Once again we are responding to a reader request in Gift Guide, a series where we post in response to reader letters or comments for particular kinds of toys, music, books, etc. Today’s letter is more of a repeated request I haven’t been able to adequately address until now. She has asked me about it in person more than once as well as by (now misplaced) Facebook comment. It goes something like this:
Can you recommend a book for parents about toddler cognitive development?
Full confession: I have totally avoided this question for months now. Before you accuse me of being a negligent blogger, consider that this question preceded the existence of the blog (and the series Gift Guide) and also that the asker is a friend, and so I’m hoping this post today might earn me a little forgiveness. This is also a big question, and a question that could be answered from a lot of perspectives. Now there is a new book with plenty of science and less science-ese from a perspective I appreciate. Enough excuses, I finally have the answer. Here we go…
Cognitive development, especially in early childhood, has often been thought of as the rote accumulation of information to navigate the world. For example, skills like language, counting, learning the alphabet, learning the colors, actually learning to name almost anything, and learning to read would all fall in this category. I’m not going to dispute that these are indeed cognitive skills generally acquired in early childhood. Certainly, practicing, even drilling these skills is a huge part of adult-child interaction in Western culture. And, these are all important skills for school success. After all, how will your child succeed if they cannot read or do not know their numbers?
There is a newer perspective on early cognitive development, however, which asserts that higher order functioning (“executive functioning”) is a more important facet of early cognitive development than any particular skill. I will spare you the neuroscience here, but basically what we mean by executive functioning are skills like regulating emotion, planning, and self-control. Without these skills, learning particular skills is far more difficult. It’s really difficult to learn the alphabet, for example, when you’re still upset about that argument you had with your best friend and you cannot settle yourself down to focus on the information at hand. It is difficult to learn to do arithmetic when you simply cannot focus long enough to follow directions and plan your series of actions in the addition problem.
Of course, the much sadder side of this story is that such intruding negative emotion might not be the result of an argument with a friend and under-developed ability to regulate your negative response, but instead may be coming from stresses at home. Such stresses, like poverty, are beyond the child’s own control. In any case, all children need executive functioning skills to learn and to succeed. Focusing on developing these regulatory skills, instead of specific academic skills like reading or math, is a newer approach to children’s cognitive development. This might sound almost revolutionary, when the focus for years has been on training children to read as young as possible, even getting toddlers in sessions with brain trainer tutors.
Paul Tough (perfect name for the author of this work!) explores all sides of executive functioning in his new book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. He talks about the link between emotion regulation and school success at length, including Cinderella stories of formerly failing schools, children growing up in low income environments who succeed against the odds, and children in perfectly ordinary circumstances as well. His careful review of the scientific literature and translation to plain English makes this book an excellent gift choice for parents. The New York Times included How Children Succeed in their list of 100 Notable Books of 2012.
How Children Succeed is available from Amazon for $15 hardcover or $10 as an ebook.
Gift Guide is a series in which we respond to YOUR requests for reviews for books, toys, movies, or anything else you can think of, for gift-giving or otherwise. Leave us a note on our Facebook page or on our website at Request a Review and we’ll write you a post in response!