Education Opinion

Preschools for Slow Children

By Joan F. Goodman — April 22, 1992 12 min read

An extraordinary educational event has taken place in this country. As of 1991, all states agreed to provide educational services for every child with a developmental disability from birth. The objective of this intense effort at early intervention is to accelerate the development of slow children so that they can be integrated into the mainstream. This commitment marks a radical and welcome change in attitude and practice towards the handicapped. We are all enlarged by the presence of children with disabilities in our schools and on our playgrounds; by adults with disabilities in the work place and even on television. Yet there are risks involved in pushing children to make rapid gains in the hope of a “catch-up’’ effect. Such efforts may conflict with their natural developmental pace and allow them inadequate time to make sense of the world through their own actions.

The debate over how much we hurry young children is familiar to educators of young children without disabilities. Indeed, one distinctive characteristic of 20th-century school reformers is a preference for natural growth over hot-housing approaches. Special education has participated less in this debate, perhaps because simply getting services for all children has been a full-time mission. In addition, early intervention programs are predicated on the goal and expectation of accelerated progress. But for these children, too, it is important to ask: Is early acceleration the best way to help slow children achieve their maximum potential? Can excessive drive on our part erode nascent drive on their part?

From my observations, based on a field study that took me across the country to 20 early-intervention programs for 3-to 5-year-old children with developmental disabilities, in our drive to accelerate progress, we are imposing a regime on small children that they are incapable of handling. The theory is that we can rectify deficits by taking advantage of the early years to instill the knowledge and behaviors required later. So, to get the children “ready’’ for kindergarten, we ask kindergarten behaviors of them--sitting in chairs, attending to a teacher, following a schedule, and working on preacademics.

This is not to say that early-intervention programs are harsh places. Quite the contrary. They are staffed by devoted, selfless teachers who almost always create an ambience of concern, energy, and good will. The days run smoothly. Teachers appear calm, soft spoken, approving, and encouraging. They are highly professional and work long hours on detailed individualized lesson plans. Children comply with the daily routines and obey their teachers. Parents are involved and grateful for adults who sincerely care about and value their children. The calm, however, is purchased through subtle and repressive control devices; the child compliance too often masks low levels of learning and genuine participation.

A brief glimpse at the early-morning activities in a typical program may begin to give the reader a sense of how decency, optimism, and considered care by attentive adults can also be repressive and restrictive for children. Obviously, the following vignette does not apply to every program, or any program all the time, but it is representative and it could hardly be otherwise given the dictates of the current system.

At 8:30 on a November morning Doreen, a 3-year-old with Down's syndrome, arrives on a school bus to join five other preschoolers with disabilities at Midwood, a regular elementary school. As the group proceeds down the corridor, Doreen drops the hand of her teacher, sits on the floor, and pulls at a diaper from her small back pack. Teacher Teresa, who needs to keep her group together and moving, bends over Doreen and says urgently but patiently: "It's time to walk now Doreen.''

Shaking her head Doreen responds, “Me sit.’'

“Doreen,’' entreats Teresa, “I know you want to be a big girl and walk to class now. I will help you.’'

Doreen, anticipating Teresa’s move toward her diaper, hugs it to her chest and says emphatically, “Me dee dee [diaper].’'

Teresa, under increasing pressure from the other children who are breaking rank, reluctantly picks up a resistant Doreen, puts her into a wagon with another child, and the small group proceeds.

Once inside the classroom the children have free play. Doreen, troubles forgotten, proceeds to the doll corner where she puts on a large felt hat with a big wavy feather and preens in front of a head-to-foot mirror. She tilts her head up, then down. The hat falls off, she replaces it and preens some more. Each time the hat falls--a second, third, and fourth time--Doreen recovers it and resumes posturing at the mirror. Teresa in another part of the room, aware of how long Doreen has been at the mirror, asks her aide Anita, “Can you help Doreen find something more productive to do, perhaps with David’’?

