Preschool Developmental Initiative Stuart G. Shanker Director_ The by opzroyikiwizik


   Scaffolding for Early

           Stuart G. Shanker
       Distinguished Research Professor
                                           Tomorrow‟s Early Learning. April 17, 2009
Director, Milton & Ethel Harris Research Initiative
Time Magazine from the MEHRI Neuroscience lab

          Changing School Trajectories

• There is considerable research showing how
  difficult it is to change a child‟s trajectory from the
  moment that they enter kindergarten or grade 1
• On the basis of fairly simple tests of language and
  math skills we can make strong predictions about
  how far a child will go in school, what grades they
  will obtain, even what kind of job.
• Why is it so difficult to change trajectories?

•The standard explanation, made famous by Arthur
Jensen, is that a child‟s IQ determines their
educational potential
•IQ according to Jensen is determined by our genes
and fixes our educational potential
•Jensen went further: he insisted that intensive
preschool programs cannot increase a child‟s
potential; they just help to make sure that all of that
potential is realized
        The Need for a Developmental

•To move beyond IQ, we need a developmental
explanation for why it so difficult to change
children’s educational trajectories
•We need to understand whether the successes
amount to more than simply maximizing the
potential of a genetic substrate
•Until we can explain what it is that we are doing
wrong, and what it is that we are doing right,
biological determinism will lurk in the background
as the default hypothesis
                From Neurons to

•In 2000, Shonkoff & Phillips set off a seismic shift
in how developmental scientists, and especially
neuroscientists, look at the reasons why it is so
difficult to change a child‟s learning trajectory from
kindergarten or grade 1
•The shift they instituted was from looking at IQ to
seeing self-regulation as the key to a child‟s ability
to learn in school


Development                           Externalizing
 Disorders                             problems

        Heart                     Obesity

            Five Domains in Study of

•Biology (Temperament)
•Cognitive: Executive Functions
    –Sustained attention
    –Attention switching
    –Inhibit impulses
    –Deal with frustration, delay, distractions
•Social psychology: plan, monitor and evaluate progress
towards socially-constructed goals
•Educational Psychology: Self-reflective awareness of
learning strengths and weaknesses                         8
           Dynamic Systems View of

•All of these levels interact
   –E.g., child‟s reactivity to stimuli and ability to
   disengage from stressful stimuli has a profound
   impact on her emotional regulation
   –In turn, ability to regulate emotions has a
   pronounced impact on her ability to focus or shift
   attention and inhibit distractions, resolve
   attentional conflicts, inhibit impulses, delay
   gratification, and tolerate frustration
       The Teacher-Child Relationship

•Poor self-regulation not only impedes a child‟s
ability to attend to her lessons but may also
undermine the teacher-student relationship
•Not surprisingly, teachers respond much more
positively to children who are able to stay calmly
focused while those who have more difficulty in this
regard receive less attention or are treated less

       Self-regulation and Educational

•The obduracy of trajectories may be largely due to
poor self-regulation
•A recent study has shown that children from lower
SES have poorer development of the systems in
the PFC that support self-regulation
•So this suggests a deeper reason why we haven‟t
been able to close the achievement gap, and even,
that it has relatively little to do with IQ
      The Seriousness of the Problem

•46% of 3,595 teachers surveyed in 2000 in the US
reported that half their class had problems in self-
regulation (Rimm-Kaufman, Pianta & Cox 2001)
•These early problems with self-regulation will
become further entrenched during the school years,
often as a direct result of the school experience
(Kuklinski & Weinstein 2001)

       Experience Plays a Critical Role
       in the Organization of the Brain

•Big question is: What kinds of experiences produce
what kinds of neural organization
   –For example, we say that the DLPFC is critical
   for inhibiting impulses. But which experiences
   help wire the DLPFC to perform this function?
•The point is, functions like paying attention, dealing
with frustration or distractions, are not genetically
              Secondary Altriciality

• Early plasticity enables the child‟s brain to be highly
  attuned to the environment in which she is born
• Synaptic growth in the first 2 years is massive
• There is huge over-production of synapses that, at
  8 months, will start to be „pruned‟ back
• Synaptic pruning is regulated by baby‟s emotional
  interactions with her caregivers


