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Friday, July 25th, 2014
The annual “Kids Count” report that measures the well-being of American children based on 16 indicators of economic, educational, health, and family welfare, has found encouraging improvements in several areas nationwide, chiefly a rising number of children who are attending preschool, and a steady decline in the number of kids who lag behind in reading and math. Also, national declines in the teen pregnancy, birth, and death rates suggest a brightening future for U.S. youth.
But the news from the report, which is published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and is now in its 25th year, is not all good. which is in its 25th year, also found a concerning rise in the number of children growing up in poor communities, and an increasing percentage of kids who are growing up in single-parent households.
“We should all be encouraged by the improvements in many well-being indicators in the health, education and safety areas,” said Patrick McCarthy, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s president and CEO said in a news release. “But we must do much more. All of us, in every sector — business, government, nonprofits, faith-based groups, families — need to continue to work together to ensure that all children have the chance to succeed.”
The foundation published the list of state-by-state rankings, which listed Massachusetts as the top-ranked state in education and overall, and Mississippi as the lowest-ranking state overall as well as in the economic well-being and family and community categories. Vermont, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Minnesota rounded out the top 5 states, and New Mexico, Nevada, Louisiana, and Arizona joined Mississippi in the bottom 5.
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Tuesday, July 1st, 2014
Young children–just 4 or 5 years old–may be better at college students at catching on when it comes to operating mobile apps, remote controls, and other tech gadgets that often leave adults scratching their heads and fumbling through manuals. According to new research from the University of California at Berkeley, it’s the tots’ openness to thinking about new challenges in multiple ways that enables them to problem-solve their way to success with gadgets and games.
In the study, more than 100 preschoolers and more than 170 college students were given a music box game and shown how the placement of differently-shaped clay pieces on top of the box might make it turn on. The subjects were then asked to turn the box on. NPR reports on the findings:
“What we discovered, to our surprise, was not only were 4-year-olds amazingly good at doing this, but they were actually better at it than grown-ups were,” [psychologist Alison] Gopnik says.
So why are little kids who can’t even tie their shoes better at figuring out the gadget than adults? After all, conventional wisdom contends that young children really don’t understand abstract things like cause and effect until pretty late in their development.
Gopnik thinks it’s because children approach solving the problem differently than adults.
Children try a variety of novel ideas and unusual strategies to get the gadget to go. For example, Gopnik says, “If the child sees that a square block and a round block independently turn the music on, then they’ll take a square and take a circle and put them both on the machine together to make it go, even though they never actually saw the experimenters do that.”
This is flexible, fluid thinking — children exploring an unlikely hypothesis. Exploratory learning comes naturally to young children, says Gopnik. Adults, on the other hand, jump on the first, most obvious solution and doggedly stick to it, even if it’s not working. That’s inflexible, narrow thinking. “We think the moral of the study is that maybe children are better at solving problems when the solution is an unexpected one,” says Gopnik.
Gopnik went on to say that this openness may disappear early in childhood–even by kindergarten, it may be diminishing.
Image: Confused college student, via Shutterstock
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Tuesday, March 18th, 2014
A study published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which claimed a 43 percent drop in the number of preschool-aged American kids who have a weight problem, is being questioned as a possible statistical anomaly, and not an indication that the childhood obesity epidemic is on its way out. Reuters reports on the challenge, which is coming from obesity experts from Massachusetts General Hospital and other places:
In fact, based on the researchers’ own data, the obesity rate may have even risen rather than declined.
“You need to have a healthy degree of skepticism about the validity of this finding,” said Dr. Lee Kaplan, director of the weight center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
No evidence of the kinds of major shifts in the behavior among preschoolers aged 2 to 5 exists which would explain a 43 percent drop in their obesity rates, he said.
The latest study is based a well-respected data set taken from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, or NHANES, which has been conducted annually since the 1960s and involves in-person interviews and physical exams.
The CDC defines obesity in adults as having a body mass index – a ratio of weight to height – above 30, but in children it is defined by where the individual falls on age- and sex-specific growth charts.
