Identifying & Engaging Strengths

Last week we discussed the “tiger mom” parenting debate and my mantra was “The key to parenting best practices is to tune into your child’s unique mind and profile of strengths and help them become who they truly are. Assume their mind and profile is a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Our job as parents and educators is to bring out those brilliant gifts by finding great ways to engage that mind in meaningful ways — with activities, projects, and education that challenge and cultivate that richness.”

I realize that it is easier said then done. How do we actually identify and engage our child’s uniqueness.

One simple observation is that we see our child’s strengths by comparing and contrasting their behaviors to what other kids are doing around their age & stage. Sports is a great example, I had no clue about my son’s athletic and soccer skills until he joined a soccer team and I saw him playing with others. Watching him play in the backyard alone was not nearly as helpful as seeing him play in a context with others his age.

I know that it is politically correct these days to say we never want to compare our kids to others and I do understand the downside risk of comparing motivated by a desire to brag about our child or to satisfy our own pride of raising the “best” kids. Instead we want to be motivated by a chance to really get to know our own child better. The simple fact is that every child is unique and they give off signals all the time about what makes them so. Group settings help us see those signals more clearly. We want to expose our kids to a diverse range of activities so that we can actually see what most interests them, heightens their joy and draws out their skills and lets them shine.

Tiger Moms & the Parenting Debate

The debate on parenting and educational best practices has been brought to a fevered pitch with Amy Chua’s views in Tiger Mother and documentary film hits Race to Nowhere and Waiting for Superman filling parent discussions. The problem is that the proposed solutions in these various media couldn’t be more diametrically opposed. Race to Nowhere condemns the “dark side of America’s achievement culture” calling for no more homework while Amy Chua claims America does not have an achievement culture at all but a lax and loose culture that indulges kids and enables them to waste time. A strict demanding Chinese style Tiger Mom is her solution. Waiting for Superman confirms the mess in our public schools and then seems to side with Amy Chua by elevating KIPS and SEEDS charter schools as solutions, which expect a lot more from every student and insist on more classroom time, more one-on-one tutoring and more homework to achieve results. With all the mixed messages, what are parents to think?

I personally believe the current debate does not help us make sense of what direction we parents should take. Amy Chua’s ideas about high expectations and assuming that a child is strong – - not fragile – - cannot be easily dismissed. Nor can the high test scores of Eastern cultures (See NYTimes article) . Yet neither can we dismiss the western or American advances in the cognitive sciences that highlights the diversity and complexity of each human mind. It indicates that minds really are all different, each possessing a different profile of strengths and able to contribute to the world in diverse ways. And it is not just about our academic profile; it is about creativity, emotional intelligence, social intelligence and practical intelligence as well as qualities like happiness, joy, compassion and wisdom. Our world is swimming in an immense diversity of professions, roles and responsibilities; yet our schools and cultures narrow intelligence and assessments down to reading, writing and arithmetic. (see Ken Robinson’s TedTalk)

The key to parenting best practices is to tune into your child’s unique mind and profile of strengths. Assume their mind and profile is a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Our job as parents and educators is to bring out those brilliant gifts by finding great ways to engage that mind in meaningful ways — with activities, projects, and education that challenge and cultivate that richness. Contrary to some child-centered beliefs, it does not happen by letting children do whatever they want. Amy Chua is right about the fact that watching TV the amount of hours the average American child watches is not going to help. How do we parents provide the right experiences and right expectations to satisfy our universal desire to have our children thrive in a changing unpredictable world.

We need the debate to shift to ideas for how we identify what our children are interested in, what is their unique mind like and how do we provide the kind of opportunities that will strengthen their unique profile. In other words: How do we best provide an individual-centered education? Even parents of infants and toddlers have a huge role as the first and most important teacher. Most of the posts in this blog give concrete examples of how to get down on the floor with your child, enter and see the world through their eyes, observe what they are interested in and developmentally able to do, respond with appropriate exchanges and invitations to extend the play and exploration. It is never too early to get to know your child and cultivate their budding abilities.

