"MIT Brain Study: Back-And-Forth Talk Key To Developing Kids' Verbal Skills" By Carey Goldberg

By: Carey Goldberg
Republished by wbur. View the article at the wbur website here

New MIT research finds that for children's brain development, parents don't just need to talk to their kids — it's important to talk with them, in back-and-forth exchanges.

"What we found is, the more often parents engaged in back-and-forth conversation with their child, the stronger was the brain response in the front of the brain to language," said cognitive neuroscience professor John Gabrieli.

That stronger brain response, measured as children ages 4 to 6 lay in a scanner listening to simple stories, reflects a deeper, more intimate engagement with language, said graduate student Rachel Romeo.

On average, a child from a better-off, more-educated family is likely to hear 30 million more words in the first three years of life than a child from a less-well-off family.

That finding from 1995 helped explain some school achievement gaps. Now, the MIT researchers have illuminated how more talking actually changes a child's brain — and it's not just about the number of words a child hears, Romeo said. It's about interaction, the number of conversational "turns" that parents and preschool-aged children took while wearing recorders that taped their every word over two days.

And the effect didn't depend on parents' income or education, she noted, so it's not as if lower-income children are "doomed" to weaker verbal abilities.

"It seems to suggest, instead, that if they're provided with a rich verbal environment early in life, that that can predict great language and cognitive outcomes," Romeo said.

The finding is an important addition to work over the last 20-plus years on language development, said Dr. Marilyn Augustyn, a behavioral pediatrician at Boston Medical Center who was not involved in the study. She praised its use of brain scanners and recording devices to move the research forward.

A previous study turned up similar MRI findings on children who were read to by their parents, she said, "But what's really revolutionary about this study — and why I think it's really important — is it did both: It looked at the conversations, the words that children heard, and then also looked at the brain activation."

It strengthens a two-part message, she added. "One, we need to talk to our children from the moment they're born, and probably in utero. And two, that language needs to come out of a relationship — and that's what this study really cements. It isn't about streaming tape to a child through the course of a day with thousands and thousands of words, because those become meaningless. It's really about the relationship."

The next step in the research, Romeo said, will be to study an early intervention that gives toddlers more back-and-forth conversations.

"Obviously a two-year-old is not going to debate philosophy with you, but just a back and forth with them, whatever their capabilities are, is really valuable," she said.

The study found a broad range in how many conversational "turns" parents and child took in the course of an hour, from just 90 to as many as 400, Romeo said.

Families under more stress — say, with parents holding down more jobs — may have a harder time changing their conversational interactions with children, Gabrieli acknowledged. "But it is a thing — a very specific thing — that any of us could do with the right encouragement and support," he said.

Passively watched screens clearly do not bring the same sort of interaction as real conversation. But could a smart speaker use artificial intelligence to develop a child's brain much as a conversational parent would?

That question will require more study, the researchers said. Some initial research suggests that if devices can really respond to what a child says, they may offer added benefits, Romeo said.

But Dr. Augustyn is skeptical. Children can become very connected to technology, she said, but even if they develop some sort of relationship with a smart speaker, ultimately, "Alexa doesn't have a lap."

"Reading Aloud to Young Children Has Benefits for Behavior and Attention" By: Perri Klass, M.D

By: Perri Klass, M.D
Republished by the NY Times. View the article at the NY Times website here

It’s a truism in child development that the very young learn through relationships and back-and-forth interactions, including the interactions that occur when parents read to their children. A new study provides evidence of just how sustained an impact reading and playing with young children can have, shaping their social and emotional development in ways that go far beyond helping them learn language and early literacy skills. The parent-child-book moment even has the potential to help curb problem behaviors like aggression, hyperactivity and difficulty with attention, a new study has found.

“We think of reading in lots of different ways, but I don’t know that we think of reading this way,” said Dr. Alan Mendelsohn, an associate professor of pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine, who is the principal investigator of the study, “Reading Aloud, Play and Social-Emotional Development,” published in the journal Pediatrics.

The researchers, many of whom are my friends and colleagues, showed that an intervention, based in pediatric primary care, to promote parents reading aloud and playing with their young children could have a sustained impact on children’s behavior. (I am among those the authors thanked in the study acknowledgments, and I should acknowledge in return that I am not only a fervent believer in the importance of reading aloud to young children, but also the national medical director of Reach Out and Read, a related intervention, which works through pediatric checkups to promote parents reading with young children.)

This study involved 675 families with children from birth to 5; it was a randomized trial in which 225 families received the intervention, called the Video Interaction Project, and the other families served as controls. The V.I.P. model was originally developed in 1998, and has been studied extensively by this research group.

Participating families received books and toys when they visited the pediatric clinic. They met briefly with a parenting coach working with the program to talk about their child’s development, what the parents had noticed, and what they might expect developmentally, and then they were videotaped playing and reading with their child for about five minutes (or a little longer in the part of the study which continued into the preschool years). Immediately after, they watched the videotape with the study interventionist, who helped point out the child’s responses.

“They get to see themselves on videotape and it can be very eye-opening how their child reacts to them when they do different things,” said Adriana Weisleder, one of the authors of the study, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Northwestern University. “We try to highlight the positive things in that interaction — maybe they feel a little silly, and then we show them on the tape how much their kid loves it when they do these things, how fun it is — it can be very motivating.”

“Positive parenting activities make the difference for children,” said Dr. Benard Dreyer, a professor of pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine and past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who was the senior author on the study. He noted that the critical period for child development starts at birth, which is also a time when there are many pediatric visits. “This is a great time for us to reach parents and help them improve their parenting skills, which is what they want to do.”

The Video Interaction Project started as an infant-toddler program, working with low-income urban families in New York during clinic visits from birth to 3 years of age. Previously published data from a randomized controlled trial funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development showed that the 3-year-olds who had received the intervention had improved behavior — that is, they were significantly less likely to be aggressive or hyperactive than the 3-year-olds in the control group.

This new study looked at those children a year and a half later — much closer to school entry — and found that the effects on behavior persisted. The children whose families had participated in the intervention when they were younger were still less likely to manifest those behavior problems — aggression, hyperactivity, difficulty with attention — that can so often make it hard for children to do well and learn and prosper when they get to school.

Some children were enrolled in a second stage of the project, and the books and toys and videotaping continued as they visited the clinic from age 3 to 5; they showed additional “dose-response” effects; more exposure to the “positive parenting” promotion meant stronger positive impacts on the children’s behavior.

“The reduction in hyperactivity is a reduction in meeting clinical levels of hyperactivity,” Dr. Mendelsohn said. “We may be helping some children so they don’t need to have certain kinds of evaluations.” Children who grow up in poverty are at much higher risk of behavior problems in school, so reducing the risk of those attention and behavior problems is one important strategy for reducing educational disparities — as is improving children’s language skills, another source of school problems for poor children.

But all parents should appreciate the ways that reading and playing can shape cognitive as well as social and emotional development, and the power of parental attention to help children flourish. Dr. Weisleder said that in reading and playing, children can encounter situations a little more challenging than what they usually come across in everyday life, and adults can help them think about how to manage those situations.

“Maybe engaging in more reading and play both directly reduces kids’ behavior problems because they’re happier and also makes parents enjoy their child more and view that relationship more positively,” she said.

Reading aloud and playing imaginative games may offer special social and emotional opportunities, Dr. Mendelsohn said. “We think when parents read with their children more, when they play with their children more, the children have an opportunity to think about characters, to think about the feelings of those characters,” he said. “They learn to use words to describe feelings that are otherwise difficult and this enables them to better control their behavior when they have challenging feelings like anger or sadness.”

“The key take-home message to me is that when parents read and play with their children when their children are very young — we’re talking about birth to 3 year olds — it has really large impacts on their children’s behavior,” Dr. Mendelsohn said. And this is not just about families at risk. “All families need to know when they read, when they play with their children, they’re helping them learn to control their own behavior,” he said, so that they will come to school able to manage the business of paying attention and learning.

"Today, Go Say an Overdue Thank You. It’ll Make You Feel Better" By Tim Herrera

By Tim Herrera
Republished by the NY Times
. View the article at the NY Times website here

A few years ago The New York Times ran a story that said expressing gratitude — even if you’re faking it — can measurably improve your overall happiness and life satisfaction, and it can sometimes even improve the happiness of those around you. Imagine!

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because in March I encouraged you to knock off the one thing from your to-do list that has been hanging over your head.

Hundreds of readers wrote me emails and tweets sharing the one thing they accomplished, and a few themes emerged: taxes (of course), job and career stuff, financial tasks, some house cleaning and other parts of everyday life.

But I was surprised at how many people said they were moved to express gratitude to people in their lives.

Sometimes it was for a specific purpose, like the dozens of readers who finally finished writing holiday thank you notes. But often it was to say thanks for ongoing support or for just being there — like the reader who was inspired to write a friend who had faded from her life, or the reader who got the push she needed to send a note of thanks for a friend’s support after a parent’s death.

The overwhelming feeling that people said they came away with was this: Expressing long-overdue gratitude had a meaningful, positive impact for both sender and receiver.

"A Case for Finger Counting" By Youki Terada

By Youki Terada
Republished by Edutopia. View the article at the Edutopia website here

New research suggests that young children may make gains in math by counting with their fingers.

Teachers generally start telling children to stop counting on their fingers around the end of first grade—they’re learning to do math in their heads, and finger counting is sometimes seen as a crutch or even a sign of weak math ability.

A new British study published in Frontiers in Education suggests that this may be a mistake because finger counting seems to boost math learning when paired with number games.

In the four-week experiment, 137 6- and 7-year-old children were split into five groups. One group participated in finger-counting exercises such as counting from 1 to 10 using each finger, showing the correct number of fingers when told a specific number, and doing simple addition or subtraction problems using their fingers. The second group played number games (e.g., dominoes and card games). The third and fourth groups did both—they performed finger-counting exercises and played number games. The final group was the control and didn’t participate in either the exercises or the games.

Children who did only the finger-counting exercises improved their finger sense (the ability to mentally differentiate between fingers), while those who played number games were better able to visually gauge the relative size of pairs of dot groupings. And children who participated in both activities outperformed the control group in multiple math-related skills, including counting, ordering, comparing, and adding.

In other words, while number games slightly boosted one math skill, children experienced larger gains on a range of tests when they also used their fingers.

The authors of the study, Tim Jay and Julie Betenson, suggest an intriguing explanation for the boost: The “part of the brain that responds to number lies in close proximity to the area that is activated whenever subjects perform pointing and grasping activities.” So when we use our fingers, we also activate the areas of our brain associated with counting. This parallel processing may explain why young children benefit from finger counting.

While older students should eventually move past finger counting, there’s now a strong case to let younger students continue.

The takeaway: Don’t discourage young children from counting on their fingers—it may actually boost math learning, especially when paired with number games.

"Five Reasons to Stop Saying Good Job!" By Alfie Kohn

By Alfie Kohn
View the article on Alfie Kohn's website here

NOTE: An abridged version of this article was published in Parents magazine in May 2000 with the title “Hooked on Praise.” For a more detailed look at the issues discussed here — as well as a comprehensive list of citations to relevant research — please see the books Punished by Rewards and Unconditional Parenting.

