Sunday, May 30, 2010

Marsha Lucas, PhD - Why Early Reading Is Bad for Your Child | Early Brain Development
Read to them, but don't make them learn to read until they are ready.

This isn't exactly an article about men or boys, except that it is. I have some personal experience with this topic (and I think other parents of boys - more so than girls - will have had similar experiences), so I figured I might have some insight that makes this excellent post by Dr. Marsha more concrete.

And by the way, Dr. Lucas's blog - ReWire Your Brain for Love - is one of my favorite reads, so check it out if you aren't already familiar with her work (she also author of a forth-coming book by the same name).

Dr. Lucas argues in this post -Why Early Reading is bad for your child | Early Brain Development - that trying to make our children read at such a young age effectively short-circuits their brain development. When kids are young, the primary goal of brain development is centered around consolidating attachment and interpersonal wiring, not learning to read.

First and foremost: The fundamental task of early childhood isn’t learning to read, or to “get ahead” for school, or to impress the neighbors, or to give the folks something to brag about. Encouraging children to surge ahead beyond their real developmental needs leaves them with some really sludgy clean-up to grapple with later on.

The most important task of early childhood is experiencing a healthy, secure attachment in which the child’s caregivers are attuned to the child’s inner state and respond in a contingent manner.

Let me say that again. What kids need from the get-go is a parent who “gets” them, who pays attention to what’s going on inside them, and who responds to them in a way that’s actually related to what the kid is feeling.

Healthy, secure, attuned attachment gives kids some much deeper “advantages” in life than whether they learn to read early (and learning to read early doesn’t actually give them any advantages, anyway – which I’ll get to in section II below).
OK, so this part was not a part of my childhood experience. I am proof of why it's crucial to be with your kids and provide them with secure attachment.

I ended up with some ambivalent attachment (especially toward my mother - more avoidant with my father), which eventually forced me to seek therapy so that I could stop sabotaging relationships (lack of trust, neediness, inability to share my feelings) and self-destructing with drugs and/or alcohol.

You can see the issues with avoidant attachment and ambivalent attachment in these images. The ambivalent attachment has been the bigger issue for me, at least before doing a few years of good therapy - this combination, but especially the avoidant attachment, is sometimes diagnosed in adults as schizoid personality disorder.

Dr. Lucas points out that there are huge advantages - at least a dozen of them - to a healthy secure attachment:

The research on attachment shows that there are a number of benefits which last a lifetime, including but not limited to at least the following dozen:

  1. The ability to sustain attention
  2. Better management of physical reactions to emotions – leading to improved immunity and fewer stress-related illnesses
  3. Less anxiety
  4. Better relationships with childhood peers, and healthier relationships as adults
  5. Fewer behavioral problems
  6. Increased capacity for empathy
  7. Greater ability to regulate mood (for example, calming down from excitement, or not getting caught up in frustration)
  8. Enhanced skills in communicating emotions in healthy ways
  9. Greater confidence and self-esteem (and it isn’t just based on performance and grades, but rather a sense of abiding and healthy self-worth)
  10. Better able to generate alternative solutions to interpersonal conflict
  11. Enhanced insight into themselves, and others
  12. Better modulation of fear, allowing for a willingness to explore and take on growthful challenge
Attachment failures such as those I experienced are the reason people come to therapy with Dr. Lucas - not because they did not learn to read at age three. And I would add that Dr. Daniel Siegel has made it clear - in Mindsight and other books - that we can repair these attachment failures through mindfulness practice (as well as good therapy).

On the bright side, my parents did not force me to learn to read at a young age. In fact, when I started kindergarten, I could not read and had no interest in sitting down to learn how to read. I wanted to play on the swings, ride bikes, play tag and whatever else it was I did when I was five years old.

What was true for me seems also to be true for most boys when they start school (from the PBS Parents site Understanding and Raising Boys):
The average boy is less mature than the average girl when he starts school. By school age, the average boy is less mature socially, less verbal, and more active than most of the girls. "We ask too much of boys developmentally in the early years and they taste too much failure and frustration in school," says Michael Thompson, Ph.D.