Social Awareness & Seeking Approval

As our toddlers develop more social awareness, they soon begin seeking approval from those important to them. Toddlers want their efforts to be rewarded with attention, excitement and approval. Praise, the more the better but you want it to be descriptive of what was accomplished. Instead of the frequent “good job”, try to describe what happened:

“Wow, look at how tall your block tower is. You placed 1, 2, 3 blocks in that tower, congratulations”. Start early and be explicit about how effort leads to specific results that get your attention and praise.

Whitney as most toddlers enjoyed stacking blocks on top of each other to create a tower. She would look up at me frequently after each block was successfully placed as if to say “see I did it” and get my approval. I would certainly play along describing what Whitney was doing and showing my excitement.

We are never really certain what is going on inside that little head of our toddlers. But it is always fun to speculate. Whitney’s baby babble in this video really threw me for a loop as I had no idea what she was saying nor what purpose it was serving so I tried to focus on the block building. One thing I could have done is shifted to different surfaces to explore the effects. The surface of the rug made it particularly difficult to get the third block to stack without falling. If we moved just a couple feet we could have compared the tower build on the wood floor to the carpet and probably made some discoveries there.

Baby Thoughts

Baby thinking or ideas don’t start as full blown adult thinking with sophisticated models of some concept that has an integrated past, present and future. Instead our babies start with simple isolated schemas for actions they see happening in the world. Our babies can see patterns in their own and other’s behavior. They see which actions garner affection and approval; which, disapproval and anger. They see how the physical world works- hitting this button causes this thing to pop out. They picture relationships and possibilities with these images creating an inner world of thought. It is this ability to understand and keep in memory “patterns” that lets a toddler meaningfully explore and categorize the world and begin to solve problems long before they speak words. She is beginning to construct these series of images in mind. These models are the most deliberate and conscious productions of the baby mind.

While learning to use objects, our babies imitate how adults interact with them. This imitation becomes internalized and our baby begins to develop a specific schema for interacting with a specific object. Researchers call this mental schema a “sensorimotor concept”. For example, Whitney observed us adults using a brush numerous times and at 10 or so months could imitate that “brushing” schema:

Even though whitney would use the back side of the brush and almost never actually have an actual effect of combing her hair, She enjoyed repeating the concept of brushing. As whitney bangs the brush against her head and attempts stroking it, she develops a sensorimotor schema or concept for the brush that combines visual, tactile, and kinesthetic representations of brushing. These non verbal ideas are the foundations for thought and reason!

Early Logic- “Division” via Tearing Paper

Babies develop early math and numeracy skills by experiencing concrete actions on their world. Take simple paper tearing. One big piece of paper can be torn into 2 pieces, 3, 4, 5 — from the one piece come many pieces—like magic to a baby. We take it for granted but to babies this is exciting stuff. Watch Whitney’s squeal with each additional “division” of paper:

It is these early intuitive experiences with sequence, number & numeracy that provide the foundation for later abstract mathematical symbol systems. It is the same with more and less of stuff; babies notice the difference. More ice cream for the sibling can bring about a temper tantrum. We can help our babies reflect on these logical and numberical aspects of their world by drawing attention to them and narrating a bit as I attempt in the video.

Early Logic Adventures- Figuring things out

Once our babies start to sit up, this milestone opens a whole new range of exploration. Their hands free up and whatever they can get them on, they want to explore and manipulate. Here Whitney, gets her hands on one of Dad’s shoes — grabbing the shoelace, bringing it to her mouth, flapping it around, tugging on it til the shoe moves. These explorations help her “figure out” the shoe or any object for that matter:

As mentioned last post, one of the first steps in the development in logic is a baby’s realization that he or she can make something happen. As our babies’ day-to-day experiences accumulate, they begin to notice patterns in their world. They begin to organize and integrate the world into spatial and sequential categories. They explore the features of different objects and learn to “figure things out” — what makes a shoe a shoe, a ball a ball, etc. Bring a bunch of varied objects into their reach and enjoy the show.

