Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Moving into Consciousness: Two to Three Years

Birthday To You, But I Digress: The Experimental Toddler Goes Conscious
Nuvy turned 2 years old on New Year's day, to the tune of a billion hangovers. Given that Nuvy's birthday is January 1, we've started a "hair of the dog" party tradition with New Year's Day southern food, and the leftover midnight sauce reincarnated as Mimosa, Bellinis, and Irish Coffee.

My girl does love a party. She seems to share my taste for occasions. Birthday cake is one of my favorite foods, because it's sweet and festive, and a great excuse for an art project. We made the cardinal cake for her first birthday, and the cherry blossoms were this year's effort. Almost a month later, she still says "Birthday to you!" and taps the rim of your glass with hers whenever anything with bubbles is poured (seltzer will do), and when asked what she'd like to have for a snack, she'll often reply, "Birthday cake!" Last week, coming home from a trip to see the southerly grandparents, she pointed out the window of our plane at the sparkling city of Philadelphia and exclaimed, "Look, Mommy! There's Christmas!" All these brand-new associations are coming together right on cue, as the pre-conscious infant starts to put things together, to become the conscious child.

How's that for a segue?

Neurological and Physical Development

Between two and three years of age, a child's brain is two to three times its birth size. Sensorimotor integration--the coordination of sensory information and motor response--is rapid and refined. The child is drawn to activitys of maximum physical effort and will try to carry or pull the heaviest object available.

Proprioception (awareness of the whereabouts of her movable parts) and kinesthesia (awareness of the direction, speed, and force of her movements) are highly developed and the two-year-old is eager to explore them. She loves to tumble, spin and dance. She practices balancing and hopping on one foot. With all this awareness and control comes control of the muscles of elimination, and thus readiness for toilet training. What also comes is a sense of empowerment. More on that in a minute.

Awareness of directions of movement makes pushing, pulling and twisting motions very interesting to the TYO, and you will find her using her wrists to open and close jars, turn water faucets on and off (ad nauseam), and open and close doors (ad infinitum!).

Cognitive Development

Here we notice a rapid refinement of verbal skills, a continued and deepening interest in the naming of everything, and much more sophisticated sentence structure, and all at once, too. We call this sudden burst of linguistic complexity the "explosion into language". It occurs when the passive vocabulary and communicative experience converge in the child's intellect, so that language just falls into place. Of course, the prior experience with lots of passive language is key--to talk, talk, talk to that preverbal child!

At this stage, the child begins to refine her ability to place objects in categories. She can differentiate categories and subdivisions of a category. For instance, she might recognize dogs, cats, and flowers as three different categories, but also be able to divide the same set of objects into two categories, animals and plants. At our house this refinement is evident in the trusty Audubon birds (can I go on enough about those?). Until recently, they were all just "bird, bird, bird". Now, suddenly they're "cardinal, tufted titmouse, and pileated woodpecker". Go figure.

One-to-one correspondence is well established now, and table setting is a great activity to support this understanding. If your table's too high, as ours is, you might do what we do and lay out a tea party for Mommy, Nuvy, Peter Cottontail, and the Squid.

She can understand increasingly complex verbal instructions, like "Please bring a little diaper for Van and a big one for yourself, too." She also understands that she has the power to refuse. She weighs consequences and begins to learn to negotiate her position (and she thinks it's funny when I get annoyed with her. Just the response I was looking for--and HEY! No snarky comments from past and present cohabitors in the peanut gallery. I am well aware that my anger really is funny, jackass.)

Emotional and Social Development

A two-to-three year old shows a keen interest in family affairs. She imitates parents' activities, enjoys chores and wants to help. She is able to content herself with playing alone, but will usually choose to play where she has an audience.

With other children, parallel play gives way to interactive play as verbal communication improves, and children are increasingly capable of cooperating in play.

Emotionally, she begins to recognize "shades" of emotion. she knows happy and happier, sad and sadder, angry and angrier, and is able to modulate a response that feels appropriate to her perception. It does not, of course, follow that her modulated response feels appropriate to my perception! Her verbal skills provider her with a range of expressions to match her more subtle emotions and desires. She will make fantastic experimental use of these expressive and emotive nuances.

The Supportive Environment

An appropriate environment contains numerous practical lifeactivites. PRactice in dressing is provided through dress-up costumes with everyday closures, and putting on and taking off shoes independently. Child-size versions of household implements are delightful for children at this age, because they allow imitation of adult activities while circumventing the frustration the child may encounter when trying to use a too-big tool.

Table setting, water pouring, and hand/furniture washing are delightful activities, and you might find your child enjoying them whether or not you put them out. (Ever had her pour her milk over her dinner? You know, just for fun?) Early language materials may be incorporated, including picture cares and, later, three part cards.

