February 27, 2011

Why baby classes matter

I'll say it again: music was a huge influence in Hadley's language development from a very early age. Not only did I want to replicate that experience for my sons, I wanted them to know "Teacher", the woman (Sarah) behind this amazing music class.

Conor and Brady began attending the weekly Kodaly class when they were about 18 months old and I felt that was already late, as Hadley began at one year. From the start, Conor and Brady had dramatically different reactions to the experience. Brady was fully absorbed in the class: listening intently to the music, following Teacher, observing the older children, and mimicking hand gestures. In contrast, Conor couldn't wait for the class to end. The music was familiar to both of them, as we had listened to a CD of the class countless times. Of the two, Conor spent more time at home listening to and creating his own music out of our collection of instruments. He clearly loved music, but on his own terms.

Yet, week after week, I kept going with both boys, waiting for that day when it all came together. Year one passed...then two. While Conor's ability to stick with the class increased over time, he never once sat and participated for a class in its entirety. He knew the routine, stayed for the parts he enjoyed, left the circle when he grew disinterested, and returned to the group as his interest returned. Some activities he actively avoided, others he rushed back to join, so there was a predictable pattern to his behavior. At home, he sang all the songs and repeated many of the games, demonstrating that he was an active listener to the entire class, whether he was participating or sitting on the sidelines. He loved going to Teacher's house for Hadley's private piano lessons. Yet, each week Conor complained about going to his own music class.

Year three began last fall, and I'll admit that I was hesitant to sign them up. Let's face it: all of these activities require precious time, energy and money. We had already spent two years trying to make this work. I replicated most of the class at home, to the best of my ability. Was it time to admit defeat? I decided to give it one more class...and that was the class when it all, finally, came together.

Who knows what combination of factors finally caused Conor to sit and actively participate. Maybe it was his age (3 3/4 years). Or that he had just started preschool and was getting used to following group activities. Or he forgot over the summer break from class that he used to not participate. Whatever it was, Conor sang each and every word of each and every verse in each and every song. He sat and sang along to books. He sought out his favorite instruments. He grabbed a blanket and lay down to listen Teacher's lullabies. He sang out his goodbye. Looking at him, you'd never know that this boy had been a bystander for the previous 50 classes.

But Conor doesn't have a hearing loss-- why am I telling this story? Every parent of a hard of hearing child will tell you about living through plateaus: those long periods of time where your child doesn't show amazing progress, growth or improvement. Trusted professionals, after confirming that there's nothing else impeding development, tell you to wait it out and just keep doing what you're doing-- but that's so hard to do when there's no proof to those efforts. Plateaus exist for all people, and the message is always the same: keep on working at it, because those efforts will finally pay off.

I've had many conversations about why I should have stopped music class, why babies can't be expected to participate at this level, that it's unfair to push a child in an activity that is not enjoyed. I've had friends try this class and, exhausted after one hour of chasing down their toddler, announce that they'll try again when the child is older, that it's a waste of money otherwise, that it's too hard. Had I believed any of that, Conor would have started class again at square one, not knowing the songs, the routine, the structure, or the expectations. My actions would have suggested to my children that attendance at activities is only supported when participation is practically perfect.

Early exposure does make a difference. Continued exposure reduces lag time and gaps... whether we're talking language development or music appreciation.
Conor during instrument time, February 2011

February 9, 2011

The space and time to talk

In one of our early AVT sessions, Lea and I (and my father, who was attending the session) got to talking about babies and babbling. Lea stressed the importance of letting babies play and practice with sounds without the distraction or interference of adults. At the time, Hadley was about nine months old and, while she happily responded to sound and voices, she wasn't really playing with different sounds. Sure, she made sounds and altered the pitch and volume of her voice, but that was about it. Lea shared a simple observation that babies at the current time (this was 2002) spent less time on their own than in earlier times when infants were left for short periods in playpens. While she never said, "Kerry, place Hadley in a playpen for 20 minutes every morning and afternoon", her comments prompted me to consider how to balance surrounding Hadley with language with giving Hadley the chance to explore her sounds.

As many first-time parents, I had several firm opinions about how I'd raise my child, and being playpen free was one of them. Not only did the baby books I loved disapprove, but some of my earliest memories involve being on the "freedom" side of a homemade play enclosure, built for a family member who was confined for medical reasons. My dad and I spent much of the 90 minute car ride home talking about playpens, gates, and play spaces. Ultimately, I heightened my awareness of times when Hadley was involved in her own play, forcing myself to sit back and watch instead of inserting myself into her games.
Now, watching my 4 year old twins develop and explore their language, I'm reminded of Lea's advice to take a step back and observe. Conor and Brady have a rich vocabulary, but their articulation needs work. They've both been evaluated and both are developmentally on target, they simply need more time. I repeat their words, modeling the proper pronunciation. We play sound games to help correct their speech. But I resist the temptation to jump in and disrupt their play, especially in the middle of their elaborate role playing and fantasy games.

Conor, especially, loves to make up stories when he draws. He spends long periods of time with one piece of paper, coloring with markers, crayons, pencils. He talks the whole time. By the end of each day, the floor under the art table is covered with paper scraps. They all look pretty much the same:

Without seeing him in action, you'd think these are simply scribbles. You might comment on the waste of paper, the clean up, the marker on the floor, the broken crayons littering the table. But each and every one is a complex story, all of his own invention. This morning, I wrote down his words as he drew this:

"Fire, fire! There's a fire! Call 9-1-1! The firefighters race to the building. We need trucks! Get hoses! A firefighter rushes to the scene. Emergency! Here's a fire chief. We need a ladder! Get the aerial ladder! It goes up and up and up to get the people. Hey! They are stuck on the roof. Get the helicopter to come and get them. Whirrrrrrrrr. Now they are gone. Water! Water! Whoosh, whoosh. The fire is out."
His words are proof that he retains stories that we read out loud together, the facts he has learned from books, the images that accompany the action. It's all there in his memory, and he's taking all that knowledge and making it his own, both on paper and with his voice. Sure, I could sit with him and draw a decent fire station, truck, burning building and rescue workers, something that we could later hang on the fridge and admire, but the dialogue wouldn't come close to what Conor accomplishes alone.
Kids need the space and time to talk it out, to link words and ideas together, to practice all those ideas they've overheard. Conor and I can sit down at any other time and spell his name, practice writing letters, color in pictures...but nothing is better than letting him loose with $5 worth of paper and art supplies.