Thursday, November 2, 2017

Promoting Math Skills in Early Childhood

Geetha RamaniIn this article, we interviewed Dr. Geetha Ramani, a Faculty Affiliate at CECEI, about her research, the importance of promoting math skills for young children, and ways parents and professionals can help children develop math skills.

Could you tell me about your research and how it relates to child development?

Our research focuses on how social interactions and play can promote children’s cognitive development, specifically related to math and problem solving. We also examine associations between early math skills and other cognitive functions, such as the ways that working memory and language skills are related to early math development.  

We mainly focus on the early childhood period because it is important for children to have strong foundational math skills. One of the specific areas we study is how games and play can help children develop these skills. Another line of our research focuses on how interactions with adults and peers can provide children with opportunities to learn new skills and practice existing abilities. As a part of this line of research, we examine how parents communicate to their children about numbers and problem-solving strategies and how play with peers can influence children’s problem-solving skills.  

What is one thing that people may not know about this topic, or something they may be misinformed about?

Some people don’t realize the importance of early math skills as they relate to later math learning. Having a strong foundation of early mathematical knowledge can help lay the groundwork for learning later, more complex skills. People also do not realize that early mathematical knowledge includes a range of skills and areas. For example, it is important for children to understand what numbers are, such as how big and small numbers are in relation to one another, in order to do use them in more complex ways. It’s similar to reading in that it’s fine to be able to say the alphabet, but it’s not until you know the letter sounds that you will be able to use them for reading.

People are often afraid of math or did not like math when they were students. Adults don’t often realize that they have enough skills to help their children learn math and that it can be fun and engaging as well. Parents don’t have to use worksheets and flashcards. They can use games to talk about math and show how numbers are represented in the real world. It’s possible to make it fun, and that happens through social interactions and games.

How can this information be used by parents? By childcare providers/teachers?

It is important to remember that there is time to talk to young children about math in everyday life. Math can be integrated into everyday things such as:

  • Going to the grocery store- we can talk about how many apples we’re going to buy, how much they weigh, how much it’s going to cost, etc.
  • Driving- as parents are driving they can mention the speed, the distance, or the numbers on the signs.   
  • Sitting down for mealtime- at the snack or dinner table, teachers or families can talk about how many people are sitting down and how many slices of bread we will need.

Interactions and number-related talk that parents may not think are important can have a large impact, and they don’t have to spend a lot of time to talk about them. In general, it doesn’t have to take a lot of extra time to talk about math and numbers. If we make math a part of the conversation it will help increase a child’s awareness of the world and how math and numbers play into it. Many learning opportunities are things parents and teachers already do or comment on, it’s just about adding that extra step.

For more ideas for how you can help your child develop math skills, these resources may help:

Dr. Geetha Ramani is a Faculty Affiliate with CECEI and an Associate Professor in the Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology. Her research is focused on how social interactions and activities can influence young children’s cognitive development, specifically in mathematics and problem solving. Her program of research provides insight into the benefits and unique processes of learning mathematics through joint play and activities with peers and adults. This research serves as a basis for constructing effective mathematical educational practices for young children. In her role at CECEI, Dr. Ramani serves as a content expert for aspects of center work related to mathematics, including the 2016 Summer Institutes for Early Childhood Special Educators.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Effects of Early Parenting Behaviors on Children’s Stress Responses

Sarah Blankenship

We recently sat down with Dr. Sarah Blankenship to discuss her research, which focuses on the development of depression in children and particularly the transmission of depression from mothers to children. Her research has found evidence suggesting links between parenting styles, children’s physical responses and later changes in the brain, and the subsequent development of depression in children. Read this interview and learn more about her research and how it developed from studies of rodents.  

During the past summer, Sarah Blankenship worked on the Birth to Five Service Delivery Models project as a Post-Doctoral Associate. She received her PhD in Neuroscience and Cognitive Science from the University of Maryland in 2017, and her research has focused on the effects of early life experiences on brain development during childhood. She is interested in looking at the underlying mechanisms that explain the link between early experience and risk for later psychopathology.

In this post, we interviewed Sarah about her research and what it means for future early childhood interventions. The full interview transcript follows:

Could you talk a little bit about your research and how it relates to child development?

At the most basic level, I’m interested in understanding why people become depressed. We know that the offspring of depressed mothers are more likely to become depressed themselves, and I’m interested in understanding how. Whenever we talk about intergenerational transmission, genetics is always a factor that is considered; however, in the case of depression, only about 37% of transmission can be explained by genetics alone. There is some evidence that the experience of interacting with a depressed parent may account for some of the other variance. This link between the parenting behaviors of depressed mothers and child development is the focus of my research.

