6

Communicating and Learning

Through the early childhood years, emerging communication skills and capacities for learning support other critical developments. The infant who learns more readily to replace crying with rudimentary attempts at other forms of communication (e.g., pointing and directing her gaze) spends more time in happier states and is an easier baby for parents to manage during the early months of life (Crockenberg, 1981). Preschoolers who speak clearly and communicate their ideas more effectively are better able to sustain bouts of play with other children (Guralnick et al., 1996). Even before children enter school, weak academic skills are associated with, and over time appear to exacerbate, behavioral and attention problems (Arnold, 1997; Hinshaw, 1992; Morrison et al., 1989). This is not to say that efforts to support language and cognitive development or to remediate delays in speech, hearing, and learning, will fix all other early developmental problems. Rather, without attention to problems in these domains of development, important and sometimes powerfully influential avenues to addressing emotional and behavioral problems may be neglected. Scientists are, however, only beginning to understand how these intersecting strands of development operate to either foster or undermine development as a whole during the early years of life.

The young child's growing skills in communication, language, and learning are also vitally important in their own right. No one disputes that success and persistence in school are major contributors to constructive life pathways (Stipek, in press). Children who do not complete high school, for



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement



Below are the first 10 and last 10 pages of uncorrected machine-read text (when available) of this chapter, followed by the top 30 algorithmically extracted key phrases from the chapter as a whole.
Intended to provide our own search engines and external engines with highly rich, chapter-representative searchable text on the opening pages of each chapter. Because it is UNCORRECTED material, please consider the following text as a useful but insufficient proxy for the authoritative book pages.

Do not use for reproduction, copying, pasting, or reading; exclusively for search engines.

OCR for page 124
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development 6 Communicating and Learning Through the early childhood years, emerging communication skills and capacities for learning support other critical developments. The infant who learns more readily to replace crying with rudimentary attempts at other forms of communication (e.g., pointing and directing her gaze) spends more time in happier states and is an easier baby for parents to manage during the early months of life (Crockenberg, 1981). Preschoolers who speak clearly and communicate their ideas more effectively are better able to sustain bouts of play with other children (Guralnick et al., 1996). Even before children enter school, weak academic skills are associated with, and over time appear to exacerbate, behavioral and attention problems (Arnold, 1997; Hinshaw, 1992; Morrison et al., 1989). This is not to say that efforts to support language and cognitive development or to remediate delays in speech, hearing, and learning, will fix all other early developmental problems. Rather, without attention to problems in these domains of development, important and sometimes powerfully influential avenues to addressing emotional and behavioral problems may be neglected. Scientists are, however, only beginning to understand how these intersecting strands of development operate to either foster or undermine development as a whole during the early years of life. The young child's growing skills in communication, language, and learning are also vitally important in their own right. No one disputes that success and persistence in school are major contributors to constructive life pathways (Stipek, in press). Children who do not complete high school, for

OCR for page 124
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development example, are significantly more likely as adults to display a host of behaviors that are destructive to themselves and others, including substance abuse, unemployment, low income, welfare dependency, delinquency, and crime (Haveman and Wolfe, 1984; Hawkins and Lishner, 1987; Hinshaw, 1992; Loeber and Stouthamer-Loeber, 1987; Rutter et al., 1998; Steinberg et al., 1984). One of the most significant insights about educational attainment in recent years is that educational outcomes in adolescence and even beyond can be traced back to academic skills at school entry (Chen et al., 1996; Cunningham and Stanovich, 1997; Luster and McAdoo, 1996; Weller et al., 1992). Academic skills at school entry can, in turn, be traced to capabilities seen during the preschool years and the experiences in and out of the home that foster their development. Children's cognitive skills before they enter kindergarten show strong associations with achievement in elementary and high school (Hess and Hahn, 1974; Stevenson and Newman, 1986) and during early adulthood (Baydar et al., 1993). Preschool general cognitive ability has also been shown to predict high school completion (Brooks-Gunn et al., 1993). This evidence underpins the national commitment to school readiness and has fueled the proliferation of public prekindergarten programs (Schulman et al., 1999). It is important to note that children who start school lagging behind their peers in language and cognitive abilities are not doomed to be school failures and dropouts. To the contrary, early interventions can make substantial contributions to the academic skills of young children (see Chapter 13). Moreover, the associations found between early and later achievement leave substantial unexplained variance. This means that there is plenty of room for children to defy the odds, and many do. Both language development and the emergence of early learning capabilities appear to be relatively resilient processes. This means that they are relatively protected from adverse circumstances, that it may take more to undermine these processes than is the case for other aspects of development, and that they can show surprising recovery if children exhibiting delays are placed in more advantageous environments. Nevertheless, some aspects of language and cognition appear to be less resilient and more open to environmental influence than others, including vocabulary and attentional capacities. These aspects are particularly important to school success, in part because of what they can set in motion once a child enters formal schooling. They are also characterized by striking socioeconomic differences and therefore contribute to inequities in children's life chances. Moreover, the prospects for children with serious delays in language and cognition resulting from developmental disabilities and specific disorders can be seriously constrained and are heavily dependent on early detection and intervention. This chapter illustrates these points first with a discussion