Hang out at a playground, visit a school, or show up at a child’s birthday party, and there’s one phrase you can count on hearing repeatedly: “Good job!” Even tiny infants are praised for smacking their hands together (“Good clapping!”). Many of us blurt out these judgments of our children to the point that it has become almost a verbal tic.

Plenty of books and articles advise us against relying on punishment, from spanking to forcible isolation (“time out”). Occasionally someone will even ask us to rethink the practice of bribing children with stickers or food. But you’ll have to look awfully hard to find a discouraging word about what is euphemistically called positive reinforcement.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, the point here is not to call into question the importance of supporting and encouraging children, the need to love them and hug them and help them feel good about themselves. Praise, however, is a different story entirely. Here’s why.

1. Manipulating children. Suppose you offer a verbal reward to reinforce the behavior of a two-year-old who eats without spilling, or a five-year-old who cleans up her art supplies. Who benefits from this? Is it possible that telling kids they’ve done a good job may have less to do with their emotional needs than with our convenience?

Rheta DeVries, a professor of education at the University of Northern Iowa, refers to this as “sugar-coated control.” Very much like tangible rewards – or, for that matter, punishments – it’s a way of doing something to children to get them to comply with our wishes. It may be effective at producing this result (at least for a while), but it’s very different from working with kids – for example, by engaging them in conversation about what makes a classroom (or family) function smoothly, or how other people are affected by what we have done — or failed to do. The latter approach is not only more respectful but more likely to help kids become thoughtful people.

The reason praise can work in the short run is that young children are hungry for our approval. But we have a responsibility not to exploit that dependence for our own convenience. A “Good job!” to reinforce something that makes our lives a little easier can be an example of taking advantage of children’s dependence. Kids may also come to feel manipulated by this, even if they can’t quite explain why.

2. Creating praise junkies.  To be sure, not every use of praise is a calculated tactic to control children’s behavior. Sometimes we compliment kids just because we’re genuinely pleased by what they’ve done. Even then, however, it’s worth looking more closely. Rather than bolstering a child’s self-esteem, praise may increase kids’ dependence on us. The more we say, “I like the way you….” or “Good ______ing,” the more kids come to rely on our evaluations, our decisions about what’s good and bad, rather than learning to form their own judgments. It leads them to measure their worth in terms of what will lead us to smile and dole out some more approval.

Mary Budd Rowe, a researcher at the University of Florida, discovered that students who were praised lavishly by their teachers were more tentative in their responses, more apt to answer in a questioning tone of voice (“Um, seven?”). They tended to back off from an idea they had proposed as soon as an adult disagreed with them. And they were less likely to persist with difficult tasks or share their ideas with other students.

In short, “Good job!” doesn’t reassure children; ultimately, it makes them feel less secure. It may even create a vicious circle such that the more we slather on the praise, the more kids seem to need it, so we praise them some more. Sadly, some of these kids will grow into adults who continue to need someone else to pat them on the head and tell them whether what they did was OK. Surely this is not what we want for our daughters and sons.

3. Stealing a child’s pleasure. Apart from the issue of dependence, a child deserves to take delight in her accomplishments, to feel pride in what she’s learned how to do. She also deserves to decide when to feel that way. Every time we say, “Good job!”, though, we’re telling a child how to feel.

To be sure, there are times when our evaluations are appropriate and our guidance is necessary — especially with toddlers and preschoolers. But a constant stream of value judgments is neither necessary nor useful for children’s development. Unfortunately, we may not have realized that “Good job!” is just as much an evaluation as “Bad job!” The most notable feature of a positive judgment isn’t that it’s positive, but that it’s a judgment. And people, including kids, don’t like being judged.

I cherish the occasions when my daughter manages to do something for the first time, or does something better than she’s ever done it before. But I try to resist the knee-jerk tendency to say, “Good job!” because I don’t want to dilute her joy. I want her to share her pleasure with me, not look to me for a verdict. I want her to exclaim, “I did it!” (which she often does) instead of asking me uncertainly, “Was that good?”

4. Losing interest.  “Good painting!” may get children to keep painting for as long as we keep watching and praising. But, warns Lilian Katz, one of the country’s leading authorities on early childhood education, “once attention is withdrawn, many kids won’t touch the activity again.” Indeed, an impressive body of scientific research has shown that the more we reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. Now the point isn’t to draw, to read, to think, to create – the point is to get the goody, whether it’s an ice cream, a sticker, or a “Good job!”

In a troubling study conducted by Joan Grusec at the University of Toronto, young children who were frequently praised for displays of generosity tended to be slightly less generous on an everyday basis than other children were. Every time they had heard “Good sharing!” or “I’m so proud of you for helping,” they became a little less interested in sharing or helping. Those actions came to be seen not as something valuable in their own right but as something they had to do to get that reaction again from an adult. Generosity became a means to an end.

Does praise motivate kids? Sure. It motivates kids to get praise. Alas, that’s often at the expense of commitment to whatever they were doing that prompted the praise.

5. Reducing achievement. As if it weren’t bad enough that “Good job!” can undermine independence, pleasure, and interest, it can also interfere with how good a job children actually do. Researchers keep finding that kids who are praised for doing well at a creative task tend to stumble at the next task – and they don’t do as well as children who weren’t praised to begin with.

Why does this happen? Partly because the praise creates pressure to “keep up the good work” that gets in the way of doing so. Partly because their interest in what they’re doing may have declined. Partly because they become less likely to take risks – a prerequisite for creativity – once they start thinking about how to keep those positive comments coming.

More generally, “Good job!” is a remnant of an approach to psychology that reduces all of human life to behaviors that can be seen and measured. Unfortunately, this ignores the thoughts, feelings, and values that lie behind behaviors. For example, a child may share a snack with a friend as a way of attracting praise, or as a way of making sure the other child has enough to eat. Praise for sharing ignores these different motives. Worse, it actually promotes the less desirable motive by making children more likely to fish for praise in the future.

*Once you start to see praise for what it is – and what it does – these constant little evaluative eruptions from adults start to produce the same effect as fingernails being dragged down a blackboard. You begin to root for a child to give his teachers or parents a taste of their own treacle by turning around to them and saying (in the same saccharine tone of voice), “Good praising!”

Still, it’s not an easy habit to break. It can seem strange, at least at first, to stop praising; it can feel as though you’re being chilly or withholding something. But that, it soon becomes clear, suggests that we praise more because we need to say it than because children need to hear it. Whenever that’s true, it’s time to rethink what we’re doing.

What kids do need is unconditional support, love with no strings attached. That’s not just different from praise – it’s the opposite of praise. “Good job!” is conditional. It means we’re offering attention and acknowledgement and approval for jumping through our hoops, for doing things that please us.

This point, you’ll notice, is very different from a criticism that some people offer to the effect that we give kids too much approval, or give it too easily. They recommend that we become more miserly with our praise and demand that kids “earn” it. But the real problem isn’t that children expect to be praised for everything they do these days. It’s that we’re tempted to take shortcuts, to manipulate kids with rewards instead of explaining and helping them to develop needed skills and good values.

So what’s the alternative? That depends on the situation, but whatever we decide to say instead has to be offered in the context of genuine affection and love for who kids are rather than for what they’ve done. When unconditional support is present, “Good job!” isn’t necessary; when it’s absent, “Good job!” won’t help.

If we’re praising positive actions as a way of discouraging misbehavior, this is unlikely to be effective for long. Even when it works, we can’t really say the child is now “behaving himself”; it would be more accurate to say the praise is behaving him. The alternative is to work with the child, to figure out the reasons he’s acting that way. We may have to reconsider our own requests rather than just looking for a way to get kids to obey. (Instead of using “Good job!” to get a four-year-old to sit quietly through a long class meeting or family dinner, perhaps we should ask whether it’s reasonable to expect a child to do so.)

We also need to bring kids in on the process of making decisions. If a child is doing something that disturbs others, then sitting down with her later and asking, “What do you think we can do to solve this problem?” will likely be more effective than bribes or threats. It also helps a child learn how to solve problems and teaches that her ideas and feelings are important. Of course, this process takes time and talent, care and courage. Tossing off a “Good job!” when the child acts in the way we deem appropriate takes none of those things, which helps to explain why “doing to” strategies are a lot more popular than “working with” strategies.

And what can we say when kids just do something impressive? Consider three possible responses:

* Say nothing. Some people insist a helpful act must be “reinforced” because, secretly or unconsciously, they believe it was a fluke. If children are basically evil, then they have to be given an artificial reason for being nice (namely, to get a verbal reward). But if that cynicism is unfounded – and a lot of research suggests that it is – then praise may not be necessary.

* Say what you saw. A simple, evaluation-free statement (“You put your shoes on by yourself” or even just “You did it”) tells your child that you noticed. It also lets her take pride in what she did. In other cases, a more elaborate description may make sense. If your child draws a picture, you might provide feedback – not judgment – about what you noticed: “This mountain is huge!” “Boy, you sure used a lot of purple today!”

If a child does something caring or generous, you might gently draw his attention to the effect of his action on the other person: “Look at Abigail’s face! She seems pretty happy now that you gave her some of your snack.” This is completely different from praise, where the emphasis is on how you feel about her sharing

* Talk less, ask more. Even better than descriptions are questions. Why tell him what part of his drawing impressed you when you can ask him what he likes best about it? Asking “What was the hardest part to draw?” or “How did you figure out how to make the feet the right size?” is likely to nourish his interest in drawing. Saying “Good job!”, as we’ve seen, may have exactly the opposite effect.

This doesn’t mean that all compliments, all thank-you’s, all expressions of delight are harmful. We need to consider our motives for what we say (a genuine expression of enthusiasm is better than a desire to manipulate the child’s future behavior) as well as the actual effects of doing so. Are our reactions helping the child to feel a sense of control over her life — or to constantly look to us for approval? Are they helping her to become more excited about what she’s doing in its own right – or turning it into something she just wants to get through in order to receive a pat on the head

It’s not a matter of memorizing a new script, but of keeping in mind our long-term goals for our children and watching for the effects of what we say. The bad news is that the use of positive reinforcement really isn’t so positive. The good news is that you don’t have to evaluate in order to encourage.

"Parent Do-Overs – 7 Confidence Building Responses" by Janet Lansbury

By: Janet Lansbury
View the article on Janet Lansbury's website here

If parenting were film acting, we’d always be brilliant because we’d have plenty of “takes” to perfect our responses (not to mention make-up, hair styling and ridiculously high salaries).  But we are playing a part — the role of a lifetime for a lifetime.  Luckily, we perform for an adoring, forgiving audience, and our children will usually accept our less thoughtful, less than stellar performances. In fact, even our bloopers can be blessings, because they teach kids the invaluable lesson that mistakes are okay since even superstars like their parents make them.

