Language Acquisition in Young Children

By Deborah Williams

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Several studies have shown that young children from disadvantaged homes are more likely to enter school with a tremendous vocabulary gap when compared to their peers from more advantaged backgrounds.  Some experts estimate that the gap can mean about 30 million fewer words than their more advantaged counterparts.

Writing for Education Week, Sarah D. Sparks supports this finding by summarizing several studies, but she also explains that a little-regarded factor in the poorer language acquisition for these children is the quality of conversation that parents have with their children.  These children tend to enter school far behind their peers and are unlikely to catch up in subsequent school years.  Sparks reports on one part of a significant study, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young Children, that it’s important to do more than just bombard young children with words.  Associate professor in early language and communication and the director of the Children’s Project in Kansas City, Kansas stated, “We don’t want to just distill it down to a numbers game, because … the important message to take away is not the poor versus wealthy families, but the opportunities children have to interact with rich language.”

Jill Gilkerson, director of LENA Research Foundation in Boulder, Colorado explains, “Conversational turns are vastly more important than the number of words a child is exposed to.”  Parents should work to engage their young ones in back and forth exchanges and less “short directives” because this does not create turns in conversation.

View this example of positive parent-child interaction from the article on the Education Week article:

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Raising Brain Healthy Children

By Deborah Williams

Dr. Daniel Amen, director of Amen Clinics, a brain health practice, and his wife Tana have put together some videos on raising brain-healthy children through effective parenting.  They recently posted on their blog the first of a video series on effective parenting.  Part of their advice is a suggestion for how to eliminate homework struggles with your child.

Here are the basics of their effective parenting suggestions:

  1. Determine what kind of parent you want to be and what kind of child you want to raise.
    1. Do you want to solve all their problems?  Do you plan to always rescue him or her?
    2. If you want independent children, Consider these two behaviors to achieve this:
      1. Teach independence by explaining the consequences of their choices and let them experience those consequences—good or bad.
      2. Let your child think for herself or himself.
      3. Eat dinner together every night.
      4. Read to your children.

View the first video about this important subject:  

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Virtual Preschool Curriculum for Parents

By Deborah Williams

Technology has given parents of preschoolers a new way to prepare for school.  The VINCI Virtual Preschool is a game-based subscription service that helps parents deliver instruction in essential early childhood skills.  Their subscriptions include the weekly delivery of lesson plans, books, and activity guides on their own device.

Subscriptions also include access to credentialed teachers to help parents navigate the two-level program.  Designed for children 18 months to three years old, The Sensory Experience integrates Montessori and Reggio Emilia approaches to deliver instructional concepts that appeal to the senses.  For example, “You use a game to introduce a concept, such as “Same or Different”, read the included books on a daily basis to reinforce, and use designed activities such as playing sand and water to help your child to master the concept.”  For children aged four years old and older, The Get Ready for School Challenge teaches skills that align with the Common Core.  The focus is on building literacy and math skills as they learn about science.

View this video of children who have learned math on the VINCI tablet:

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Praise That Works

By Deborah Williams

Sometimes the area between encouragement and indifference becomes quite fuzzy for parents.  Most well-intentioned parents want to encourage their children with positive reinforcement, so praising their children seems like obvious behavior for them.  However, NPR’s Poncie Rutsch explains on the Mind Shift website that some types of praise that parents give their children can lead to narcissism, but other types of praise can “raise the child’s self-esteem and keep her ego in check.”

Ohio State University communications and psychology professor Brad Bushman led a group of researchers who polled parents about how they showed appreciation for their child’s accomplishments.  Those results were compared with the children’s levels of self-esteem—valuing one’s self as equal worth with other people—and narcissism—thinking you are better than other people.  “When he analyzed the results from the surveys, Bushman found that the more narcissistic children had parents who consistently overvalued their accomplishments.”  After monitoring the children for 18 months, he had particular concern about narcissism because of its connection to aggressive and violent behavior.  Those children are less likely to have empathy for others.

Bushman warns parents to refrain from telling a child that he is smart “because if you tell the kid that they’re smart and then if they fail they think, ‘Oh I’m stupid.’  If the praise relates to effort, a child who failed will work harder next time.”  The researchers have found that it’s also important for parents to enhance a child’s self-esteem because it reduces the incidence of depression and anxiety in later years.  To foster better self-esteem in children, Bushman suggests that parents not tell a child that she’s special.  It is better to express warmth by saying something like “I love you.”

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Advantage for Video Gamers

By Deborah Williams

While we are loath to admit it, another study suggests a benefit of playing video games.  A recent report on The Science Daily website explains that researchers from Brown University found that gamers who play a lot are likely to be “experts” of visual processing.   Associate professor (research) of cognitive, linguistic and psychological science, Yuka Sasaki, explains, “When we study perceptual learning we usually exclude people who have tons of video game playing time because they seem to have different visual processing. They are quicker and more accurate.”

The researchers compared two groups:  frequent players and non-gamers.  The researchers trained their subjects to complete two tasks on the first day.  They trained them on the second task—albeit similar—soon after the first one.  The next day, the subjects were assessed again to see if their performance times had improved.  The gamers “…improved their combination of speed and accuracy by about 15 percent on their second task and about 11 percent on their first task. Non-gamers produced the same average 15 percent improvement on their second task, but they actually got a bit worse on the first task they learned, by about 5 percent.”

