The last 20 years in the biological sciences has presented dramatic changes in our understanding of child development. A core change is that the debate over nature versus nurture is over. We now have epigenetic adaptation: nurture influences nature. Together they control our lives. Early childhood educators don't need to become neural-biologists, but we do need to understand how the current information regarding epigenetic adaptation informs our role in the development of children.
We especially need to understand that we are changing the expression of genes, not just behaviors. That suggests that how we change behaviors is crucial to the success of children. Most of us have moved from behavior modification to teaching thinking skills, but we also need to pay close attention to brain development: the ability to think.
It appears that thinking itself is a central piece of the environment that affects genes. Genes control all development of animals and plants. They control the development of cells: the basic element in all living things. Thinking is available because cells divided to produce neural structures that recorded environmental experience and make connections between neurons.
This is a different language than early childhood educators are used to. It is a significant difference. If we think, for example, that a child is being obstinate by way of multiple refusals, we are not as likely to see what the child needs to develop in their brain that will sustain the learning necessary to obey the commands of caregivers. The behavior may appear to be obstinate, but it is a lack of education, of brain development.
Understanding epigenesis could even lead to not giving children many commands, only assisting their education. For example, children do need to obey: sometimes, some ways, but not always. The decision requires cognition. Recognizing the need for cognition could lead to more focus on nutrition, sleep, and sensory-motor activities. Further, the development of cognition requires understanding the procedures of scaffolding: offering mental-assistance when the child is asking, and finding ways to encourage their search for answers.
Early childhood educators have mostly stopped directly punishing children for mistakes, but we still may be thinking that children make mistakes on purpose. We confuse children when we're disappointed in them. We probably have confused ourselves when we expect more of children than they have learned. Understanding the epigenetic adaptation aspect of brain development will help us improve our training of young children.
Some more thoughts on this topic:The developments in neural-biology over the last 20 years are demanding that we take a new look at early childhood education. Education isn't just words anymore, it's environment affecting genes-epigenetics. We knew that relationship was important if education with words was to be effective; we may not have known that relationship was an environment affecting genes, and thereby itself early childhood education.
Early childhood education is different from all other education. I'll compare education in mathematics. A person can start learning mathematics before they are three-years-old. They can keep learning it the rest of their lives. That's where the comparison ends. If mathematicians don't learn something before they are five it isn't much of an impediment to their further learning; it just slows the process a little. If they learned something wrong, it soon shows up as a problem and can be easily corrected: two plus two just doesn't equal five when you count the sticks.
By contrast, if you didn't learn social skills by the time you were five-years-old, you are easily in trouble the rest of your life. It even requires social skills to notice even dramatic errors, and to make corrections. If you didn't learn about and develop feelings of empathy before you were five-years-old, you're in bad shape for learning about relationships, including that with yourself, and may have trouble with the law when you are older.
I can't think of any other subject of education that has the complexity and dramatic impact on human life that early childhood education has. With most educational subjects there are clear rules to follow. They can be complex-consider learning grammar-and take a long time to clearly understand, but they hardly compare to the life-skills that a child needs to learn if their adult life is to go well. My life is going well, but I'm still learning from mistakes and aware that there is more to learn.
Notice that it doesn't matter if your mathematics instructor is a gentle person. They can even be mean. It is of course more difficult, but you can still learn mathematics from them. You're unlikely to learn effective living skills from a caretaker with limited personal skills-a low emotional quotient (EQ in contrast to IQ). You're far more likely to learn personal skills from them that don't work well over time.
Everything that we experience is being learned. If we don't pay attention to the new learning it fades away, sometimes in seconds, but young children are eager to pay attention to anything novel. They are making quadrillions of connections in their brain. One thought may be at least thousands of neural connections. If it is thought many times more, it is a thought that would even be difficult to get rid of.
We even have thoughts about thoughts. We question the effectiveness and consequences of thoughts. How well we do that task depends on what we have learned to think. For example, we can learn a great deal about paying attention in our first months of life if our interests are effectively supported. That includes the ability to pay attention to consequences-think-which is crucial to learning.
Understanding more about neural-biology needs to affect our thinking about early childhood education. Our brains are not digital recorders. Experiences aren't just recorded in our brains, they are thought about as they are recorded by cell division and neural developments. The thinking is recorded with the memory. It happens instantaneously. The thinking includes decisions about how engaged we are in a subject, whether it is positive or negative, safe or dangerous.
Nutrition, sleep, and exercise are crucial to brain development, but we also need to think of early childhood education as brain development. We've been using psychological personality assessments to describe the needs for and effects of early childhood education, but that has proven to be a problem, and is no longer an effective approach to education.
For example, knowing that a child may become aggressive in a classroom is important awareness, but it is not a descriptor of the child. An effective description of the child who easily becomes aggressive is that the child has learned that aggression works in their life. Calling the child aggressive is not only misleading, but also limits a caretaker's understanding regarding what education to bring to bear.
It would be effective when dealing with a child who tends to use aggression for his needs in the classroom for a caregiver to think about what neural connections would counteract his brain connections regarding emotion driving ineffective impulses of aggression. The child's frustration, or even anger, is likely to be appropriate, depending on how much the young child knows about things like rules and sharing; it's the impulsivity that needs attention. The child needs to think more about consequences, both negative and positive.
Now the caregiver will focus on the normal training regarding developing regulation of emotion and impulsivity. That's normal early childhood education if the child is still a toddler, but needs to be returned to if the earlier training was missed or ineffective. Now the caregiver will soothe the aggressive child understanding that being aggressive leads to anxiety.
This well-trained caregiver will not even consider punishment, and will try not even to be disappointed in the aggressive child's return to negative behavior, seeing that, too, as punishment. Reducing anxiety will be scaffolding for clearer thinking. Now some open-ended questions may find what the child is ready to learn about being impulsive with his anger. Possibly even learning some element of the causes of his anger.