Here are a few of my “Take 2” suggestions for handling common infant and toddler situations and some of the reasoning behind them…

1. Crying

Instead of “Don’t cry”, “Shhhh”, “You’re okay”, “Okay, that’s enough now”, “It’s alright, nothing happened”…

Non-judgmentally acknowledge the child’s response and the incident that caused it. “Ouch, that hurt you when you bumped into the wall.” Or “oh, you are very upset that the dog barked.” Or “You are having a hard time relaxing your body. I hear you.” Then allow the child all the time he or she needs to finish crying with your full support.

Encouraging children to express their feelings is the key to fostering emotional health. No matter how unreasonable our child’s reaction seems, he or she needs it to be accepted. Remember, even adults can’t control emotional reactions, but young children are not capable of controlling the manner in which they express them, either. Discouraging the feelings or responding impatiently invalidates the child. When you’re feeling impatient with a tantruming toddler, stay present, relax and imagine all the future therapy bills you’re saving.

2. Minor accidents

Instead of running over to the child and scooping him up in a panic…

Take a moment to observe his response. If he cries, go close to him as calmly as possible, ask if wants you to pick him up, acknowledge what happened (as explained above) and his feelings about it.

When we respond frantically, we startle our child, which can make him fearful or cause him to become upset when he might have quickly recovered and continued playing. Our little ones are very tuned into us and benefit greatly when we can trust their competence. Allowing children to recover autonomously whenever they are able to fosters self-confidence and resiliency, gives them an opportunity to try to understand what happened and learn something from the experience.

3. Praise

Instead of “good job”, “That’s beautiful”, “You are so smart!” or a big round of applause…

You might say, “Thank you for helping me!” “You did it all by yourself!” “You pulled the plastic beads apart. That was hard!” “You struggled and struggled, but you didn’t give up.” “You must be proud of yourself.” Add specifics so your child knows you’ve been paying attention (and to aid language development).

These responses encourage children to own their accomplishments, protect intrinsic motivation, and are less likely to train kids to depend on others for validation.

4. Encouragement when a child is struggling

Instead of “you can do it!”

“I hear you getting frustrated, but you’re almost there.” “This is hard work you’re doing!” “I’m here and I won’t let you fall, but it is safer for you to climb down yourself. Try placing one foot on the bar below.”

“You can do it” can be perceived as pressure and make the child think he’s disappointed us if he ends up not being able to do it.  Giving a little verbal instruction helps children learn to get down safely after they have climbed onto something. Children usually can do this themselves, but by taking them down, rather than just spotting and providing verbal support, we lead them to believe they can’t.

5. Undesirable behavior

Instead of distracting, coaxing, bribing, shaming, scolding, punishing…

Handle with care, confidence, respect, brevity (save the lectures for another time).  Whenever possible, acknowledge the child’s point of view. “You wanted ___.”  Give a brief instruction (and an option if possible). “I can’t/won’t let you ___. That’s not safe” (or“It’s not time for that now”, etc.). “But you can ___.” Physically block the behavior if necessary. Acknowledge again. “I know you wanted ___ and I wouldn’t let you. That’s upsetting.

Infants and toddlers need help managing their immature impulses and understanding our boundaries. They are not bad kids who need to be reprimanded, punished or “taught a lesson”. The most vital lesson they must learn is that their parents are always in their corner (rather than sending them off to one), and that we will calmly, consistently and patiently remind them of the family rules and prevent them from harming us or themselves. When we do this, children learn our expectations and internalize them with amazing proficiency.

6. Sharing

Instead of telling babies and young toddlers they must share or take turns

Observe closely and calmly reflect (or ‘sportscast’) the situation and allow it to unfold. “Justin, you are holding the ball and Meredith wants it, too. Now Meredith has the ball.” Or, “Meredith are you asking Justin for the ball? Justin seems to be saying he wants to keep it for now. Maybe when he’s done. “

Infants and toddlers commonly socialize by taking and (less often) giving toys. From the child’s perspective it’s as if the toys suddenly come alive and become interesting when another baby is holding them. When we allow children to connect with and learn from each other this way, they may react negatively in the moment, but they are usually quite capable of working it out without our intervention.  The big clue to the child’s perspective?  After these little play tussles have ended, the desired toy is almost always left behind, no longer of interest to either child.

7. Learning language

Instead of correcting toddlers when they mispronounce words or use them incorrectly (for example, they call green “yellow” or a rabbit “a dog”)…

Don’t. It takes courage to speak words for the first time. Encourage your child to speak by treating him with the same respect you would a foreigner trying out English. If the child mispronounces a word, we can respond in a manner that provides a gentle correction. In other words, when your child points to the rabbit and says “bobby”, you could reply, “I see the rabbit, too!” If the child points to the rabbit and says “dog”, you could say honestly, “Yes, I see! That looks like a dog.”

When children begin using language, they are only able to say a fraction of the words they know. Chances are they know the difference between a rabbit and a dog but just aren’t able to express that yet. Trusting and supporting your child’s process means allowing him to be “right” as much as possible. And don’t forget to enjoy (and log!) your child’s creative use of language while it lasts.

Cut, print, that’s a wrap.

"RIE Parenting Basics (9 Ways to Put Respect into Action)" By Janet Lansbury

By: Janet Lansbury, December 5th, 2013

RIE parenting could be summed up as an awareness of our babies. We perceive and
acknowledge them to be unique, separate people. We enhance our awareness by
observing them — allowing them the bit of space they need to show us who they are
and what they need.

RIE parenting also makes us more self-aware. Through our sensitive observations we
learn not to jump to conclusions; for example, that our babies are bored, tired, cold,
hungry, or want to hold the toy they seem to notice across the room. We learn not to
assume that grumbling or fussing means babies need to be propped to sitting, picked
up, or rocked or bounced to sleep. We recognize that, like us, babies sometimes have
feelings that they want to share and will work through them in their own way with our
We learn to differentiate our children’s signals from our own projections. We become
more aware of the habits we create (like sitting babies up or jiggling them to sleep),
habits that can then become our child’s needs. These are artificially created needs
rather than organic ones.

In short, RIE parenting asks us to use our minds as well as our instinct, to look and
listen closely and carefully before we respond.

Sensitive observation proves to us that our babies are competent individuals with
thoughts, wishes and needs of their own, and once we discover this truth there’s no
turning back. Then, like Alison Gopnik, one of several psychologists on the forefront of
an exciting new wave of infant brain research, we might wonder, “Why were we so
wrong about babies for so long?”

Practiced observers like RIE founder Magda Gerber weren’t wrong. More than sixty
years ago, Gerber and her mentor, pediatrician Emmi Pikler, knew what Gopnik’s
research is finally now proving: infants are born with phenomenal learning abilities,
unique gifts, deep thoughts and emotions. Pikler and Gerber dismissed the notion of
babies as “cute blobs” years ago, understood them as whole people deserving of our

Gerber’s RIE approach can perhaps be best described as putting respect for babies into
action. Here’s how:

1. We communicate authentically. We speak in our authentic voices (though a bit
more slowly with babies and toddlers), use real words and talk about real things,
especially things that directly pertain to our babies and that are happening now. We
encourage babies to build communication skills by asking them questions, affording
them plenty of time to respond, always acknowledging their communication.

2. We invite babies to actively participate in caregiving activities like diapering,
bathing, meals and bedtime rituals and give them our full attention during these
activities. This inclusion and focused attention nurtures our parent-child relationship,
providing children the sense of security they need to be able to separate and engage in
self-directed play.

3. We encourage uninterrupted, self-directed play by offering even the youngest
infants free play opportunities, sensitively observing so as not to needlessly interrupt,
and trusting that our child’s play choices are enough. Perfect, actually.

4. We allow children to develop motor and cognitive skills naturally according to
their innate timetables by offering them free play and movement opportunities in an
enriching environment, rather than teaching, restricting or otherwise interfering with
these organic processes. Our role is development is primarily trust.

5. We value intrinsic motivation and inner-directedness, so we acknowledge effort
and take care not to over-praise. We trust our children to know themselves better than
we know them, so we allow children to lead when they play and choose enrichment
activities, rather than projecting our own interests. We encourage our children’s
passions and support them to fulfill their dreams.

6. We encourage children to express their emotions by openly accepting and
acknowledging them.

7. We recognize that children need confident, empathetic leaders and clear
boundaries, but not shaming, distractions, punishments or time out.

8. We allow children to problem-solve and experience and learn from ageappropriate
conflicts with our support.

9. We understand the power of our modeling and recognize that our children are
learning from us through our every word and action about love, relationships, empathy,
generosity, gratitude, patience, tolerance, kindness, honesty and respect. Most
profoundly, they’re learning about themselves, their abilities and their worth, their place
in our hearts and in the world.

Note: these are not Magda Gerber’s official RIE principles.

The outcome of all this? I couldn’t agree more with the promises stated on the RIE site:
“RIE helps adults raise children who are competent, confident, curious, attentive,
exploring, cooperative, secure, peaceful, focused, self-initiating, resourceful, involved,
inner-directed, aware and interested”.

But what I’m most grateful to Magda and RIE for is the deeply trusting, mutually
respectful relationships I have with my children. Respect and trust have a boomerang
effect. They come right back at you. As Magda promised, I’ve raised kids I not only love,
but “in whose company I love being.”

"Don’t leave a testing toddler hanging" By: Janet Lansbury

Your 10-month-old spends the majority of your playgroup session climbing and
squirming on your lap, using you to pull up to standing as you sit on the floor.

Your 18-month-old can’t seem to make up his mind. First he wants to go outside.
Two minutes later he wants to come back in. A minute later he wants to go out

Your 2-year-old isn’t ready to get into her car seat, regardless of your schedule.
Her resistance and stalling seem to increase each day despite your patience and
respectful attitude. When you’ve finally run out of time and need to place her into
the seat yourself, she screams.

Your 3-year-old wants you to play with him when you need to make dinner. He
howls and holds onto your legs. A few minutes later he hits the dog. At dinner time,
he demands yogurt instead of the food you’ve prepared. Later he refuses to get out
of the bath tub and get ready for bed.

What do these toddlers have in common? They’ve been left hanging in toddler
testing limbo. A No-Win Situation

The problem for children: It’s a healthy toddler’s job to test our limits. When we
don’t answer these tests definitively, kids can become increasingly preoccupied
with testing. When children are stuck testing, they’re not playing, socializing,
creating, learning, fulfilling their potential. Testing limbo is an unproductive

Young children are extremely perceptive. When they are stuck in testing mode,
they are aware that their behavior annoys, and maybe even infuriates the adults
caring for them. This is not a comfortable or healthy place for a child to be.
The problem for us: Testing limbo isn’t comfortable for parents either. If we don’t
address testing behaviors calmly and directly, we can become increasingly irritated
and exhausted, lose our cool and feel guilty, dislike parenting, even resent and lose
affection for our child. Tests are requests, and when we don’t provide conclusive
“answers” in our responses, we unwittingly provoke more testing.

Testing is like a mouse in our house. If we don’t notice it and handle it effectively,
it’s likely to show up in other situations as well (and multiply!).

How to help: Testing is our children’s subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) way of
signaling for our help and requires a clear and, preferably, immediate answer.
Parents shouldn’t be afraid to be decisive and direct, because we can always
change our minds (decisively) later, which is actually excellent modeling. “I
thought about it and realized it’s okay for you to splash the water out of the pool.
I’m sorry to have told you no.”