         Sound    Touch
         Vision   Proprioception
         Smell    Taste
                                   Neal Halfon
          The Role of the Primary
       Caregiver in Early Brain Growth

•The primary caregiver serves as an „external brain‟,
regulating and stimulating the baby‟s brain
•Dyadic experiences are vital for:
   –Sensory integration
   –Sensory/motor coordination

           Developmental Pathways

•The basic principle of these models is that Initial
neurobiological deficits can influence the experiences
child seeks out or to which she is receptive, which
can have a dramatic impact on the development of
her brain
•This leads to a developmental trajectory that
becomes ever more entrenched, so that by the time
a child enters school it can be difficult to alter

       Development of Self-Regulation

•Baby is born with limited capacity to regulate her
own arousal, pay attention, control impulses, etc.
•This function is performed in early months by
•Infant develops the capacity to self-regulate by
being regulated

         The Brain-to-Brain Interactive

•Nature provided us with an exquisitely sensitive
interactive system, in which specific types of
experiences result in the delivery of specific types of
stimuli to systems that come „online‟ hierarchically
•There are three key stages in this process:
•In each of these stages, early brain development is
fundamentally dyadic
            Individual Differences

•The baby has to find interacting with her caregiver
pleasurable; for that to happen the caregiver has to
understand and respond to her unique physiology
•An over-reactive baby who is highly sensitive to
various types of stimuli needs to be enticed by more
soothing touch and sounds
•An under-reactive baby is enticed using more
energy and bigger gestures or vocalizations
            A Baby‟s Starting-Point

•Newborn starts life with basic capacities: hears
fairly well, sees somewhat indistinctly, can move in
response to stimuli but can‟t control her movements
•By 2 or 3 months she can respond to parents by
looking up, or to the right and left
•How does the baby reach this point of integrating
the information coming in from her different senses
and responding in a purposeful manner?
             Comforting a Newborn

•This process begins at the moment of birth
•The descent down the birth canal and into the world
is one fraught with physical and sensory assault
•As she cradles her newborn in her arms, the
caregiver is instinctively using her body warmth and
the beatings of her heart to bring comfort to her child
•every infant is different in the kinds of sensations or
movements that she finds comforting
           Learning about a Baby‟s
             Reaction to Touch

•Caregiver begins exploring every part of her baby‟s
body, promoting baby‟s physical growth and
providing mother with subliminal information about
baby‟s response to touch
•Through trial and error, repeated over and over, the
caregiver discovers what kind of touches, or which
position or motion, enhance her baby‟s ability to
focus calmly, and which seem to distress her baby


•Caregivers can only learn how their baby reacts to
sounds in their endless interactions
•Caregiver needs to experiment with different
cadences, pitches, tempo, etc., in order to ascertain
which vocal patterns sustain her baby‟s interest and
which elicit no response, or even, are aversive

          Helping the Baby Respond
             Positively To Touch

•If baby‟s body stiffens when she hears motherese,
caregiver might lower her pitch and slow down the
rhythm, searching for a calming effect
•With a baby who is under-reactive to sound, she
might do opposite to get her baby‟s attention
•By gradually modulating her vocalizations the
caregiver can maintain her baby‟s interest and help
him to cope with sounds that initially overloaded
him, or attend to sounds that he seemed at first not
to notice
         Developing the Visual System

•The same subtly nuanced interactive process is
key in the development of the baby‟s visual system
•caregiver learns if baby is drawn to or overwhelmed
by animated facial expressions, or if he is energized
or drained by bright lighting
•By modulating the child‟s visual experiences she
learns how to maintain the child‟s interest and
slowly enhance his capacity to process visual stimuli

•Between 2 and 4 months babies typically become
more engaged in social and emotional interactions
•Begin to form a special relationship with primary
•A type of synchrony of relating is evident in the way
the infant and caregivers use their senses, motor
systems, and affects to resonate with one another

         Healthy Engagement Patterns

•babies employ all their senses to orchestrate highly
pleasurable affect in their relationship with their
primary caregivers
•The baby with a beautiful smile, looking at and
listening to caregiver, experiencing her gentle touch
and rhythmic movement, and responding to her voice
with synchronous mouth and arm and leg
movements is a vivid example