OCR for page 124
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development of what is now known about the development of communication and language, and then with a discussion of how children learn about the world and come to view themselves as competent individuals. LANGUAGE ACQUISITION AND COMMUNICATION Starting from the first day of life, the development of communication skills, language, and literacy are significant accomplishments. The child's first word is a cause for celebration. Parents watch in amazement as these words multiply exponentially, turn into phrases and then sentences, and ultimately allow them to have almost adult like conversations with their preschoolers. The transition from a newborn who can barely keep his eyes focused on a book to a preschooler who laughs and cries when his parent reads or tells a story, moves his fingers along a page and pretends to read, and, in some cases, can read himself is equally impressive. Almost all children learn to talk without explicit instruction, suggesting that language acquisition is a relatively resilient process, although they do not all learn to talk well, suggesting that language acquisition includes some more fragile elements. In contrast, reading as a component of literacy is a much more fragile process. Not everyone achieves fluent reading, and instruction seems to be essential. Indeed, some cultures don't even have a written system. The development of reading is addressed in a pair of recent reports from the National Research Council: Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (National Research Council, 1998a) is written primarily for a research audience, and Starting Out Right (National Research Council, 1998b) is geared to parents and practitioners. Only recently has information about trends in young children's literacy development become available, and the data span only 6 years (Nord et al., 1999). Unfortunately, the information comes exclusively from parent reports, which can contain biases, but the sample is nationally representative. They tell us that 3- to 5-year-olds in 1999 have somewhat better knowledge of the alphabet and are able to count a bit higher (i.e., 57 versus 52 percent in 1993 can count to 20 or higher) than their counterparts in 1993, but they are no more likely to be able to write their own names or to read or pretend to read. Moreover, the majority of the statistically significant changes are for children who are less at risk of school failure, namely, those who are not poor and whose mothers speak English. The somewhat good overall news must thus be tempered by the fact that the children for whom we most want to see progress are still being left behind. In this discussion, we do not attempt to recount all of the accomplishments of young children in the realm of literacy; rather, we focus on the ways in which (and for whom) language development is and is not resilient, the role of the environment—particularly that provided by the parent—and implications for intervention.

OCR for page 124
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development To study the process of language learning, the most common technique is to do nothing more than observe children as they talk. Early studies consisted of diaries that researcher parents made of their own child 's first utterances. The goal was to write down all of the new utterances that the child produced. Diary studies were later replaced by audio and video samples of talk from a number of children, usually over a period of years. The most famous of these studies is Roger Brown 's longitudinal observations of Adam, Eve, and Sarah (Brown, 1973). Because transcribing and analyzing child talk is so labor-intensive, language acquisition studies typically focus on a small number of children, often interacting with their primary caregiver at home. Naturalistic observations of children's talk can be supplemented with experimental probes that are used with larger numbers of children. For example, Berko (1958) gave children nonsense words and asked them to generate novel forms in different contexts (e.g., “This is a wug. Now there are two of them. There are two___?” The child who understands English plurals should supply the word “wugs”). Unlike many areas of developmental research, language acquisition studies have been conducted across the globe, although typically the studies focus on a small number of children in each culture (see Slobin, 1985). Language Learning is a Resilient Process Language learning turns out to be remarkably similar across cultures. Children exposed to markedly different languages follow similar developmental trajectories as they learn their native language. Six-month-old infants can distinguish the full range of sounds used in the world's languages, but by age 1 they have lost many of these distinctions as they focus in on their own culture's language. Children the world over produce their first words between 10 and 15 months (“mine,” “shoe”); they then learn that the word can be composed of smaller, meaningful parts (morphology, e.g.,“shoe” + “s”) and that the word is a building block for larger, meaningful phrases and sentences (syntax, e.g., “my shoe”). Most 18-month-olds have begun a word-learning explosion, acquiring (on average) 9 new words a day, every day, throughout the preschool years (Carey, 1978). They also begin to produce two-word strings that are highly similar across languages in two respects. First, the content is the same. Children note the appearance and disappearance of objects, their properties, locations, and owners and comment on the actions done to and by objects and people. Second, the words in these short sentences are consistently ordered in ways that mirror adult word orders (e.g., “drink juice, ” “Mommy give”). By the time children are 3 years old, full sentences are the norm (“I wish I could sit on a horse and ride him to every house in the world”; HoffGinsberg, 1997). These sentences often involve elaborating one element of

OCR for page 124
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development a single proposition (“baby drinking big bottle”) or combining two propositions with a conjunction (“maybe you can carry that and I can carry this”). Three-year-olds can also show some remarkably subtle capabilities for language comprehension. For example, consider a child who is told that a little girl fell and ripped her dress in the afternoon and reported the event to her mother later that night. When 3-year-olds are asked, “When did the girl say she ripped her dress?” they will provide one of two possible answers (in the afternoon, or at night), but when asked “When did the girl say how she ripped her dress?” they will provide only one (at night). By age 4 or 5, children all over the world have mastered the fundamental (and many of the fine points) of the grammatical system of their native language, including verb declensions, gender agreement, embedded clauses, and the like (Brown, 1973; Slobin, 1985). This common trajectory of language acquisition is particularly striking given the variability in input that children receive across cultures. In all cultures, language is one of the most powerful symbolic systems through which children learn to understand and interpret human behavior (Harwood et al., 1995). How language is used in the context of social interaction is just as important as what is said. For example, in some cultures, children are commonly spoken to directly as participants in conversation; in other cultures, children primarily overhear talk that is directed toward others. Despite large differences of this sort, children proceed quite uniformly with the task of language learning (Ochs and Schieffelin, 1984). Another example is cross-cultural research on narrative constructions, which reveals both considerable overlap across cultures in the narratives that caregivers use with their children and also striking differences that have an impact on the child. For example, Taiwanese mothers tend to tell narratives that make explicit reference to moral rules and point out the child 's wrongdoing. European-American mothers, by contrast, emphasize the entertainment function over the didactic function and go to great lengths to portray the child in a positive light (Miller et al., 1996). Children who hear stories of this sort not only learn how to build their own culturally appropriate narratives, but they also learn the social value of their behaviors, as noted in Chapter 7. Language learning proceeds apace even when the child is faced with learning two languages simultaneously (de Houwer, 1995; Hakuta, 1986; National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 1997). Children becoming bilingual from birth are not dramatically slowed in their development and appear to develop each language as they would had it been their only tongue. The problematic issue in the case of bi-or multilingualism is less one of language acquisition than of language retention, which can be made difficult when one language is not used or valued by nonfamily adults or institutions, such as the schools, peer groups, and the broader society

