An important conversations is taking place throughout our board’s school communities as the result of Dr. Jean Clinton’s message regarding technology and young children. Parents and educators alike are asking the question about the impact of technology on young children’s development as they attempt to navigate the complex world; a conversation that I am thrilled is taking place as it demonstrates that individuals are thinking deeply about both the academic and social development of our children and thus, we are increasingly becoming aware of the connection between the two. Dr. Clinton’s message was clear to us – young children need to play as this is the way that they are going to develop thinking skills, communication skills, learn to self-regulate, and thus, develop social-emotional skills. However, we also know that our world has changed – technology is not a fad, it is the vehicle through which we now communicate in the world, obtain information, become inspired, and develop a global perspective. It is a necessary tool for children and youth to reach their full potential, and when used appropriately, must be an integral part of education and daily life. When we think about the 21st Century Competencies, we know that technology is a tool that empowers us to achieve some of those competencies. Neither of these arguments are being disputed, I believe, as we know that both are necessary – play and technology.
Where this conversation has landed is on some key wonderings about the impact of technology on our youngest learners. It is the age old discussion – if we are sitting very young children in front of a screen (the screen used to be the TV, now it is a tablet) “too much”, what skills are they not developing? What are the technology skills that our youngest learners should be developing? What different considerations to we need to make for infants, toddlers, pre-school age, and Kindergarten students?
We Know that Social-Emotional Learning through Play is Essential
The Early Development Instrument (EDI) continues to shed light upon the notion that many of the children from our region are struggling (called “vulnerable” on the EDI) in the areas of Emotional Maturity and Physical Health and Well-Being. Our trending data illustrates that we are continuing to see an increasing number of vulnerable children in both areas, Emotional Maturity climbing significantly.
What does this tell us? The Physical Health and Well-Being domain gives us indicators of the overall physical development of children in Senior Kindergarten, providing us with information about levels of energy, fine and gross motor skills, and physical independence such as coordination. Emotional maturity tells us about children’s ability to react before acting, their impulsivity, their ability to deal with feelings at an age-appropriate level, and their empathic responses to other people’s feelings (Offord Centre, EDI Descriptive Report, 2016, pg. 4). This data is telling us that we need to intervene to a greater degree in these areas of development for our children, as we know that the gap will only grow larger if we do not. Let me be clear – I am not suggesting that technology is to blame for this situation. I do believe that the world has changed in a way that had made me rethink my actions as a parent and as an educator.
The EDI scores are only one indicator of the need to do things differently. As educators, we are now, more than ever, aware of the need to integrate explicit instruction in social-emotional learning into our daily work as “social and emotional learning (SEL) provides a foundation for safe and positive learning, and enhances students’ ability to succeed in school, careers, and life.” This includes helping students to develop the ability to self-manage, whereby they develop the “skills and attitudes that facilitate the ability to regulate one’s own emotions and behaviors…and includes the ability to delay gratification, manage stress, control impulses, and persevere through challenges in order to achieve personal and educational goals.” (Weissberg, R., “Why Social and Emotional Learning Is Essential for Students”, Edutopia, Feb. 2016). We must teach social awareness, which “involves the ability to understand, empathize, and feel compassion for those with different backgrounds or cultures. It also involves understanding social norms for behavior” (Weissberg, R., “Why Social and Emotional Learning Is Essential for Students”, Edutopia, Feb. 2016). The fostering of relationship skills whereby students understand and act according to social norms including communicating clearly, actively listening, cooperating, collaborating, and negotiating conflict (all achieved through play!) is vital to the achievement and well-being of students. Programs such as Second Step, Roots of Empathy, The Zones of Regulation, and Restorative Practices are becoming increasingly used in our classrooms, as educators understand the necessity of explicitly teaching social-emotional learning to help students manage themselves, relate to others and make good choices. There is greater understanding that this is a component of being student centered.
Dr. Clinton’s research tells us however, that these skills can be fostered at very young ages through an environment that fosters connections.
