Early Years Column

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Children who spend an extra year before the 1st grade in classes designed to hone their school "readiness" do not gain a significant edge, a new study shows.

The two-year study by Phillip C. Ferguson, an educational specialist for the Uinta County, Wyo., school district, adds to a body of data cited by educators critical of holding children back an extra year before the 1st grade.

But Mr. Ferguson said his study differs in that it focused solely on children in "transition" programs geared specifically for developmentally slow children and compared them with a control group of "equally at risk" children who did not attend such programs.

While the 46 children in the transition programs on average scored higher in language, math, and reading achievement in the 2nd grade than the 20 in the control group, their advantage was not statistically significant, he said.

Mr. Ferguson also found that, based on teacher ratings, the transitional students did not differ significantly from the control group in their social skills, self-esteem, or rate of placement in special education. But the transitional students were rated as significantly more aggressive.

In the study, Mr. Ferguson challenged the Gesell Institute of Human Development's philosophy of an extra "growth year" for children assessed as immature for their age.

The "alleged 'readiness delay' is a short-term artifact" that evens out over time for most children, he concluded.

Challenging the theory that babies' first utterances are linked to the maturation of the vocal tract, McGill University researchers have found that deaf babies exposed to sign language from birth "babble" with their hands.

The study by Laura A. Petitto and Paula F. Marentette, reported in the March 22 issue of the journal Science, involved two babies who were deaf and had deaf parents and three hearing infants with hearing parents. The babies were observed at about 10, 12, and 14 months.

While the hearing and deaf babies "produced similar types and quantities of gestures," so-called "manual babbling" accounted for 32 percent to 71 percent of the deaf babies' gestures, compared with only 15 percent to 32 percent of the hearing infants'. Moreover, the deaf babies' gestures featured recognizable elements of sign language.

The deaf babies "progressed through stages of manual babbling similar to the stages of vocal babbling observed in hearing infants," displaying preferences for specific signs, rhythms, and body positions, just as hearing infants repeat particular sounds and use stress and intonation.

The study, which suggests deaf parents reinforce signs much as hearing parents coax language, shows babbling may be tied to "an expressive capacity capable of processing speech and sign."

"Similarities in the time course, structure, and use of manual and vocal babbling suggest that there is a unitary language capacity that underlies human signed and spoken language acquisition," the study concluded.

Contending that a lack of "learning readiness" is hindering education reform in Minnesota, business leaders there have urged lawmakers, schools, and communities to help improve programs for young children.

In a report to the Senate Education Committee, the Minnesota Business Partnership said schools are being "overwhelmed" by young children with "multi-facted" problems. While teachers should play a key role in assessing children's readiness, it said, they should not be responsible for all the health and social services needed to ensure healthy development.

"The mixing of academic and social agendas has caused confusion about the overall mission of education," said James J. Renier, chairman of the group's equality task force and the chief executive officer of Honeywell.

While teachers zero in on academics, the report said, community agencies and businesses "should assume a more active role" in arranging for services from prenatal care through formal education.

It also calls for early-childhood education programs aimed at helping children of all abilities develop to their full potential.

It also offers advice on improving schools beyond the early years, through such reforms as fewer state mandates, more performance-based assessment, and a more flexible school year.

Copies of "An Education Agenda for Minnesota: the Challenge to our Communities and Schools" are available free from the Minnesota Business Partnership, 4050 I.D.S. Center, Minneapolis, Minn. 55402.

A key concern for working parents is finding temporary care when their regular child care falls through, a new survey shows.

Emergency child care ranked as respondents' number-one choice in a poll asking 3,000 employees of U.S. corporations, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies how employers could help them balance work and family.

"Family-sensitive personnel policies" were ranked second in the survey, which was conducted by p.k.i. Corporate Child Care, a Chantilly, Va., consulting firm.

While offering child care at or near the business site ranked third, the survey suggests "building a child-care facility is not the only solution" for working parents, said Cheri Sheridan, president of p.k.i. The poll suggests employers should also consider setting up short-term emergency-care programs and provide "sensitivity training" for management, she said.--dc

Vol. 10, Issue 30

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