OCR for page 124
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 1997, 1998b). For example, language loss (of Spanish) among Mexican-American children increases rapidly across first-, second-, and third-generation children (Hakuta and D'Andrea, 1992). Finally, although language development is markedly delayed among children raised in low-stimulating orphanages (Rutter, 1981a), once placed in supportive families, children develop language even with the added challenge, in most of the cases that have been studied, of learning a new language. Thus, language learning is apparently a very robust process. Where does this robustness come from? One way to address this question is to systematically vary either the learner or the learning environment, observing the effects of these variations on subsequent language development. As an example from another species, Marler raised two closely related but genetically distinct varieties of sparrows from the egg in identical environments, exposing them to a common collection of songs typical for both (Marler, 1990). He found that the two varieties learned different songs out of the same collection, each variety apparently zeroing in on different aspects of the input. The range of possible outcomes in the learning process, for this species and for this skill, appears to have been narrowed by the organism itself. For obvious ethical reasons, researchers cannot deliberately manipulate the conditions under which human language is learned. One can, however, take advantage of variations that occur naturally in language-learning conditions in order to explore the boundary conditions under which language learning is possible. And many studies have done just that, each exploring a particular deviation from typical language-learning circumstances and its effect on the development of language (Gleitman and Newport, 1995). Three types of deviations from the norm might be expected to have effects on the language-learning process: (1) deviations in the environment that affect the quantity or quality of the linguistic input children receive (e.g., children raised under conditions of relative deprivation of access to linguistic input), (2) deviations in the organism that affect the way children process their linguistic input (e.g., intermittent conductive hearing loss, which affects the way the child processes speech), and (3) deviations in the organism that affect the general endowment of the learner (e.g., children with Down syndrome, autism). Interestingly, in many cases, the cause of the deviation does not appear to be what is important—just its effect. Thus, deviations in the language-learning environment often lead to the same effects —or noneffects—on children's language as deviations in the organism. In general, language learning is remarkably resilient even under extremely altered learning circumstances. However, there are some conditions that are not compatible with the development of language indepen-

OCR for page 124
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development dent of the learner, and some learners who are not capable of language acquisition independent of their environment. As one example, children raised under conditions of extreme social and linguistic deprivation do not develop language during their periods of deprivation (Brown, 1958; Skuse, 1988); many of them, however, do achieve some linguistic proficiency after recovery and rehabilitation, findings that bear on the issue of a critical period for language learning, discussed below. As another example, some children with severe autism are deviant in every aspect of speech, language, and communication despite apparently normal language input (Fay, 1988). Thus, there appear to be both environmental and organic limits on language learning in children. Perhaps the clearest example of the resilience of language comes from the fact that it is not tied exclusively to spoken language (Klima and Bellugi, 1979). Children who are exposed to a conventional sign language such as American Sign Language from birth acquire that language as effortlessly, and along the same developmental course, as children acquiring a spoken language (Newport and Meier, 1985). This fact is notable, as it suggests that children are completely “equipotential across modality” with respect to language learning. In other words, if language is offered via hand and eye, it is learned and processed as easily as if it is presented via mouth and ear. Thus, in an appropriate environment, deaf children are not at all handicapped with respect to language learning, and the capacity for language learning appears to be modality independent. However, most deaf children are not born into an environment in which signing is the language of communication. About 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents and thus are not immediately exposed to a sign language. If exposed only to input from a spoken language, profoundly deaf children (even if given intensive training) are not likely to acquire that spoken language (Mayberry, 1992), suggesting that the visual channel cannot compensate for a lack of auditory input in the acquisition of spoken language. It is important to point out, however, that deaf children who cannot learn spoken language do indeed communicate—even if their hearing parents do not expose them to conventional sign language until later in life. Such children have no usable linguistic input, although in other respects their home environments are quite typical. Despite these children's lack of a language model, they learn to use their hands to communicate—they gesture, as do all humans when they communicate. However, the deaf children's gestures are structured very differently from the gestures that speakers typically produce to supplement their talk (Goldin-Meadow et al., 1996) (see Box 6-1). The deaf children's gestures resemble the early communication systems of children learning conventional languages, signed or spoken (Goldin-Meadow, 1997). For example, the children's gestures are

OCR for page 124
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development BOX 6-1 The Resilience of Language What happens if a child has hearing losses so severe that he or she cannot learn the surrounding spoken language, and does not have access to sign language? Such a child might not be able to communicate at all. It turns out, however, that the need to communicate is so strong that such children invent gesture systems to get their ideas and desires across. Deaf children who have not seen sign language and cannot learn speech have been studied in both Taiwan and the United States (Goldin-Meadow and Mylander, 1998). Both Chinese and American children produce gestures to communicate with the hearing individuals in their worlds, and do so to fulfill many of the functions typically assumed by language—to make requests, comments, and queries, and even to describe events in the past and future. Moreover, children in both cultures often convey their messages via strings of gestures, akin to sentences, rather than single gestures—and those “sentences” do not follow either English or Mandarin work order. For example, the child pictured below first gestures the action, “eat” and then the actor, “you” and then “you” again for emphasis. A typical pattern for English or Mandarin would be “you eat” rather than “eat you.” used to request and to make comments about the present and the nonpresent and even to “talk” about their own gestures. The gestures display sentence-level structure (following order and deletion regularities, and with structures for both simple and complex gesture sentences), word-level structure (hand shape and motion morphemes), and grammatical categories (distinctions among nouns, verbs, and adjectives). These characteristics are not found in the spontaneous gestures their hearing parents use when communicating with them, and thus may be the default system that children themselves bring to the language-learning situation. The fact that children will produce a communication system with structural properties, even without guidance from a conventional language model, suggests that these properties are not maintained in human language merely by being transmitted from one generation to the next. Rather, these particular linguistic proper-

