Friday, September 4, 2009

Babies are SO smart!

Don't you love it when some important person comes out with a book or theory that says just what you've been thinking for a long time (or maybe even talking about, but no one seemed to be listening)?

Recently I have heard two different discussions on Public Radio about the surprising intelligence of babies. It isn't just me and it isn't just grandmas everywhere - Babies really ARE getting smarter! Why didn't they listen to us?
I have also been reading about the relatively new idea of neuroplasticity. (See: "The Brain that Changes Itself" by Norman Doidge). It isn't just babies - we all have a lot more ability to learn and change than we've ever been given credit for.

I won't bore you with stories about my amazingly smart grandkids and all the cute, clever things they say and do. Suffice it to say, they amaze all of us on a regular basis - and we love it!

But what does this mean to all of us? For one thing, it underscores the importance of early stimulation and ongoing challenge to further intellectual growth and development. It also means schools that prepare teachers for our classrooms have to be on top of all ongoing research so that teachers are up to speed when they enter the classroom, and not simply doing things the old way - or the way they were taught.

It means we can never truly measure a child's intelligence, should never, ever give up on a person's potential, and should do away completely with the long-standing practice of labeling a child in order to provide some extra services in our public school systems.

Thinking about the many kids I have known in special education programs, and especially those who never quite qualified for such programs (it is embarrassing to say we considered them not "educable") and putting the reality of their early lives up against the early experiences of, for instance, my own grandkids, we have done these kids with "special needs" a terrible injustice. Because we vastly underestimated their intelligence and were stuck in our old ways of thinking about the brain, we did all the wrong things. In some cases, we removed those who were the most severely impacted by a disabling condition such as autism or Down syndrome from their homes and communities, placing them in sterile institutions where their basic needs were met, but not much of anything else was provided - during those critical early years, and possibly even for the rest of their lives!

Or maybe we told their parents to take them home and love them. Don't have unrealistic expectations for them, because they might never talk, walk, read, write, ride a bike or whatever. Hoping for more, or allowing yourself to think there might be an intelligent person locked inside, would only lead to disappointment and frustration.

At more than one point in my teaching career, I was accused of building false hopes in parents of kids like this. But the truth is that our system is set up to build false despair. We don't give the kids or their families enough credit for what might be possible. Sure it takes love - lots of it - and of course patience. (How often have I heard "You must have so much patience to work with kids like that!")?
But unless we combine that with sincere belief in a child's potential to learn - if we just find the right way to "teach" - we are failing that child and their family.

All the exciting new research says babies are soaking up information all the time, and if something tragic happens to damage a particular area of the brain there are many, many ways around that impasse - and the brain will do all it can to find one of those ways. We can't ignore this. It's a huge paradigm shift and means so much for all kids, but especially those who carry labels that might indicate learning challenges.


  1. Dr Meir Ben-Hur, during a Standard Level 1 training for Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment, told his students that Dr Feuerstein says we must have a "pathological optimism". I LOVE THAT!

    False despair -- yep, you're right -- the system is set up that way. :(


    We need more love and pathological optimism.

  2. Oh, I LIKE that - "pathological optimism!" Now if I could only apply that to the mess this world seems to be in!

  3. I think we can all find these stories within our families.

    To find them in the average, random baby: now, that is harder.

    But it is important that SOMEBODY finds it, or else we won't live, grow and develop.

    Penny, on Feurestein: (Fire Stone as he might be called in English - a good name for what he does, especially with the flinty stones!) I have heard of the man and some of his method. It's basically 'learning how to learn'. But 'teaching' how to learn in a different way from your Liberal Arts course, and then practising and practising. But yes, learning is instrumental and then we use it to enrich ourselves.

    (I feel sad that the main thing I know about Feurestein is that it was used for a British woman named Flora Keays - who never got to see her very politically involved Dad).