Earlier, faster, better: precocious kids

What it really means when a child hits milestones ahead of her peers.

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As a preschooler, Chad deVries* used to sit on the couch at home in Maitland, Ont., poring over picture books, telling the stories to himself. His mom, Caitlin, simply assumed he’d memorized the words. Then she noticed Chad “reading” a book she didn’t think she’d ever read to him before. Curious and a bit excited, she and her husband decided to test the elder of their two children by handing him a book they were sure he’d never seen. He read it easily.

So they tried another book — with the same result. Before long, Chad’s ability became a topic of fascination for friends and relatives. “We have a video of him reading Dr. Seuss at a family birthday party,” deVries says. Chad was 3½ at the time.

DeVries soon found herself fending off accusations that they had somehow pushed Chad into early reading. But she says Chad’s achievement had nothing to do with any special effort on the part of his parents. “I was looking after a baby at the time,” deVries says. “I assure you I didn’t have time to be drilling him on letters or phonics.”

Few kids are as naturally precocious as Chad and most parents don’t expect their kids to read at three. But lots of us kind of like it when our children are, well, at least a little ahead. And certain people have put considerable effort into making it happen, devising toys, videos, classes and other learning schemes to get more kids to read, talk, swim, identify colours or do just about anything faster and sooner. But if certain children naturally develop skills early, does that mean most kids should be encouraged to do likewise?
No child left behind
Jean Piaget, the French developmental psychologist, called it the North American obsession: If something is good for child development, then more, earlier and faster must be better.

Flash cards designed to teach babies the names of objects, animals and colours have been around for more than 25 years. However, the idea that many children can or should learn skills earlier and faster than they would on their own picked up steam in the mid-1990s. Entrepreneurs co-opted the “new brain research,” as it was called at the time, to market all manner of toys, CDs and videos that allegedly enhanced brain development.

Witness the proliferation of videos by Brainy Baby, Baby Einstein and their competitors, which have sold by the millions since launching in 1995. And new stuff keeps coming. Robert C. Titzer, an American self-proclaimed “expert in the area of infant learning,” says he has developed a method that begins teaching babies as young as three months to read. His website features a short video of a baby who touches various parts of her body in response to flash cards he shows her. It appears she has been trained to recognize certain words as objects, and to associate the object with the corresponding part of her body. The technical term for what she’s doing is “paired associative learning.” It seems a leap to call it reading. (See The Real Deal for the scoop on other early learning products.)

Even when parents are skeptical about the hype, the cumulative effect is hard to withstand. “If I don’t buy this product,” a new parent might wonder, “will my baby be left behind by her peers who do have it?”
Cracking the code
When it comes to early learning, it is not easy to separate the steak from the sizzle. Let’s start with what we know. We know, for example, that while a consistent minority of children develop certain skills like reading and talking much earlier than their peers, some normal and even bright kids learn the skills a little later than normal. We also know that the emergence of different abilities can be uneven in the same child. Chad, now eight, reads masterfully, yet has struggled with handwriting. Hailee Clements could whistle at two, but, according to her mom, Shaunda Clements of Calgary, now that she’s five it’s still hard to say what this early ability signified.

We also know something about early reading. While it’s not necessarily a sign of genius, early readers are usually “smarter than the average bear.” Nancy Ewald Jackson, a developmental psychologist and reading acquisition expert at the University of Iowa, says one review of the literature found the average IQ of early readers was 130. “That’s clearly above average, but half the group would not qualify as gifted in terms of IQ,” she points out. One of her studies showed that precocious kindergarten readers tended still to be reading above grade level by grades five and six. But it isn’t clear whether that’s because they were bright, and therefore read early, as opposed to because they read early, and thereby became smarter.

Jackson says early readers are usually good at “cracking the code” — figuring out the relationship between print and the sounds of the language. “Once they have cracked the code, a switch takes place and comprehension becomes the key thing,” she says. Full comprehension requires knowledge of the world, reasoning ability and understanding of complex sentence structures, which usually come later. That may explain why gifted kids who don’t crack the code early catch up quickly when they do.

Titzer argues his early learning approach reduces the risk of reading problems later on. However, Charles Nelson, a developmental psychologist at Harvard University, while not familiar with Titzer’s methods and claims, believes the risks of trying to accelerate development generally outweigh the benefits. “I would worry about children feeling pressured, or learning skills to please adults rather than themselves, or children being pushed into academics when they should be playing.”
Many child development experts would agree, but the studies that shed light on this topic are few and far between. In one American study published in 1991, researchers compared children in a play-oriented preschool with others who attended an academic preschool incorporating more teacher-led formal instruction. They found no significant advantage in tests of academic skills, creativity and emotional well-being. The only difference that approached statistical significance was that kids from the academic preschool showed slightly more test anxiety.