We see impulsive aggression in adults regularly in the news, sometimes with ugly and tragic consequences. That can add to our motivation to explore how to make early childhood education more effective. Taking a new look at early childhood education will not change our approach to children quickly. We may need to deal with our own anxiety about mistakes, and our beliefs in what we have been doing for years.
Important new information is happening quickly in sciences related to child development. Five years is old information these days. This information about the environment influencing our genes-epigenetics-has been significantly growing among scientists for 20 years, but only recently reached our ears. When I write on early education sites, I'm often shown that I've misspelled epigenetics and need to add it to their dictionary. That's how new this information is.
Early childhood educators use the word scaffolding regularly, but I think we could use this concept better if we discuss it more thoroughly. "Scaffolding" has been around for a long time. It appears that Jerome Bruner invented the term, but it goes back to Vigotsky's work at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Before both, John Dewey developed the phrase "growing edge" regarding education. Vigotsky made it clear that scaffolding for learning new information was to be provided at what he called the "zone of proximal development."
That raises the question, what is a child ready to learn. I think this question has more to do with brain development than any particular knowledge. A newborn, for instance, attends to her environment as though it is a part of herself until she has enough neural connections to realize some things move without her being involved. There was recently research suggesting that training attention, a core ingredient of learning anything, has to do with reinforcing an infant's natural attention; that's an example of scaffolding. Trying to teach the infant to attend to something, in contrast to reinforcing their natural attention, was found to distract attention to the object, and thus didn't train the ability to attend.
I think that it is possible that we do too much training that isn't in touch with a child's interest-or abilities-and is thus not very effective as it isn't using scaffolding. The research mentioned above called effective training of attention "synchronist," and ineffective training "intrusive." We may want to add the word "synchronistic" to "scaffolding," when we are trying to educate at a child's growing edge-their zone of proximal development.
It appears important to discuss these issues in a time when we see more pressure to add subjects to our curriculums. I think that too often research is ignored when curriculums are developed. For example, children are sometimes expected to share when they are as young as three years of age, when it has been found that children aren't able to clearly discuss what they mean by sharing until they are at least five years old. There just aren't adequate neural connections for that level of sophistication before that age.
When skills are taught without appropriate scaffolding, they are what Newell Kephart called "splinter skills." He described them as skills that don't generalize, that is, aren't flexible enough to be used in more complex situations. For example, social skills often fail when they aren't developed by regulating emotion and impulsivity.
Let's consider the complex of skills needed to eat lunch together at a childcare agency before you are three years old. What skills does a toddler have that an early childhood caregiver can scaffold? The caregiver needs to know the level of each child's regulation of emotion and impulsivity. This includes knowing how long a child can wait, how well their sensory system is developed (e.g. body orientation is space, reach/grasp/release, mouth sensitivity, and many things), and how difficult the food is to control.
When scaffolding isn't well understood, I think that a good deal of punishment from frustration occurs at the lunch table in some childcare situations. In addition, without appropriate scaffolding not much learning is affected, leading to further frustration. So much can be learned at the lunch table that I've suggested that mock-lunches be a frequent part of a classroom. Caretakers can be more relaxed without food at the table, one skill at a time can be the center of focus, it can all be fun-a game--and zones of proximal development can be observed.
A core assessment of whether an activity uses scaffolding is to notice engagement. High engagement, excellent scaffolding. Low engagement, reconsider the task rather than push for engagement. Play with blocks can easily illustrate this concept. Children tend to engage in towers, roads, and buildings. If asking what kind of a block a piece is gets an adequate answer, there was engagement. If it doesn't, the educator can move back to things like noting that it is a large or small block. Would you like another one that size? may educate using scaffolding on what the child is beginning to understand.
I could give many examples, but if the caregiver understands the concept they will assess engagement and modify scaffolding automatically. Understanding a concept well makes our thinking automatic, and saves time and energy. Further, success, seeing a child develop in front of your eyes, makes a job meaningful and usually means fewer frustrations.
Child development and scaffolding needs to be on the minds of caretakers all the time, right behind their love of children, and supporting their love of children. That means that training goals are secondary tasks. Any other development of young children is less likely to be adequate for the goal of successful living.
The approach to caregiving that underlies the text is based on Magda Gerber's Educaring® philosophy combined with a bold new approach to the extensive 62 years of research done by her late colleague, pediatrician Emmi Pikler. Focusing on the concept of respect in child care, both pioneers based their curriculum around responding to each individual child's needs in a warm and sensitive manner.
Well-stated Mr. Wright.
As an early childhood educator of more than forty years I agree with your thinking.
Beauvoir, the National Cathedral Elementary School
BIOLOGY AS DISTURBING
Biology is a mechanistic approach to human life. It can leave us wondering about what it means to be human. Are we more than a programed machine? As we learn about progress with brain science we are finding that our brains run our lives, and that what it knows to do has been learned from our environment and genes. That makes our tasks as a child's environment-educators-clearly significant, but it requires that we use this mechanistic view to guide our pedagogy. Environment even affects our genes.
For this biological information not to be disturbing, we may need to understand how we can be in charge of own lives in this mechanistic view. Biology makes how we react to our mistakes the only freewill available. All our behaviors are the result of what our brain learned from our environment, so even our attempts at change are programed. We need to be patient as we make even the smallest improvement to our responses to mistakes.
This all makes it crucial that we understand that our thinking is an environment. It is something we can change by noticing-critical thinking-when our thinking isn't effective. Without critical thinking we are stuck with the other effects of our environment, and all of us have been given limitations by things that went wrong in our environment. If we can't change our behaviors over time, with patience, it is disturbing that we are too much like a machine.