OCR for page 124
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development ties can be introduced de novo by a child attempting to communicate with other people. Language learning also proceeds in the face of variation in the amount and consistency of linguistic input that children receive, and in the communicative situation in which language is learned, whether that variation is caused by environmental or organic factors. For example, hearing children of deaf parents, who themselves are not fluent speakers, can acquire spoken language normally if they receive as little as 5 to 10 hours per week of exposure to hearing speakers (Schiff-Myers, 1988). Moreover, hearing children do not reproduce the idiosyncrasies of their deaf parents' speech, but rather regularize their language toward the norms of the spoken language they are learning. Twins most often share their language-learning situation with one another, making the typical twin situation triadic (e.g., a parent and two children) rather than dyadic. Nevertheless, normal language development is observed in most twin pairs, although mild delays are common (Mogford, 1988). As an example of variation in input created by internal or organic factors, children who have intermittent conductive hearing losses that cause their intake of linguistic input to vary in amount and pattern, for the most part, acquire language normally (Klein and Rapin, 1988). Children who are blind from birth might be expected to have difficulty learning language simply because they map the words they hear onto a world that is not informed by vision. In fact, they have little difficulty with grammatical development, suggesting that the formal learning involved in acquiring a grammatical system does not depend in any crucial respect on the precise mapping between that system and the world (Landau and Gleitman, 1985). Finally, language learning can even survive some rather major alterations in the basic endowment of the learner. Language development can proceed normally after focal brain damage even if the left cerebral cortex is removed, provided the brain damage necessitating this operation is sustained very early in life (Feldman, 1994). It appears that speech and language are affected by brain injury only when the damage occurs bilaterally (i.e., to both hemispheres). In the face of unilateral damage prior to age 5 or 6, aphasic symptoms may result initially, but are not permanent. In fact, extensive left-hemisphere damage sustained prenatally or in the immediate postnatal period, i.e., before the onset of speech, has not been reported to result in any lasting language deficits despite some delays in the development of speech (Gadian et al., 1999; Rasmussen and Milner, 1977; Taylor, 1991; Vargha-Khadem and Mishkin, 1997; Vargha-Khadem and Polkey, 1991). Indeed, Bates and colleagues have reported that even significant focal brain injuries that occur perinatally to the left hemisphere appear to spare most language functions (see, e.g., Bates and Roe, in press). Moreover, language development does not proceed in lockstep with the development of other mental abilities. For example, children with Down syndrome

OCR for page 124
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development are delayed in language learning relative to mental age (Fowler et al., 1994). Yet children with Williams syndrome (a rare metabolic disorder), who are as mentally retarded in terms of IQ as children with Down syndrome, display considerably better grammatical skills (Bellugi et al., 1988). Thus, low intelligence does not, in all cases, preclude grammatical development. The inverse is true, as well: language difficulties do not inevitably imply cognitive difficulties. For example, children with specific language impairment, by definition, have no cognitive disabilities but do have difficulty learning language. As a final piece of evidence, adults, who are cognitively mature, typically have difficulty learning a second language (Johnson and Newport, 1989), suggesting that cognitive maturity is not sufficient to guarantee grammatical development (and after some sensitive period may even become an impediment, as discussed below). In general, in fact, the growth of cognitive, language, and literacy skills is much more domain-specific, constrained, and modular than previously thought (Christian et al., in press). A similarly complex pattern holds for social skills. For example, children with Down syndrome are relatively adept socially (in comparison to children with autism) yet have difficulty learning grammar (Fowler et al., 1994). In contrast, autistic children's social interactions are atypical, yet when they are able to learn language, their grammatical skills are intact (Tager-Flusberg, 1994). Language learning is robust in the same way that developing an attachment to a caregiver is robust. Only in aberrant conditions of care, such as extreme neglect or institutional deprivation, do children fail to form attachments to anyone (see Chapter 9). However, not all infants develop secure attachments—secure attachments are formed in a more restricted set of circumstances. Similarly, children acquire language with very little environmental support (deaf children inventing their own gesture systems are a good example). However, the specific language that they learn and certain qualities of their language depend on specific features of the environment in which they learn language. And these aspects of language are often instrumental to subsequent cognitive and social growth. Children can be at risk in society, not because they do not have mastery of a language, but because they do not have complete mastery of the dominant language of their society, particularly at the time of formal school entry. Not All Language Learning Is Resilient It is important to recognize that language is not a unitary phenomenon. Certain aspects of language may turn out to be more susceptible to varia tions in learning conditions (both internal and external) than others. If, across a variety of exceptional circumstances, the same components of language tend to be delayed while others remain intact, one might begin to

OCR for page 124
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development argue that certain components of language are resilient in the face of either environmental or organic deviations from the typical language-learning circumstances, while other components of language are relatively fragile (Goldin-Meadow, 1982). For example, clinical notes on language development in children who have been adopted from institutions suggest that despite becoming proficient in the language of their new homes, these children may not use language as readily for expressing emotion, requesting aid from adults, or expressing ideas and fantasy (Provence and Lipton, 1962). It is not known if they are as likely as other children to use language to guide problem solving, although this might be one reason for their poorer executive functioning (Gunnar, in press). Perhaps the most dramatic example of how language is vulnerable to environmental influences concerns the role of the timing of language inputs in language proficiency. This literature is highly relevant to current debates about critical or sensitive periods in development. There is, in fact, a considerable amount of evidence suggesting that early exposure to a language results in greater proficiency in that language than late exposure. For example, deaf children of hearing parents, as mentioned earlier, are typically not exposed to a conventional sign language at birth and may not receive their first exposure to such a system until adolescence or later. These individuals thus provide an excellent “experiment of nature” to test the effects of learning a first language at varying times in the life course. Findings from these studies suggest that certain aspects of language—morphological properties, for example, which involve how smaller parts of words make up bigger words and affect word meaning (e.g., “eat” + “ing” = “eating”)—are affected by the age at which the learner is first exposed to sign language. An example of a morphological property in sign is movement added to a sign such as “eat” to create the meaning “eat continuously over time.” Late learners, although perfectly capable of conversing in sign, do not have complete productive control over many of the complex morphological properties of the language (Newport, 1991). Interestingly, however, certain properties of language—such as the order of signs in a sentence—appear to be completely unaffected by the age at which the learner is first exposed to the language. In other words, native-like competence is possible for sign order whether or not the learner is exposed to sign early in life—but is far less likely for morphological properties. Similar patterns arise in second-language learning (Newport, 1991). Learners who are first exposed to their second language after puberty find that certain aspects of that language (often morphological aspects) are difficult, if not impossible, to master even after decades of use, while others (like word order) are relatively easy to control. For example, learning to systematically produce endings such as “-ed” in “walked,” which adds the past meaning, or “s” in “shoes,” which adds the plural meaning, is far more

