24 September, 2009

Why does everything always have to be the blimmin' same?

A lot of parents of toddlers and preschoolers will have had the very frustrating experience of their child insisting on everything being done in exactly the same way again and again. Vegetables must be on the top of the plate, shoes must be put on before coat, teeth brushed after bath, bedtime story must be read in exactly the same way - no changing the voices - the same bowl for breakfast and one cup for juice, a different one for milk, and woe betide anyone who tries to change this.

Well, you'll be reassured to know it IS just a phase - it's a very common phase - and there may be some explanation for it.

As children grow older, they become better at behaviours called "executive functions". This set of behaviours particularly helps children to be more flexible and less focussed on the here and now. So one classic test of executive function asks children to sort cards that have different coloured shapes first by the colour that is on them - and then to switch to sorting by the shape that is on them. Younger children tend to stick to the same sorting method; they are very driven by what they are already doing. Children in this stage find it really difficult to play games like Simon Says - they can't switch from "do what I say" to "don't do what I say", and they find resisting tempting behaviours really hard - put a sweet in front of them and ask them to wait for permission to eat it, and it will be gone before you blink. They respond to what they see, and find it hard to control their own behaviour to respond in a different way.

It's been found that these types of executive functioning are quite closely related to the ritualised behaviours that toddlers and preschool children are so good at. It seems as if as children get older and have more control over their own behaviour, ritualised behaviours decrease - a great relief to parents. Recent research suggests that this is broadly true, but with a slight difference as children get older. Younger children showed some relationship between ritualised behaviours and executive function but in older children this was even stronger - although it's not possible to tell from this study, this could be because if older children (especially those of young to mid-primary school age) have these ritualised behaviours, it's definitely because of somewhat poorer executive functioning, but in younger children all of the children have these behaviours to some extent.

We do know that executive functions improve with practice, though. So it's not necessarily a case of just waiting it out until your child, and their brain, are mature enough to live without the ritualised behaviours. Although no-one's done any studies linking this directly to ritualised behaviours, another study trained 4 to 5 year old children using a stop-go game in which they had to sometimes respond and sometimes hold themselves back. Training on different games - such as the card sorting game - helped children to stop themselves from responding inappropriately on the stop-go game.

So although waiting it out should mean you can put away that essential Iggle Piggle plate eventually, helping children to think more flexibly by practicing games and behaviours where they have to exercise self-control will at least give them the skills they seem to need to grow out of the rituals.

17 May, 2009

Should I correct their spelling when they are just beginning to write?

When children are just beginning to read and write, they can come out with the most adorable spellings:

Mummys e z de eg (easter egg)
livin rom

Usually these bear some relationship to the word the child is aiming at. Often they have the sounds of the word (phonology) but not the spelling conventions (orthography). For example, in "livin rom" and "cichn" all of the sounds in the words CAN spell those sounds but don't usually in those particular contexts. So C can sound like /k/ or /s/ but usually sounds like /s/ before an I. CH is a very commmon spelling of the /ch/ sound but just happens not to be how it's spelled in the word "kitchen".

Some of the spellings are more guesses at how to spell a particular sound. So, although some children will pronounce "living" as "livin'", many more will spell it that way - the /ng/ and /n/ sounds are really close and it's easy, if you can't quite hear the difference, or can't quite work out what the difference is really, to go "oh, whatever" and put down the one you know how to spell.

Other spellings represent children's concepts of the sounds of words that are actually, in some cases, more accurate than adults'. The word "stick", most adults will tell you, has a /t/ sound after the /s/. In fact, it's not a /t/ but is a sound somewhere between a /d/ and a /t/ - it's not found on its own in English, though if you are a Hindi speaker you will have this as a separate sound. In English it only exists after /s/. So children who spell "stick" as SDIK are actually very cleverly working out what the second sound is in the word. Likewise "dragon" doesn't begin with the same /d/ as in, say, "dam" but in a slightly different sound, somewhere towards /j/. In fact, when you ask children who can't quite read or write yet about the sounds of words sometimes they are more right than adults.

So, if your child makes this kind of mistake in their spelling, should you correct them? Probably not. They will probably be learning phonic patterns for simple spellings in school, and each pattern they learn will help them to get another set of spellings right - so, when they have learned that there are lots of words ending in -TCH but very few beginning TCH-, they will start spelling words with /ch/ in the middle or at the end with TCH and those with /ch/ at the beginning with CH. But the evidence is that just inventing the spellings themselves can help them with sounding out words and working out what sounds there are in words - essential skills for beginning reading and spelling. Personally, I'd just leave them to it, and have a quick giggle or an "awww" at their productions.

