As we have now officially entered a new decade, it's perhaps more obvious than ever that our children are growing up in an evolving - and somewhat scary - world.
A world that is miles apart from the one that many of us grew up in, and a world that feels rife with change and uncertainty.
So how do we prepare our children for their futures? How do we know where to focus our energy? And how do we avoid finding the nearest block of sand to stick our heads into?
We spoke to Dr. Laura Jana, who is a paediatrician, educator and author, who is an expert in innovation in parenting. She told us how we can ensure our children are prepared for the future, why the first five years of their lives are so critical (but why we shouldn’t stress if we’ve missed that window), and what we should look for when educating our children. Get ready to take notes …
What are some of the skills our children require (or will require) in this brave new world?
This is the exact subject I tackle not only in my Toddler Brain book (and related children’s book, called Jumping Into Kindergarten), but also present in summary form in my 2018 TED talk (at TEDxChandigarh). In a broad sense (and also one that ties early childhood skills to adult and workforce skills), the skills of most value are those that computers/AI can’t do (or at least not well). In other words, the skills that make us truly human. From an adult standpoint/understanding, this involves a whole laundry list of skills that have long been referred to simply as “soft, non-cognitive, and other”… Skills that include communication, collaboration, teamwork, adaptability, resilience, grit, perspective taking, active listening, empathy, emotional intelligence, the ability to fail and adapt, etc. While this list is one that clearly resonates with business leaders around the globe and represents skills that 21st jobs/businesses will require, they also represent a set of skills that can/need to be developed and cultivated much earlier than most people realize. In The Toddler Brain, I took on the challenge of helping parents and business leaders alike understand what these skills look like during their foundational stages of development during the first five years (as well as why they are so foundationally important).
Does this differ to the world we grew up in (three to four decades ago)?
Yes. From a high-level point of view, the 20th Century has aptly been described as the Industrial Age – a world in which not only our companies but our education system focused on a one-size-fits-all, assembly-line approach. We have clearly now switched from the Industrial to the Information Age. As I convey in my TED talk (and my book), we now have so much information (and thus “answers”) at our virtual fingertips that simply knowing the right answer is no longer as important/valued as being able to ask good questions, think creatively, adapt when faced with new information, etc. Also part of what’s undeniably different is the impact of technology. Based on a concept called Moore’s law, it is commonly referenced that technology is causing the rate of change in the world around us to go from a predictable linear one to change that is exponentially fast. In a world facing change at an unprecedented rate, the ability to adapt (and along with it, fail and then learn from one’s mistakes) becomes all the more valuable/necessary. And finally, no-one argues with the fact that the world has become much more globally connected and complex. For a great many of the challenges we face – whether it involves the internet, climate change, trade policies and supply chains, or managing infectious diseases – simply can’t be solved in isolation. They are all globally interconnected, interdependent, and complex, and all will require the ability to work well with others across countries, continents, cultures, religions, etc etc. In this “brave new world,” those who can relate to, understand the perspective of, and play well with others will be of utmost value.
In your book - The Toddler Brain - you focus on the first five years of life. Why are these years so important to the development of our children?
While the skills/concepts I described above and in The Toddler Brain actually relate not just to the first five years, but to formal education, higher education, the workforce and across all ages, the reason I chose to focus on the first five years specifically is twofold.
1. The first five years has all too often been overlooked and/or left out of the conversation as we set our sights on preparing our children for success and work to provide them with a firm foundation of development.
2. The neuroscience has caught up. By this, I mean that while the belief that early childhood learning and experiences play a key role in laying the groundwork for healthy development and future success is by no means new, it is still all too common for these early years to be seen as insignificant or unimportant with respect to foundational learning. In fact, it’s not uncommon for early childhood to be seen as simply a matter of “wiping noses and changing nappies.” Given what we now know about baby brain development and the neuroscientific evidence that reinforces (in no uncertain terms) the fact that experience and interaction literally shape brain architecture, I felt compelled to help people better recognize and appreciate the first 5 years as a critical window of opportunity for setting children up for success.
How much of our ‘success’ as adults is dependent on those first five years?
Well, if we all agree that the skills I listed above are all important, then it’s well worth noting that each of their foundational development can be traced back to these earliest years. It’s also worth noting that highly coveted skills such as executive function skills (formally defined in the world of neuroscience as cognitive flexibility/adaptability, working memory, and impulse/self-control) all have their most rapid rate of development between the ages of 3-5. The way I have found best to describe it is to consider the connecting of neurons in the developing brain (which is in a literal sense done thru experiences with caring responsive adults) similar to the electrical wiring of a house. While it’s entirely possible to re-wire even a 100-year old house, it always takes longer, costs more, and never ends up quite as good as when the wiring goes in before the walls go up. In other words, the earliest years offer us the opportunity to lay a very strong foundation (right down to the connecting and strengthening of neural connections in the developing brain) that everything else will be built upon. The stronger those early connections are, the easier it is to build upon when it comes to learning, interacting, controlling one’s emotions, etc.
