to my child? Read anything that you enjoy or that your child brings to you.  Don’t worry about always reading the words exactly from the text, but instead have conversations about the book.  Ask for your child’s ideas about the story and have her tell you about the pictures.  This type of Dialogic Reading really helps kids learn language and the skills that lead to independent reading later in life.
  • Does my home reflect the importance of reading? Have books in your house.  Ask your kids to help you with recipes and measuring ingredients.  Ask your kids to help you sort through the mail and let them help you organize your household paperwork.
  • Do I engage my child in conversations? Talk with your child while you’re cooking dinner, driving in the car, shopping for groceries, waiting in line at the post office.  Tell family stories.  Ask for your child’s ideas and opinions.  Don’t be afraid to use complex words in your conversations with your child.  This exposure to rare and academic words will make a real difference when your child starts learning to read for themselves.

When I think back on what the wise young child said to me on the playground this week, I completely agree with him.  It is hard to be a parent, but it is also rewarding to see your child develop a love of learning.  During this busy time of going back to school, I'm going to try to focus on helping my children find joy in reading and in school.  What thoughts do you have about the role that parent's can play in a child's school success?

17Jun/10Off

Eliminating Early Reading First: How can we invest in children?

Rebecca Soden

Posted by Rebecca Soden

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Rebecca Soden

Those of you following funding for early childhood education probably already know that federal allocations for Early Reading First (an initiative promoting literacy for at-risk preschool children) have been eliminated.  I understand that as a nation, we’re always faced with choices about where to put our money.  If we invest in one thing, we can’t use that same money to invest in another thing.  Just like in our personal financial planning, we can choose to put our money into a savings account (which will give us smaller gains more quickly) or we can choose to invest in a 401K (which will give us greater gains that might take years to cash in).  I want to encourage our federal leaders not to rely on the savings account approach for funding literacy education (remediation for struggling readers in high school), and to continue investing in the early childhood years (birth to grade three) that will grow over time and produce the compounded, long-term outcomes that we want for children.

The new federal plan folds Early Reading First funding into a different literacy initiative (called Striving Readers) which at present targets middle and high school students only, but will expand to include some (15% total) funding for children birth to five.  This is a surprising choice to me for a few reasons.  First, research on achievement gaps in reading suggests that gaps between socioeconomic and racial groups (if present at third grade) tend to remain consistent throughout middle and high school, but that there is real opportunity to change the trajectory for children if intervention occurs prior to third grade.   Second, findings from multiple studies clearly point to the long term advantage of investing in early childhood programming.  Indeed, high-quality pre-kindergarten programs help narrow the achievement gap between poor and affluent children, with the benefits of these invest­ments (to children and the community) outweighing their costs to taxpayers.

We recently completed an Early Reading First project and the opportunities that our project afforded hundreds of children are at the forefront of my mind.  While our project did not include an experimental evaluation, we can say that children enrolled in one of our Early Reading First classrooms for at least 6 months were significantly closer to their same age peers in the areas of emergent literacy that are most predictive of future reading success.  One teacher, when asked what she learned through the Early Reading First project, said that teachers in her program are now “creating opportunities, asking open ended questions, encouraging conversations and building unforgettable relationships with our children and families.”

At this point, the important question to ask is, how can we continue to offer these opportunities despite de-funding of Early Reading First?  I propose the following considerations for inclusion in any restructuring of the Striving Readers program:

  • ensure programming that includes a focus on young children (birth to five) and systemic support for a family-school connection
  • include a comprehensive curriculum that focuses on the prevention of reading difficulties (and not merely remediation for struggling readers)
  • include teacher professional development opportunities that are focused, applicable and research-based
  • include mechanisms for evaluating effectiveness that are culturally and linguistically appropriate for young children

What are your thoughts on how to ensure that early literacy stays at the top of the national agenda?

9Jun/10Off

In the News: Long Term Negative Effects of Low Quality Care?

Mary Klute

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Mary Klute

A few weeks ago, several friends, colleagues, and family members sent me a link to a news story they thought I’d surely be interested in.  The title of the article, “Study finds that effects of low-quality child care last into adolescence,” piqued my interest as both a researcher in the field of early childhood education and as a parent who has used full-time childcare for two children.  I read the news article and saw that it described research published in Child Development, a journal to which I subscribe.  About halfway through reading it, I started to wonder if I had the right journal article, because while this research was about long-term effects of child care, the main story wasn’t really about lasting effects of low-quality child care.  I recognize that not everyone has the background knowledge to wade through 8 pages describing the complicated statistical techniques used to analyze the data.  But, since I do, I thought I’d share my sense of the take home messages of this research and why I concluded the story is not about low-quality child care, but actually about high-quality child care.