If you're interested in reading more, here's a representative article:

Joseph K. Torgesen, Charlotte Davis, Individual Difference Variables That Predict Response to Training in Phonological Awareness, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, Volume 63, Issue 1, October 1996, Pages 1-21

27 April, 2009

What is evidence-based parenting?

In essence I have made this title up, analogous to "evidence-based practice", "evidence-based medicine" and the like. The principle is that we should be able to learn what parenting practices have the most effective outcome for children by looking at research.

"But my child is special!" I hear you cry. "What suits him isn't going to suit other children!". Well, perhaps true. However, let me tell you a little bit about how we can study child development scientifically. These are general principles of scientific study but I'm nicking them shamelessly from the lovely Professor Regan.

First we are looking for studies that have some kind of control. So, we all know children grow and that they develop. It's no good saying "We gave all these children spinach, and look, they all grew, and now, five years later, they can all write! Must have been the spinach!" As you can probably guess they probably would have grown, and learned to write, for different reasons. We want studies that have some children treated in one way but some in another.

In some cases it's perfectly fine to do this (spinach versus cabbage). In others it would be very wrong (spinach versus locking in a cupboard - well, as a spinach disliker, perhaps not so very wrong - let's say vegetables versus locking in a cupboard). In this circumstance we must look for sad cases where locking in a cupboard (or no vegetables ever) happens by accident, or is overlooked by accident. We need to be extra cautious in such cases that the children who had no vegetables were not different in other ways to the children who had vegetables. We don't want children who have vegetables to also have had lots of foreign holidays and a French nanny, otherwise we will wrongly conclude that having no vegetables makes you rubbish at learning French.

Second we want the studies to come out with statistically significant results - and preferably for the size of the results to be meaningful. If the vegetable-eating group is a small group and has very variable French skills, and the no-vegetable group is also a small group with very variable French skills, then even if the vegetable group is better at French, this could happen because children's French skills vary naturally. After all, in each group the French skills vary naturally. So, we need the difference to be big enough to be reliable. This is usually reported when a study is written up for a scientific journal. It is also helpful for the journal to report how meaningful the results are - you wouldn't give all children 9 servings of vegetables every day if it helped them to learn one extra French word in 3 years. This aspect of results (called effect size) should be reported in journals these days, but isn't always, and often wasn't in the past.

To go back to your own very special child, if you read a study that said that eating vegetables made no difference to French learning ability, but you were still convinced it did and wanted your child to eat 9 servings of vegetables a day simply for that purpose, consider this: If for children in general the vegetables do not affect French learning ability, this could mean that for some children it did and some it didn't. However, to get a zero average, it has to mean not that some children are positively affected and some are not affected, but that some are positively affected and some are negatively affected. Do you want your child in the latter group? Thought not.

Where the outcome doesn't matter that much - does it really matter that a child walks a week or two early? probably not - and the intervention is minor - a nursery-rhyme a day isn't going to hurt anyone - then if it's fun and doesn't drive you mad, go for it. Where the outcome does matter - particularly with children with disabilities, often the stakes are high - or where the intervention is costly for parent or child - again, some of the disability interventions are time-consuming and/or expensive and/or wearing for parent and child - then it's helpful to look at evidence before committing yourself and your child.

Third we want to see the studies in a peer-reviewed journal. As a scientist, I love to hate the peer review process. On Facebook I am a member of a tongue-in-cheek group called "Down with Reviewer 2!". Peer reviewers are anonymous (in many cases they don't know the author's name either) and can occasionally verge on vindictive. However, good peer reviews spot the flaws in your study's design, suggest really interesting reanalyses, and point out articles you haven't read. In an ideal world, you thank them profusely and include their comments, and your article comes out in the journal whereupon all your friends ring you up and congratulate you on a job well done. In practice, your article goes to 3 or 4 journals and looks nothing like it did at the start when it finally comes out. However, this does mean that you know when you read an article in a peer-reviewed journal, some of your colleagues have judged its quality. Scientists will still read these articles and criticize the science and the writing, but they know they are not the first to do this.

Finally, a bit about myself. I'm a lecturer at a British university in developmental psychology, and specialise in not making up my mind about what I want to study. Some of the things I'm particularly interested in are learning disability, language and literacy, and children in unusual circumstances (carried round in a cradleboard for the first year? Ooh shiny!). This post which was meant to be an introduction to my blog, which was also meant to be a regular slot, has sat in the cupboard (along with the spinach-haters) for quite some time due to an unfortunate accident suffered by my arm over the summer. Better late than never, eh?