OCR for page 124
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development signing children from hearing homes, all of whom had limited access to enriched conversations, and the autistic children performed much more poorly, at about half the level of the other two groups. These results suggest that the availability of discourse about invisible mental states contributes to children's capacity to make sophisticated inferences about these constructs. The authors also suggest the possibility of a neurobiological basis for these group differences in performance, as deaf children who have been restricted in early conversational exposure differ in their patterns of language-related brain activity from both hearing adults and deaf native signers (Marschark, 1993; Neville et al., 1997). Findings such as these certainly do not argue for a sensitive period of development. Nonetheless, they emphasize the importance of early screening of sensory, perceptual, and motor abilities. These seemingly mundane skills are the foundation for later learning and problem solving and, if not addressed early, can constrain or alter consequent aspects of learning. Motivational Dimensions of Early Learning The vast majority of young children think they are just wonderful, capable of doing almost anything, and headed for success (Harter and Pike, 1984; Stipek, 1992). Most kindergarten children, for example, will tell you that they are the smartest child in their class (Stipek, 1993). Even when they approach tasks on which they have previously failed, young children usually predict that they will succeed (Stipek and Hoffman, 1980; Stipek et al., 1984). Why is this so? Ironically, the self-confidence of most preschoolers derives, in part, from their limited capabilities to distinguish among their strengths and weaknesses, to recognize that ability is not infinitely malleable (i.e., they confuse effort and ability), and to use social comparisons to make realistic judgments of their skills and competencies. Indeed, one reason why young children are so buoyantly optimistic about themselves is that when they compare what they can do with what they were able to do when they were younger, they can easily see how much more competent they are now (Frey and Ruble, 1990). In effect, they conclude that “every day, in every way, I am getting better and better!” Young children thus appear to be disposed toward positive motivation-related cognitions. This applies across the board to children from families with both high and low socioeconomic status (Stipek and Ryan, 1997). But not all young children display this positive bias, and not all aspects of achievement motivation in the early years are so robust. Achievement motivation encompasses a set of constructs, including: (1) mastery motivation, or the child's propensity to explore, manipulate, persist, and derive pleasure in mastery-related behaviors and achievement (White, 1959); (2) intrinsic motivation, or the child's engagement in an activity without pressure or

OCR for page 124
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development rewards for doing so (Deci and Ryan, 1985; Lepper, 1981); and (3) cognitive aspects of motivation, including expectations for success, challenge seeking, and self-perceptions of competence (Atkinson, 1964). Despite the optimistic and positive picture of young children's motivation, their positive beliefs decline precipitously upon school entry (Stipek and Hoffman, 1980; Stipek and Tannatt, 1984; Wigfield et al., 1997). While some studies find that girls are more likely than boys to succumb to declining self-perceptions of their abilities (Entwisle and Baker, 1983; Ladd and Price, 1986), this is not always the case (Phillips, 1984), at least during the elementary years. A blend of developmental and contextual factors seems to be involved, including children's developing ability to make social comparisons, exposure in school to explicit and comparative standards for performance, and individual differences in the tendency to ascribe failure to one's ability or to more transient (i.e., effort) or external (i.e., the test was unfair) factors. Researchers have, however, continued to search for early indicators of motivational problems. Individual differences in facets of behavior that are closely aligned with motivational tendencies can be detected as early as 6 months of age (see MacTurk and Morgan, 1995 and Morgan and Harmon, 1984 for reviews). Some infants, for example, persist in goal-directed behavior and seem to derive more pleasure from attaining goals (e.g., slipping a ball into a hole) than do other infants. These early differences, moreover, are closely tied to constructs assessed in the literature on temperament, such as inhibition around novel stimuli, persistence, and sustained attention (Fox et al., in press; Kagan et al., 1987). It is possible that individual differences seen in infants' mastery-related behaviors reflect differences in temperament. Whether these differences set in motion interactions that, over time, lead to motivational differences in the preschool and elementary years remains to be seen. Longitudinal studies of motivation that follow children from infancy into school are, surprisingly, missing in the developmental literature, despite recognition of the critical role played by motivational tendencies in children's achievement (see Stipek and Greene, in press). The one chink in the armor of motivational resilience that has been detected in children as young as age 4 concerns their reactions to failure. Carol Dweck and her colleagues have examined a broad set of negative cognitions, behaviors, and emotional variables that they refer to as learned helplessness (Cain and Dweck, 1995; Diener and Dweck, 1978, 1980; Dweck, 1991; Smiley and Dweck, 1994). Children who display learned helplessness are highly impaired by failure experiences, showing displays of negative affect, challenge avoidance, and low expectancies for future success. Some preschoolers exhibit learned helplessness in achievement-related contexts. In one of the studies that first demonstrated this, children first completed a series of puzzles in which three unsolvable puzzles were fol-