Early Logic Adventures- Making things happen

Our little ones don’t start their logic careers with the 123s, shapes, and colors. Instead they figure out that when they do something, it can make something else happen in the world. So if they give you a big smile, you will give them a big smile back. This is early cause and effect and babies are discovering this by 3 months of age. They are learning this across all aspects of their life. When in a crib or on a playmat, if they kick the bell it will make a sound. In the video below, my daughter Whitney, discovers that when she makes her legs hit the ball it moves and makes a sound:

By three months, our babies demonstrate that they can remember that they know that doing one thing makes another thing happen and show that they can make it happen–again and again. With Whitney’s ability to coordinate vision, reaching and kicking, something even more dramatic is happening to her mind. She is learning that she can make interesting things happen AND can remember them for short periods of time! Coordinating eye, hand and foot movement is a remarkable achievement but it is the feeling of mastery at making things work that truly promotes our babies’ conceptual and logical development. The more opportunities we offer that enable them to “make things happen”, the stronger this critical foundation for logic and learning.

Books & Early Reading

As discussed last blog post, there are lots of opportunities in the 0 to 3 period to work on language development. Even before verbal “Conversations” (post 7/7/10), we can help our little ones love books and the reading experience. Early on it does not have to be about the words on the page and naming objects as much as just creating a fun interactive experience with mom or dad. Babies love to hold the book and turn the pages and this should not be overlooked as important early literacy skill. Watch Whitney’s important excitement in picking out and bringing me a few books and then orienting the book so that she can turn the pages:

While reading try to make the experience interactive by going off the page. Books do not have be read linearly from front to back. Make it interactive. There are lots of body parts books that are just about naming the body part like hand, face, foot; instead of just labeling try to help your baby “DO” or use the body part. Babies learn best by doing so get them engaged and interacting with you:

Toddler Conversations

What kind of conversations are you having with your little one? At the youngest ages, there is amazingly rich non-verbal dialogue but when it comes to talking we adults are doing most of it. Our toddlers do show a distinct progression in how they share their ideas. From one and a half to two yrs, toddlers usually have very simple and isolated ideas. For example, in the video below, Whitney expresses that she would like me to “sit down” next to her while she eats lunch and then tries to communicate that she does not want her usual nap after lunch:

This conversation is characterized by isolated ideas without much fluency and really no narrative at all. Between 2.5 and 3 years, our toddlers begin to connect their isolated islands of understanding into more comprehensive narratives across events and time. These Narratives go further than just words to describe things. Narratives have a dramatic through line with actors who have desires directed toward goals which take place in a context. Below is an example of Whitney’s new ability with conversation and narrative stories:

Whitney was now beginning to understand how one event leads to another (a storm can create a mess); how ideas operate across time (If the mess was created yesterday; today we need to clean it up); and how ideas operate across space (If the street sweeper can clean up the street, it could also clean-up our driveway). Ideas can now be used to explain emotions (I don’t like that noise from the machines; that noise makes me mad) and for logical thinking (that is fantasy instead of reality). This period is a monumental stepping stone toward mature, rational thinking. You can have conversations on just about anything at anytime and anywhere, so engage your toddler and see what they have to say.

Backyard Learning Adventures

Last time you were in the backyard or grassy park, what kind of learning adventures did you notice your infants or toddlers undertaking and what did you do to support and extend the experience? There are lots of rich learning explorations to be had in the backyard. Here in the video below, my daughter Whitney found lots of things that peaked her interest for further investigation from flowers and butterflies to bees and clovers:

I tried to encourage her to explore those interests simply by labeling them and then probing with more questions. I also tried to embed some “numeracy” into her clover collecting by supporting her counting skills. Whitney was starting to learn that the order of numbers matters and discovering that the last number tells how many. Notice how when she counts that clovers first by herself she really can’t do it so well but by my helping her lay out the daisies in a row and scaffolding her, she could better exercise her early counting in this meaningful context. For us parents finding ways to embed the learning in everyday fun and meaningful activities is what it is all about. So next time we are out in the backyard, let’s look for all those great opportunities to create richer learning adventures.

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