Tuesday, June 18, 2013

How Young is Too Young?

I have to admit, I was a "behavior analyst" long before I became a parent. When I started using ABA to teach children with autism in 1996 it just "made sense" to me. The data analysis, adjusting teaching based on performance, shaping, prompting, fading, all of it just made sense to me. I couldn't imagine teaching any other way. I earned my BCBA certification in 2002 and became a parent in 2003.

As you've probably heard (or learned from experience), children don't come with instruction manuals. I'd heard this many times before we brought our newborn home from the hospital but it still surprised me. We came home with a baby and literally no instruction AT ALL! I did what I knew how to do. We fed her, changed her and recorded everything! We wrote down when she drank every bottle, how much she drank, when she slept, and every diaper change. This just lasted for the first few days, I think (maybe the first week... or two?).  We got the hang of things. However, I didn't really know how to be around her without feeling like I needed to teach her. The only way I knew to teach was with ABA! No, I didn't take data on every nursery rhyme I taught her or when she started independently doing the actions with them. Though, I did keep track of all of her baby signs and every vocal mand/tact.  I taught her how to mand, with full sentences, purposefully, a step at a time. (Her first 3 word mand was, "I want [marsh]mellow!".  We quickly added, "please".) I remember thinking that maybe all parents didn't teach "that way" but I didn't really know how to do it differently. I started teaching her how to read at around age 3. I used a programmed reading primer developed by graduate students at the University of Kansas (Go Jayhawks!) decades ago. We then used Programmed Reading until she started reading chapter books sometime in first grade.

The thing is, once she entered school, I started having more contact with other parents and with teachers.  Parents were pretty interesting. They said things like, "Oh, it's so silly when parents start teaching their kids to read so young! Wasted time! They all end up about the same in elementary school, anyway!"   Teachers said things like, "Don't worry, by the end of first grade, her peers will catch up to her." Right, just what I wanted to hear.  But it all did make me think. Was I pushing her (and eventually my son, as well) to do more than she was "supposed" to do?  Was I more rigid than most parents? We didn't have set times to read or "learn language". It was just built into every day.  But was I making it too important? Should we have just "played" more? I can't imagine we didn't play and sing and dance enough. We did a lot of that! And I have no voice and no moves!  I just wonder if they would have been the same or different either way? I happened to stumble upon the coolest, most fun, and scientific way of teaching children when I was 19 years old. What would have happened if I didn't? Would it have mattered? If teaching them early learning skills while they were "so young" was wrong, what was I supposed to do instead? What do other parents do?

Understand that I don't believe I did the wrong thing. I cannot parent another way because I don't know any other way to parent. But I tend to be pretty open to ideas from others and not very outspoken. I'm not a fan of conflict and would most of the time rather not respond when I feel another parent has a strong opinion about something. (This is not true in my "work" as a behavior analyst, however.) My kids read well. Math comes easily to them. I don't feel like it was wasted time.  But is there such a thing as teaching academics to children who are too young? It seems a bit relevant. I came across this movie, Nursery University on Netflix the other day. Does this seem too extreme? Would you feel differently depending on the teaching methods that are used to teach?  What about this story from NPR? Lots of parents are comfortable with "Baby Einstein". Why?  What's the difference between the Nursery University crowd and the Baby Einstein-ers?  What do you think about "teaching" babies?