Whether we are at home, in public, or at the homes of friends and relatives,
preventing children in our care from getting stuck in testing limbo is a profound
demonstration of our love. Here’s how RIE Educator Lisa Sunbury Gerber, the
mother of a toddler, articulated this approach in one of our recent conversations:
“In social situations, especially where others may have different rules or
expectations, what helps me is to stay close to R and focused on her. Even if the
other parent has rules I don’t agree with or enforce at home, I see my job as
protecting R and helping her to succeed in situations like this, and that means
staying close and setting the limit... It is good modeling, too. She does understand
that in some situations and some places there are different expectations.”

Steps I Recommend
1. Clearly express the limit: “I don’t want you to (or “I can’t let you” or “I won’t
let you”) scream right next to me while I’m putting the baby to bed.”

2. Acknowledge desires and feelings: “You want to stay here with us. You are
having a hard time being quiet.”
An acknowledgement can also come before stating the limit, i.e. “You want to help
me put the baby to bed. I can’t let you make noise in here while she goes to sleep.”

3. Follow through: Be prepared to take action — our words are seldom enough to
ease testing. “I’m going to ask you to wait outside the room with Daddy. I’m going
to walk you out. I’ll be there with you in a few minutes.”
Following through might mean holding your child’s hands as she tries to hit,
removing an unsafe object from her hands, putting toys or objects away, moving
your child out of a situation in which she’s stuck testing.
If you hear yourself stating the limit a second time, you are probably waiting too
long to follow through and help your child follow your direction.

4. Accept your child’s negative response. Breathe, relax, let go, let feelings be.
These feelings are not your fault or responsibility. They don’t belong to you.
Releasing these feelings is the healthiest thing she can do, because they are almost
always about so much more than the situation at hand. You and your child must be
able to let go and accept this disagreement so that you can both move on.

5. Reconnect by acknowledging your child’s perspective and feelings (again).
Let her know through your emphatic tone that you understand the intensity of her
feelings — that you totally get her message: “Wow, you didn’t like that at all! You
seemed furious. You wanted so much to stay in the room with me.” Be available
for hugs or cuddles and allow your child to initiate them.
Handling these situations assuredly with empathy and acceptance will pre-empt the
cycle and prevent them from becoming a daily occurrence.
Screaming, yelling and foul language are tests that we cannot prevent. Our children
control these actions. However, by underreacting we can deactivate these “buttons”
so that children quickly lose interest in pushing them. It is still important to let kids
know we hear the message in their screams and extreme statements like, “I hate the
baby (or you),” to which we might respond, “I hear the anger in those words. Big
brothers feel like that sometimes.”

“…and WAIT!” by Magda Gerber

“…and WAIT!” by Magda Gerber
Once, many years ago, I saw an infant lying on the floor who was trying to catch something in a very dreamy, beautiful way. I didn’t see anything but I knew that the child saw something. Only as I walked around did I realize that the dust in the air was creating a rainbow, and that’s what the child saw. That experience stayed with me as a symbolic reminded, so that now when people do things, I want to say: “That child may just see the rainbow—don’t interrupt. Wait.”

Time for uninterrupted play

The less we interrupt, the more easily infants develop a long attention span. According to many books, a baby has a short attention span; but that is not quite true. If infants are well cared for, if they can do what they happen to be interested in at that time, and if nobody interrupts, they have much longer attention spans than we give them credit for. Country to grown-up’s expectations, infants do not usually get overly frustrated by struggles during play. When a toy gets caught, or a ball rolls away, they may even enjoy the situation, and certainly from it—if adults do not solve the problem for them.

To a degree, the child’s response to potential frustrations is influenced by the adult’s reaction. Even a very young child will look around to check out the adult’s reaction when one of these puzzling, unexpected events occurs. A calm, observant comment, such as “Oh, the ball rolled away,” will allow your baby to retain his role as initiator in his play and to choose how to handle the situation.

Sometimes parents who haven’t been paying much attention will suddenly realize it and say something like “Oh, you built such a nice tower!” And you know what happens? The child stops building the tower. Such an abrupt comment, rather than making a connection, interrupts play. If real sensitivity exists, then when the child looks up and sees the parent’s eyes, then the parent’s eyes are quietly there. That can be the time to make the comment.

Selective Intervention

Wait! In so many situations, to wait means to allow problems to resolve themselves.

Selective intervention means knowing when not to intervene, and this is more difficult that
intervening indiscriminately.

If an infant gets into a difficult situation (climbing up, for example), it is important to allow her to do whatever she can do, which means we must wait and wait and wait. But we do come near so the infant knows we are available, which brings about a certain amount of security. Rather than give the message, “When you are in trouble, you scream and I rescue you,” we would like to convey the feeling, “I think you can handle it, but if not, I am here.”

Often you will find out that, even though you thought you had to help, the child didn’t really need your help. I prefer to wait until the infant really lets me know, “I cannot handle it any more.” (And if this happens, it’s very important to know why—is she tired?)

You might just ask, even a child who does not yet speak, “Do you need some help?” or, as a last resort, perhaps, “Do you want me to help you down?”

In providing infants with the minimal help they need to overcome an impasse, we demonstrate our trust in their competence and allow them to enjoy mastery of their own actions.

"Scientists Say Child's Play Helps Build A Better Brain" by Jon Hamilton

By Jon Hamilton
Republished by National Public Radio (NPR). View the article at the NPR website here

When it comes to brain development, time in the classroom may be less important than time on the playground.

"The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain," says Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. "And without play experience, those neurons aren't changed," he says.

It is those changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood that help wire up the brain's executive control center, which has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems, Pellis says. So play, he adds, is what prepares a young brain for life, love and even schoolwork.

But to produce this sort of brain development, children need to engage in plenty of so-called free play, Pellis says. No coaches, no umpires, no rule books.

"Whether it's rough-and-tumble play or two kids deciding to build a sand castle together, the kids themselves have to negotiate, well, what are we going to do in this game? What are the rules we are going to follow?" Pellis says. The brain builds new circuits in the prefrontal cortex to help it navigate these complex social interactions, he says.

Learning From Animals

Much of what scientists know about this process comes from research on animal species that engage in social play. This includes cats, dogs and most other mammals. But Pellis says he has also seen play in some birds, including young magpies that "grab one another and start wrestling on the ground like they were puppies or dogs."

For a long time, researchers thought this sort of rough-and-tumble play might be a way for young animals to develop skills like hunting or fighting. But studies in the past decade or so suggest that's not the case. Adult cats, for example, have no trouble killing a mouse even if they are deprived of play as kittens.

So researchers like Jaak Panksepp at Washington State University have come to believe play has a very different purpose: "The function of play is to build pro-social brains, social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways," Panksepp says.

Panksepp has studied this process in rats, which love to play and even produce a distinctive sound he has labeled "rat laughter." When the rats are young, play appears to initiate lasting changes in areas of the brain used for thinking and processing social interactions, Panskepp says.

The changes involve switching certain genes on and off. "We found that play activates the whole neocortex," he says. "And we found that of the 1,200 genes that we measured, about one-third of them were significantly changed simply by having a half-hour of play."

Of course, this doesn't prove that play affects human brains the same way. But there are good reasons to believe it does, Pellis says.

For one thing, he says, play behavior is remarkably similar across species. Rats, monkeys and children all abide by similar rules that require participants to take turns, play fair and not inflict pain. Play also helps both people and animals become more adept socially, Pellis says.

And in people, he says, an added bonus is that the skills associated with play ultimately lead to better grades. In one study, researchers found that the best predictor of academic performance in eighth grade was a child's social skills in third grade.

Another hint that play matters, Pellis says, is that "countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less."

"Molding the Future: Child Development Through Work with Clay" By Todd Erickson

By Todd Erickson
Republished by Stanford: Bing Nursery School. View the article at the here

A child approaches the West PM art table, where a ball of grayish clay awaits. She picks up the ball and feels its cool smoothness in her hands. As she squeezes, the ball slowly changes its shape. Her fingers dig deeply into the now elongated form, and with some effort she pulls it into two pieces. A smile spreads across her face as she puts both pieces on the table and vigorously pounds her fists into them.

One of the paradoxes behind all of Bing’s open-ended, basic materials (blocks, clay, paint, sand and water) is their wonderful complexity. Clay is an excellent example of this paradox. It offers an alluring mix of hardness and flexibility. It is simultaneously plastic and yet resistant. Unlike water, paint and sand, clay can indefinitely maintain its shape after manipulation. Perhaps it is closest to blocks in its density and permanence.

When children in West PM work with clay as an expressive medium, their experience touches a variety of different developmental modalities that support and inform each other. These modalities touch the most basic aspects of human experience: physical development, cognitive challenge, artistic expression, social connection and emotional satisfaction.

The interaction between hand and clay can be not only physically stimulating
but also emotionally satisfying to children. A handprint allows children to
consider their reflection in and imprint on the wider physical world.

Physically, clay offers a child an excellent combination of fine and large motor opportunities. Fingers can pinch, smooth, poke and push smaller pieces of clay through detailed and intricate fine motor work. Importantly, many of the hand muscles at work during clay play are the same muscles a child will use to hold a pencil, tie shoes or button clothes. As hands and arms work to slap, push, squeeze and pound, large motor skills are called upon. It is not uncommon for children to lean their entire upper torso into the clay as they are flattening or cutting it. Clay provides and sometimes demands a whole body experience!

As a child considers the lump of clay in his hands, he creates a plan of action and evaluates the various steps needed to reach his goal. These cognitive processes, known as executive function, will be vital for future information assessment and problem solving. As he rolls the ball of clay into a long worm-like shape and then back into a ball, his rudimentary, hands-on experiments with advanced concepts like the conservation of mass (the mass of an object does not change, even if the shape of it does) increase his overall awareness of physical properties of the world around him.

Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Picasso understood the vast levels of creativity possessed by the very young. Like all of Bing’s five basic materials, clay is open-ended, which allows a child to approach a ball of clay as she would a blank piece of easel paper. The clay can become anything from an abstract design to a flying vehicle with rocket blasters. And with greater experience and confidence naturally follows increased awareness and attention to creative elements and aesthetics. As children move into what is called a “later representational” stage of clay creation, they name their clay creation before they actually begin the work. If it is true that every child is an artist, then every child is an intentional artist. Even a seemingly experimental or random clay construction contains deep meaning and significance to a child. In fact, West PM teachers can learn much about a child by simply observing her creative choices with clay.

When a child shares some part of himself through his clay expression, he is using the clay to also reach out for social connection. He is telling his peers, his teachers and the world, “This is who I am. This is what I feel strongly about.” Further, when children join together around the clay table, a social dynamic is created that often deepens social connection. Recently in West PM, Devin and Rhys used the clay to make pizza, pancakes and salad. By sharing their small feast, along with lots of laughter, the children deepened their social bond.

