by Jim Boyle
A mix of nearly 130 early childhood educators and parents showed up Saturday, Jan. 26 to hear Katy Smith share the latest rules and tools to bring about kindergarten readiness.
Much of what Smith had to say, however, hearkened her audience at the Handke Family Center back to their own childhood experiences and what worked to prepare them for school. And those with adult children were asked to think about how they prepared their own children, and what worked. She suggested bringing back some of the old in exchange for some of the new.
“Childhood has changed dramatically,” Smith stated. “It used to be the place that marched kids up to kindergarten with experiences that made them ready to be there.”
Nowadays, not so much, Smith says.
The first early childhood educator to be named the teacher of the year by Education Minnesota for 2011 goes as far to say modern-day childhood experiences are counterproductive. Most notably it says kids are being sapped of their ability to sit, settle down and focus.
“If they can do that, they can learn,” she said. “You can be the smartest kid in the room … but if you can’t sit down and concentrate and present that information, nobody knows you’re the smartest kid in the room.”
This ability to settle down and focus is a huge predictor of academic success, Smith states.
“Why isn’t anyone talking about this?” Smith asks.
Smith was invited to Elk River by the Elk River Area Early Childhood Coalition to speak on the topic of school readiness. The longtime educator held class for more than two hours as part of her Getting Ready to Read and Write: School Readiness Begins at Birth.
She talked about kids’ diminishing attention span and the ability to self-regulate before turning to kids’ increasing use of media. She wrapped up by talking about violence in the media.
She encourages a low-tech upbringing for the first seven years of a child’s life — for a variety of reasons, in part to help give parents a fighting chance to raise kids with the ability to self-regulate.
Smith points to the Marshmallow Studies from Stanford University that showed children 3, 3.5 and 4 years old struggling when faced with the decision to leave a solitary marshmallow on a plate for the chance at a second when an adult re-enters the room.
One-third of the kids studied failed miserably. Another third locked in and waited to be rewarded with a second marshmallow.
And the last third, the most fascinating of the whole bunch, were torn up inside. They wrestled internally with the dilemma, each applying their own strategy to the game in hopes of not eating the marshmallow staring back at them in their face. Some managed. Most did not.
Children’s ability to delay gratification is eroding, according to Smith.
She said growing up one of nine children in the 1960s and 1970s gave her plenty of experience self-regulating, but warned that these same type of experiences are vanishing from modern-day life.
She said her parents (unknowingly) worked on self-regulation techniques regularly at the dinner table, at church, in the car, when her mother was on the phone and when she was out visiting friends or relatives with her parents.
Her parents stretched out dinner. And yes, they couldn’t get up from the dinner table until everyone was done.
They expected their children to be quiet in church, and the adults in the pews around them held them accountable to this.
When mom was on the phone, they had to wait to talk. This was a time for adults, and kids were not invited. Same with the time spent with mother and father while visiting friends.
“We knew when we were in adult space, and when we were in kids’ spaces,” she said.
Car rides were not kids’ spaces. If they were long enough, goofy games were dreamed up to pass the time.
“Nowadays, everywhere you go there are toys for kids,” she said. “It’s like we’re uncomfortable if kids don’t have something to do.”
Smith remembers making the short trek to Target and seeing a mother she recognized from her school — sitting out on a lawn chair. The mother had put in a “Dora the Explorer” movie in a DVD player before they left, and the young child brought it to watch on the trip. The young girl refused to stop the movie until it was done.
“It’s a 12-minute ride,” she said. “The car is a fantastic place to self-regulate.”
There’s also a beauty in kids having to self-regulate, Smith said.
“Most kids get really creative,” she said. “If you get bored enough you wire your brain to think about something interesting. If you always have something to do, you don’t go there.”