OCR for page 124
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development lowed by a fourth solvable puzzle, which all children were given sufficient time to complete. They were then again presented with all four puzzles and asked to choose a puzzle to work on. About one-third to one-half of the children not only chose the puzzle that they had previously completed (thus avoiding the puzzles on which they failed), but also expressed a coherent set of negative attitudes about their ability and future achievement. For example, they indicated that they would not be able to complete puzzles in the future even if given more time, were likely to describe themselves as “not so good ” at puzzles even when they had said they were “good” at puzzles prior to failure, and to express “very sad” feelings about their performance. These individual differences among preschoolers emerged despite the fact that there were no prior differences among the children in puzzle-solving ability, in the number of pieces they fit into unsolvable puzzles, or in post-failure puzzle-solving ability. Moreover, the children who were negatively affected by failure generalized their diminished self-confidence to tasks that were unrelated to puzzles. Unlike older children, however, preschoolers who display learned helplessness do not show performance decrements following failure; in fact, their use of effective problem-solving strategies seems to bounce back once presented with a solvable task. Still, their negative self-appraisals may have implications for their orientations to learning as elementary students. In one study (Smiley and Dweck, 1994), children who responded negatively to failure as 4-year-olds were found to have significantly lower expectations for success and poorer appraisals of their abilities as third and fourth graders than did the children whose motivation was not impaired as preschoolers. In sum, many aspects of achievement motivation fail to show individual differences prior to school entry, suggesting that young children either lack the cognitive abilities or experiences that can lead some to give up easily, anticipate poor performance, and disparage their abilities. Yet there is some evidence that children as young as age 4 are sensitive to failure experiences and, although subsequent performance does not appear to be affected, their internalized views of themselves as effective students do appear to remain vulnerable over time. Early Learning Environments The exciting discoveries that have characterized research on cognitive development have led some to argue that young minds—so active and capable—require special, heightened cognitive stimulation. Certainly, as more is learned about the remarkable capabilities of young children and their eagerness to learn, one naturally wants to provide them with environments that will support them in their task of becoming the most competent

OCR for page 124
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development children, and ultimately adults, that they can be. As mentioned earlier, this does not imply that specific inputs are required at specific times during early development. But what is known about how best to ensure that children's early learning is on track? And to what extent do efforts to accelerate learning have lasting effects? Early Learning and Early Environments There is no question that enriched inputs can lead to enhanced learning, at least on a short-term basis. To give a trivial example, a 4-year-old child who is coached on the names of different species of birds can develop a more extensive vocabulary of bird names than a child who does not receive such input. However, it is not clear what the longer-term implications of such inputs are, nor which skills are being transmitted. It is also not clear that early learning is any more efficient, enduring, or effective than later learning. For example, there is to date no scientific evidence that teaching children to count at age 2 versus age 4 has any implications for their mathematical understanding or later mathematical achievement. Moreover, as discussed below, some activities embarked on in the name of enrichment may actually have some unintended detrimental effects. As much as parents and other caregivers may wish for a toy or a tape or a lesson that would accelerate cognitive development, there isn 't one yet. In fact, there is no magic bullet for brain stimulation and early learning. For example, there is no credible scientific foundation to the popular belief that listening to classical music will raise a child's IQ (see Box 6-2). Rather, it appears that, just as the vast majority of children all around the world grow up in homes and communities that provide them with the inputs they need to develop language, most grow up in environments that support their natural inclinations and abilities to learn. Indeed, children's curiosity about how the world works and their basic understandings in these domains routinely emerge without special prompting or instruction. Children, for example, spontaneously begin organizing objects into categories before 2 years of age, neatly sorting a pile of toys into cars and marbles and blocks (Sugarman, 1981; Waxman, 1999). Likewise, 2-year-olds spontaneously count arrays of objects, both in the service of solving problems (i.e., has someone taken one of my marbles?) and because it is fun for its own sake (Gelman and Gallistel, 1978). All they need are the small objects to manipulate and the opportunity to play with them. Accordingly, the literature on early learning environments is not about accelerating learning with expensive toys and explicit early instruction. Instead, it focuses on how adults interact with young children and set up relatively ordinary environments to support and foster early learning. While this sounds like a subtle distinction, it captures the difference between a

OCR for page 124
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development BOX 6-2 The Mozart Effect Does listening to classical music improve a young child's cognitive performance? Belief in the so-called Mozart effect has already had far-reaching consequences for public policy, not to mention the musical choices of first-time parents. In Georgia and Tennessee, for example, a classical music CD is given to every new mother, and in Florida, a new law requires that children in state-run child care facilities listen to classical music daily. Many parents are now wondering whether they should be playing classical music to their infants and toddlers—or whether their failure to do so earlier has blunted untapped intellectual potential in their offspring. The possible effects of classical music on cognitive performance were first suggested by a study of college students showing that adults who listened to a Mozart sonata performed slightly—though significantly—better on a brief spatial reasoning task than did students listening to a relaxation tape or sitting in silence (Rauscher et al., 1993). The effect on performance was measured immediately after exposure to the music; longer-term effects were not studied. Many studies have attempted to replicate and extend these findings, but there has been no research with infants or toddlers, none involving assessments of brain functioning, and few examining effects of more than a day's duration. Even research with adults that has used the same particular Mozart sonata as the original study (Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K 448) has yielded inconsistent findings, with some researchers replicating the effect for performance on a brief spatial-temporal reasoning task but most failing to do so, and others finding that the effect can be induced by other pleasant events, such as listening to a story (Chabris, 1999). There have been no studies with infants or young children showing long-term cognitive gains attributable to early exposure to classical music. In the end, although listening to music and learning to play a musical instrument may have important benefits for children, it is important to realize that there is no shortcut on the path toward developing early intellectual skills. child who is taught to recite the alphabet and a child who is read to every night and becomes interested in letters and words because they are associated with the joy of being in her father's lap, seeing beautiful pictures, and hearing a wonderful story. As with every other task of early development that we have discussed, the elements that support early learning revolve around relationships and the resources they provide for children. This literature emphasizes parents' interactions with their young children, their beliefs about learning and their