West PM teachers are also interested in teaching various techniques, when appropriate. One example is the creation of a “pinch pot” by using the thumb and index fingers to pinch the edges of a flat, round piece of clay. As a child diligently applies this technique to create a bowl-like shape, she receives emotional satisfaction thanks to her growing competence. Satisfaction can be achieved not only through increased skills, however, but also by the specific application of those skills. When she is able to use clay to create something that both pleases her and carries even a degree of representational accuracy, a child feels deeply satisfied.

As mentioned above, these developmental modalities do not exist in isolation. A recent moment at the West PM clay table illustrates the interrelation of these developmental growth points. José sat down at the table and began slapping several small pieces of clay with his open palm (large motor physical development). Once the pieces were flattened, José delicately attached the various pieces together (fine motor physical development). “Mickey Mouse,” he announced as he examined his work (artistic expression). After considering his creation, he then added a tiny piece of clay to the torso. “This is the nametag,” José said, pointing at his new addition (cognitive development). José held up his clay mouse for the children at the clay table to see, which prompted the question from a peer, “How did you make that?” José then shared with the peer his process of making the clay mouse (social connection). When he was finished walking through the steps with a peer, José smiled broadly, quite content with his work (emotional satisfaction).

Clay is a timeless substance that concurrently touches many aspects of a child’s development. Like all basic materials, it meets the child at her own distinct abilities and interests. Yet despite its unassuming appearance, clay also pushes children toward greater exploration. Clay inspires invigorating activity that bridges ages and genders and allows for infinite expression. Clay is truly an effective multidisciplinary material!

MIT Brain Study: Back-And-Forth Talk Key To Developing Kids' Verbal Skills By: Carey Goldberg

By: Carey Goldberg
Republished by WBUR. View the article at the WBUR website here

New MIT research finds that for children's brain development, parents don't just need to talk to their kids — it's important to talk with them, in back-and-forth exchanges.

"What we found is, the more often parents engaged in back-and-forth conversation with their child, the stronger was the brain response in the front of the brain to language," said cognitive neuroscience professor John Gabrieli.

That stronger brain response, measured as children ages 4 to 6 lay in a scanner listening to simple stories, reflects a deeper, more intimate engagement with language, said graduate student Rachel Romeo.

On average, a child from a better-off, more-educated family is likely to hear 30 million more words in the first three years of life than a child from a less-well-off family.

That finding from 1995 helped explain some school achievement gaps. Now, the MIT researchers have illuminated how more talking actually changes a child's brain — and it's not just about the number of words a child hears, Romeo said. It's about interaction, the number of conversational "turns" that parents and preschool-aged children took while wearing recorders that taped their every word over two days.

And the effect didn't depend on parents' income or education, she noted, so it's not as if lower-income children are "doomed" to weaker verbal abilities.

"It seems to suggest, instead, that if they're provided with a rich verbal environment early in life, that that can predict great language and cognitive outcomes," Romeo said.

The finding is an important addition to work over the last 20-plus years on language development, said Dr. Marilyn Augustyn, a behavioral pediatrician at Boston Medical Center who was not involved in the study. She praised its use of brain scanners and recording devices to move the research forward.

A previous study turned up similar MRI findings on children who were read to by their parents, she said, "But what's really revolutionary about this study — and why I think it's really important — is it did both: It looked at the conversations, the words that children heard, and then also looked at the brain activation."

It strengthens a two-part message, she added. "One, we need to talk to our children from the moment they're born, and probably in utero. And two, that language needs to come out of a relationship — and that's what this study really cements. It isn't about streaming tape to a child through the course of a day with thousands and thousands of words, because those become meaningless. It's really about the relationship."

The next step in the research, Romeo said, will be to study an early intervention that gives toddlers more back-and-forth conversations.

"Obviously a two-year-old is not going to debate philosophy with you, but just a back and forth with them, whatever their capabilities are, is really valuable," she said.

The study found a broad range in how many conversational "turns" parents and child took in the course of an hour, from just 90 to as many as 400, Romeo said.

Families under more stress — say, with parents holding down more jobs — may have a harder time changing their conversational interactions with children, Gabrieli acknowledged. "But it is a thing — a very specific thing — that any of us could do with the right encouragement and support," he said.

Passively watched screens clearly do not bring the same sort of interaction as real conversation. But could a smart speaker use artificial intelligence to develop a child's brain much as a conversational parent would?

That question will require more study, the researchers said. Some initial research suggests that if devices can really respond to what a child says, they may offer added benefits, Romeo said.

But Dr. Augustyn is skeptical. Children can become very connected to technology, she said, but even if they develop some sort of relationship with a smart speaker, ultimately, "Alexa doesn't have a lap."

"Papa, Don't Text: The Perils of Distracted Parenting" By: Deborah Fallows

By: Deborah Fallows
Republished by Atlantic. View the article at the Atlantic website here

"You can only do one thing at a time: talk to the baby or talk on the phone."

Last summer, as my baby grandson and I strolled through the same neighborhood his father and I had strolled through 30 years earlier, I saw that something vital had changed. Back then, adults pushing babies in strollers talked with those babies about whatever came across their path. But these days, most adults engage instead in one-sided conversations on their cellphones, or else text in complete silence.

As a linguist, I wondered whether the time adults spend with their mobile devices might be affecting the way children learn language. Since the technology hasn’t been ubiquitous for long, research on this question is scarce. But other research on the effects of adult-child conversation makes a strong case for putting cellphones away when you’re around children.

For a study published in the journal Pediatrics in 2009, researchers outfitted young children with small digital recorders, which captured the language each child heard and produced. The researchers could then identify and count the two-sided exchanges, or conversational “turns,” between children and adults. Subjects were also tested on a range of linguistic measures, from the earliest preverbal behaviors, to nascent phonology and grammar skills, to preliteracy and the integration of complex parts of language.

The children exposed to more conversational give-and-take scored higher at every stage of language proficiency. In essence, the children made greater linguistic strides when adults talked with them than when they were simply in the presence of language or even when adults talked to them. We learned long ago that children’s language abilities and eventual academic success are linked to the sheer volume of words they are exposed to early on. Now we have additional evidence that the quality of linguistic exposure, not just its quantity, matters.

Two other studies, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesin 2003, looked at the effects of parent-child interactions on very early stages of language production and perception. In one, babbling infants and their mothers were tracked during on-the-floor playtime. Mothers in one group were directed to respond to their babies’ vocalizations with smiles and touches, and by moving closer. Mothers in the other group were not cued to respond in the same way. The study found that babies whose moms interacted with them in sync with their babbling soon began to vocalize more, with more complex sounds, and articulated more accurately than the other children.

In the other study, 9-month-old babies, who are in the late stages of locking in to the sound system of their native language, were exposed to mini lessons in Mandarin, to see if they could still learn to discern the sounds of a foreign language. One group of babies was taught by real live Chinese speakers. Another group got lessons from electronic versions of the adults, who appeared either on TV or on audiotape. Infants with live teachers learned to discern the sounds of Mandarin, while those in the group with electronic instruction did not.

These studies suggest that social interaction is important to early language learning. Of course, everyone learns to talk. But how ironic is it that, in this era when child-rearing is the focus of unprecedented imagination, invention, sophistication, and expense, something as simple and pleasurable as conversing with our children can be overlooked? As Dimitri Christakis, one of the authors of the Pediatrics paper, put it to me, “You can only do one thing at a time: talk to the baby or talk on the phone.”

"Taking Playtime Seriously" by Perri Klass, M.D.

By PERRI KLASS, M.D. JAN. 29, 2018

Republished by the New York Times. View the article at the New York Times website here

Play is a universal, cross-cultural and necessary attribute of childhood, essential for development and essential for learning. Experts who study it say that play is intrinsic to children’s natures, but still needs support and attention from the adults around them.

Children are natural players, right from the beginning. “It’s hard to imagine when an infant or a toddler isn’t playing,” said Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, a professor of applied psychology at New York University who studies play and learning in babies and young children. She cited, for example, the joys of mushing food, pulling books off a shelf or making noises rattling a paper bag.

“I don’t like it when scientists think children are playing only when they sit down with some toys,” she said. “Almost all the learning that goes on in the first years of life is in the context of exploration of the environment.”

Dr. Tamis-LeMonda’s research includes going into homes to look at everyday play, with a special focus on how play functions in language learning. “We think that all domains of development are informed by children engaging in play,” she said. This certainly includes communication, with babies learning words and concepts as they engage with objects in their environment (ball, blue), spatial math concepts when they play with blocks (or pull the books off a shelf), getting motor practice as they climb and crawl and run.

And this is all mixed in with the cognitive development which goes along with symbolic play, children re-enacting their own experience by pretending to feed their dolls, or putting the puppy to bed, and with the social development of learning to take turns.

But though play may be intrinsically present, and intrinsically playful, those who study its importance in children’s lives point out that it can also be threatened, either by too little attention and responsiveness from distracted adults or, in another sense, by too much attention and teaching, of the not-so-playful kind.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University, pointed to statistics that suggest that as children age into preschool and kindergarten, we are encroaching more and more on their time for playing.

“What are kids doing instead?” she asked. “The answer is test prep.” In kindergarten classrooms studied in New York and Los Angeles in 2009, she said, teachers reported that there was little or no time to play. Kindergarten had become the new first grade, with much less time for art, or for running and jumping and bouncing, she said, and a quarter of the Los Angeles teachers said there was no time at all for free play.

“We’re trying to train our kids to be better computers, but our kids will never be better computers than computers,” Dr. Hirsh-Pasek said. In addition to teaching children content, we should look to strengthen their human skills, she said, helping them learn to think up new ideas and explore them, and to navigate the social worlds of play and, later, of work. “These are things humans do better than computers, and play helps us develop that.”

So part of encouraging play is pulling back on how much programmed goal-directed learning we expect from very young children, to leave them time for the fun of exploration, curiosity and, well, fun. But another important part may be creating environments that foster children’s play and parents’ participation and attention.

Dr. Hirsh-Pasek, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, cited its Learning Landscapes Initiative, which aims to set up learning opportunities in public places where people will encounter them. One of these, the Urban Thinkscape project in Philadelphia, involves puzzle benches at bus stops, with puzzles designed to build STEM skills.

Before the benches were installed, she said, parents waiting for buses were almost uniformly looking at their cellphones. “Now we’re starting to see playful learning interactions.” They have also tried putting up a big chalkboard with a prompt for people to complete: When I was little, I played ….

“We put one up in a park,” she said. “In four days it was completely filled with responses.” And interestingly, the activities people cited from their own childhoods were mostly free recess-type activities with other kids.

As children get older, she said, some of their playing continues to be free play, in which a child goes out into the world as a discoverer and an explorer, and some is “constrained tinkering,” which she compared to bowling with bumpers. “People learn best when they’re active, when they’re engaged rather than distracted, when it’s socially interactive, and when it’s joyful,” she said.

Free play, she said, reduces stress and also “allows our kids to flex their entrepreneurial muscle.” But guided play is also important, as children grow, and parents should look for toys and environments (like children’s museums) that feed children’s curiosity and offer new opportunities for exploration.

What happens when children start playing more with virtual objects, manipulating touch screens instead of blocks and books?