Anita invites Doreen to join her and David in putting a baby doll to bed. As Doreen approaches, David thrusts a baby bottle at her. Doreen ignores it and, instead, puts her big felt hat on the doll. Anita says: “Oh, that’s too big for baby. You are big but she is little. Can you and David find a little blanket to cover her’’? Anita’s attention is then diverted by another child and Doreen walks back to the mirror dragging a blanket and the hat.

After 10 minutes of free play the children are summoned to circle. Molly, who has been unloading blocks from a shelf, pays no attention and is told by Anita, “It’s time to be all done now.’' No response. Anita then walks over to her and says, “Molly, I guess you want Anita to help you clean up.’'

At circle, Doreen begins to play with Molly’s long soft hair, while Molly, indifferent to Doreen’s caresses, is trying to get hold of her own shoe. When Teresa notices, after the greeting song, she reminds the children, “It is time to listen now. Doreen and Molly where do we keep our hands? Hands need to sit on our laps, remember?’' Anita, seated behind the girls, reaches around and places the girls’ hands on their laps. Teresa continues: “I like the way you have your hands now.’'

Teresa then proceeds with the calendar asking, “What month is this’’?

The answers come in: “Winter,’' “Monday,’' “Thanksgiving.’'

To the last, Teresa comments, “Thanksgiving; that’s close. Is Thanksgiving in November or December?’'

“November,’' responds David.

She then asks for the date. When no one responds she points to a posted calendar of the month and begins to count with the children, “One, two, three.’' When they reach 11 she stops and says, “Good counting, today is November 11th.’'

During the calendar time, Molly, unsuccessful in reaching her shoes, starts twisting in her chair and playing with the poms poms on her skirt. When the group begins counting, she slips away from the circle, crawls under a table, and finally gets to her shoes. Teresa, taking note, says to Anita, “Molly wants you to help her sit.’' After Anita restores Molly to the chair, Teresa compliments her for “good sitting,’' and says, “Now it’s time for our songs’'--and the activities continue.

Although space permits only this brief glance at a typical program, we can see already that the children have entered a culture, an order, that in its “schoolishness’’ is alien to their “toddlerishness’'--a phenomenon common to our schools more generally. It starts with the physical environment. Because special-education preschool programs are usually located in elementary public-school buildings, the adults must carefully monitor the movements of the children down long corridors of classrooms and whenever they leave their own room for such activities as toileting, lunch, playground, or the gym. It is difficult for young children functioning as toddlers (18 months to 2 years in our example) to walk the distance without yielding to distractions, as Doreen does when she has a “sit down’’ to play with her diaper.

The uncongenial demands of a school culture continue inside the room where the children are expected to abide by group routines. Teresa, much like teachers of older nonhandicapped children, has partitioned her morning into “periods’’ for the cultivation of different domains: toileting, free play, circle, art, cognitive, gross motor, toileting again, and departure. When it is “time to,’' she expects the children to put away their activities and move on. This is another demand that is difficult for toddlers to meet. Molly is in the thick of moving blocks about when called for circle. She is required to come and, after slipping away, required to return.

The accelerated content of the program stresses a “preacademic’’ core curriculum; in particular, colors, numbers, shapes, simple puzzles, and big/little. The preacademics are taught throughout the day (note even at free play Anita brings in big and little), and often in a separate period devoted to “cognitive’’ learning. Almost all programs review daily the calendar and weather. Here, too, the children’s confusion is obvious from their answers. Teresa “helps’’ by giving them alternative answers and by seizing upon the right answer from their rote responses.

Because of the concern to accelerate development, teachers are very aversive to wasting time. Even during free play, therefore, they regularly attempt to redirect children away from activities that appear repetitive and unsocial. As we saw with Doreen, however, the adult suggestion (to play with the doll and David) is often disregarded, and the attempt may abort an activity that was meaningful and enjoyable to the child (preening at the mirror).

In order to press forward their set of tough demands without obvious classroom malfunction, teachers have developed a set of control techniques that are designed to increase the children’s self-esteem. They gently direct instruction, structure the daily routines into small units, disguise children’s failure, and give copious approval. However, it is questionable if the children feel on top of their own learning when they regularly guess at answers without understanding the questions, and make constant errors on material that is repeated month after month; when their self-chosen pursuits are challenged as unproductive and interrupted to meet the schedule; when their impulses are often suppressed, or disregarded and distorted.

