DON’T LOOK AT ME – THE MYTH ABOUT EYE CONTACT
The Myth About Eye Contact.
Eye contact is often discussed when we are dissecting communication, selecting goals for therapy, or even diagnosing communication and developmental neurological impairment. Many well intentioned professionals look to this as a ‘red flag’ or an indicator of a developmental issue in a child, for example the presence of ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders). However, when we really understand about communication, cognition and development, this may be misguided…
We tend to think of eye contact as signifying that the person looking at us is thinking about us; and that we use eye contact as our way of showing another person that we are thinking about them. The crucial detail here is not the eye contact itself, but the ‘thinking’ part. We often ask children to look at us so that they will pay attention to what we say. What we are really asking our child to do is to ‘think’ about us, and pick up on all of the subtle nuances we are using to communicate our thoughts, ideas, wishes, insights, and so on.
Of course, we could teach a child to look at us and make eye contact. But when we actually want our child to ‘think’ about us and what we are communicating, we are missing a vital and crucial piece of the cognitive puzzle when we simply teach ‘looking’. We want our child to attend to us, not look at us. For children with developmental processing issues, we need to unlock the potential for this child to think about their reference points; that is – to know that when they feel uncertain they can get help and security from their parent or other safe adult guide; understand what is important in the environment and context; and understand what others around them expect of them in that moment.
When a child references, it may indeed involve looking at their communication partner, but may also involve listening, asking questions, borrowing perspective from their adult, etc. But it will always involve thinking – the crucial process. If we are to teach eye contact as a standalone skill, imagine all of the wonderful things we are missing that truly make up the shared experience we are both investing in having!
At Developing Minds Speech Pathology, we strive to work with our clients and their family to select crucial intervention points that will enhance quality of life and unlock our client’s potential. If you have any questions, the Speech Pathologist at Developing Minds is always happy to hear your story.
THE MOST IMPORTANT TOOL FOR YOUR CHILD’S LEARNING IS YOU!
We’ve all heard the old cliche that a child is like a sponge.
Children learn a lot from the world around them, and soak up a great deal of knowledge via their experiences and environment. Parents then have a role to mediate what goes into their ‘sponge’, guiding their child’s understanding of the world around them.
Children are typically very inquisitive about their world, wanting to engage in new and interesting experiences. New things are exciting, and it’s fun to practise to get better at new games and tasks. Parents can use this natural drive that children have to find new and exciting things in their world to teach their children. You can share in fun new games together, and scaffold for your child if something is a little too tough for their level just yet.
Even when something new is uncertain or scary, children will look to their adult guide – normally a parent or other safe adult caregiver – to make sense of it, or seek help. These are also great teaching moments. Children will use their adult guide’s facial expression, tone of voice and language from a very young age to help them understand what is happening in their world. Children will even pick up on the mood and feelings of their adult guide – called co-regulation. This is a very powerful way that children learn whether something is safe, or a bit scary.
Whatever it is that children are seeking to learn, the guiding relationship is a very important learning resource. Engagement in this relationship, where children have the drive to seek out new things and adults use this drive to create teaching moments, results in positive experiences for both caregiver and child. These positive experiences mean more shared enjoyment, and more teachable moments to come. Being tuned in to each other and enjoying the relationship means learning for your child. This is a lifelong reciprocal process. While it changes over time, it remains to be a learning tool throughout life that connects caregiver and child.
Neurologically there is a reason for this. This learning process starts very young, sometime in the first year of life, usually at around six months of age according to the latest research we have. These teaching moments foster the foundation and consolidation of the pathway between the frontal lobes and the limbic system. This is the pathway concerned with dynamic thinking – the thinking that we use about 80% of the time. Dynamic thinking allows us to understand our ever changing world and adapt accordingly, see new possibilities and perspectives, and engage in the to and fro of social relationships. It’s an important neural pathway that continues to develop over our lifetime, as new connections are made with our new experiences and ideas.
The guiding relationship is seen across all cultures in the world through all points in history. It really is our natural way of teaching children about the world around them. There may be some points in time for various reasons that this relationship will break down; but as with all relationships, it can be repaired and improved. It’s never too late, and it’s never too little. Speak to the Speech Pathologist at Developing Minds Speech Pathology to see how you can be an effective guide for your child’s learning and neural potential.
Play is fun
Playing seems to be something all children do to pass the time and engage with their environment, particularly young children. For parents, it’s great to see their child having fun, but caregivers also want to ensure they are offering opportunities for their child to promote school readiness skills, and set their child up for success in school and in life.
Play is part of typical human development. Apart from the physical aspects of play that a child masters with practice, critical cognitive and neural development also occurs through play. Children who play well are better thinkers. Therefore, play is an important skill to master to be ready for formal schooling.