“I’m very concerned that screentime is substituting for active playtime,” Dr. Tamis-LeMonda said. Children need to engage with real objects, handling them, building with them, dropping them and throwing them.

And of course, parental screentime can also get in the way of playing together and learning. In a study published in 2017 by Dr. Hirsh-Pasek and her colleagues, mothers taught their 2-year-olds two novel words. When the interactions were interrupted by a cellphone call, those children did not learn the new word.

Young children will play and young children will learn, and that playing, as well as that learning, deserves to be recognized and supported. What they most need are interactions, language, give and take, which can just be another way of saying somebody to play with. No special skills or equipment are needed; every parent learns the virtue of pots and spoons as playthings, and boxes that are more fascinating to babies than the toys they contained.

As children get older, we need to keep an eye on whether their schools give them time to play, we need to help them go on engaging with the world around them, and we might even be able to make that world a better environment for learning and play. Again, this is not about walling children off into special places where they can play, it’s about helping them play and learn in the world, in the homes and schoolrooms and larger environments in which they live and grow.

“Play is not a specific activity, it’s an approach to learning, an engaged, fun, curious way of discovering your world,” Dr. Tamis-LeMonda said.

"How to Raise a Reader" by By Pamela Paul and Maria Russo (NY Times)

By Pamela Paul and Maria Russo  (NY Times)
Republished by the NY Times. View the article at the NY Times website here

From the moment you’re expecting your first child, you are bombarded with messages about the importance of reading. For good reason: The benefits of reading at every stage of a child’s development are well documented. Happily, raising a reader is fun, rewarding and relatively easy.


If you’ve let reading slide to the margins of your life, now is the time to bring it back. Make the space, and time, for books you read for yourself, and books you read with your child. If you want to raise a reader, be a reader. 


You may think you’re off the hook with books until your baby is at least vertical, but not so. Even newborns benefit from the experience of hearing stories (and they can’t complain about your taste in books). So take advantage. Here’s how:

Read out loud, every day. Any book. You can read anything to a newborn: a cookbook, a dystopian novel, a parenting manual. The content doesn’t matter. What does matter is the sound of your voice, the cadence of the text and the words themselves. Research has shown that the number of words an infant is exposed to has a direct impact on language development and literacy. But here’s the catch: The language has to be live, in person and directed at the child. Turning on a television, or even an audiobook, doesn’t count. Sure, it’s good to get started reading aloud the children’s books that will be part of your child’s library. But don’t feel limited. Just be sure to enjoy yourself.

Use your senses. Babies who are read to are learning that reading is fun and can involve all the senses: the feel of the pages, the smell of the glue (don’t go crazy), the visuals of the illustrations, the sound of the parent’s voice. Try it: Texturized books are especially good for your child’s tactile experience.

Mind your audience. Make eye contact, but don’t look for a particular reaction. It may seem like babies are not listening, but they are absorbing the experience. And the patterns, routines and attentive habits that are set now will last a lifetime.

Get your baby talking. Babies may start making sounds in response to your reading. This is why many books for this age contain nonsense words or animal sounds — they’re easier to mimic. Try it: If your child make a noise, respond. It may make no sense to you, but it’s communication. There’s a straight line from this moment to your first parent-child book club.


It’s hard to overestimate how important reading is to a toddler’s intellectual, social and emotional development. When you read with toddlers, they take it all in: vocabulary and language structure, numbers and math concepts, colors, shapes, animals, opposites, manners and all kinds of useful information about how the world works. What’s more, when you read out loud, your toddler connects books with the familiar, beloved sound of your voice — and the physical closeness that reading together brings. You are helping build a positive association with books that will last a lifetime.

Keep in mind:

Reading happens throughout the day. Nightly bedtime reading is a familiar routine for parents of toddlers — what better way to get your little ball of energy to relax before bed? Make sure the atmosphere is soothing and not rushed, and choose some of the many books that end, strategically, with a peaceful going-to-bed scene (though friskier books about sleep-avoiding children are fun, too). But read with your toddler during the day, as well. Offering to read books with toddlers is one of the best ways — some days, it can seem like the only way — to get them to slow down and focus. Sit close, and enjoy these moments of connection while it’s still light outside.

Introduce your own taste. You’ve been reading a long time, and you have a sense of what you like in grown-up books. As a parent, you have the chance to rediscover your taste in children’s books. Pull out your old favorites, and find what’s new that catches your eye when you’re in bookstores, libraries or friends’ homes. The good news is that the best authors and illustrators of children’s books aim to please their grown-up audience, too. Try it: Tweak the text when you’re reading out loud. Many classic children’s books are now considered sexist, racist, outdated and, in certain ways, downright awful. Feel free to make them better.

Respect your child’s preferences. Your child is already surprising you with independent tastes and opinions. Just as your child doesn’t like your kale salad, he or she may not appreciate the exquisite black-and-white crosshatching of Robert McCloskey’s “Make Way for Ducklings” as much as you did as a child. You may not be all that excited about fairies or talking trucks, but your child might be. Encourage children to express what they like about their books, and find more books like those.

The parent-child pas de deux. The more you can make reading mutually satisfying, the more it will be associated with pleasure and reward. If your child doesn’t like your silly ogre’s voice, don’t use it. Remember, it’s your child’s story time, too. Try it: Let your child turn the pages, to control the pace. (It’s also great for developing fine motor skills.)

It’s O.K. to interrupt. Don’t get so caught up in your own reading that you ignore your child’s comments and queries. Interruptions show that your child is engaged. Try it: If you find yourself saying, “Just let me finish this page,” stop and ask your toddler to repeat the question. If children don’t seem engaged by the words, ask what they see in the pictures. Point at things and invite them to explain or narrate the action.

Expand your toddler’s world. Sometimes toddlers seem “stuck” on a certain book you’re not crazy about. Don’t deny them the books they like, but try to actively steer them toward other books as well. Most important, don’t be afraid to expose toddlers to subjects they don’t have any context for. All topics — even geology, the history of art, and life in different cultures — can be broken down into small parts and made interesting by a great children’s book. Try it: At a certain age, children may start to gravitate exclusively to stories that feature a protagonist of their own gender. This is not true for toddlers. Take advantage of this time to expose them to a balanced menu of characters.

Choose diverse books. All children need to see themselves reflected in the picture books around them. If your child is a member of a racial or ethnic minority, seek out books that feature children who look similar to yours — they are getting much easier to find. White children also benefit from books that show children with different skin tones and ethnicities. All children need to encounter books that present the variety of cultural traditions and family structures that coexist in our communities. Exposing children to diversity in books will prepare them for life in a diverse world.


"The New Preschool Is Crushing Kids" by Erika Christakis (The Atlantic)

By Erika Christakis
Republished by the Atlantic. View the article at the Atlantic website here

Step into an American preschool classroom today and you are likely to be bombarded with what we educators call a print-rich environment, every surface festooned with alphabet charts, bar graphs, word walls, instructional posters, classroom rules, calendars, schedules, and motivational platitudes—few of which a 4-year-old can “decode,” the contemporary word for what used to be known as reading.

Because so few adults can remember the pertinent details of their own preschool or kindergarten years, it can be hard to appreciate just how much the early-education landscape has been transformed over the past two decades. The changes are not restricted to the confusing pastiche on classroom walls. Pedagogy and curricula have changed too, most recently in response to the Common Core State Standards Initiative’s kindergarten guidelines. Much greater portions of the day are now spent on what’s called “seat work” (a term that probably doesn’t need any exposition) and a form of tightly scripted teaching known as direct instruction, formerly used mainly in the older grades, in which a teacher carefully controls the content and pacing of what a child is supposed to learn.

One study, titled “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?,” compared kindergarten teachers’ attitudes nationwide in 1998 and 2010 and found that the percentage of teachers expecting children to know how to read by the end of the year had risen from 30 to 80 percent. The researchers also reported more time spent with workbooks and worksheets, and less time devoted to music and art. Kindergarten is indeed the new first grade, the authors concluded glumly. In turn, children who would once have used the kindergarten year as a gentle transition into school are in some cases being held back before they’ve had a chance to start. A study out of Mississippi found that in some counties, more than 10 percent of kindergartners weren’t allowed to advance to first grade.

Until recently, school-readiness skills weren’t high on anyone’s agenda, nor was the idea that the youngest learners might be disqualified from moving on to a subsequent stage. But now that kindergarten serves as a gatekeeper, not a welcome mat, to elementary school, concerns about school preparedness kick in earlier and earlier. A child who’s supposed to read by the end of kindergarten had better be getting ready in preschool. As a result, expectations that may arguably have been reasonable for 5- and 6-year-olds, such as being able to sit at a desk and complete a task using pencil and paper, are now directed at even younger children, who lack the motor skills and attention span to be successful.

Preschool classrooms have become increasingly fraught spaces, with teachers cajoling their charges to finish their “work” before they can go play. And yet, even as preschoolers are learning more pre-academic skills at earlier ages, I’ve heard many teachers say that they seem somehow—is it possible?—less inquisitive and less engaged than the kids of earlier generations. More children today seem to lack the language skills needed to retell a simple story or to use basic connecting words and prepositions. They can’t make a conceptual analogy between, say, the veins on a leaf and the veins in their own hands.

New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New Yorkmagazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.

That’s right. The same educational policies that are pushing academic goals down to ever earlier levels seem to be contributing to—while at the same time obscuring—the fact that young children are gaining fewer skills, not more.

Pendulum shifts in education are as old as our republic. Steven Mintz, a historian who has written about the evolution of American childhood, describes an oscillation in the national zeitgeist between the notion of a “protected” childhood and that of a “prepared” one. Starting in the early 2000s, though, a confluence of forces began pushing preferences ever further in the direction of preparation: the increasing numbers of dual-career families scrambling to arrange child care; a new scientific focus on the cognitive potential of the early years; and concerns about growing ability gaps between well-off and disadvantaged children, which in turn fueled the trend of standards-based testing in public schools.

Preschool is a relatively recent addition to the American educational system. With a few notable exceptions, the government had a limited role in early education until the 1960s, when the federal Head Start program was founded. Before mothers entered the full-time workforce in large numbers, private preschools were likewise uncommon, and mainly served as a safe social space for children to learn to get along with others.

By second grade, the children who had attended preschool performed worse than their peers.

In the past few decades, however, we have seen a major transfer of child care and early learning from home to institution: Nearly three-quarters of American 4-year-olds are now in some kind of nonfamily care. That category spans a dizzying mix of privately and publicly funded preschool environments, including family-run day cares, private preschools in church basements, and Head Start programs in public elementary schools, to name a few. Across all of them, the distinction between early education and “official” school seems to be eroding.

When I survey parents of preschoolers, they tend to be on board with many of these changes, either because they fear that the old-fashioned pleasures of unhurried learning have no place in today’s hypercompetitive world or because they simply can’t find, or afford, a better option. The stress is palpable: Pick the “wrong” preschool or ease up on the phonics drills at home, and your child might not go to college. She might not be employable. She might not even be allowed to start first grade!