There is an abundance of human literature linking the early parenting environment to child outcomes. However, the majority of research which has examined how parenting shapes offspring development has been done in rodents. The past twenty years of rodent research has shown us that the early parenting environment can affect offspring behavior by shaping the child’s neurobiological response to stress and, ultimately, the brain regions implicated in depressive disorders. What we see is that maladaptive parenting behaviors early in development shape the offspring’s response to stress to be longer and more intense. This means that in a stressful situation, more of the stress hormone corticosterone (cortisol in humans) is released. Too much corticosterone (or cortisol) can be neurotoxic – especially in regions that have a relatively high density of cortisol receptors. One such region that is particularly affected is the hippocampus. This is a region of the brain that plays a role in regulating the stress response (through the activation of the receptors I mentioned), controls the formation of episodic memories, and has been implicated in the etiology of depressive disorders in adults. The offspring of mothers who are less attentive to their offspring’s needs display high and increasing cortisol responses to stress, causing structural and functional changes in the hippocampus which, in turn, are associated with changes in offspring behaviors, including depressive symptomatology. We know that this cascade from parenting to stress reactivity to brain development exists in rodents, but we don’t know whether this pathway exists in humans. The goal of my dissertation was to examine this link in human children.

To answer this question, I used a longitudinal sample collected by one of my advisors, Dr. Lea Dougherty, and her lab. This sample included offspring of depressed parents and a community comparison group that did not have parental lifetime history of depressive disorders. These children were brought in at 3-5 years-old and asked to complete a parent-child interaction task with their mothers and a task that was designed to make the child mildly stressed (i.e., a laboratory stressor). From these tasks, we were able to measure parenting behaviors and children’s cortisol response to stress. Children and their mothers came back approximately 3 years later and completed another parent-child interaction task to measure parenting behaviors, another laboratory stressor where cortisol was measured, and an MRI session where we collected scans of the structure and function of the child’s hippocampus.

I was particularly interested in whether or not we would see a similar pathway from parenting to stress reactivity to hippocampal structure and function and whether these associations are timing-dependent, meaning that there is a particular age at which these factors have the greatest impact on the brain.

We did find evidence that this pathway may exist in human children. Specifically, we found that greater negative parenting during preschool (3-5 years old), but not middle childhood (5-10 years), predicted greater cortisol reactivity during middle childhood (5-10 years) which, in turn, predicted a smaller size of a particular region of the hippocampus called the tail. This is wholly consistent with what we would predict based on the rodent literature. Although we did not find evidence for this complete pathway when examining the effects of parenting on hippocampal function, we did see that parenting behaviors in both preschool (3-5 years) and middle childhood (5-10 years) were associated with changes in hippocampal networks that have been implicated in the etiology of depressive disorders, including those that are involved in: memory, executive functioning, and rumination. Together, these findings suggest that parenting behaviors throughout childhood may alter the structure and function of the brain and put children at increased risk for depressive disorders later in life.

What is one thing that few people know about this topic, or what is one thing that most people are misinformed about?

Although we do see associations between certain parenting behaviors and the size of certain structures in a child's brain, there are three very important things I like to remind readers of my work: 1) These are not causal associations. We cannot definitively say that certain parenting practices cause changes in a child's brain. Future research may very well disprove these associations or find that they are caused by something that researchers haven't even considered yet. 2) The implications of these differences are yet to be determined. We do not know whether a difference in the size of an area of the hippocampus is good or bad. It's just different. It's possible that these differences may simply amount to different cognitive or socioemotional abilities or make a child more capable of functioning within their environment or it could possibly have no discernable effect on the child’s behavior, cognition, or affect. There is an awful lot we don't know yet about the associations between the size of brain regions and human behavior. The research suggests that it's not a straightforward association and that bigger is not always better and vice versa. 3) Perhaps most importantly, I think it's crucial for everyone (especially parents) to keep in mind that children are incredibly resilient.

How can your research be used by teachers or childcare professionals? How can it be used by parents?

I think this research serves as a good first step towards examining these associations in human children.
Because of the limitations of the present study, such as a small sample size and non-experimental design, I hesitate to make bold claims or recommendations based on this single study at this time. I do believe these findings provide evidence that the rodent literature can help inform human research and that this study (and those that follow) may help us develop more effective early interventions. For example, this research (in conjunction with the replication studies that will hopefully follow) may lead to the development of parenting skills trainings for mothers with high levels of stress or psychological disorders. By elucidating when these parenting experiences have the greatest effect on the development of particular brain systems, future interventions could be targeted to the times when they’ll have the greatest impact on a child’s development.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Transitioning to a New School Year

Lynette Russell is an Early Childhood Special Education Instructional Specialist in Prince George’s County Public Schools. This week we interviewed Lynette about ways that parents can help their young children adjust to the new school year.