There is a large body of scientific research that supports this assumption. Longitudinal studies have consistently shown that:
- Children who are better players in preschool will have better language in primary school, and beyond.
- Children who have more complex play in the preschool years go on to have better higher level thinking by mid-primary school.
- Better academic outcomes in school are achieved for those children who attended play-based preschools compared with academic-based programs.
- Better quality of life outcomes were experienced by those children attending play-based preschool compared with children who attended academic preschool programs.
Your child is thinking a lot when they play, and a lot of the skills they are practising are those needed to cope and succeed in school. For example:
- Sequencing a story or scenario, which is a skill used to complete a task, such as an assignment; to understand reading material such as a text for school; and to effectively communicate learning to the teacher, in both oral and written language. This is an active process used across all subjects at school, as well as activities of daily living.
- Perspective taking by becoming a character in play promotes flexible thinking, which is vital for critical analysis and evaluation of information. It’s also an important part of the social thinking one uses in relationships. In school, children will use this level of processing in English and humanities based subjects.
- When something doesn’t quite go as planned, your child will problem solve and adjust their play accordingly. This is important to cope with the many hurdles that life throws at us – be it academically, socially or professionally throughout life. This processing is recruited particularly in maths and science based subjects at school.
- Children will play with their friends, so they are learning to be part of a group. A lot of effort and cognitive processing goes into becoming part of the group, and children are practising and mastering a life long skill they will use ongoing.
- When group play becomes difficult, children must learn to negotiate. As much a life skill as an academic one, we all use this to help move forward with a plan or goal, and we will likely need to do this everyday.
- Language processing increases a lot through play. Children hear and use language when playing with their friends, carers, and even by themselves. Sometimes you may even observe your child talking while playing alone. Even if they’re quiet, they’re probably thinking in language during play.
- When your child creates a play scene or assembles objects into constructions, they are hypothesising and predicting what will happen, investigating possibilities, and being flexible by using trial-and-error to evaluate how it is going. These skills become crucial in school, particularly for maths and science based subjects.
- By engaging in play, your child is practising to do just about anything they can imagine. Play is a safe environment to investigate new possibilities, and when your child experiences success, they are increasing their resilience and independence.
Play is work for children. If you have any questions about your child’s play or school readiness, speak to the Speech Pathologist at Developing Minds Speech Pathology.
WHEN IS A GOOD TIME TO START TEACHING MY CHILD TO READ?
Choosing The Right Time
Through my work with families and preschools, both in Sydney and Singapore, I have found that choosing the right time to teach children to read is still very much a hot topic. There are so many programs and products available – from baby cue cards, to structured teaching methods, to programs for children who need a little bit more support than others to get there. Even as a professional in the field working with children of all abilities and ages, I’m left wondering when is the best time to start teaching literacy.
As a Speech Pathologist with an interest in neural development, I find myself looking back to scientific research to answer this question.
The first thing to consider is that reading is not actually a development milestone. This sounds crazy when I suggest it to parents and education staff. Let me explain. Milestones refer to those processes and skills that are naturally occurring parts of development for most people, like walking and talking – the things we are ‘hard-wired’ to do. Reading is a social construct that humans first started using to transmit ideas and information across time and space about 10,000 years ago. By the time humans started reading and writing, we were already living in well established and sophisticated civilisations. It’s not something we are naturally hard-wired to do; but rather, something a few people learned to do out of necessity, and in order to perform their given jobs within these societies.
So, reading is something we don’t naturally do, but rather something we need to learn to do. The first five or so years of life for most children are very busy times indeed. There is a lot that needs to be mastered, and our brains are in a constant process of learning during this time. There is a certain expected pattern of development that typically occurs at this time, and each step that is acquired lays the foundation for the next step. Given that this is such an important time in a child’s neural development, it doesn’t make sense to interrupt the natural process to add in a new learnt skill, such as reading and writing.
We know that the main predictors of literacy success are oral language, vocabulary and word knowledge. For people using a letter-to-sound system such as English, an awareness of the sounds in language is also very important. Lastly, memory of visual forms and shapes is also important for reading and spelling. These skills are all part of typical development, and are milestones children typically achieve in the expected sequence. When these are mastered, children are then ready to read. We know from results of longitudinal studies comparing academic outcomes of children who were taught to read early to those taught to read later, that by the time children are in Year 3, the later readers consistently outperform the early readers. This gap increases over time, which suggests that teaching children to read later is better for their academic success.
As a general rule of thumb, when your child shows an interest in reading and writing, that’s a good time to teach them. For tips on promoting pre-literacy in preschoolers, read the next article, ‘Supporting early literacy for preschoolers’. If you have any questions or concerns, the Speech Pathologist at Developing Minds Speech Pathology is always happy to help.