Sensorial materials can be more sophisticated, incorporating shades between sensory extremes, and more subtle differences in sorting and matching. Silverware sorting is a great at-home sensorial activity for two-to three year olds.

From here, we move into the realm of the Primary classroom, to which children are usually admitted at two-and-a-half or (more usually, but less appropriately in my opinion) three years of age. This means that I'm shopping for Montessori schools in the Philadelphia area. Any local reviews are appreciated. :-)

Monday, January 28, 2008

Subject 2/Stage 2: One to Four Months

Wailing Through Stage 2: Everybody Is!

subject two is not subject one. subject two is not subject one. subject two is not subject one. subject two is not subject one.

See, things are different this time. As I suspected, The original Experimental Infant was, well, the easy one.

What's up with that? How many times have I heard this story. It's the one that goes "If I'd had my second child first, I might only have had one." Has anyone out there reading ever said this? Are second babies really, categorically pains in the ass? Or is there something more sensible at work here, like my being too busy to be as tuned in to him as I was to my first, only infant. I mean, I dimly remember certain evening bouts of crying with Nuvy, but nothing, NOTHING like what goes on with Van. From about week 3 to 9 weeks or so, he's been pretty much crying every minute he's been awake. Well, ok. Many, many waking moments are devoted to crying. Some others are devoted to looking astonishingly cute (let it be said that, after Nuvy, I thought I was no longer astonishable by cuteness. Was I ever wrong.). The moment pictured above was devoted to wavering on the edge of sleep. We have several of those a day, too. But anyway, so he cries a lot. In the meantime, lets discuss Stage 2--since I didn't the first time around. For those who are counting, Stage 2 is the period between one month and four months of age.

Practice makes...myelinated pathways make...muscle memory!
So, in addition to various levels of fussiness, Stage 2 is all about practice. Van spent his first four weeks mastering his basic body functions, and now, in Stage 2, he's beginning to experiment with motor control, and to make his first observations of the world that exists outside him. What he learns will begin to suppress his infantile reflexes during this stage, and they will continue to disappear in a pretty predictable pattern throughout his infancy. Neat, eh?

The chief result of Van's experiments will be a kind of preliminary organization of the brain through myelination in the cerebral cortex--that is, the thinking part of his brain. Myelin is an insulating material that brain cells put down around electrical connections that get repeated often (successful experiments and purposeful activity), and not so much around connections that are only made once, or just a few times (random activity or failed experiments). The point is to keep the signals flowing in useful directions, and not to have neurons firing randomly all over the place, looking for something good to do. This has already happened, to some extent, in the deeper, more basic levels of the brain, but now begins in earnest in response to the baby's repetitive experiments. Patterns of movement (schemata) evolve as the baby devises ways to accomplish the things he wants to do.

Myelination is a recurring theme in discussions of brain development. It's an important manifestation of learning and memory. "Muscle memory" is what Van is beginning to develop at this stage, through repetitive practice. Right now, he's learning to smile, laugh, and reach for things. Later, he'll learn to walk, run, make the sounds of his native language (in the Philadelphia accent he'll grow up with, alas, and not my own charming southern drawl.) and maybe play the piano, or play golf. Practice affects the brain this way throughout life.

Developing just after the parts of the brain that control vital functions and reflexes are the parts that control the senses. At birth, Van had all the equipment he needed to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell, but he had to wait for the areas of his brain that interpret sensory signals to develop to make sense of the signals it receives.

Let's look at some of the things Van's been practicing:

Resisting gravity: at between one and four months, babies discover that, with effort, they can lift their little heads and achieve a different view of things.

Swipe and grasp: the palmar reflex (the one that makes your newborn grab hold of your finger and not let go) is strong at birth, but a one-to-four month old baby learns that by controlling the opening and closing motion of the hand voluntarily, he can manipulate his environment. Right now, for Van, this involves looking at his hands a lot. I imagine that if he could talk, he might say, "Look at this! Don't tell anyone, but I think I can control it with my mind!"

Holding objects and bringing objects to the mouth: We're not there yet, but these are variations on the hand-mind coordination theme.

Cognitive, Emotional and Social development: A whole lot of goo-goo going on.

It starts with the hand-gazing, and then looking at other things in the environment that move, deciding which ones he can control, and which ones move independently of him. Kind of like a life-size game of Myst, isn't it? This looks to an observer like staring, gazing, or tracking objects with the eyes. If an object disappears from the baby's field of vision, he'll fix his eyes on the spot where he last saw it.

Gurgling and cooing, raspberries, and other vocalizations mark his earliest attempts at verbal communication. The Montessori folks tell us to talk to the baby in a normal, conversational tone, and to do it all the time.

Mercifully for those of us with crybabies, self-soothing behaviors begin to emerge during this stage. We're still waiting for Van to get hold of his thumb. So far, he's sucking his fist. Right direction, but not quite satisfying for him.

