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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Building a Better Brain Before Children Enter School

By Peter DeWitt — January 30, 2014 4 min read
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A few years back I was interviewing a literacy expert. The interview was for another publication, and through our conversation I asked how to connect with parents to help them see the importance of reading and talking with their children. He answered, “The parents that you need to get through to won’t be the ones reading your article.” Although defeating, I knew he was right.

The following quotation was the reason I asked him the question.

Twenty years ago, two researchers from the University of Kansas visited homes of families from different social classes to monitor conversations between parents and toddlers. The researchers found that, on average, professional parents spoke over 2,000 words per hour to their children, working-class parents spoke about 1,300, and welfare mothers spoke about 600. So by age 3, children of professionals had vocabularies that were nearly 50% greater than those of working-class children and twice as large as those of welfare children" (p. 28. Rothstein).

I have used that quotation a few times before, because it is one of the most profound passages I have read, not only on literacy, but on the impact of poverty as well. One literacy professor went at it from a more mathematical standpoint, and said children living in poverty hear 1/8th the language that their wealthier peers hear. Rothstein took his point further by writing,

Deficits like these cannot be made up by schools alone, no matter how high the teachers' expectations. For all children to achieve the same goals, those from the lower class would have to enter school with verbal fluency similar to that of middle-class children" (p.28).

Information for Parents

This blog is not meant to be a monologue, but hopefully help create (or continue) the dialogue around what should happen before children enter school. As easy as the subject should be, it’s not because the information can come off condescending when it is supposed to be helpful. Recently, I found a video that I think is very helpful for the dialogue about preparing children for life and school. The video is called How to Build a Better Brain, and it was created by the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative.

One of the best parts of the video, which further promotes Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindset, is when the narrator says that brains are not just born, but they are built over time, and they use some great methods to get their research across to viewers. Some of the areas to focus on from the video are the following:

A Brain is Like a House - Houses need a good foundation to be built on so they can last over the test of time. Brains are the same way. Our experiences matter. Without a good foundation houses will fall. We know that foundations have to be prepared for the harsh weather as well as the sunshine. As educators, we can take that foundation philosophy into student learning. The next learning intention won’t matter if they don’t get a firm grasp on the learning intention that comes before.

Our Experiences Matter - What we are exposed to, both good and bad, are important to the development of our brains. If children are exposed to good experiences, such as nurturing home lives, well-rounded experiences that include libraries, museums, or listening to great music, they will show positive growth. Those positive experiences will help guide them.

Serve and Return - The dialogue that takes place between a parent and child is important. According to the Alberta Family Initiative video (and other experts) that dialogue is both spoken and unspoken. Kind words, playing games, singing, loving touches are “The bricks that build a healthy foundation.” Unfortunately, when a parent only interacts through monologue, where the conversation is one-sided and the child is not encouraged to speak back, the healthy foundation is distorted.

Stress Matters - Stress can be good or bad. Good stress is when a child meets new people or negotiates their way through schoolwork, but toxic stress is much worse for the healthy foundation. Toxic stress comes in the form of living in abusive households, dealing with neglect, or in homes with parents who have drug and alcohol addiction.

Air Traffic Control - We know that basic emotional and social skills are important, and as the video suggests, scientists refer to those skills as executive function and self-regulation. Alberta Family Initiative, in a very effective way, calls it their air traffic control. What they are really highlighting is resilience on the part of the child, which is important because their parents will not always be near them when the going gets tough.

Proactive Not Reactive

Overall, the point is to be proactive and less reactive. Playing games, having “baby-talk” with a newborn, and asking a young child questions, and listening to their answers to promote dialogue, is setting the foundation. That foundation is vitally important to their growth. The bottom line is that the more positive interactions that take place between a child and their caregiver the better for the child’s healthy development.

Although this is mostly about what happens before children enter school, there are implications for educators as well. All of those interactions we have with our students matter. If we, as educators, create only monologue and not dialogue (Hattie 2009) than we are not contributing positively to the child’s healthy development either. The experiences we provide in classrooms, and the ones we encourage children to take on their own, can only help build that positive foundation that will help them during the good and bad times they experience in life.

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Rothstein, Richard (2006). Class and Schools: Using Social Economic, And Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.