Teaching Academics to Toddlers is Worthless

There is no good evidence that the artificial gains produced by so-called "jump-start" educational programs for toddlers, whether computer-driven or human-driven, are of lasting value.

Researchers have consistently found that by grade three, one cannot tell the difference between children who came to first grade knowing their ABC's, number facts, or even how to read and kids of comparable ability who came as academic "blank slates."

In other words, the notion that "jump-starting" a preschooler produces a smarter child or a child who consistently achieves at higher levels is bogus. Programs of this sort appeal to parents who are desperate for what I call trophy children - children they can brag about and who will earn them "My child is an honor student" bumper stickers.

History also confirms that the teaching of academic tricks to preschool children is irrelevant to later school achievement. Children who entered school in the 1950s - my generation - rarely came to first grade knowing what today's children are often expected to know before entering kindergarten.

I came to first grade knowing the ABC song, but could not have correctly identified more than three letters of the alphabet - A, B and C - and then only in upper case. Yet kids of my generation achieved at considerably higher levels at every grade than today's kids - often while sitting in what today would be considered horribly overcrowded classrooms, in the most ergonomically disastrous desks ever made.

We were able to do this because the overwhelming majority of us came to school with the most essential prerequisite for academic success: good behavior. We came to school already having learned to pay attention and do what we were told. Our teachers did not have to spend lots of time on discipline because we came to school already disciplined.

Needless to say, our attention-deficit and oppositional-defiant disorders (i.e., toddlerhood) had been cured long before we came to first grade. Any teacher will tell you that he/she would rather teach a well-behaved child with an IQ of 100 than an ill-behaved child with an IQ of 150.

Not only is it a waste of time to teach a preschooler academic skills (exception: the child asks, without prompt or push, to be taught and catches on without effort), it can be and often is dangerous to the child's intellectual health. Psychologists Jane Healy ( who wrote "The Endangered Mind," Simon & Schuster, $11.20) and David Elkind ( who wrote "Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk," Perseus, $11.87) find that introducing academic instruction prematurely, especially using computers, can damage brain development and even set the stage for later learning disabilities.

Unfortunately, it has become nearly impossible for preschools to attract clientele unless they boast computers in every room. Ironically, we seem to know more about what is good and bad for children than ever before, yet we continue to justify doing what is bad.

Instead of teaching preschool children to jump through academic hoops, parents would do better to teach their children good manners. Sadly, they give no bumper stickers to parents of children who say "please" and "thank you" and do not interrupt adult conversations.

In that latter regard, stay tuned for next week's column on - you guessed it - not interrupting adult conversations.

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