The supportive environment: baby zen.
The baby's curiosity is evident, and needs support without overstimulation with too many choices. A few simple grasping objects placed at the edges of the baby's reach are developmentally appropriate. I use a cotton bandanna, a little rattle, and a toy bird (he digs the cardinal). All this practicing requires space and time for self-induced motor activity. In other words, floor time. He has to get out of that carrier and kick and stretch it all out.

Montessori infant gurus warn that we'll be tempted to "entertain" the baby with a lot of toys, baby talk and other kinds of performance, and they urge us to resist this as far as we can. Give the baby time to really explore simple objects. Let him hear and participate (as far as he is able) in normal conversational speech, and take time to make a safe space for him where he needn't be restrained by a carrier or other apparatus. We're waiting and watching, as he tries to communicate with us.

Friday, January 04, 2008

The Praise and Punishment Game Part 1: Praise

The Montessori Dictates Against Praise and Rewards vs. Getting the Little Buggers to Do What You Say.

Yes, believers, it's true that my gurus are opposed to praise and rewards, though the jury is still out on what constitutes punishment. However, their only real beef is with the praise part, because life provides its own rewards and punishments. Here, let me explain as best I can. Please pipe up in the comments if I miss anything, all you Montessorians out there. Thanks, NOLA mom, for asking one of my favorite questions. Now I know how Judith Martin felt the time a Miss Manners reader asked her to explain how to send secret messages with calling cards.

A big part of the Montessori philosophy is that, if you work to please yourself, success is its own reward. This is the core belief behind all the self-correcting activities, aids to independence, freedom to choose your own work, and community-building care-of-environment (by "environment" we mean dusting and polishing as much as we mean composting) activities. According to the gurus, praise from adults works against independence. It sounds like a tough quandary, but actually, it just takes a few small changes of habit--often only habits of speech--to turn the focus of success away from the adult and back to the child.

A little child is working to perfect herself--that is to be a successful member of her society--and so naturally seeks approval from adults, whom she perceives (on some level) as having accomplished this goal. Simply put, the child is hard-wired to try to be like the adults she sees around her. There are several ways in which adults can indicate acceptance and approval of the child's efforts. One way is applause and verbal praise, and another is respectful acceptance and a normal, courteous reply.

It's easy to see why adults want to applaud and praise children. After all, we are already (for the most part) accepted as worthwhile members of our society. To feel that our efforts have been recognized, adults look for accolades. Accolades help us believe that what we have done is a little bit better than expected, or than what everyone else did. It makes us feel special. As we have all experienced, this is a double-edged blade, no?

Praise is certainly an expeditious way of getting a person to do what you ask/want them to do. However, some inherent pitfalls of praise-driven obedience are: what happens when no one is there to praise the child? Will she still behave? Will the child be able to maintain good habits when those habits don't feel special? What happens when the child becomes an adolescent and is no longer willing to work for the praise of parents and teachers, but in an effort to carve out her own identity, is pointedly indifferent to such praise? The list goes on.

The (arguable) premise is that a little child does not need to be made to feel special, but to feel welcome and appreciated. Children, of course, enjoy applause and praise, and will work very hard for even the simplest reward. Ask any elementary school teacherwhat a child won't do for a sticker by his name. Children, just like the rest of us, learn through our praise/reward system that "special" is king. They develop an appetite for praise and applause, and can begin to feel that efforts that are not applauded are not worth making. Ever feel like that? Right. We could, and many Montessori types have, follow this thread to the root of a litany of common social pathologies and self-esteem issues.

The fact is, everyone can do special things, but much of life is not particularly laudable. Most of what we do is not special, but habitual. Montessorians strive to lend integrity to a child's habits and to make him feel successful even when he is not feeling particularly special. What we hope is that this helps the child maintain his personal integrity even when nobody is looking.

Everyone wants to feel successful, but perhaps that feeling can be had without anyone else's approval. By shifting the "reward" back onto the child, we have a way around the applause cycle, and can allow the child to experience her own success, instead of developing a need for adult-driven incentives to succeed. One can achieve this without a lot of stilted "how does that make you feel" language. Saying "thank you" instead of "good job" is a subtle language change, but it effectively shifts focus away from the act itself, and the adult's judgment of it, and back to the value of the child herself. After all, it's not the work, but the child that needs appreciating. You could also try "You must be so proud!" instead of "I'm so proud of you!" You can do this little trick with any number of praise-y phrases.

What's a little harder (at least in my family) is to back away from "Hooray for You!" and thunderous applause whenever the child does something cute or clever. A great performance ought to be applauded, it's true, and I encourage outrageous whistling and applause following living-room concerts, but life doesn't have to be a performance to be good. Sharing a child's satisfaction might mean meeting his success with a hug, a smile, and a "Look at that! You did it! Aren't you happy about that?" They light up just as much for that one as for a big round of "YAY!" I swear.