Media attention to the cognitive potential of early childhood has a way of exacerbating such worries, but the actual academic consensus on the components of high-quality early education tells another story. According to experts such as the Yale professor Edward Zigler, a leader in child-development and early-education policy for half a century, the best preschool programs share several features: They provide ample opportunities for young children to use and hear complex, interactive language; their curriculum supports a wide range of school-readiness goals that include social and emotional skills and active learning; they encourage meaningful family involvement; and they have knowledgeable and well-qualified teachers.

As an early-childhood educator, I’ve clocked many hours in many preschool classrooms, and I have found that I can pretty quickly take the temperature from the looks on kids’ faces, the ratio of table space to open areas, and the amount of conversation going on in either. In a high-quality program, adults are building relationships with the children and paying close attention to their thought processes and, by extension, their communication. They’re finding ways to make the children think out loud.

The real focus in the preschool years should be not just on vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening. We forget how vital spontaneous, unstructured conversation is to young children’s understanding. By talking with adults, and one another, they pick up information. They learn how things work. They solve puzzles that trouble them. Sometimes, to be fair, what children take away from a conversation is wrong. They might conclude, as my young son did, that pigs produce ham, just as chickens produce eggs and cows produce milk. But these understandings are worked over, refined, and adapted—as when a brutal older sibling explains a ham sandwich’s grisly origins.

Teachers play a crucial role in supporting this type of learning. A 2011 study in the journal Child Development found that preschool teachers’ use of sophisticated vocabulary in informal classroom settings predicted their students’ reading comprehension and word knowledge in fourth grade. Unfortunately, much of the conversation in today’s preschool classrooms is one-directional and simplistic, as teachers steer students through a highly structured schedule, herding them from one activity to another and signaling approval with a quick “good job!”

Consider the difference between a teacher’s use of a closed statement versus an open-ended question. Imagine that a teacher approaches a child drawing a picture and exclaims, “Oh, what a pretty house!” If the child is not actually drawing a house, she might feel exposed, and even if she is drawing a house, the teacher’s remark shuts down further discussion: She has labeled the thing and said she likes it. What more is there to add? A much more helpful approach would be to say, “Tell me about your drawing,” inviting the child to be reflective. It’s never possible to anticipate everything a small person needs to learn, so open-ended inquiry can reveal what is known and unknown. Such a small pedagogic difference can be an important catalyst for a basic, but unbounded, cognitive habit—the act of thinking out loud.

Conversation is gold. It’s the most efficient early-learning system we have. And it’s far more valuable than most of the reading-skills curricula we have been implementing: One meta-analysis of 13 early-childhood literacy programs “failed to find any evidence of effects on language or print-based outcomes.” Take a moment to digest that devastating conclusion.

Iwas recently asked to review a popular preschool curriculum that comes with a big box of thematic units, including lists of words and “key concepts” that children are supposed to master. One objective of the curriculum’s ocean unit, for example, is to help preschoolers understand “the importance of the ocean to the environment.” Children are given a list of specific terms to learn, including exoskeletonscallop shellblubber, and tube feet. At first glance, this stuff seems fun and educational, but doesn’t this extremely narrow articulation of “key concepts” feel a little off? What’s so special about blubber, anyway? Might a young child not want to ponder bigger questions: What is water? Where do the blue and green come from? Could anything be more beautiful and more terrifying than an ocean?

The shift from an active and exploratory early-childhood pedagogy to a more scripted and instruction-based model does not involve a simple trade-off between play and work, or between joy and achievement. On the contrary, the preoccupation with accountability has led to a set of measures that favor shallow mimicry and recall behaviors, such as learning vocabulary lists and recognizing shapes and colors (something that a dog can do, by the way, but that is in fact an extraordinarily low bar for most curious 4-year-olds), while devaluing complex, integrative, and syncretic learning.

Last year, I observed some preschoolers conversing about whether snakes have bones. They argued at length among themselves, comparing the flexible serpentine body with dinosaur fossils and fish, both of which they had previously explored. There was no clear consensus on how these various creatures could contain the same hard skeletons, but I watched, transfixed, as each child added to the groundwork another had laid. The teacher gently guided the group as a captain might steer a large ship, with the tiniest nudge of the wheel. Finally, a little boy who had seen a snake skeleton in a museum became animated as he pantomimed the structure of a snake’s spine in a series of karate chops: “One bone, one bone, one bone,” he informed his friends. “I think we’re all going to have to do a lot more research,” the teacher replied, impressed. This loosely Socratic method is a perfect fit for young minds; the problem is that it doesn’t conform easily to a school-readiness checklist.

The focus should be not just on vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening.

The academic takeover of American early learning can be understood as a shift from what I would call an “ideas-based curriculum” to a “naming-and-labeling-based curriculum.” Not coincidentally, the latter can be delivered without substantially improving our teaching force. Inexperienced or poorly supported teachers are directed to rely heavily on scripted lesson plans for a reason: We can point to a defined objective, and tell ourselves that at least kids are getting something this way.

But that something—while relatively cheap to provide—is awfully thin gruel. One major study of 700 preschool classrooms in 11 states found that only 15 percent showed evidence of effective interactions between teacher and child. Fifteen percent.

We neglect vital teacher-child interactions at our peril. Although the infusion of academics into preschool has been justified as a way to close the achievement gap between poor and well-off children, Robert Pianta, one of the country’s leading child-policy experts, cautions that there is “no evidence whatsoever” that our early-learning system is suited to that task. He estimates that the average preschool program “narrows the achievement gap by perhaps only 5 percent,” compared with the 30 to 50 percent that studies suggest would be possible with higher-quality programs. Contrasting the dismal results of Tennessee’s preschool system with the more promising results in places such as Boston, which promotes active, child-centered learning (and, spends more than twice the national average on preschool), lends further credence to the idea that preschool quality really does matter.

It’s become almost a cliché to look to Finland’s educational system for inspiration. As has been widely reported, the country began to radically professionalize its workforce in the 1970s and abandoned most of the performance standards endemic to American schooling. Today, Finland’s schools are consistently ranked among the world’s very best. This “Finnish miracle” sounds almost too good to be true. Surely the country must have a few dud teachers and slacker kids!

And yet, when I’ve visited Finland, I’ve found it impossible to remain unmoved by the example of preschools where the learning environment is assessed, rather than the children in it. Having rejected many of the pseudo-academic benchmarks that can, and do, fit on a scorecard, preschool teachers in Finland are free to focus on what’s really essential: their relationship with the growing child.

Here’s what the Finns, who don’t begin formal reading instruction until around age 7, have to say about preparing preschoolers to read: “The basis for the beginnings of literacy is that children have heard and listened … They have spoken and been spoken to, people have discussed [things] with them … They have asked questions and received answers.”

For our littlest learners, what could be more important than that?

Recommended Read: "Standout New Picture Books" (NY Times)

By Maria Russo
Republished by NY Times. View the article at the NY Times website here

Written and illustrated by James Yang

A little boy with a backpack misses his bus. Bummer. Then comes a succession of buslike vehicles — a covered wagon, a ship — that are definitely not what he’s waiting for. This ingenious book will call out to toddlers, but keep it around for early readers, too. The words are simple, and Yang’s witty art is built to last.

32 pp. Viking. $17.99. (Ages 2 to 5)

Written and illustrated by Cori Doerrfeld

Onesie-wearing Taylor, who’s wonderfully drawn to be either a boy or a girl, builds a block tower that falls down. Everyone who comes by to help, including a chicken and an elephant, is full of well-meaning advice. Only a silent rabbit offers what Taylor — like all of us — needs: the comfort of someone who will just listen, laugh and give a hug.

40 pp. Dial. $17.99. (Ages 3 to 6)

Written and illustrated by Brendan Wenzel

Wenzel’s “They All Saw a Cat” played with different creatures’ points of view. This book spreads its arms wider, introducing the staggering range of species that share the earth — many of them endangered or threatened. Wenzel’s vibrant collaged art and simple rhythms call to mind Eric Carle, with a factual-minded touch.

48 pp. Chronicle. $17.99. (Ages 5 to 8)

Written and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds

Jerome collects not things but words — lovely ones like “willow” and “spark” — and decides to share them. As always, Reynolds (“The Dot”) brings an enchanting light hand to deeper themes. In Jerome’s quest to spread the beauty of language, the story acquires the timeless, classic quality of Leo Lionni’s tale of Frederick the mouse.

40 pp. Orchard Books. $17.99. (Ages 4 to 8)

Written and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

This warm trip through the wonderland of Grandma Mimi’s purse is really a tribute to the steadying force of grandparental love in a child’s life. It also brims with adorable small stuff to look at. No illustrator does clothes, décor and style better than Brantley-Newton (“The Youngest Marcher”).

32 pp. Knopf. $17.99. (Ages 4 to 8)

Written and illustrated by Jessixa Bagley and Aaron Bagley

Jessixa Bagley’s books featuring woodland animals include “Boats for Papa,” an honestto-God tear-jerker. Here she’s teamed with her husband, Aaron Bagley, for the tale of a ship’s cat who learns what “home” means. Wider-ranging than her solo books, it’s just as satisfying and emotionally astute.

38 pp. Roaring Brook/Neal Porter. $17.99. (Ages 4 to 8)

Written and illustrated by Meghan McCarthy

With her exuberantly silly illustrations, McCarthy (“Earmuffs for Everyone!”) has a great way with nonfiction picture books. This one — about an oozing, fly-infested barge of New York City garbage that became famous for traveling the seas unable to find a willing dump — raises awareness of our national trash problem. As children know, the truth is so often stranger than fiction.

48 pp. Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster. $17.99. (Ages 4 to 8)

Written and illustrated by Daniel Salmieri

Salmieri, known for his visual humor (“Dragons Love Tacos”), shows his writing chops in this stunning, serene and philosophical book. A bear and a wolf, out for nighttime walks, hike through snowy winter vistas. Nothing much happens: Sometimes, peaceful companionship and a mutual appreciation of beauty are more than enough.

48 pp. Enchanted Lion. $17.95. (Ages 4 to 8)

By Harry Bliss. Illustrated by Harry Bliss and Frank Young

In this wordless graphic novel-style picture book, Grace’s class wants a new hamster. She sneaks out to raise money by busking, drawing and dancing. Bliss, a New Yorker cartoonist, piles on funny Manhattan details kids may miss, but they’ll love Grace’s spunky quest to make a difference on her own.

40 pp. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99. (Ages 5 and up)

By Junot Díaz. Illustrated by Leo Espinosa

The other kids in Lola’s class recall their homelands, but she doesn’t. So she gathers stories of “the Island.” With Espinosa’s bright illustrations creating just the right mood, Díaz, the author of acclaimed adult books including “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” celebrates an immigrant community and testifies to the experiences of Dominicans who fled the dictator Rafael Trujillo, called simply “the Monster.”

48 pp. Dial. $17.99. (Ages 5 to 8)

Recommended Read: "Why Toddlers Deserve More Respect"

By Isabel Fattal
Republished by The Atlantic. View the article at the Atlantic website here

Young kids might be smarter and more empathetic than adults think.