Another, slightly wacky-sounding study showed children who were almost ready to walk could be made to walk sooner by being put in harnesses and training on treadmills. But there were no long-term benefits to their accelerated learning. “They walked a few weeks earlier and then they plateaued, and their peers caught up,” Nelson says.

David Bjorklund, an evolutionary developmental psychologist at Florida Atlantic University, suggests another, more worrisome concern: “When you provide stimulation that is in excess of what is typical, you don’t know what all the effects are going to be, and some of those effects may be negative.” He points to a study where researchers opened the tops of eggs before baby birds hatched and exposed them to patterns of lights they would normally see after emerging. “Their visual discrimination was better early in life,” he says, “but they were much poorer at identifying their mother’s voice, which is, for birds, a critical evolutionary skill.”

In humans, the closest comparison is with premature babies who get lots of sensory stimulation — for example, the lights and sounds of the NICU — when their nervous systems are not ready. Heidelise Als, a newborn psychologist with Children’s Hospital of Boston, says this overwhelming sensory experience leads to altered brain pathways, which may cause certain developmental and cognitive problems experienced by such preemies.

None of these examples proves that a driven attempt to teach a baby the alphabet would be harmful, but they do support those who say that accelerating child development has questionable benefits and may be risky. Is that enough to suppress the pang that comes when we hear about a child who seems to be ahead of our own?
When later is better
Today’s Parent Steps & Stages columnist Teresa Pitman saw developmental differences within her own family. Her third child, Danny, started reading before he turned four — while his not-yet-reading older sister, Lisa, was six. In fact, Lisa wouldn’t begin to read for another two years. Was Pitman worried? “Maybe a little bit,” she says, but “I’m convinced that trying to push Lisa before she was ready would have been a disaster.” That was the case with Pitman’s youngest child, Jeremy. In school, she says, “he felt so frustrated it got to the point where he hated books. He didn’t want me to read to him anymore.” He was still a non-reader at the end of grade two.

Yet, despite their late starts, both children went on to thrive academically. Jeremy picked up reading over the summer and vaulted to the top reading group in his grade-three class. More recently, Lisa finished her master’s degree with top marks. Their experience certainly doesn’t jibe with the earlier-is-better mindset. And, like many liberal-thinking parents, Pitman was reluctant to push academics at the possible expense of other aspects of her children’s development, particularly their emotional development.

Stanley Greenspan, a clinical professor of psychiatry, behavioural sciences and paediatrics at George Washington University Medical School in Washington, DC, goes a step further. First, he says when we measure precocious development, most of the time we’re measuring the wrong things. “Pushing reading and other memory-based cognitive skills is the wrong way to help a child’s brain development because you’re only playing to a few trees and ignoring the forest. Reading is important, but it’s a rote skill, and it has little to do with the ability to analyze and understand ideas deeply, which is where intelligence really lies.”

Second, Greenspan and Stuart Shanker, president of the Council for Early Child Development and a professor at Toronto’s York University, recently proposed a fascinating theory about the development of intelligence in a book called The First Idea. They argue children’s emotional development is not just important for enhancing so-called emotional intelligence, but that emotion and reason are inextricably linked. Both men have worked extensively with children who have developmental problems, including autism. Some of the children they worked with could count, even calculate, but numbers had no meaning for them until therapists created an emotional experience of quantity by negotiating over pennies or candies. The key is that emotion is a core component of any thought, symbol or idea. Four isn’t just a word, a symbol on a page or four fingers held up; it’s also the four most important people in my world — Mom, Dad, baby sister and me. “The ability to reason begins with understanding emotional interactions with other people and later is applied to more impersonal things like reading, mathematics, debating and scientific reasoning,” says Shanker.

This is not to throw more concrete developmental milestones out the window. Obviously, it matters that toddlers learn how to talk by a certain age. But Shanker and Greenspan worry that overemphasis on early academic skills could overshadow the other less concrete (and harder to measure) abilities that also play a major role in a child’s intelligence — for example, his ability to engage in what they call emotional signalling, something that starts in infancy with gentle exchanges of coos and gurgles over diaper changes and feeding.

Learning products have their place, maybe even those genius baby videos. (Psst! Shanker admits his kids have watched them in limited amounts.) But healthy child development is about a lot more than when a child crawls, talks in sentences or reads compared to the next kid. And whatever we do to nurture or enhance that development will probably work best when we think in terms of the whole child, not just one subset of skills.

*Name changed by request.
The real deal:

Myth: Classical music CDs make babies smarter.
Reality: These recordings are nice classical music samplers that parents and babies might enjoy — no more, no less.

Myth: Black and white patterns help to develop babies’ vision.
Reality: While it’s true that high-contrast objects (including black and white) are easiest for newborns to focus on, they do nothing in particular to enhance visual development.

Myth: Watching Brainy Baby Left Brain and Right Brain videos will enhance little ones’ logical and creative thinking.
Reality: Left-right specialization doesn’t begin until age five or six.

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  1. Pingback: Essential skills for the preschool years | Bellevue Toddlers

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