         Clinical Engagement Patterns

•The most extreme case is where a baby actively
avoids sensory and affective contact
•Human sounds, touch, even scents are avoided with
gaze aversion, recoiling, flat affect, or random or
nonsynchronous patterns of brightening and alerting
•We also see babies who use one or another sensory
pathway but cannot orchestrate the full range
•Eg the baby who listens to mother's voice with a
smile but gaze averts at the sight of her face      29
            Problems in Engagement

•Rather than showing pleasure with their caregivers
some infants display flat affect
•Rather than showing assertive, curious, protesting,
or angry behavior they may only look very compliant
•May also be limited in their organizational stability
   –E.g., baby who, after hearing a loud noise, can‟t
   return to his earlier interests in the caregiver
   –If severe, this may form the basis for a deficit in
   the baby's capacity to form human relationships 30

•From a neurodevelopmental perspective, games like
peek-a-boo use the baby‟s stronger senses to build
up her weaker senses
•Through playful interactions such as these, all of the
infant‟s senses begin working together, become not
just stronger but more integrated
•„peek-a-boo‟ represents one of the most basic brain-
building exercises that, for all we know, is hundreds
of thousands and possibly even millions of years old
         Building up the Baby‟s Mental

•caregiver helps infant develop her motor abilities
and integrate sensory/motor systems
•With a baby with high muscle tone whose body is
tight and has trouble relaxing she might play gentle
physical games, like bending her baby‟s knees while
smiling and making soothing sounds
•With a baby with low muscle tone who finds it hard
to sequence actions she might put a much-wanted
toy just out of the baby‟s reach and reward her efforts
to obtain the object with joyful smiles and hugs
          The Shift to Self-Regulation

•Shifting the focus from intelligence as narrowly
conceived in terms of IQ to looking at the kinds of
experiences that build self-regulation opens up an
entirely new perspective on why it has been so
difficult to change educational trajectories
•More important, it brings to the fore what we can do
to enhance school-readiness, or enhance the
learning process throughout the school years and
             A New Vision of a Child‟s
               Educational Potential

•The ability to learn is in large part determined by:
    –child‟s ability to attend to a lesson
    –process auditory or visual information
    –recognize visual, auditory or social patterns
    –respond to challenges with curiosity and interest
    –grasp the norms of classroom behavior
•If a child enters school without mastering these core
capacities this will significantly impair his ability to
rise to the challenges he will be exposed to in school
       How Many Children Are we
       Talking About?

•This argument doesn‟t just apply to the child with
•What about the child who is withdrawn and retreats
into a fantasy world? Or who is frightened by new
ideas? Or who refuses to mix with other children?
Or who is easily frustrated and inconsolable if he
makes a mistake? Or who gets lost in math
problems, or can‟t string together more than one or
two ideas? Or who doesn‟t appear to have any
interests at all or isn‟t curious about anything?   35
        The Real Source of Bell Curve

•The picture I am trying to paint here is that of a
typical classroom
•It is a picture that every primary teacher will
immediately resonate with, which brings home the
reality of the enormous task we have asked our
primary school teachers to perform
•Each of the traits described here, and many more,
are a downstream consequence of much more
basic processes
               The Learning Tree

•Picture roots, trunk, boughs and branches
•Root system represents the elements that support
child‟s ability to self-regulate
•Fundamentally important – the taproot – is her
sensory system: how she orients to and processes
auditory, visual, tactile, gustatory and olfactory
information, and how she modulates her sensory
responses – her overall reactivity or excitability,
responsivity, and arousability to these various
kinds of sensory stimuli
               The Root System

•Connected to reactivity is the child‟s soothability;
how easily or intensely she becomes fearful,
anxious, angry, excited; how she responds to new
situations (e.g., approach versus withdrawal,
adaptability); whether she actively seeks out new
stimulation; and her distractibility and attention-
span persistence
•Finally, of utmost importance in the root system
are her motor planning and sequencing abilities
and the child‟s sense of her body in space
                The Tree Trunk

•Trunk relates to all those skills grouped under the
headings of Effortful Control, Emotion-Regulation,
Executive Functioning, Self-Regulation, Pattern
Recognition, Language skills, Logical and
Reflective thinking, Empathy and Theory of Mind
•Anyone who has watched the growth of a tree
trunk from one year to the next will immediately
recognize the significance of a lifespan perspective
for education
        The Trunk Continues to Grow
        Throughout the School Years