The researchers have been following 1364 children and families since children were 2 weeks old.  This report describes results from when children were 15, about a decade after they left child care.  As any parent of an adolescent can attest, a lot can change in 10 years.  You might expect that all the things that happen between preschool and high school—peer groups, quality of the schools, etc.—would change the playing field so much over time that whatever impact that child care had would just fade away.  But in fact, the researchers did find associations between early care experiences and adolescents’ cognitive and academic achievement as well as their behavior problems at age 15.  They looked at several features of child care including the quality of the child care (measured with a tool that was focused heavily on teacher-child interactions, similar to a tool called the CLASS, which we’ve discussed previously), and the number of hours children spent in care.  The pattern of findings was very similar to what they found when children were younger:

  • Having been in a higher quality early child care is associated with higher cognitive and academic achievement at age 15.
  • Having been in more hours of child care was associated with greater levels of behavior problems at age 15 (i.e., more risky behavior and being more impulsive).

These are not strong associations.  That is, this research does not suggest that child care has the power to turn children into geniuses or delinquents.  Previous research from this study clearly indicated that what parents do is a more powerful predictor of children’s outcomes than what happens at child care.  But, what is interesting is that these effects are enduring; the magnitudes of the associations at age 15 are similar in size to the same associations at age 4.5, when children were just leaving their child care arrangements and heading to kindergarten.  So the take home message here is that the effects of child care are small but enduring.

While many of the results of the analyses of child outcomes at age 15 were similar to what researchers found when children were younger, some results were different than at previous ages.  One of these is critical to my opinion that results of this study aren’t really about low-quality child care.  The researchers found what is called a non-linear association between quality of child care and children’s cognitive and academic achievement at age 15.  “Non-linear association” is just a fancy way of saying that this association isn’t a simple “lower quality=worse outcomes” scenario.  Instead, like many things in life, it is more complicated.  What the researchers found was that for low and very low quality programs, there really wasn’t much of an association at all between quality and child outcomes.  It was only when programs were of higher quality, that researchers started to see the relationship where more quality was associated with more positive cognitive and academic achievement.  So poor quality care didn’t do long-lasting harm to children, but it didn’t help them either, at least not systematically across the group of children studied.  In contrast, as long as child care was of moderately good quality, there was a benefit to children.   As a result, the real story here is about the long-term potential of high-quality child care, not about the long-lasting negative impacts of low-quality care.

So what is a well-meaning consumer of the news to do?  When you hear or read an interesting tidbit in the news, how can you get the “real” story or at least get enough information to form your own opinion?  Do you have to take years and years of advanced statistics classes before you can understand research articles?  I’d argue that in most cases, no.  The most intimidating part of a research article is indeed the results section where all those statistics are explained.  But even if you aren’t familiar with the statistics, you can get most of “the story” from the rest of the article.  If I’ve inspired you to start now, you can access the article directly or read a press release summarizing the article from the Society for Research in Child Development.  And if you see a story related to Early Childhood Education in the news that you’d like us to write about, definitely let us know!

19May/10Off

Teacher-Child Interactions: The ticket to effective teaching?

Rebecca Soden

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Rebecca Soden

Picture your favorite teacher as a young child.  What was it about this person that connected you to them and makes you remember them today?

I’m going to guess that you didn’t list anything about the teacher’s level of education, ongoing professional development that she received or the literacy curriculum that she used in her classroom.  While these surely shaped her teaching, what you likely remember are the more subtle, moment-to-moment interactions and conversations that she had with you.  It was the way these interactions made you think and feel that have kept them in your memory for so long.

After years of trying to figure out what qualities of a teacher have the most impact on student learning, researchers (like those working at the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning) are discovering that if we want to improve children’s academic and social development, we need to focus on how teachers use their daily interactions to instruct and relate with each child in their classroom.  Great teachers create play environments that engage, motivate and stretch children into becoming ‘thinkers’ and ‘learners’.  Identifying, naming and describing these interactions has helped teachers become more effective (which is good for kids) and feel more satisfied in their jobs (which is good for all of us).

Consider Miss Helen and Miss Angel.  Miss Helen is a preschool teacher.  She is implementing the “best” evidence-based curriculum (one that has been shown to lead to significant changes in children’s ability to read).  She is always prepared with the activities and the students all know what to do.  However, she teaches the curriculum without shared joy, mutual respect, sensitivity or encouragement.  She doesn’t incorporate the student’s ideas and interests into her lessons or involve the children in planning and leading activities.

At the preschool down the street, Miss Angel doesn’t use a specific literacy curriculum, but she asks ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions of the children to build their analysis and reasoning skills.  She brainstorms with them, connects ideas and relates new information to things the children already know and understand.  Miss Angel asks the children to explain their thinking.  She extends their language and uses a variety of new words.  She points out the sounds of letters and plays with rhymes and songs throughout the day.  There is enthusiasm and laughter as the children explore lots of hands-on and interesting materials.

The above scenarios demonstrate what we are discovering about the nuances of effective teaching.  It is a teacher’s facilitation of learning – not simply the curriculum – that most impacts children’s development. At Clayton Educare, we are embarking on a journey to better understand how we can improve our interactions with children.  We are using an evaluation and quality improvement tool called the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS Pre K) to measure, reflect on and refine our teacher-child interactions.  We hope to share our story with you as we go.  Please let us know if you are on this path.  We would love to learn and grow together!