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Hothousing kids: Too much too soon?

Child doing a puzzle
Credit: iStock.com/Nadezhda1906

You’ve been mesmerised by the YouTube videos of the five-year-old violin prodigy or four-year-old who speaks seven languages. And you’ve sat at the dinner table while friends wrangle over whether three-year-old Matthew should join weelearn, soccajoeys or kindy karate. 

You’ve probably tut tutted Yale law professor Amy Chua who coined the phrase "tiger mum" in her controversial book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Ms Chua's theory is that children need to be pushed to increasingly higher levels of achievement often to the exclusion of friendships and other activities. 

But lurking deep down you may also have harboured concerns that while other parents are enrolling their children in a laundry list of extracurricular activities such as kindergym, swimming, sensory development classes, violin, sports, dance, karate, foreign languages, art, water aerobics and yoga in an attempt to accelerate their child’s development, you may be placing your own at a disadvantage. 

So where does the truth lie? Do we need to boost a child’s learning from an early age by enrolling them in a wide variety of activities or should they be allowed to develop at their own pace? It’s a polarising topic with some families spending a great deal of time and money on activities and tutors that they believe will give their children pleasure, confidence and an academic advantage. Is there any evidence that it makes a difference? 

… it is worth noting there is nothing inherently wrong with using serendipitous moments of reading, singing, playing and talking as teaching moments. The key here is not the content but the message – and all too often the message which is profoundly disturbing is that preparation for college begins in kindergarten.
Dr Michael Nagel

In his book Nurturing A Healthy Mind, Michael C. Nagel PhD, says learning windows have a very wide gap of opportunity – so children have plenty time to learn - and there isn’t any evidence to suggest that getting children to do things sooner is better. 

Indeed, Dr Nagel warns that trying to have children do too much too soon by performing certain tasks or producing certain results may also engulf children in undue stress beyond their limited coping abilities. 

“For some children, too much too soon can lead to stress-related anxieties that actually turn off thinking processes and do more harm than good,” he says.

“What we are seeing is a very worrying situation - stress and anxiety disorders in younger and younger children. In spite of what we see in the news if you look at statistics from the World Health Organisation, UNICEF and UNESCO, children are safer than in any other generation. Kids in western countries are growing up in a time of affluence yet in spite of that have greater levels of anxiety and stress than any other generation. It’s important to understand why that is. Why are they more stressed than their counterparts 40, 50, 60 years ago? My considered opinion is we are trying to get children to do too much too soon.”

In his book Dr Nagel points to a dangerous preoccupation with ‘enrichment’ programs as a means to enhance school success and future prospects. 

He says children often enter formal schooling exacerbated by a plethora of after-school activities or extra tuition. 

He says it’s not a stretch to describe it as a form of early resume-building, and while parents want to enhance their child’s future prospects, he describes this type of activity as “developmentally unsound and highly problematic”.

“Furthermore a common misconception among parents and teachers alike is that it is their role to make every moment a teaching moment. Often this is seen under the guise of ‘enrichment’ whereby children are inundated with stimuli in the belief that they are little learning sponges, ready to soak up all that is placed in front of them, or perhaps more accurately, on top of them,” Dr Nagel says.

“… it is worth noting there is nothing inherently wrong with using serendipitous moments of reading, singing, playing and talking as teaching moments. The key here is not the content but the message – and all too often the message which is profoundly disturbing is that preparation for college begins in kindergarten.”

Watch out for signs of stress and anxiety

Reports by Education Queensland that the number of Queensland preps being suspended had more than doubled between 2013 and 2016 had also piqued Dr Nagel’s interest.

He says parents need to watch for signs of stress and anxiety in their children which can range from mild medical conditions such as nausea or stomach ache, or manifest as changes in behaviour like lashing out at peers.

He suspects that while 1028 prep suspensions in Queensland schools in 2016 could be home related, children are increasingly being asked to do things they are not developmentally ready for which can cause them to lash out in frustration.

He points to the fact that the human brain takes three decades to develop including a huge transformation in adolescence and that the frontal cortex where we develop decision making doesn’t fully mature until we’re in our 20s.

“When you expend a whole lot of energy on cognitive tasks we know that immediately afterwards people can become more aggressive, less sympathetic, charitable and honest. It diminishes your emotional capacities in that context,” Dr Nagel says.

“As adults we can control that more easily. But we suspect with children that’s too demanding for them. One of the outputs for them is that they lash out.”

Creative arts, drama, music and physical activity

Dr Nagel says the creative arts, drama, music and physical activity are unbelievably powerful at enhancing cognition. 

“They build better brains much more than sitting at a desk and learning ABCs,” he says.

“But when you start talking about math it’s a slippery slope. People think that the sooner we do literacy or numeracy the better. When you try to force that window open too soon it does more harm than good. 

“You have to be very cautious with school based programs like reading, maths and literacy. At the end of day it is all about performance. It should be more about finding ways for your child to explore particularly in the creative arts and physical activity," Dr Nagel says.

As well as developing basic numeracy, literacy or language skills, Kumon education centres offer children the opportunity to advance beyond their school grade level in reading and maths according to their own effort, ability and interest.  

Activating inquisitiveness

Esther Head from the Kumon Public Relations team says Kumon instructors do not ‘teach’ in the traditional sense. Rather, they guide students to learn new topics for themselves, drawing on previous learning and utilising the Kumon worksheet design.

Esther says preschool enrolments in Kumon increased by 60 percent from August 2011 to August 2016.  

“By skilfully giving the appropriate activities to preschoolers, such as singing songs, reciting nursery rhymes and looking at flashcards, their inquisitiveness will be activated and they will absorb many things. Many parents find the early levels of Kumon worksheets appealing for pre-schoolers,” she says.

“After advancing beyond school grade level, students spend less time on their schoolwork to achieve strong results and have time to enjoy other interests and pursuits. In the case of preschoolers, they can start primary school ahead, already comfortable within a classroom environment and familiar with the basics from day one.”

Toru Kumon, the high school maths teacher who developed the Kumon method, over many years of teaching high school students, noticed they became highly stressed and anxious when they were unable to keep up with the fast pace and challenging content of the high school curriculum and were forced to study beyond their current ability and knowledge.

“He recognised that students were most often unable to cope because of slow, imprecise mathematical skill and poor reading comprehension, the foundation for success in many subjects,” Esther says.

“He therefore developed the Kumon programme so that from as early as preschool and primary school, students could begin to develop over time a high level of calculation and reading comprehension beyond their school grade. This would enrich their school experience and alleviate stress and anxiety, particularly in high school.

“The key skill of a Kumon instructor is to assign the just-right level and quantity of work that adequately stretches the child, without stress or burden. If a child were to display signs of stress or lose motivation, most often, it is a matter of reviewing some easier work.”

Look for nurturing activities

If parents are fearful of missing out on placements in high pressure prestigious schools which place overwhelming academic demands on children, Dr Nagel says they shouldn’t be concerned as their children will grow up healthier and happier.

“Every parent wants what’s best for their child but parents can be misled that more is better and that they have to have these great skills by the time they finish school or their life is over, but that simply isn’t the case.”

If we are looking to provide children with nurturing activities, Dr Nagel believes those that are collaborative and have social interaction coupled with critical thinking and being creative form enriching activities. If those things happen in a way that’s not performance based then that’s positive. 

“My advice is provide an array of opportunities for children to explore, maybe taking musical lessons and sport. They will let you know what they’re interested in and what they find enjoyable,” he says.