•The core capacities must continue to grow
•For that to happen, child must continue to
undergo the types of experiences necessary to
strengthen these core capacities
•Emotion-regulation is an obvious case in point:
the neural systems involved in emotion-regulation
continue to grow throughout her school years, as
indeed will the emotional challenges that she will
have to deal with
       School Must Nurture the Growth
                of the Trunk

•A child‟s learning experiences must be such that
they are not only directed at the material covered
in the curriculum but also geared towards creating
a trunk that will be strong enough to withstand the
emotional buffeting that the child will be exposed
to as an adolescent and young adult, and flexible
enough to master the increasingly abstract ideas
to which she will be exposed
•the highest levels of thinking require combined
emotional and cognitive development
            Boughs and Branches

•The boughs relate to child‟s mastery of the basic
skills of reading, oral and written expression, math
and science skills, music and art
•Growing out of the boughs are the branches that
represent the different domains of learning spelled
out in detail in the curriculum, subject by subject
•As the child rises through the grades, the
branches become increasingly intricate and
               Using the Model

•Typically, a teacher might want to look at:
   –how well the child functions emotionally,
   socially, and intellectually
   –how well she can focus and attend
   –interact emotionally with those around her
   –do simple sequencing and problem-solving
   –creativity and how she talks about her feelings
   –can she answer “why” questions in a logical
   manner and engage in multi-causal thinking 43
         Adjusting the System to the
              Teacher‟s Needs

•a teacher needs an opportunity to truly get to
know the child, to watch and interact with her, to
learn how stable or broad-ranging her abilities are,
what happens when she becomes anxious and
unsure of herself
•To have a significant impact on a child‟s learning
curve she needs to know how flexible and stable is
her trunk and whether there are problems in the
root system
          E.g., a Child with Reading

•closer examination might reveal that a 10 year-old
who is somewhat delayed in her reading has some
fundamental difficulties with sequencing and
comprehending subtleties of sounds and words,
making it hard for her to connect the sounds to the
visual image when she is reading
•This makes her a slow, halting reader, in order to
slow down the information inflow
•Perhaps the same child is hyper-sensitive to
sounds and to touch and is easily overloaded by
        Changing a Child‟s Potential to

•Analyzing a child‟s trunk and root system gives us
a way of understanding a problem which has
shown up in one of the branches
•It can also alert us to other problems that are easy
to overlook in the early years of schooling, and
which, if undetected, can result in significant
constrictions later on in school
•If we just work on the branches alone, then we‟re
trying to build a house without a strong foundation
        The Ongoing Development of

•SR develops throughout childhood, adolescence,
and young adulthood as challenges to which child
is exposed increase
•Programs with greatest long-term physical and
psychological benefit are those that promote SR
•The more developed the child‟s SR, the more
receptive and able they are to adopting healthy
                 Back to Basics

•We‟re just starting to understand what enhances
and what constricts development of SR
•The most important early experiences are the
child‟s interactions with her caregivers
•The most effective activities for children growing
up are the simplest: e.g., sports, nature, arts, social
interest groups

         Living in Challenging Times

•See evidence of the possible negative effects of
excessive tv and video games on development of
•These activities also inhibit family and peer
•Growing number of families with both parents
working, single parent-families with working parent

         The Critical Role of Emotion

•If strong positive affect is critical for development
of SR in child, it only stands to reason that it is
equally important for parental development
•Parents need to continue developing SR just as
much as their children, to deal with the added
stresses of parenting (including financial)
•Just as with the interactions that promote SR in
children, the most successful parenting programs
are those that individuals enjoy

•Diamond, A et. al (2008) Preschool program improves cognitive control
Science November 30th
•Fogel, A, King, B & Shanker, S (2007) Human Development in the 21st
Century (Cambridge UP)
•Greenspan, S & Shanker, S (2004) The First Idea (Perseus)
•McCain, M, JF Mustard & SG Shanker (2007) Early Years Study II:
Putting Science into Action.
•Smith-Chant, B.L. (2008) Early Learning and heath. In D Rahpael (ed),
Social determinants of health. (Canadian Scholars Press)
Wade, T et al. (2007) Improvements in Health-Related Quality of Life
Among School-Based Health Center Users in Elementary and Middle School.
Ambulatory Pediatrics 8,4

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