SUPPORTING EARLY LITERACY FOR PRESCHOOLERS
Giving The Best Head Start To Your Children
Having worked with very young children for many years, I’m always asked about supporting literacy development. Parents and Early Childhood Educators want to make sure they are giving the best head start to their children, and setting them up for success in school. Reading is a crucial part of this.
Firstly, we need to understand what literacy is. Reading and writing is a way to transmit language. The point of literacy is to communicate. So, we need to think about the meaning behind the printed words, and not just decoding the letters on the page. There is a well established body of scientific research supporting the fact that oral language competence is a very strong predictor of literacy success. This makes sense when we consider what reading really is – a way of communicating.
Since oral language is so important, the next consideration is about how to teach literacy to preschoolers who are still developing their oral language processing abilities. As with any learning situation, it needs to happen in the context of a safe relationship where the child feels confident to be challenged with new learning. The tasks need to be pitched at just the right level – not too easy but not too difficult; something that is challenging, but still interesting and achievable. Also, the experience needs to be a positive one that will then encourage both learner and teacher to keep engaging in the learning process.
Here are some general tips that I’ve picked up along the way. This is not an exhaustive list, but should get you started and help you to be confident in teaching your child the first steps of literacy:
- Follow your child’s interests. If your child is interested in a particular book or topic, go with it and you will likely find they’ll be more engaged.
- Read a book lots of times. A story is new and exciting to your child, and they will get a lot more out of repeated readings, particularly the sequence and structure of the story. This is very good for school readiness in general.
- Don’t go too fast. Slow down to help your child process the meaning behind the pictures they’re seeing and the words they’re hearing you say.
- Talk about the story and pictures as you go. These are symbolic representations of the story and they have meaning. Children will go on to learn that printed words carry meaning as well.
- Ask questions to engage your child in the reading process. But don’t turn the experience into an interrogation or test. Mix it up by making comments about your own thoughts, and share in the reading experience together.
- Tell your child what you think might happen next. Predicting what will happen is a comprehension tool that is very important in the formal school years. You can model it for them, and also ask your child to have a go by telling you what they think might happen. Creativity can be rewarded here!
- Connect what is happening in the story to your child’s own life. This promotes vocabulary and higher level processing, which are both important for success in school later on.
- If the letters and words on the page are interesting to your child, track them with your fingers as you read. Your child will then start to make the connection between the printed word and the meaning of the story.
If you and your child are both enjoying sharing reading experiences, then you’re well and truly on the right track to literacy acquisition. If you have any concerns or questions about supporting your child’s literacy, call the Speech Pathologist at Developing Minds Speech Pathology.
WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL ABOUT READING?
A Skill We Must Be Taught
For many of us as adults, we may not even remember what it was like to learn to read so long ago. And that’s the thing with reading – it is something we must learn to do. Rather than being a developmental step like other skills we acquire as children, reading is not something our brains were ever hard-wired to do, so it is a skill we must be taught.
To make sense of the whole process, we must remember that reading is not just about decoding the sounds that match to funny squiggles on a page or computer screen. It is about transferring meaning with the coded system of writing. In English, this code just happens to be letters that correspond to sounds in the language, albeit loosely a lot of the time. But it’s not just about the sounds, it’s about communicating thoughts and messages using this code.
Most children will learn to read in the early years of school without too much trouble, with the time and support from the guiding hands that are their teachers and parents. But for other children, there may be problems along the way, and this can make school and learning extremely difficult, sometimes even absolutely traumatic.
A lot of focus is put on learning the sounds that make up the words. That is the first step to early reading – knowing the letters and their sounds. Sometimes a child can experience difficulties at this level, and they will be unable to ever decipher the code without more targeted help. A large body of scientific research over the past few decades has shown that understanding the sound system of one’s language, and the ability to manipulate these sounds in words is a crucial skill to achieving reading success. This level of processing is called ‘Phonological Awareness’.
However, as anyone who is a fluent reader can tell you, we don’t read one sound or letter at a time. Imagine trying to read a newspaper article or blog one sound at a time, and then trying to remember what it is all about! Competent readers must obtain reading fluency, and this relies on another set of skills called ‘Symbol Imagery’, where we read letters and words as ‘chunks’ by their shape, and we can get to the meaning behind the words on the pages more efficiently. The latest cutting edge research into reading is looking more and more at this subset of skills as being the important part to supporting reading fluency.
There can be even more difficulties beyond this step. Remember that writing is a code to communicate meaning, and sometimes the meaning connection might not be made across this system. When written language doesn’t carry much meaning, or one looses track of what this writing was all about, then we need to look more closely at the language processing component.
So when we look at reading as a process, not just a skill, we can really appreciate just how much is involved. Learning to read really is a big deal! To find out more about supporting literacy skills at any age and stage, contact the Speech Pathologist at Developing Minds Speech Pathology.