childhood development

February 18, 2010

Awareness- Part 3

Twos take another leap in their ability to gain awareness of their world and use mental models to reflect upon it. First is that our Twos are not only able to create a mental picture of the world but are also able to hold that representation of the external world in mind for longer than just the immediate moment and can use it to complete tasks and meet goals. Whitney revealed a strong ability to keep a visual map of where she was and where she needed to go. For example, when asked to go get a ball out in the yard while viewing it from the second floor of our house, she could hold her representation of the house, the front yard and where the ball is in that yard as she navigated downstairs, outside and through the yard to retrieve it. (see “Get Ball” video clips at: www.RaisingWhit.com, 24mths).

Mental Maps used to find something

Mental Maps used to find the ball

The second important milestone is the capacity to rehearse and review one’s own actions– to picture “me” doing things in that external world. Here to is an extended ability to hold that representation in mind longer bringing new levels of awareness and reflection. As mentioned in the previous post, humans unlike any other species have a robust self recognition and ability to picture and supervise themselves performing complex tasks. This type of conscious awareness is unique to humans. Although some primates like apes have a limited form of imitation, none can match our toddlers budding skills at mental rehearsal and accurate reproduction of actions. (see “Imitating Stretching” video from last post)

These two milestones come together to create a powerful new ability to understand and keep in memory “mental models” or scripts that lets a toddler meaningfully explore and categorize the world. They are beginning to master the everyday routines and scripts that compose life from wakeup time and mealtime to bathtime and bedtime. They have a growing understanding of their world, their life and an ability to hold these images and understandings in mind. These multisensory pictures or ideas are the most deliberate and conscious productions of the mind. The ultimate model of models is “me-in-my-enviroment” and our toddlers are starting to perform the mental rehearsal of placing themselves in all these different roles and routines. Now our toddlers can form a mental image of his wants and desires, label it with specific spoken words, communicate or act on it.

The difference from a year ago is that these are now more complex models with beginnings, middles and ends; and she can now move away from having to rely on the primarily behavior based interactions. She can use verbal shortcuts to get she needs met as more words become associated with these mental pictures. The life of action is transitioning to a life of mind. Albeit still isolated islands of ideas without the more coherent worldview an adult carries around that integrates ideas into unified narratives. This is an early phase in the life of mind.

In the second half of the year, our children do begin to build bridges between ideas and construct more coherent narratives and reason logically. Before 3 years, toddlers will start to weave together autobiographical narratives. Narratives go further than just words to describe things. Narratives have a dramatic through line with actors who have desires directed toward goals which take place in a context with a beginning, middle and end. Whitney could now comprehend and make up narratives about her own life. Another aspect is the ability to create larger stories across a broader range of experience. Whitney was now beginning to understand how one event leads to another (if I fall down, I get a booboo on my knee and have to get a bandaide); how ideas operate across time (If I eat my dinner now, I will get dessert later); and how ideas operate across space (Mom is here and dropping me off now and will go away and come back later to pick me up). Ideas can now be used to explain emotions (I feel mad because mom won’t let me do that) and for logical thinking (that is fantasy instead of reality).

From infancy to three, our babies are mastering this critical capacity for broad human awareness and reflective thought. Again, it does not happen automatically and rich experiences in the baby’s real world set a more robust and solid foundation. From birth we can help our babies remain in a calm alert state for full employment of their five senses and the optimal engagement with their surroundings. We can develop a close intimate bond with our baby by interacting with our baby at a slow pace following their lead. We can explore the world with our baby noticing their emotional reactions to things and encouraging back and forth facial expressions and gestures, expressing a broader range of emotions with appropriate natural timing. We can help them exercise their budding mental representations and memories by recounting events and the day before bed and anticipating what is about to happen prior to the day and the events. We can help them construct narratives from their lives by starting a story about your trip to the zoo and letting them fill in and co- construct the story as you both recount it to a sibling or spouse. There is much to do in our role as parent. Two amazing books for much more detail are: Daniel Stern’s Diary of a Baby for a eye opening perspective on how your baby sees the world and Stanley Greenspan’s Building Healthy Minds on what you can do at each age & stage of this development.