What can parents do to help their preschool children adjust to the new school year?

A successful start to the new school year always starts from home. One critical tip would be to solidify your child’s sleeping and eating schedule. Over the summer families often get relaxed with children’s bedtimes, mealtimes, and snack times, but now is the time to get back into a regular routine. Be aware of your child’s eating habits. If your child is used to snacking on demand or grazing on food throughout the day, she may have a difficult time adjusting to the more structured meal and snack times at school. And children who are tired and/or hungry will have a hard time focusing in school. Bottom line- make sure that your child gets plenty of sleep and eats a full breakfast every morning.

What if your child has special needs?

Transitions are often a sensitive issue for children with special needs, but there are things that you can do to make the transition to a new school year easier:

  1. Attend any preschool orientations or before school events. Meet all of the adults that your child will be interacting with- not just the teacher. For instance, if your child has any medical concerns it’s a great idea to meet the school nurse. If you can’t make these introductions before school starts, try to find a time during the first month of school to come in for a visit. It’s important for your child to see you interacting with these adults and learn that these adults can be trusted and relied on for support.
  2. When you visit your child’s preschool for the first time, bring a camera (or cell phone) and take photos of the different rooms. Use these photos to make a booklet to review with your child. Show your child- this is where you hang your backpack, this is where you will eat lunch, this is where you will go to the bathroom, etc. Seeing photos of the environment will help familiarize your child with her new routine.
  3. Teach early advocacy.  Help your child identify who at school he can turn to for help. For instance, when you are helping your child put on his shoes, you can say “At home Mommy is helping you with your shoes, but at school you can ask Ms. Thomas to help you.” These kinds of discussions will help your child learn which adults are “safe” (they have earned mom’s and dad’s seal of approval), and will teach your child to ask for help when assistance is needed.

What information about the child should parents share with their child’s teacher?

Start by talking with your child’s teacher about your child’s strengths- what is he able to do, where does he shine? Talk about any areas of concern that you have. Remember, many IEPs are completed in April, and during the summer your child may have acquired new strength skills. Be sure to update the teacher on any new developments. Finally, talk about your goals for the school year. What does a successful school year look like to you (as the parent)?

What questions should parents be asking their children at the end of a school day?

Some good prompts are:

  1. Who did you play with today?
  2. What did you eat?
  3. What book did you read?

Make sure you ask your child’s teacher what a typical school day looks like, so that you can ask your child questions related to her routine. For instance, what did you play with in centers today?

If you child is starting preschool for the first time, what are some behaviors that might be typical of the first few weeks of school?

Anticipate some separation anxiety. Your child may need some extra one-on-one time with you during the first couple weeks of school. Anticipate that your child may come home hungry and tired, and that this combination may lead to more tantrums. To alleviate these issues you might adjust your evening routine to include an after-school snack, some snuggle time, and an earlier bedtime.

What if your child is having a difficult time adjusting?

If your child is still coming home unhappy after two weeks, and you’ve tried all of the above tips, talk to your child’s teacher about your observations. Ask if your child seems to be happy most of the time at school, and ask the teacher to tell you about any times that your child does not appear to be happy. Then together, you can work on coming up with a solution. If separation anxiety is a concern, perhaps your child can bring a favorite family photo or stuffed animal to school. If hunger is a problem, perhaps your child can bring an extra snack.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Back to School Tips for Parents

Starting the new school year is a time of great excitement and change. Help smooth the transition for your preschooler with these back to school tips.

Talk and Read about School

Tell stories about when you went to school and share how you felt about it. Find childhood pictures of yourself and other adults in your child’s life and talk about the photos. Listen to your preschooler and answer any questions she might have. Read books about school with your child – it’s a wonderful way to bond, and the books will often spark a great discussion. Fantastic Fun and Learning has a list of books about the first day of school. Buggy and Buddy has a list of her favorite school books as well.

Familiarize your Child with the New Environment

Even if your child has already attended preschool, he’ll have a new teacher and a new classroom.  Try your best to bring him to any preschool orientations at the school.  If you’re not able to, see if a grandparent or a family friend can take him. Knowing his classroom and teacher ahead of time will ease some of the beginning of the year anxieties.

