We have seen in the prior post that by grade 3, the battle is largely lost. We can also see that there is a gap between children as they enter school in grade 1. It looks like a small gap but this gap is the key to both the problem and the opportunity.
See the tiny gap between the blue and the red kids before the age of six? Well now let’s follow this gap back to age 0 and see what it means and why understanding this gap is so important if we are to find ways of helping all kids reach their potential.
This takes us right back to 0. We can first see a gap at the age of 2. One group of kids can understand 300 words. The other only 150. This tiny difference seems insignificant doesn’t it? But it is not. It drives two separate trajectories that we see later in school. By the age of 15, the 150 word kids are stuck at a grade 5 level. The 300 word kids are operating at the level of a 2nd year university student.
There is little chance of helping the 150 word child do any better without a very different approach to school – I will talk about what we can do there later – and the 300 word child almost needs no school to get where she has got to . She is naturally going to be able to learn and to behave as a social being.
What the gap and the trajectories show us is that the strategic place to work to help all our kids reach their full potential is before they arrive in school.
By the way, the difference in outcome is not restricted to reading and doing well in school. It is also connected to addictions, to health, to behaviour and to obesity. (Here is a link to the costs of not thriving before the age of 6)
So we have to ask – what happened to set these two groups off onto such a different path for life? If we can understand what happens then we have a chance of helping make it possible for most kids to do better.
All the research boils down to one thing that is expressed in two types of action by parents.
It’s all about the nature of the relationship that a baby has with her parents. We learn from mainly our mums when we are very little if we are safe and cared for. This sets up our world view for life.
Parents who treat us as objects – we are clean and tidy, fed regularly etc but are talked at and seen as a thing and not worthy of much affection don’t thrive. Parents who don’t seem to care much and are all over the place even if they are affectionate, make us feel unsafe. Both these kinds of parents of course have their own issues. They too might have been treated like an object and are ordered around. They too may not have been made to feel safe.
What gives children the best chance are parents who are firm about the important things. Who give up lots of space and respect for the rest and who pay attention and are engaged in a loving way.
Makes some sense right? But how does this affect the child? Part of the answer is in language and how the brain gets wired by experience. The two key pathways to high potential are conversation and touch and as you will see they are all part of the same pathway.
By 4 the children in the high potential group had heard an accumulation of 50 million words. The low potential children had heard only about 10 million. A 40 million word difference! By 4, the language pathway has almost closed and while a child that has heard only 10 million words can speak, it lives mainly in an instrumental world. Its ability to perceive the symbolic world, which is now the core of our society, is very small and the opportunity to add back 40 million words is not possible. Many 4 year olds from a high talk family have a wider vocab than the parents of the low potential child!
It’s not just the words either. It is how the words are said. Babies hear only tone. They hear affection or indifference or anger. The baby that hears a lot of words that makes her feel respected and loved might be sitting on her mothers lap and have her mother playing with her toes and doing “This little Piggy.” This is engagement. A baby that only hears a few words may be being scolded or told to shut up – she is being treated like an object.
Why is this important?
It is because we are primates. The core process for all development and for social stability in all primate societies is Grooming. Grooming for humans has two aspects. Babies need to be touched. Baby monkeys will choose touch over food. They need to be touched in a loving way. Babies who are not touched like this can die as we found in Romanian orphanages. Cold processing of babies to feed and change them is not enough. The other pathway for Humans – the human alternative to physical grooming – is conversation. In effect gossip. All that stuff at the office in all those endless meetings and by the water cooler – Grooming! Babies need to have lots of conversations with us – even when they cannot speak themselves.
This is the ideal primate group. A model for us all!
So here then is the bottom line. Our lives have trajectories that are very powerful and that are set when we are very young. These trajectories can be modified but only with massive interventions. The best time to affect these trajectories is when the baby’s view of the world and her brain is still plastic. This is from the time of conception to age 4.
So if we are to have a chance of giving most of our few and precious children the best start to life possible, then we have to make a a major effort as a society to support parents when their children are very young. We have to make the same kind of collective effort as we have done in the past for when children are 6.
So is it possible to intervene and have a positive effect? For to do so means that we have to help parents be different and changing anyone is hard.
The answer is that we have found out how to do this and I will talk about this in my next post.