Early Childhood Learning: Supporting Neurodiversity From the Womb and On
By John Mavros
For years, doctors believed that babies were born without knowledge of the outside world. But research now shows that a child learns child speech and language skills from the mother while in the womb. A pregnant mother is her child’s first teacher, because the brain absorbs information from a pregnant mother. Speech and language recognition starts the last ten weeks of pregnancy. The expectant mother transmits feelings and language to her child. Newborns can identify the mother’s native language at birth (French, German, English, etc.).
STRATEGY: Mothers should read, sing, and share positive thoughts with their baby during the last trimester of pregnancy to set a foundation for the baby’s outlook and language development.
Joseph and Jitsuko Susedik taught their four girls the alphabet, social studies, and phonics while each was in the womb, and each was born a child prodigy. They knew their babies were hearing and learning from their mothers in the last trimester of pregnancy, so they set a foundation for speech development by reading and talking to them while each was in the last trimester in the womb.
It is clear that babies don’t talk, but they are affected by what they hear and see, even while inside the womb. Cuddly babies have great intelligence. Treating all brains alike is wrong. You have to model for each one the way you want it to become. In effect, the concept of neurodiversity can be extended to take in the way that a child’s teacher and you as the adult can build a relationship that helps the child to learn all about the world. It is hard for mothers and caring adults to appreciate the immense capacity that a baby has to grasp and retain information and images. Accepting this should affect both the content and the purpose of what an adult has to say to a newborn. With this in mind, parents of newborns in Finland are given three books, one for each parent to read to the child and a picture book for the baby to “read” aloud. The parents are asked to use the books to start a library. The Finns’ emphasis on early childhood learning may be a key to their top ranking among Western nations on PISA, an international test of 15 year olds where the US ranks 28th of 85 nations.
Adults influence a newborn’s interest and success in reading by their level and quality of attention. They educate toddlers in ways once considered the exclusive domain of school teachers. Caregivers can sing and read stories to introduce sounds and rhythms to a toddler for the development of speech and literacy skills. A lullaby, a happy message, or story with a happy ending is great way to do this.
The town of Farmington, Minnesota, gives parents a bag of books to help build a library and encourage them to read to a newborn. Parents are subsequently invited to family events on such topics as best practices for raising a child and local services available for the child; high school students offer babysitting services to make it easier for the parents to attend. Most Farmington elementary students now perform at or above grade levels.
The concept of cultural neurodiversity believes every child is inquisitive, a natural sponge for learning. The challenge for parents, caring adults, and teachers is to provide persistent “info techs” to engage the child’s mind in learning about the world. For example, parents can make up stories to read to a child from a picture book. It is called that a “wordless book”. (A magazine with pictures will do.) The Amherst Wilder Foundation in Minneapolis takes a “whole family approach” to educate on how to teach the child. This Foundation encourages parents to read to their children or play audio tapes to increase the child’s exposure to language. To build a library, Wilder asks parents to keep children’s books together on a shelf.
Before a child starts school, parents should create a library and read to their child. United Kingdom research finds the home learning environment of early years is the largest factor accounting for student achievement at age 10. In this regard, Raising A Reader is a reading program in 2700 U.S. cities for children from birth to eight years old. According to Dr. Gabrielle Miller, CEO and President of RAR, RAR gives parents four books every week to their child. After a child starts school, parents are asked to take their child to the library on a regular basis and help the child find books on subjects of interest.
STRATEGY: The support of caring adults is essential for children to develop the social and emotional skills they must have to read and learn
The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests 15-year-olds in 85 countries; PISA ranks five Asian nations in the top ten for Math, Science, and Reading. A correlation can be seen here between a quintessential cultural value in those countries, Hsiao, and the PISA results. Hsiao is regarded as filial piety: the moral obligation to return love, caring and commitment that a child receives from the parent for several years after birth. Hsiao stems from the cultural belief that responsibility of parents for a child’s moral, social, and mental development. Educationally, until a child is 3 years old, it is not allowed to leave the care of its parents. This tradition suggests that the attention a child gets early in life will influence the success that child has in school. Filial piety also seems to extend to the child’s interest in learning. Asian parents know that good parenting supports early childhood learning.
STRATEGY: It is recommended that “part of the job of a parent should be to work as a teacher with a child’s teachers.”
Parents should regard school teachers as trusted advisers. Dr. Pamela Bernards says, “The most significant duty of schools is to recognize that parents entrust what they hold most dear – their children – to our care. We must do our best to maintain their trust. Building intentional relationships with parents is crucial.” The teacher can give parents picture books, coach parents to point to pictures as they read and point out familiar items, such as “This is a fire engine.” and “What sound does a fire engine make?”
STRATEGY: A teacher can suggest the right kind of books and techniques for parents to read to their child. It is recommended that an early childhood teacher meet with parents at the start of school (in small groups or one-to-one) and at times during the year so the teacher can show various techniques for parents to help their child learn.
Teachers can show parents to how to boost their child’s speech and literacy skills. Head Start parents get ten hours a month of take home activities connected to the curriculum. Connecting the home to the classroom supports learning. A teacher can help parents choose books that make the parent-child interaction at home more productive.
Active engagement in primary grades is a fundamental step that will boost cultural neurodiversity and will help parents boost skills of their students. English Language Learning (ELL) and low income families have greater need to find ways to help their child, so the school should give special assistance to these families. Parent Institute for Quality Education (PIQE), for example, offers ELL families several workshops in the parent’s native language (if possible) to explain public school operations. PIQE also gives the family ways to engage their child in learning. David Valladolid explains, “Teachers and principals think that parents don’t care because many parents aren’t comfortable going inside the school.”
STRATEGY: To show the universality and importance of reading, it is recommended that a teacher invite parents from English Language Learning families to read to the class in their native language. It is also recommended that the school adopt methods to engage ELL families and low income families in school functions.
Benefit–cost ratios in Federal Reserve studies range from $4 to as high as $16 returned for every Early Childhood Education (ECE) dollar invested. ECE funding is often left to happenstance is far below per capita funding for elementary and secondary education. Yet ECE is critical to a child’s success in later years. It also supports working couples who can’t afford to pay to send their young child to school while they are at work. Services offered by Montessori programs since 1912 and Head Start since 1965 bear testimony that ECE furthers student success later in life. Funding ECE produces is a win-win situation. Given its clear advantage in Asian cultures and potential to engage the family, educators should give priority to expanding funding and compulsory school for early childhood learning. Families and teachers should adopt this pledge:
The school and the family are bonded as one To teach our children that learning is fun. It may be tough, it may be rough. We will join together: Enough Iz Enough!
John Mavros is the author of two acclaimed research studies, “The Educational Needs of Black Youth in Princeton” and “Sorting, Territoriality, and Rule-Making Outside the Walls of Seward Park High School”. He cofounded two innovative nonprofit programs in New Jersey that still serve youth and their families. A graduate of Princeton, John now lives in Saint Petersburg, Florida.