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Sunday, September 30th, 2012
Three big themes in the world of parenting stimulated discussion this past month. Here’s a recap of these along with links to posts that take them on.
(1) The critical role of pretend play – long cherished in the academic literature and embedded in childhood education – was, to a degree, challenged by a somewhat provocative review paper. To some, it seemed like the article’s primary goal was to suggest that pretend play may be overrated as a promoter of cognitive development in general and creativity in particular, and hence should be reconsidered in a school’s curriculum. My take was a little different. I thought the paper did a good job of highlighting the aspects of development that are positively influenced by pretend play – especially social skills – while suggesting that the cognitive aspects may in fact not be the primary benefit:
“Is Pretend Play Overrated?: The Take-Home Messages From The New Provocative Review”
The big thing for me was that, contrary to what you might have read about this paper, there was support for different types of play in the educational (and home) lives of young children (rather than suggesting to eliminate play). To wit, I also discussed a new study which revealed how drawing (particularly copying shapes) in toddlerhood predicts reading achievement in kindergarten even after accounting for traditional indicators of cognitive maturity:
Try This With Your Toddler: How A Particular Type of Drawing Is Associated With Reading Achievement In Kindergarten”
(2) DNA was in the news in a number of ways. There was lots of interest in the recent link made between paternal age and risk for autism in offspring. Much was made of the idea that men, as well as women, have a biological clock. In response, I described what that may mean biologically, and how men (like women) may have to factor in rather inconclusive probabilities when making complex choices about having children at different ages:
Dads, DNA, And Choices
DNA and moms was also a hot topic. A study was characterized in the media as identifying “the mom gene” – implying that a woman either has, or hasn’t, a gene which would make her want to be a mom. I pointed out that genetics doesn’t typically work like this in humans, along with the, um, difficulties in making the jump from a study about female mice who had the function of a gene experimentally disabled to the human female:
Is There A Mom Gene?
(3) Sleep was also a big topic. While you may have read that a new study showed that it’s okay to let your baby “cry-it-out” the actual take-home messages were more fine-grained. In particular, the study was really about 2 types of sleep training methods, their utility in reducing infant sleep problems, and their lack of effects – positive or negative – 5 years later:
That “Cry-It-Out” Study: 5 Important Take-Home Messages You Should Know
I especially encourage you to check this out because we are finally seeing actual scientific studies on sleep training, rather than just debate. And the implications for parents are quite reasonable and, to my way of thinking, very important to know, given that all parents wrestle with figuring out how to get their babies to sleep.
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Wednesday, September 12th, 2012
Parents spend lots of time trying to ensure that their child is ready for kindergarten. Much of that effort is devoted to things we know are important – for example, reading. But it’s becoming accepted that fine motor skills are also a critical domain of development which intersects – in sometimes surprising ways – with cognitive development. And the results of an interesting study published in the journal Child Development hones in on one particular type of fine motor development – design copy or, more simply, copying shapes.
A group of researchers recruited over 200 3- and 4-year olds. They studied the kids prior to entry to kindergarten, testing them on a number of things, including a variety of fine motor skills. They then collected data on the kids’ reading performance throughout kindergarten.
What they found was that design copy was an especially good indicator of reading skill and progress through the kindergarten year. Kids who showed higher design copy skills – being able, for example, to copy shapes like a square or a circle – had elevated scores on a number of indicators of reading achievement, including phonological awareness, decoding, and reading comprehension. This association held after accounting for a number of other factors, leading the researchers to speculate that design copy plays a unique role in the development of literacy.
All this makes sense when you think of what kids are doing in kindergarten – part of their language development is to learn how to write (copy) letters. The researchers speculated that, in part, when kids have good design copy skills, they can focus their attention more on learning the sound and meaning of words (as opposed to having to focus more on using a pencil). That said, they also suggested that there are probably unique cognitive skills that come from developing fine motor skills in general, and design copy in particular.
So, in addition to having fun reading to your toddler, spend a little time encouraging them to copy shapes. That’s fun as well – and it’s a nice way to help them learn a skill that will serve them well in kindergarten.
Image of adult and child drawing via Shutterstock.com
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Monday, March 5th, 2012
So “redshirting” – holding back a child from starting kindergarten so that they can be amongst the oldest, rather than the youngest in their class – is in the news again and being debated again. For many kids, it’s not particularly relevant – like if they have a winter birthday, there’s usually no debate on when they start kindergarten. But if your kid has a summer birthday, you can decide if they will be one of the younger kids in their kindergarten class – or wait a year so they can be one of the older kids in the class. So the question is, how do you make that decision?
Well, typically I invest in examining the research on a topic to date. I like to go through the studies, see if there are good reviews of studies, and if possible find analytic approaches that are applied to a number of studies (known as meta-analysis). But on this topic, I’m really not interested in the data that are out there. Why? Well, the data most frequently cited involve looking at birth dates – to determine kids who, at a given point in time, are older or younger – in either highly selected samples (such as hockey players) or in large data bases that track academic performance. The basic idea is that the younger kids are less likely to get put on “fast track” (academically or athletically) because they are developmentally behind the older kids – the younger kids may not be as precocious as readers, or the biggest kids in the class. And this “small effect” (statistically the idea is that this is empirically not a whopper effect but it accumulates over time) thus eventually prevents the younger kids from achieving as much as the older kids. But here’s the thing for me. Anytime you look at either selected samples or very large samples you have to be very wary of drawing conclusions from correlational data – and not just because of the usual disclaimers. To me, you really need to show – empirically, with real data, and not with after the fact inference – that there is a process going on, after taking into account a whole lot of other variables. And for me, until I see process data (which, by the way, I’ve been collecting as a researcher for more than a few years now), I don’t really buy into anything or assume a take-home message. Especially since there are so many other factors (uh, like, genetics, environment, etc) that influence a child’s physical and cognitive growth and shape the vast individual differences you see in a group of kids that are independent of a few months worth of age difference.
So here’s my (obviously) very biased take: I’m not interested in the data that are out there yet. I don’t believe that, for the vast majority of kids, being the oldest or youngest in a class has a profound influence on the rest of their lives. Does it have some immediate impact? Maybe for some kids it does. But so do lots of other factors – factors that are much more connected to process than structurally being older or younger than the rest of the kids. If I’m a parent, I want to get some feedback from educators on my child’s social and academic readiness, which can be quite separate from where they are at in terms of chronological age. Will my child be bored in kindergarten, or find it stimulating? Will my child be able to integrate socially? Will my child have the behavioral control necessary for the change in structure? Are they ready to take off on their own? Will they possibly need some support in some areas? These are the questions every parent should consider – whether or not they have a choice in terms of when their kid starts kindergarten – and should be the rationale platform if a decision on “redshirting” needs to be made. Parents have to bring their resources to help their child develop to their full potential – at every developmental stage – given their unique set of skills and, yes, issues (every kid will have some). And sometimes there are very real structural barriers when a kid is growing up that may be related to their age, their height, their weight, their academic skills, or their social skills. Parenting is all about taking that on – it’s called preparing your kid for the real world. And to me, that’s a much more important focus for parents than trying to find some type of structural advantage to set up a kid to capitalize on the (questionable) probabilities for excellence as determined at age 5.
For more discussion on the topic of redshirting, check out this link – it’s a very good and informative read.
Image of red shirt via Shutterstock.com
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