In The Emotional Life of the Toddlerthe child-psychology and psychotherapy expert Alicia F. Lieberman details the dramatic triumphs and tribulations of kids ages 1 to 3. Some of her anecdotes make the most commonplace of experiences feel like they should be backed by a cinematic instrumental track. Take Lieberman’s example of what a toddler feels while walking across the living room:

When Johnny can walk from one end of the living room to the other without falling even once, he feels invincible. When his older brother intercepts him and pushes him to the floor, he feels he has collapsed in shame and wants to bite his attacker (if only he could catch up with him!) When Johnny’s father rescues him, scolds the brother, and helps Johnny on his way, hope and triumph rise up again in Johnny’s heart; everything he wants seems within reach. When the exhaustion overwhelms him a few minutes later, he worries that he will never again be able to go that far and bursts into tears.  

“If adults experienced and enacted the full range of feelings available to an average toddler in the course of a day,” Lieberman writes, “they would collapse from emotional exhaustion.” But Lieberman doesn’t view this range of emotions as the toddler’s downside. She sees toddlers as complex, compassionate human beings, and she has dedicated her life’s research to helping adults understand the feelings and the logic behind the most seemingly ridiculous or wild toddler behaviors.

Lieberman first published The Emotional Life of the Toddler in 1993, and it has since become known as a seminal guide to life with young kids. The book’s publishers asked her if she wanted to celebrate the book’s 25th anniversary with a second edition. They asked if she had anything to add, and after following new developments in both parenthood and toddlerhood over the past few decades, she did. Lieberman recently spoke with me about the second edition of her book, out this week. She discussed what’s changed in the past 25 years—including revelations in child psychology, growing societal acceptance of gay parents, and the omnipresence of technology—and what’s stayed the same. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Isabel Fattal: In the years since you last published this book, technology became a dominant part of parents’ and toddlers’ lives. You argue in the book that people are always afraid that social changes will have a negative effect on toddlers, but that often, with time, this fear is proven unfounded. Do you think this will happen with current concerns about technology?

Alicia Lieberman: I do. I think that any pressure, any new source of stress, adds to the difficulty that parents and children have in negotiating [family] relationships and negotiating the world. For example, the data shows that when working mothers are committed to their work, and find meaning and satisfaction in their work, and have working conditions that enable them to balance their work life and their family life, working is not a risk factor for children. When mothers are feeling that the work conditions are so demanding, so oppressive, that it comes at the expense of their ability to pay attention to their children … then it does have a negative impact.

Divorce [is another] example. When the most major researcher in divorce, Mavis Hetherington, began studying divorce in the 1970s, she thought it was cause and effect: Parents get divorced, [which has a negative effect on] children. Thirty years later, she realized that it depends on: What are the mediating factors, moderating factors, social circumstances? How do the parents get along after divorce, how do they talk about each other to the child? All kinds of emotionally charged conditions that are much more predictive than the single factor of divorce. The same thing will happen with screen time and media.

Fattal: How does this theory map onto the way that parents should approach technology?

Lieberman: When mothers and fathers feel so overwhelmed about their circumstances that they use the tablets as substitutes for themselves, then their children are essentially alone with these inanimate objects. They are not engaging in reciprocal interpersonal relationships. But parents [can also] use screen time as an aid, not as a persistent substitute. I have seen children and parents who move back and forth between the use of the tablet, the same way that you use a book or a toy … something that will give the child time alone to enjoy an individual activity while the parent is doing something else, but not as a substitute for relationships.

Fattal: How have shifts in public mental-health discourse over the past 25 years affected toddlers?

Lieberman: There is an increasing understanding of how out-of-control behaviors or withdrawn behaviors—intense separation anxiety, persistent sleeping problems, inconsolable tantrums, aggression, emotional or social withdrawal—can be traced to stress and trauma that nobody has asked about. There are studies showing that when one goes to community behavioral-health clinics and looks at the diagnoses given to children in the 2-to-5 age range, the predominant diagnoses are ADHD and behavioral problems. But when one asks the parents, ‘What happened to your child?’ and one is asking systematically about accidents, frightening separations, violence in the community, violence in the home, [many] of those children have been exposed to traumatic circumstances that very clearly can be connected to symptoms. There is a group of people that is carrying that knowledge, and we are doing our best to disseminate it. We’ve come a long way, but it is by no means incorporated yet in all the systems of care that need to know about this frame.  

Fattal: What impact has the growing normalization of same-sex parenting had on children?

Lieberman: I think there has been a very important and timely humanization of gay parents. [When I first wrote the book, society was] not even giving gay people permission to be parents. It was like, why would you want to be a parent? I’m a consultant for child-protective services. I was in court several times to uphold the fact that gay parents that wanted to adopt a child had all the strength that heterosexual parents had. They were giving them the love, the understanding, the socialization. That giving a child for adoption to a gay couple did not endanger the child in terms of their mental health.


People would say, “Other children are going to tease them and bully them,” “Other parents are not going to want their children to play with them,” “They won’t have a community that they can belong to,” and the point that me and others were making is that that is not inherent to the condition of being gay. It is inherent to the prejudices of society in how they relate to gay people. I think gay parents really led the way in creating communities for themselves that were able to show the world that they were healthy, loving, joyful families. Twenty-five years ago that was by no means something that was understood or accepted.

Fattal: Is 25 years a long time in the world of child-psychology research? What has changed about our knowledge of toddlers?  

Lieberman: Twenty-five years ago, when I was giving talks about the book, I always started with addressing the question of the “terrible twos.” I was talking about the not-so-terrible twos; [now] I don’t even use the term. I think the more we move away from that term, the better off we are. And I think that my audience did not miss my talking about the “terrible twos.” There is a new understanding that tantrums, oppositionalism, [and] negativism are not a sign that the child is terrible or that the child’s age is terrible. It’s a sign that the ability of the child to think through a situation has collapsed because of overwhelming feelings of fear and frustration that dysregulates their emotional composure. There is more of an awareness that when we say the “terrible twos” we’re really talking about the adult experience rather than the child’s.

Fattal: You mentioned that in recent years, child psychology has moved away from a view of the toddler as simply egocentric. Are these children more empathetic than we give them credit for?

Lieberman: They’re much more empathetic. [They’re] so much more able to use the facial expression of the caregiver, the facial expression of the parents, to guide their behavior. I wanted to convey the simultaneous capacity of toddlers to feel empathy, to look at the world from the perspective of others, and when they themselves are flooded by emotion, to resort to an egocentric view of the world, where “this is happening because of me.”

I’m the starry-eyed grandmother of a 2-year-old [named Sam]. He’s been learning to use the harmonica. There was this 18-month-old who was mesmerized by Sam making music with the harmonica, and he kept wanting the harmonica. And Sam gave it to him. And Sam is just a regular toddler … I’m not saying [this because he is] my grandson. The 18-month-old is huffing and puffing and nothing happens. And Sam takes the harmonica back and goes very close to him and blows on the harmonica, and then gives the child the harmonica. And the child tries and tries and makes it happen, and Sam starts clapping with great joy and turns to the parents. [Here we have] two toddlers identifying a goal, and the older toddler turning over a cherished object to a little boy that he loves, and the little boy allowing himself to be taught by the toddler in a way that his own daddy could not quite do, and then the older toddler celebrating him and turning to the adults, as if he were saying, “Look at what he did!”

And you see that all over the place, if you look. What this book is really intending to do is entice grownups to take the time to look at toddlers, to observe and give them time, and really process what it is that toddlers are showing us, because they are so capable of empathy, cooperation, collaboration. And, on the other side, tantrums. They are just like us.

Recommended Read: Math in the Bath (NAEYC)

By Sarah Erdmann
Republished by NAEYC. View the article at the NAEYC website here

Bath time is perfect for exploring math with your young child! Not only do you have each other’s full attention, but the learning can be hands on, playful, and messy.

These explorations can also be done at a water table, sink, pool, or even a puddle! No matter what water spot you use, safety must be your main focus. Never ever leave your child alone, even for a minute! This is an activity that needs your complete attention.

Make sure that any toys or containers dry out completely between uses, and disinfect toys if several children will use them. Be sure to check toys for mold and replace them when needed. More detailed water safety tips can be found on the Red Cross’s website.

Infants and Toddlers

The very youngest mathematicians are learning what numbers are and that they mean something. Children are also learning to compare the shapes, colors and patterns they see.

Comparing and contrasting

Comparing and contrasting what is happening in the bathtub is a great place to start. It builds children’s math vocabulary and draws attention to what you're doing. “Your arm is dry. Now I’ll pour some water on it and your arm is wet!” “This cup is floating on the water. When we fill it up, it sinks to the bottom!” With these statements, you give your child a way to describe and compare those different states and shown them the step by step process for how it happened!

“I’m going to take the red square washcloth and dip it in the water. Now it is all wet so I can wash you!” By mentioning that the washcloth is square and red, your child sees two more ways to categorize it!


Count as you wash each part of your child's body. “One arm, two arms! You have two arms!” Count their fingers and toes, gently wash each ear. This repeated, concrete exposure to numbers will help her understand the concept of counting.


Toddlers who are able to sit up and grasp objects can do some hands-on math learning as well! Offer different sized containers and encourage your child to use them to dump and pour water. “Now there is a lot of water in the red cup! The yellow cup has less water!” Your child is building her awareness of volume, while also strengthening her fingers and hands.

When you ask her to hand you something, describe the item. “Please hand me the hard, little, cup.” You can also ask your child to wash different parts of her body and help you count as she goes.

Without a lot of extra equipment or time, you’re showing your infant or toddler that math is useful and fun to explore.


As children grow to preschool age, they build up their understanding of numbers. They are measuring, finding shapes and patterns, and even beginning to explore the concept of time. They’re also continuing to use math terms as they talk and categorize objects by different characteristics like shape, size and color.

A lot of the math play previously described for infants and toddlers is still great for preschoolers.

Give your child the washcloth and ask him to wash and count his body parts. Not only is he counting, but he's also using one-to-one correspondence, matching one object to another object, to make sure he washes all of his fingers and toes. Give your child containers of all shapes and sizes and let him pour, drip and measure. Ask him to describe what he's doing, the types of containers he has, and which ones have more or less water. You can even start to help him understand that if you pour water from a wide container into a skinny one . . . the amount of water doesn’t change! This is an idea that may be hard for young children to understand, so don’t worry if they don’t quite believe you.

At this age, children are more comfortable with the idea of measuring, so you can go farther with it. Give your child an old ruler so he can see how deep the water is. Discuss temperature and whether the water feels hot or cold. Have him see how many rubber ducks it would take to go across the whole tub.

Bath toys can be sorted or put into patterns. They can also be props in math games. For example, line up several rubber ducks and reenact the “Five Little Ducks” song:

    Five little ducks went out one day, over the hills and far away

    Mother duck said, “Quack, quack, quack, quack”

    But only four little ducks came back . . . (Keep the song going until you reach zero ducks)

Math in the bath (don’t you like how that sounds?) is a chance for your child to play with math concepts and ideas. It also shows them what math can look like in the real world and how they might use it. And as an added bonus? They are squeaky clean by the end of the lesson!