December 22, 2009

Working with the 3Cs- Character, Competence, Concepts

All children are born with vast potential for valued character traits, diverse competences & intelligences, and the ability to understand complex concepts. Our understanding of these capabilities has been fundamentally altered over the last several decades because of the explosion in cognitive science research. No longer do we think that people are born with a single general and static intelligence that can be simply measured by IQ tests and remains the same throughout life. Instead research in neuroscience reveals that the brain is comprised of many separate modules that give rise to strengths or weaknesses across an array of competencies… And how we  put these competencies to effective use can vary depending on the specific situation.

How do we get to know and cultivate the individual minds of our children? How do the 3 Cs of Character traits, Competences and Conceptual understandings reveal themselves at the different stages of our children’s lives so that we can best nurture them?

Anyone with 2 or more children knows that every child is different and engages with their world in unique ways. Some minds are wired to create symphonies; others are disposed to build bridges or computers; and still others are inclined to alleviate suffering and cure medical ailments. Although hard to imagine while they are babies, different kinds of minds and hearts are destined to lead different adult lives.

The first step is to be aware and identify the different aspects of a child’s growing mind. In the past, competences or skills such as language, logic and more recently social & emotional development received most of the attention. However, today there is much more awareness of how a child’s character traits (dispositions) provide the critical foundation for the realization of the broad range of competences and conceptual understanding.  Research is giving us a much greater appreciation for these other aspects of a child – such as the disposition to make sense of experience, to theorize about causes and effects, to hypothesize explanations to account for observations, and to analyze and synthesize whatever information is available.

Carefully watching your child as they play and investigate the world around them will help you figure out what the chiild’s dispositions are. Children need to be put in situations where they can express their dispositions and see that their disposition was effective. All the dimensions of learning and development are intertwined and can positively or negatively affect each other. For example, the risk of early instruction in reading skills is that the amount of drill and practice required for success at an early age seems to undermine children’s disposition to be readers. It is clearly not useful for a child to learn skills if, in the process of acquiring them, the disposition to use them is lost. On the other hand, acquiring the disposition to be a reader without the requisite skills is also not desirable.

Each child brings a different blend of character traits (dispositions), competences (skills), and concepts (knowledge) to any experience. Our job is to first tune into our specific child and see if we can figure out who they are and what they are working on. We adults in their lives can make a big difference in what children take away from all of their experiences. We are not and cannot be perfect; but we can start wherever we are and take it one small step at a time. With desire and practice, we can become more aware of all the rich learning that is taking place. Over the next several posts, we will explore important areas of development and learning in our children.

December 14, 2009

Defining the 3 Cs: Character, Competence, Concepts

As discussed in the last post, children are meeting multiple learning and development objectives through their explorations and interactions with the real world around them—through their “play”. We also discussed the role of us adults or parents in embedding the “adult agenda” of important learning goals to enrich this play. The last few decades has witnessed an explosion of research into child development and across the cognitive sciences; and it provides us with a better picture of the vast and complex workings of your child’s mind and how to better organize our learning goals. In any given moment or context, experts tell us that there are 3 types of learning goals for us to be aware of:

-       Competences & skills: Skills are small units of action or longer mental processes that occur over time. Physical, cognitive, language,  social & emotional development can be seen in discrete skill sets that start small and grow more complex. For example, simple fine motor manipulation of objects in with the hand lead to control over a pencil or pen and elaborate drawing capabilities.

-       Concepts & Knowledge: Children develop conceptual understandings about how the world works as they experience it. They begin to create theories about how a person will behave differently then their pet dog and how a dog or animals behave differently from objects. And then how objects such as blocks are different than objects such as balls. Through experiences with these things they develop expectations and ideas and can continually refine and deepen these conceptual understandings.

-       Character Traits & Dispositions: Dispositions can be thought of as habits of mind or tendencies to respond to certain situations in certain ways. Curiosity, friendliness or unfriendliness, bossiness, generosity, meanness, and creativity are examples of dispositions, sets of dispositions or character traits, rather than of skills or items of knowledge.

In terms of broad goals, most educators and parents readily agree that children should learn whatever will ultimately enable them to become healthy, competent, productive, and contributing members of their communities. But when it comes to the specifics of what should be learned this month, this week, this day or during any particular experience, agreement is not so easily achieved.  More on these goals and how to apply them in your child’s specific experiences in the next post.