The Importance Of Quality Early Learning

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The Importance Of Quality Early Learning

Recently I was invited to an event run by Guardian Early Learning Group that was all about how the first five years of child development are so crucial, and how quality early learning sets the stage for success at school and later in life.

The presentation was made by Dr Elanna Yalow, world-renowned expert in early education and the CEO of Early learning Programs at KinderCare Education in the United States. Dr Yalow has several qualifications under her belt including a Ph. D in Educational Psychology, an M.B.A., and a B.A. in Psychology.

I wanted to write this blog post today to share some of my key take away messages from Dr Yalow’s presentation.

1. The first 5 years are CRUCIAL.

Dr Yalow starting off by explaining that 70% of brain development occurs in the first 3 years of life. And one of the most critical foundations of how brains develop is by something termed Serve and Return. It’s how our children make sense of the world. So what is Serve and Return? It’s basically about responding to our children’s cues. When they point to something, acknowledging it. Responding to their cries, babble, or laughter. It’s about being responsive to them, and present with them. Not just in the room with them, but engaged with them. And absence can be very stressful on a child. This can be hard for single mums at times when it’s a one woman show and there are a thousand things to do,  but we have to do our best. A child’s earliest years are fleeting, and every interaction matters.

2. When looking at child care options, observe for Serve and Return.

Making a decision on where your child is going to attend day care, or be looked after, is difficult! Not only are there so many logistical issues to consider as a single parent, but you want to get a really good vibe from the place too. Dr Yalow mentioned that one of the main things we should be looking for is checking to see if the carers and educators practice Serve and Return. Are they interacting with children? Are they talking to them when they change their nappies or feeding them? Or are they running on autopilot, or perhaps spending more time talking with each other than interacting with the children? Carefully observe the carers as you are doing your tour.

3. Abilities at age three are highly correlated to abilities in third grade.

Dr Yalow informed us that a child’s language ability at age three is highly related to their reading ability in third grade. Not only that, but the number of words they are exposed to is correlated to their language ability in third grade. Makes sense! She also mentioned that in third grade there is a 30 million (!!!!) word gap between more affluent families and working class families. Some stats she gave us, which I find quite alarming, are that in the United States an average child from a:

  • professional family hears 215,000 words a week;
  • working class family hears 125,000 words a week; and
  • family receiving welfare benefits hears 62,000 words a week.

However, socio-economic status is not destiny and there are things that can be done to ensure that kids are hearing enough vocabulary. It’s not necessarily about using “bigger” words, but about the amount of language that exists. And talk talk talk, we can all do! It’s also about using more descriptive language and asking our kids open ended questions that encourage them to stretch their vocabulary.

4. Children are not necessarily defiant.

Dr Yalow explained that parents are sometimes quick to jump to the conclusion that their children are defiant, when in actual fact they simply lack the executive function to understand or follow instructions. What is executive function? It’s the “conscious” control of thoughts, actions, or emotions (self-regulation). It’s a set of skills that relies on three types of brain function: working memory, cognitive flexibility, and self-control. Executive function helps children remember information, filter distractions, reflect before acting, and adjust to changing demands. Children aren’t born with these skills, they are born with the potential to develop them. So if, for example, your child doesn’t do two of the three things you have told them to do, they are not necessarily being annoying and willful, they simply don’t remember. There are so many beneficial impacts of executive function skills, and these include:

  • School achievement – ability to follow directions, avoid distractions and manage long-term projects.
  • Positive behaviours – team work, critical thinking and adaptability.
  • Health – positive choices in nutrition and exercise, and avoiding risk.
  • Workplace – planning and adaptability.

There is some great additional information on executive function here.

5. Screen time guidelines.

The recommendation from American pediatricians are:

  • Children less than two years old – zero screen time and exposure to digital technology.
  • Children between the ages of two and five – a maximum of one hour per day of screen time and exposure to digital technology.

Personally I believe sometimes you’ve just got to use the “modern babysitter” otherwise known as my friend, The TV. It’s hard as single mums, or as any parent, to avoid it. I have tried to limit my daughter’s screen time but I also think we don’t need the added pressure. I think we should all be aware of the guidelines, but not beat ourselves up about it if we don’t succeed every day. Sometimes you’ve just gotta do what you gotta do. And if you need a break, turn it on. Having a mental breakdown is just not worth it.

6. Put more energy into EARLY learning, rather than high school.

One of my key take aways from Dr Yalow’s presentation was that parents spend so much energy thinking about the best high schools and universities or colleges, when we should be more concerned about the quality of their early education. This really sets the foundation for later on. Some of the impacts of QUALITY early childhood education include increased school attendance, a higher chance of high school graduation, more likelihood of college and university enrollments, better long term health, and benefits to the economy. There is also less chance of special education placement, grade repetition, less likelihood of teen pregnancies and contact with the criminal justice system, and less likelihood of reliance on welfare.

7. The importance of play for young children.

Play is crucial for young children as it puts their learning into context. It supports executive function, and the development of self-regulation, and promotes language, communication, cognition and social competence. It also teaches and helps develop skills in attention, memory, reasoning, imagination, creativity, emotional development, impulse control, empathy, and the ability to take another person’s perspective. Centres that enforce intentional teaching strategies to provide for greater opportunities for spontaneous play are on point, because spontaneous play is so important for children’s development.

8. Tips to support your child’s devlopment

  • Read, sing, and talk with your child (beginning at birth).
  • Have conversations with your child.
  • Ask open ended questions.
  • Encourage pretend play.
  • Talk about shapes, sizes, numbers, and directions.
  • Play games that promote the development of executive function (e.g. matching/sorting games and “Simon Says”).
  • Share household chores (e.g. cooking, laundry, clearing the table etc. ).
  • Model self-regulation.

9. Vroom – a great resource for learning about brain building.

Vroom encourages the following principles for brain building in children:

  1. Look – make eye contact with your child and look at what they’re looking at.
  2. Follow – let children lead and follow them based on their words, sounds, actions and ideas.
  3. Chat – talk out loud to your child, even if they can’t talk yet.
  4. Take turns – participate in back and forth interactions with your child.
  5. Stretch – make the moments last longer by asking follow up questions.

This video explains brain building interactions really well. It shows how you can make any moment a brain building moment, with what you have at your disposal right now.

It is hard to be on top of everything as a single mum, but I hope this has given you some food for thought, and ideas on small changes that we all, as single mums, can make to put our children on the right path for a positive future.


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