We know now that all areas are interconnected and developing together – emotions, language, thinking – rendering it ineffective to focus on one area without the others. Children learn best in an environment that acknowledges this interconnectivity and thus focuses on both emotional and cognitive development. There is now an explosion of knowledge that tells us that healthy development cannot happen without good relationships between children and the important people in their lives, both within the family and outside of it. As Dr. Jack Shonkoff states, “young children experience their world as an environment of relationships, and these relationships affect virtually every aspect of their development” (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004). Relationships are the active ingredient in healthy development, especially brain development. (“Think, Feel, Act”, Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013).
This notion was reinforced lately by a valued colleague, “Becoming a mother has really allowed me to truly watch and better understand children, they are so curious and capable (and cute)!!! But they need the opportunities to play and explore… we need to guide, model and give them opportunities to problem solve…technology doesn’t do this” (Skworchinski, Personal Communication, May 2016).
We Also Know that Technology is the Norm
We are beginning to understand that student achievement and well-being are inseparable. Dr. Fullan (OPSOA, April 2016) reminded us of the importance of understanding and fostering the 21st Century Competencies in our schools as, “when you are proficient at all six competencies, this is tantamount to having a life of well-being as you have the skills to flourish in the world today and in the future.”
However, there is a concern that “some are interpreting the 21st Century Skills to be completely about technology” (Blackwood, SGDSB, May 2016), and we need to fully understand that technology is a tool to help us to achieve some of these competencies.
This is a key point in navigating this discussion – we need to achieve a balance in this argument. It is not an “all or nothing” argument when we discuss school age children’s needs. School aged children need to use technology when it is appropriate. We know our learners in the classroom, and we know who requires more support in and focus on the social-emotional learning areas, and who and when to use technology. School age children need to become increasingly familiar with the keyboard, but this needs to be achieved through play and inquiry. It is not about explicit instruction…if we believe that children learn best through play, let’s resist the urge to “stuff the duck” as Dr. Clinton says. Let’s do what we do best, let’s provide opportunities for children to play with technology collaboratively while we also provide opportunities for them to play with the blocks, in the outdoor classrooms, and to thus, build their social and emotional skills and knowledge with concrete, face-to-face interactions. Let’s keep the notion of balance in our minds, but also remember that as professionals, we are thinking about PURPOSE as well…what is our purpose in deciding to use an app as a provocation to teach coding to students who are wondering about using directional language? or to help a group of students obtain answers to their questions about the fires in Fort McMurray by connecting with others? or to perhaps help students to capture their thinking over time? It is this type of consideration that will serve our youngest learners well.
This is an important conversation and I am thrilled that it is happening. We all need to think deeply about what has changed in the world, but also what we know about brain research and the development of very young minds. This needs to inform our decisions daily; it is not about the exciting, cool things that technology can do, or about using the Ipads as busy work, or about removing them completely from our Kindergarten and Grade 1 and 2 classrooms. It is about PURPOSE. “My son’s fine motor skills developed tremendously as the result of his use of technology at a young age…this has served him well as a teenager” (Schram, SGDSB, May 2016), thus illustrating my point about ensuring that the tool fits the purpose.
Finally, let’s deeply think about our own kids and the messages that we are indirectly sending them. I am guilty of responding to a text message during dinner at a restaurant, thus modelling for my child that focused family time isn’t important. I see parents and caregivers on their phones while at the park or out for a walk with their little ones. What a missed opportunity to model language and communication with that child. Does this level of distraction with screens serve to isolate very young children? “We are likely all guilty of using screens as temporary child care to allow us time for a shower” (Tuuri, SGDSB, May 2016), however we need to ask ourselves just how much screen time our children are engaged with. We know that research is confirming that the lack of natural social interaction and development that comes from unstructured play is partly to blame for the rise in bullying behaviour, perhaps the use of technology at such a young age needs to be an increasing part of that dialogue.
Until Next Week: I look forward to hearing your thinking on this topic. If you don’t feel comfortable posting to this site, please add a comment to #nmcblog!