The 2011-2012 version of the survey included 9,120 people; 871 of them were 2 to 5 years old.
In some research 871 would be considered a large number. But when the obesity rate is fairly low, having a sample of a few hundred makes it easier for errors to creep in through random chance.
“In small samples like this, you are going to have chance fluctuations,” said epidemiologist Geoffrey Kabat of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.
To be sure, the CDC scientists were aware of the statistical limitations of their data, and their paper clearly stated that the findings were imprecise.
The 43 percent headline figure refers to the drop from the 13.9 percent rate in 2003-04 to the 8.4 percent rate in 2011-2012. The change of 5.5 points represents a decline of 40 percent from the original 13.9 percent. (The 43 percent trumpeted by a CDC press release comes from rounding those numbers to 14 and 8, respectively.)
In addition to the small sample size and a lack of supporting evidence from other recent surveys of childhood weight, experts cite a dearth of signs of behavioral changes that would contribute to improving obesity numbers. More from Reuters:
For obesity rates to drop, researchers reckon, young children have to eat differently and become more active. But research shows little sign of such changes among 2-to-5-year olds, casting more doubt on the 43 percent claim.
Such a decline would require changes in exercise, food consumption and sleep patterns, said Mass General’s Kaplan “There is no evidence of that,” he said.
In 2010 [WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program researcher Shannon] Whaley and her colleagues examined the effectiveness of WIC classes and counseling to encourage healthy eating and activities for women and children in the program.
Their findings were discouraging: Television watching and consumption of sweet or salty snacks actually rose, while fruit and vegetable consumption fell – changes that could lead to weight gain. One positive was a rise in physical activity.
Apart from the WIC program, few anti-obesity efforts target preschoolers, Kaplan pointed out. That makes a precipitous decline in obesity in that group highly unlikely.
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Thursday, March 13th, 2014
A law that mandates safety measures for early childhood education centers including background checks for caregivers, annual inspections, CPR training requirements, safe sleep practices, and more has been reauthorized by the U.S. Senate as the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 2014 (CCDBG). The legislation, which will coordinate federal and state funding for early childhood education programs, was supported by Senators from both major political parties.
“Early childhood education is essential to a child’s future,” U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (D-Co.) told the Colorado Springs Gazette, “Early learning programs are proven to increase kindergarten readiness and to provide students with the early skills they need to succeed later in school and in life. ”
North Carolina Republican Senator Richard Burr voiced his pleasure that the bill ensures that early childhood education funds, which help an estimated 1.5 million low-income children have access to early education, wind up at programs that meet consistent and high standards for safety and efficacy.
“CCDBG is a welfare reform success story that encourages personal responsibility,” Burr said in The Ripon Advance. “The transparency we incorporate in this law will go a long way toward making parents well-informed consumers of childcare and improve the safety of the programs. It is of particular importance to me that federal dollars will no longer go to childcare providers who have been convicted of violent crimes. CCDBG also places an emphasis on improving the quality of our childcare facilities over the next several years. This is not another Washington entitlement but an investment in the self-sufficiency of some of our hardest working families.”
Access to early education programs is on the rise across the country, even in states that had previously objected to the idea that every child should have a preschool education.
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Friday, March 7th, 2014
Kids between the ages of 4 and 6 may have an innate ability to solve algebra problems long before they have had a single math class, according to new research from Johns Hopkins University.
“These very young children, some of whom are just learning to count, and few of whom have even gone to school yet, are doing basic algebra and with little effort,” post-doctoral fellow Melissa Kibbe, the study’s author, said in a statement. “They do it by using what we call their ‘Approximate Number System:’ their gut-level, inborn sense of quantity and number.”
The “Approximate Number System,” or ANS, is also called “number sense,” and describes humans’ and animals’ ability to quickly size up the quantity of objects in their everyday environments. Humans and a host of other animals are born with this ability and it’s probably an evolutionary adaptation to help human and animal ancestors survive in the wild, scientists say.
Previous research has revealed some interesting facts about number sense, including that adolescents with better math abilities also had superior number sense when they were preschoolers, and that number sense peaks at age 35.
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