Sasaki asserts that while the reasons for this outcome are unknown, this study does suggest “that gamers may have a more efficient process for hardwiring their visual task learning than non-gamers.”

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Fun Way to Learn About Finance

By Deborah Williams

The fallout from the Great Recession showed that many adults did not understand finance.  To help prevent this in the future, developers of a money management program hope to educate children on the mysteries of money management.  An article on the US Today website describes Finance Park, a “playground” for kids to learn about money management.  Finance Park allows eighth graders the “chance to be adults for a day by making basic budgeting decisions.”

Finance Park began in 2010 as the result of a partnership between Junior Achievement and local school systems.  More than 56,000 students across the country have gone through the program.  The curriculum has been updated to a tablet-based system that requires students to respond to scenarios about economic decisions.  The scenarios include things like student loan debt, child care and health care.

Learn more about Junior Achievement’s Finance Park’s Finance Parks with this video:

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The Adolescent Brain

By Deborah Williams

Adolescence. Just the mere mention of the word brings shudders to most parents.  Some remember going through it with their previously delightful children.  Others have not experienced it yet, but they dread what could be their parenting nightmare!  Writing for the NPR blog Mind Shift, Cory Turner explains things that parents might be surprised to learn.  There’s a “dirty little secret of adolescence:  The cloudy judgment and risky behavior may not last a year or two.  Try a decade.”

As if that was not enough, there’s more to learn.  Because of changes in their brains, teenagers often begin making bad choices earlier than parents may have thought: not at 16 or 17 but beginning at 11 or 12 years of age.  So, they begin to make bad decisions around 11 years of age, and this poor judgment lasts for about 10 ears!

Additionally, an experiment led by Temple University’s psychology professor Laurence Steinberg confirmed what many adults figured out:  Teenagers are more likely to engage in risky behaviors if they are with other teens.  The results of  brain scans of teens during a driving game showed that teens take a similar number of risks as adults  when they are “driving” alone; however, when they are with other teens, they are more likely to engage in risky behaviors.  An immature prefrontal cortex in their brains is the reason.

Dr. Steinberg explains more about the adolescent brain in this video:

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Coding for Young Children

By Deborah Williams

A recent post on NPR’s Mind Shift blog by Matthew Farber explains that the ability to solve problems by thinking logically is a desirable twenty-first century skill that children will need in careers such as computer programming. There are games for children that will help them with coding by helping them learn how to think.

There are digital and tabletop coding games for children. For digital games, Farber mentions Kodable and Scratch Jr for children 5 and up. Code Monkey Island, a tabletop game, requires players to choose correct conditional statements correctly. Another tabletop game, Robot Turtles, requires preschoolers to work cooperatively to apply logic to “program” a card. It is about sequencing instruction and realizing the consequences.

These games may give young children an advantage when it comes to coding and, at the very least, it will make them more efficient thinkers.

This video gives an overview of the Robot Turtles game by its creator, Dan Shapiro:

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Pass Civics Test to Graduate

By Deborah Williams

Washington Post writer Reid Wilson reports that Arizona legislators have passed a law that requires high school students to pass the same citizenship test that immigrants must pass in order to graduate from high school.  Students  must answer correctly 60 of the 100 questions on United States government and history.  Even though the Civics Education Initiative is seeking to have similar legislation in several states, Arizona is the first to make this requirement.

The Initiative is trying to change the woeful lack of knowledge about civics among most Americans.  A 2011 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center noted the following examples in its findings:

Here are some of the questions on the test:

  1. How many amendments does the U.S. Constitution have?
    1. 26
    2. 28
    3. 27
    4. 29
    5. If both the President and the Vice President can no longer serve, who becomes President?
      1. The Secretary of the Treasury
      2. The President Pro Tempore of the Senate
      3. The Secretary of State
      4. The Speaker of the House
      5. Under our Constitution, some powers belong to the federal government.  What is one power of the federal government?
        1. To provide schooling and education
        2. To make treaties
        3. To issue driver’s licenses
        4. To build roads
        5. Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?
          1. Benjamin Franklin
          2. Thomas Jefferson
          3. John Jay
          4. John Adams
          5. How long is a U.S. Senator’s term?
            1. 2 years
            2. 6 years
            3. 4 years
            4. 8 years

Answers:  1) c   2) d   3) b    4) b   5) b

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Why Children Need to Study Music

By Deborah Williams

A recent article on the Science Daily website reinforces proponents of maintaining arts programs in schools.  Researchers from Northwestern University “found that children who regularly attended music classes and actively participated showed larger improvements in how the brain processes speech and reading scores than their less-involved peers after two years.”  Sitting passively in music classes does not seem to be as beneficial as actively participating.

Researchers found that the type of music classes was important.  “Students who played instruments in class improved more than the children who attended the music appreciation group.”  This type of engagement strengthened students’ neural processing in the brain.  Lead author Nina Kraus, professor of communication sciences in the School of Communication and of neurobiology and physiology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern, explained, “Our results support the importance of active experience and meaningful engagement with sound to stimulate changes in the brain.”

Researchers from Northwestern also looked at data from the Harmony Project, which looks for scientific evidence of academic success of some of its students.  Northwestern researchers found that “two years of music training—but not one—improved the brains’ ability to distinguish similar-sounding syllables, a skill linked to literacy.”

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