OCR for page 124
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development children's capabilities, the home learning environment, and family organization. We discuss these aspects of the child's environment in more depth in Part III. Here, it is important to note that these features of families account for sizeable differences in the learning opportunities that children are exposed to prior to school entry and, in turn, for the wide disparities in knowledge and abilities that characterize kindergarteners (Duncan et al., 1994). Child care and preschool experiences also matter, as do children's peer groups and the degree to which their communities support and provide opportunities for learning. Cognitive outcomes have, in fact, been a central focus of research on the effects of child care and more comprehensive early interventions. There is ample documentation in this literature of early environmental influences on concurrent cognitive development and, in some cases, on later learning and such important outcomes as special education placement and staying at grade level in school (see Chapter 11 and Chapter 13). But even for children who spend hours every day in child care or preschool, the home environment accounts for the lion's share of the variation in what young children know and are ready to learn when they start kindergarten (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2000). Motivation and Early Environments There is also evidence regarding the effects of early learning environments on motivational aspects of early development (see Phillips and Stipek, 1993; Stipek and Greene, in press). Studies have found systematic effects of both the home environment and the instructional and social climate of early childhood education programs on a variety of motivation-related outcomes. For example, infants' mastery motivation has been associated with the number of toys in the home that are responsive to infants ' manipulations and with maternal physical and auditory stimulation (Busch-Rossnagel et al., 1995; Yarrow et al., 1982), as well as to parental support of autonomy in task situations (e.g., nonintrusive assistance and encouragement) (Frodi et al., 1985; Grolnick et al., 1984). For toddlers and preschoolers, intrusive behavior on behalf of parents and teachers discourages mastery behavior, as does criticism and directive comments instead of using praise, giving suggestions and information, and demonstrating effective strategies (Fagot, 1973; Farnham-Diggory and Ramsey, 1971; Hamilton and Gordon, 1978; Henderson, 1984). These same relations appear to hold for young children with disabilities (Hauser-Cram, 1996). With regard to classroom settings, although there is minimal variation in achievement motivation among preschool-age children, the variation that exists is significantly associated with classroom context. Specifically, highly didactic, performance-oriented early childhood classrooms have been

OCR for page 124
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development found to depress young children's motivation. Children in these classrooms characterized by strong teacher control over activities, discouragement of collaborative work, a strong emphasis on getting correct answers, and relatively low levels of teacher warmth have been found to rate their abilities lower, to avoid challenging tasks, to expect poorer performance from themselves, and to show less enjoyment while working on achievement tasks compared with children in classrooms characterized by minimal pressure to perform, ample child choice in activities, encouragement of collaboration, and more nurturant teacher-child interactions (Stipek et al., 1995, 1998). They also showed more evidence of stress (e.g., nail biting, frowning, turning away from a task) and were less compliant in the classroom. It remains to be seen if highly didactic instruction in preschool has enduring effects on motivation or achievement. This research also fails to untangle the influence of didactic instruction and low levels of nurturance, because they were highly associated. Perhaps didactic instruction in the context of more nurturant teacher-child interactions would not be harmful to motivation. In light of the very early age at which children in the United States are first exposed to a school-like setting (see Chapter 11), there has been a growing appreciation of the importance of studying children whose home language or culture differs substantially from the norm in early childhood classrooms. How do these differences manifest themselves in children's classroom behavior, motivation to learn, and achievement? A child who has been taught that it is disrespectful to ask questions of adults or who is unaccustomed to playing in mixed-sex peer groups is likely to feel some initial discomfort and confusion in classrooms that embody different rules and norms for behavior. Japanese students, for example, are more reluctant than their counterparts in the United States to ask questions because this suggests that they did not work hard enough to understand the material or that they are implicitly criticizing the teachers' ability to communicate information (see Greenfield and Cocking, 1994). Parents ' beliefs about when and how children learn school-related skills and the social rules that guide learning interactions—termed “funds of knowledge ”—are also based in culture (Moll et al., 1992), and they affect how much parents emphasize explicit early learning opportunities that map onto what kindergarten teachers in the United States expect children to know and be able to do (Goldenberg et al., 1992; Heath, 1983; Laosa, 1980; Shanahan and Rodriguez-Brown, 1993). Classroom adaptations that are designed to accommodate young children's differing approaches to learning have been found to reduce disruptive and inattentive behaviors (Au and Mason, 1981; Gallimore et al., 1974; Vogt et al., 1987; Weisner et al., 1989), but effects on achievement remain to be demonstrated. In sum, despite the generally positive motivational orientations of young

OCR for page 124
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development children, both home and classroom environments, as well as the lack of “fit” between them, have the capacity to undermine their natural optimism and enjoyment of learning. Motivation suffers when parental behavior is intrusive, highly directive, and critical, and when teachers stress individual performance and deemphasize interpersonal warmth. The Contribution of Family Socioeconomic Status Of all aspects of children's early environments, the family's socioeconomic status (SES) is most powerfully associated with children 's cognitive skills when they enter school. We consider this literature separately and return to these issues in Chapter 10. Because lifelong educational attainments can be traced back to academic skills at school entry, these classrelated differences at the beginning of school are cause for serious concern (Stevenson and Newman, 1986; Stipek, in press). Thus, even though there is no evidence that early cognitive attainments are characterized by sensitive periods that are inherent to development, school entry can be viewed as an important social transition when SES-linked individual differences can become solidified and amplified or initial gaps can be narrowed. In this sense, what children know and can do at school entry matter, not because development becomes less amenable to environmental influence once the preschool years have passed, but because there is, in effect, a manufactured critical transition at which point individual differences begin to predict longer-term patterns of learning and achievement. Indeed, there is good evidence to suggest that the long-term prediction of academic achievement, school dropout, and even adult literacy from the socioeconomic status of one's family during the early childhood years is attributable to the effects of social class on early school achievement (Stipek, in press). For example, when researchers explore causal sequences in their data (e.g., does A explain C, or does A explain B, which then explains C?) they find, for example, that the significant effect of income on early adult literacy is mediated or influenced by the effects of income on early childhood cognitive level, which in turn predicts adult literacy (Baydar et al., 1993). Similarly, while mothers' SES-linked interactions with these young children predict the children's achievement in sixth grade, an even stronger relationship is found between children's preschool academic skills and their sixth grade achievement (Hess et al., 1984). As we discuss in Chapter 10, SES during the early childhood years appears to be more predictive of educational attainments than SES during other periods of childhood. Several mechanisms have been proposed to explain the long-term predictive power of a child's academic skills at school entry and, in particular, the extent to which class-linked differences at school entry are perpetuated—even exacerbated—as children move through school. These include