Establish a Routine

Switching from a summer schedule to a school schedule can be stressful for everyone in the household. Establish a routine of "early to bed" and "school wake-up time" several days before school begins so your child has time to adjust to the new schedule. Set the alarm clock, go through your morning rituals, and get in the car or to the bus stop on time. Routines help children feel comfortable, and establishing a solid school routine will help make the first day of school feel less chaotic.

Prepare for Separation Anxiety
When it's time to go back to school, young children (and parents too!) sometimes experience separation anxiety. These feelings are totally normal. Many of the above tips will help ease back to school anxieties, but you may also consider reading up on separation anxiety and how to ease it.


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Role of Music in Early Childhood Classrooms

We recently wrote about the importance of Music in Early Childhood. This week, we interviewed Nancy Nuttle, Director of Music Together Montgomery in Montgomery County, Maryland. Ms. Nuttle has a Bachelor of Science degree in Music Education, completed 15 successful years of general music instruction in Montgomery County Public Schools, and has sung professionally. We asked Ms. Nuttle to help us think about how Early Childhood educators can bring music into their classrooms. 

Can you describe the Music Together teaching philosophy?

Nancy Nuttle, Director, Music Together Montgomery
The Music Together® philosophy is based on research that indicates all children are musical, meaning we are all born with some level of music aptitude just as we are all born with the aptitude for language acquisition. Our goal is to empower parents and primary caregivers to support a child's music development as they journey towards basic music competency in a playful, non-performance-oriented environment that is developmentally appropriate for children birth through 5.

Why do you think music is an important part of early childhood education?

Research indicates young children are wired for music-learning.  Music-making is one of the human attributes that reside at the core of what makes us human. For this reason, we believe that the inclusion of music, for music's sake, is a birthright and should be an integral part of early learning.

What are some ways that early childhood general and special educators can bring music to their classrooms/weave music throughout the day?

Singing and music-making can easily be incorporated into a child's daily routine. Beginning and ending the day with ritual songs help children transition through their day. Providing opportunities for children to experiment with singing and instrument-play and exposing children to listening experiences that involve large movement respects a child's need to move and supports the spiral of exposure and experimentation that is so essential to the early childhood learning process.

Any specific activities you would recommend?

Music-learning, as with language-learning, in early childhood is all about adults modeling with children having the freedom to choose to participate. Singing songs without words allows children to have musical experiences without the distraction of language. Providing opportunities for older children to volunteer verse ideas during a song helps children feel invested in music-making and their ideas appreciated. Music-making experiences where adults model playing simple instruments, such as egg shakers, drums, and other child-friendly instruments, allow children to participate at whatever level is developmentally appropriate without performance expectations.

Music Together has developed a curriculum I feel is the gold standard regarding the inclusion of the entire school community, especially parents. 

Any tips for creating music centers in early childhood classrooms?

Most preschools are set up with a block area, kitchen area, art area, and reading area. For children to have opportunities to discover, create, and explore music themselves they need a similar “music area” in their classrooms. A music area should contain equipment and manipulatives that support such explorations: simple age-appropriate instruments like rhythm sticks, egg shakers, small drums, and scarves, along with a recording device so music can be played. Recordings of different genres of music give children lots of "musical vitamins." Classical, jazz, folk music, world music, etc. are all great choices; don’t limit yourself to "kids" recordings! Songbooks that provide a visual representation of music allow children exposure to musical notation and serve as pre-literacy tools. Just as a child might "read" a book before they can actually read the words, they also "read" music, thus beginning the process of connecting notation to sound.

Where can educators find affordable materials?

Our voices and bodies should be the number-one source for music-making for young children. Kitchen utensils, recycled, child-friendly containers are a good source. Homemade instruments are the most affordable, of course! Music Together’s online store also sells a number of child-friendly instruments and materials, all tested and high quality. There are other online resources like West Music, Rhythm Band, Remo Inc. as well. When purchasing instruments for your classroom, investing in quality, kid-friendly instruments is worth it!

Any other resources you would recommend?

The Music Together website contains a wealth of information on music in a school setting. The three-day Music Together teacher training is accredited by many institutions for CEUs (continuing education units) towards teaching certificates in many states. We focus on how children develop musically and what adults need to do to support this natural process.

Any other points you would like to touch on?

Preschool teachers often feel unqualified to "teach" music. Quite simply, the joy of music-making should be modeled by all educational professionals working on a daily basis with young children regardless of the adult's skill level.


Read more about Music Together For Schools 

Read more about the role of music in Early Childhood in this Position Statement  from NAFME