Some programs, albeit a small minority, take a less teacher-directed and preacademic approach as illustrated by the following scene from Midwood II:

The classroom is now located close to the school entrance with no more long corridors requiring children to line-up. During free play when Doreen puts on a hat and preens before the mirror, Anita sits on the floor next to her and makes occasional comments on what is happening. After a bit, Doreen spontaneously turns the hat over to Anita. Anita puts it on her own head and makes a face in the mirror. Doreen giggles, takes the hat back and mimics Anita. Anita then offers Doreen a blanket and necklace she has fetched. Eagerly, Doreen puts on the necklace, while Anita wraps the blanket over her own shoulders.

Comment: Instead of “redirecting’’ Doreen to an activity not of her own choosing, Anita “joins’’ the on-going behavior. When Anita puts on the hat Doreen gave her she is demonstrating approval and establishing a comradeship with the child. Her verbal comments map the activity and will be more readily picked up by Doreen than language (e.g., big/little) removed from the action. Anita stretches Doreen’s play by suggesting small increments--the funny face and the offer of supplementary ornamental objects. The ideas are close enough to the original that they are picked up by Doreen without Anita’s imposition.

At circle time, now considerably shortened, Doreen again strokes Molly’s hair. Since it is developmentally appropriate, Teresa lets it go on. Even so, Molly slips away and crawls into a large solitary box, where she nestles against the pillows Teresa has made available for this very purpose. After a few minutes, she climbs out, goes to the shelf that houses the cardboard blocks, picks one up, returns to the solitary box, deposits the block in the box, climbs in, climbs out, goes to the shelf for another block, deposits it in the same box, climbs in, climbs out, and continues this routine until five blocks have been deposited into the box. Then, finding the box crowded, she reverses the routine, returning blocks to the shelf one at a time.

Comment: In Midwood I “paying attention’’ meant conforming to group routine. In Midwood II it is reinterpreted as involvement with activities appropriate to a child’s developmental level. Molly is learning more, Teresa realizes, through her block trips (about space, size, weight, sequences) than by nonparticipatory passive sitting in circle; and her sense of personal efficacy is boosted more by carrying out her own intentions than by submitting to the intentions of others, however disguised by praise.

At Midwood II, Teresa is attuned to the toddler status of these children and has given up on most of the core curriculum and behavioral demands of Midwood I, for the habitat of toddlers is concrete objects, not abstract concepts, and movement, not sitting and attending. They do not understand the meaning of numbers and shapes, have no time awareness beyond the present, and not the slightest understanding of the relationships among days, weeks, and months. At Midwood II, where there is no longer a large gap between the expectations of adults and the functional levels of children, teachers are not forced into repressive management. On the other hand, there is less structure and predictability, and less acquisition of kindergarten-type knowledge.

An important question for Teresa and her colleagues in early intervention, for parents, and for policymakers, is how hard to push the slow child, how much to impose an adult agenda that is often uncongenial. This question needs to be considered in light of the psychic costs inflicted, as well as the academic and behavioral benefits attained. My own conclusion is that the evidence for genuine cognitive improvement is insufficient to justify the heavy control of children so often seen in early-intervention programs. A curriculum centered more on their pace and interests, even if less advanced, might yield more eventual progress, especially if “progress’’ is defined broadly to include the virtues of inquisitiveness, boldness, and a zesty personality. But teachers cannot be expected to ease up on children, to spend more effort and imagination on eliciting and supporting children’s initiatives, if the general public does not ease up the pressure on them. The “fault’’ lies not in the teachers, but in a society that still makes acceptance conditional upon narrow achievements.

Joan F. Goodman is an associate professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania and a specialist in the education of young handicapped children. This essay is drawn from her forthcoming book, When Slow is Fast Enough: Early Education of the Delayed Child, which will be published in June by Guilford Publications Inc., New York, N.Y.

A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 1992 edition of Education Week as Preschools for Slow Children