OCR for page 124
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development effects of children's initial performance on teachers' expectations for their subsequent learning, teacher behaviors and decisions that derive from these expectations, associations between low academic skills and conduct problems that further impede learning, and self-defeating perceptions and expectations that children hold for themselves that undermine effort, persistence, and therefore learning (Stipek, in press). These processes are not the focus of this report. They do, however, further illustrate the importance of narrowing the gap prior to school entry between children whose families occupy different economic niches in society. Measurement Issues The learning capacities of young children, discovered by researchers over the past 30 years, complicate efforts to measure early intellectual and cognitive development. Yet the measurement of early learning and cognition, primarily with global measures of developmental status or IQ, has been a staple of efforts to evaluate the effects of early interventions. This final discussion raises concerns about traditional approaches to assessing the effectiveness of early interventions and identifies alternative constructs that would provide firmer evidence of effective programs. We return to these questions when we discuss the early intervention literature in Chapter 13. IQ tests are not, in fact, well suited for studying development. They are not designed, for example, to capture the enormous cognitive growth that is taking place during the early years in such areas as increased knowledge, memory, speed of processing, and sequencing and planning abilities. Rather than assessing individual growth over time, or growth in response to an intervention, the IQ is designed to be stable over time and to assess the relative standing of an individual with respect to others of the same age. Indeed, because the IQ is hard to push around, an intervention that finds reliable improvements in IQ has accomplished something noteworthy, particularly if these improvements endure over time (which they seldom do). Standard IQ tests are also not designed to assess intelligence in infancy, and scores within the normal range on standard measures of infants' developmental status (such as the Bayley Scales of Infant Development) have poor predictive value for later functioning. Indeed, later IQ cannot be reliably predicted by early measures of ability until the child is about 4 years of age. In contrast, the speed with which infants habituate to stimuli and their preference for novelty are predictive of later childhood IQs (Bornstein, 1989; Fagan, 1984; McCall and Carriger, 1993; Rose et al., 1992; Thompson et al., 1991). Finally, many of the early intellectual abilities that have been the focus of research on cognitive development over the past 30 years are not evalu-

OCR for page 124
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development ated directly by standard IQ tests. These include children's regulatory and attentional capacities, certain aspects of memory, and abilities that relate to theory of mind. Moreover, as researchers have learned more about what can go wrong with cognitive development, it becomes imperative to assess the specific dimensions of early cognitive functioning that can reveal serious problems and register the effects of efforts to intervene. For example, understanding of others' intentions and mental states seems to be a quite separate intellectual domain, which is impaired in autism but spared in Down syndrome. Children with autism also display failures to engage in protodeclarative pointing, low rates of direct eye contact with others, low levels of pretend play, language delays, and deficits in reasoning about others' mental states (Baron-Cohen, 1995; Tager-Flusberg, 1989). The research on early biological insults, reviewed in Chapter 8, further calls attention to the importance of assessing the attention, memory, and abstract thinking abilities that appear to be affected by a number of these insults, as well as by prolonged exposure to stress. These are not the outcomes that are typically measured in research on early intervention, despite their relevance to the populations that are typically targeted by these initiatives. SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS The years from birth to school entry mark a period of remarkable linguistic and intellectual growth. Children make the transition from having no language at all to understanding and expressing the subtleties of intentionality, cause and effect, and emotional states. The motivation and capacity of the newborn to act on and learn about the surrounding world and the people in it flourish during the early childhood years and ultimately transform the newborn into a 5-year-old who is usually well prepared to embark on the formal school curriculum. At the same time, there is no evidence to confirm or disconfirm that the age of 3 or 5 marks the end of a sensitive period in human cognition and, with respect to language development, evidence for sensitive periods is largely restricted to pronunciation and the complex morphological properties of language. In fact, both language development and early learning appear to be relatively resilient processes, largely protected from adverse circumstances and quick to recover when these circumstances are removed, and to be characterized by lifelong capacities for growth and learning. Nevertheless, some critical aspects of language and learning remain vulnerable to environmental variation even within the normal range that encompasses families at different socioeconomic levels in society. Indeed, evidence reviewed in Part III, suggests that young children's academic attainments may be even more susceptible to the negative influence of poverty than is the case for older children (at least up to adolescence). These less

OCR for page 124
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development resilient aspects include the extent of the child's vocabulary, language proficiency (i.e., uses of language), understanding of number concepts, familiarity with letter-sound associations, and executive functioning. Importantly, these are precisely the aspects of early communication and learning that distinguish children at school entry and are thus strong candidates for the aspects of early school performance that become consolidated over time, accounting for linkages between preschool capabilities and educational outcomes in adolescence and beyond. Early interventions can attenuate these individual differences at school entry, although the subsequent school environment plays a crucial role in either sustaining or undermining early gains. Children with specific disabilities (as contrasted with transitory developmental delays) can also benefit to varying degrees from specially designed interventions, although the early initiation of these efforts may be especially important (as has been demonstrated by research on deaf children) and the extent to which normal functioning can be approached remains unclear (as illustrated by children with specific language impairments). Despite the substantial interest that research on the developing brain has stimulated in finding materials that can accelerate early talking and learning, there is no evidence that any specialized kind of short-term input improves intelligence or learning in an appreciable way. Put in crude terms, there is no magic bullet to boost intelligence. Likewise, there is no scientific evidence that any sort of mobile, toy, computer program, or baby class has a long-term impact on reasoning, intelligence, or learning. Rather, under typical circumstances, parents around the globe seem intuitively to talk to children in ways that work quite well in fostering language development and to provide children with the interactions and materials that promote early learning. To the extent that problems arise, it is usually not that parents are doing terribly wrong things, but that they are not doing quite the right things or enough of them. This includes talking to children more and using more elaborate talk, taking advantage of everyday interactions to introduce number concepts, and not only spending more time reading but also exploring the words and pictures in the book.