Schools, not boys, have changed. Children are now taught to read in kindergarten when many young boys are not as skilled verbally as girls. "At age five, many boys are not ready to learn to read," says teacher Jane Katch, author of Under Deadman's Skin. "When I began teaching in the '70s, children were not expected to read in kindergarten. Some first grade teachers actually preferred that children learn the alphabet in first grade, where they could learn to do it 'the right way'!"
To be fair, it was mostly the girls reading when I was in kindergarten (1972), while the boys played. However, I managed to get through first grade without learning to read - and well into second grade. The teachers thought I was developmentally disabled - not to mention hyperactive (as an adult I was finally diagnosed with ADD) - and I was put in the "slow room" with other slow learners, all of whom were boys.

So I did not learn to read until I was seven years old - however, by the time I was nine years old, my teachers wanted to move me up two grades (from 4th to 6th) because I was bored and disrupting the class. That year I also was tested for and admitted to a "talented and gifted" program.

The downside of this experience was that I experienced a great deal of ridicule and shaming in 2nd grade for not being able to read. As I got older, I became hyper-aware of how I was perceived by others, which I have no doubt contributed to developing social anxiety disorder.

Anyway, it turns out that the research shows that children really are not ready to read until age six or seven, so there was nothing slow about me.

Dr. Lucas presents some compelling research in support of this approach:

And another thing: Early reading doesn’t do much for your child’s success in school, and there’s evidence that it may even be detrimental.

Let’s take a look at a few points in that regard – and note that this list is only a few of many reasons why early reading is a lousy deal for your child.

  • Louise Bates Ames, PhD, a superstar in child development and the director of research at the world-renowned Gesell Institute of Child Development, stated that “a delay in reading instruction would be a preventative measure in avoiding nearly all reading failure.” Leapfrogging necessary cognitive developmental skills — and asking a young brain to do tasks for which it isn’t truly ready — is asking for trouble with learning.
  • The brains of young children aren’t yet developed enough to read without it costing them in the organization and “wiring” of their brain. The areas involved in language and reading aren’t fully online — and aren’t connected — until age seven or eight. If we’re teaching children to do tasks which their brains are not yet developed to do via the “normal” (and most efficient) pathways, the brain will stumble upon other, less efficient ways to accomplish the tasks — which lays down wiring in some funky ways — and can lead to later learning disabilities, including visual-processing deficits.
  • The description of brain development on which the “Your Baby Can Read” program rests its questionable claims is remarkably flawed, confusing language acquisition with reading. They state: “A baby’s brain thrives on stimulation and develops at a phenomenal pace…nearly 90% during the first five years of life! The best and easiest time to learn a language is during the infant and toddler years, when the brain is creating thousands of synapses every second — allowing a child to learn both the written word and spoken word simultaneously, and with much more ease….” There is a huge and unsupported leap here from language acquisition – which is definitely an important developmental task, necessary for connecting to one’s outer world – and reading, which is a very different neurological and cognitive task, and one which is not developmentally appropriate for a baby or toddler’s brain.
  • Does early training really get you anywhere? There is a classic study of twins which was done by another pioneer in child development, Arnold Gesell, PhD, MD. He studied a pair of toddler twins, who were not yet able to climb stairs. For the study, one of the twins was given daily practice and encouragement to climb stairs, and the other twin had no stairs to practice on. After six weeks of practice, the “trained” twin could climb the stairs, and the “untrained” twin could not. However, within one week of being given the opportunity to climb stairs, the untrained twin completely caught up with the trained twin’s stair-climbing ability.
  • The whole idea that learning to read early gives children — or our educational system, or our economy — an “advantage” is not based on empirical evidence. If you look at the US and Britain, you see the trends toward earlier reading and increasingly less successful educational systems. On the other hand, the majority of children in Finland begin instruction in reading at age seven — two years later than here in the US (and even later than the folks at “Your Baby Can Read” would have you start). The outcome? Finnish students not only catch up to their earlier-starting counterparts, but they surpass the United States, other European countries, and Asian countries as well, with top overall scores in the world in reading, science, and math. Oh, and the Finnish do attend preschool, but it isn’t “academic” in nature — it emphasizes social development and exploration.
So if your child, especially your boy, is not interested in learning to read at an early age, that's normal. And trying to make your child, especially your boy, learn to read when s/he is three or four years old may end up costing them developmentally later on.

What they really need is loving attentive parents who give them attention, mirroring, and affection. Play games, be physical, but just be there - and this means fathers, too.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I totally disagree with you, back in the 70's a Dr. Spock espoused child rearing philosophies, and it was later found he had terrible relationships with his kids. Just because you have a PHD in your title doesn't mean you know anything, in fact I could say that your advanced education disqualifies you from advising low education people, which by the way mirrors your philosophy in your article.