If our children are older than five - is it too late? What else can we/should we be doing?
Absolutely not….that relates to the wiring of the house example above. In other words, it’s never too late. While the question of when is best to invest is easy to answer (since the earlier the investment, the larger the return/impact), we also know that it is entirely possible to teach skills later in life (which in some cases, takes some “re-wiring” of neurons related to less than desirable behaviors, etc). Some of the really exciting work/research/efforts I’ve seen in this regard relates to a) understanding how the parts of the brain work (ie the impulsive part = amygdala vs the “think-thru-your-actions”, also known as executive function skill part = the prefrontal cortex. By understanding that our brains function in such a way that when the amygdala/impulsive part of the brain is triggered, it literally shuts off the think-things-through prefrontal cortex, parents, teachers, employers and even children themselves can all learn to recognize and start to better control their reactions. This leads me to b) mentioning mindfulness, as in part the ability to stop, breathe, “center” and calm oneself, etc (all variations of mindfulness methods) in essence is learning/training physical control over the reactive impulses of the amygdala.
These are just two, admittedly oversimplified concepts that people are using/implementing. Additionally, in a broader sense, what we can do is focus our efforts on helping caregivers (parents, teachers, etc) all better understand these brain processes and the related behaviors, as it is clear that interactions with a caring responsive adult are critically important for laying a strong, healthy foundation for future interactions and learning.
Can you tell us about the value of social and emotional skills? Should we be focusing on this rather than academic/sporting/music/whatever (!) achievements?
From the Collaborative on Social-Emotional Learning (CASEL), we know that social emotional learning is how children (and adults) learn to understand and manage emotions, set goals, show empathy for others, establish positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. Instead of thinking of academics, sports, music, arts, etc as distinct and separate from SEL, a better way to look at it is that each of these settings/activities allows for the practice and enhancement of social and emotional skills. Take sports, for example. Sports clearly give children the opportunity to set goals, learn to think about others (how they feel, what they are going to do, how to collaborate and anticipate each others’ actions when passing a ball, etc), follow rules, etc. All of these are valuable practice opportunities for the social emotional skills. What I think is more important than an either/or approach to academic vs. social-emotional skills, etc, is to understand social emotional skills better….what they are, how they develop, etc, and then look for ways to support their development and allow children to practice them in all contexts – from the classroom to sports to art/music, etc. My QI Skill framework (that I define in the Toddler Brain as well as in my TED talk) was meant to help make these sorts of skills much easier to see/recognize/identify, so that they can be given just as much priority/focused on as much as the reading/writing/arithmetic-like skills we’ve long focused on.
What’s your opinion on day care and preschools for our toddlers?
I think that quality really matters, and that a safe, well run and nurturing day care/preschool with caring responsive adults who understand and support children’s development in an age-appropriate manner can provide significant value for children’s healthy development (physical, social/emotional, cognitive, etc). Overall, my answer has always been that it’s most important that all children have access to at least one caring responsive adult, and that we should not underestimate the value of talking, cooing, playing, singing and reading books with babies!
Do you think our education systems are currently set up in a way that will equip our children with the skills they need?
I think/am finding that many of our education systems (around the world) are still structured around 20th C principles, where learning is one-size-fits-all, where there’s perceived to be only one right answer, where creativity and questioning aren’t prioritized, etc. In that regard, I think there needs to be (and am actively involved in following) education systems (at all ages) that pivot towards focusing on the world we are now living in, and the one our children will be living in, rather than sticking to outdated modes. Outdated would include rote memorization, simple fill in the blank, etc rather than fostering collaboration, creative thought, project-based, real-world (and hands-on) learning.
How can we add to our children’s education to support them appropriately? Are there particular games or activities or simply personal relationships you recommend?
The first step is to realize that learning is not location dependent. In other words it doesn’t (and shouldn’t be seen as) just happening at school. If you look at the quote in my signature line, I think Piaget summarizes this particularly well with his question about what kind of children we’re trying to raise:
Are we forming children who are only capable of learning that which is already known? Or should we try to develop creative and innovative minds, capable of discovery…throughout life? – Piaget
Now more than ever, this is important. Also – I think what we can do to best support our children is to focus less on test scores and more on how to engage them, keep them curious, and help them learn all the important skills, not just the reading, writing arithmetic ones (which I call IQ Skills), but also the QI Skills.
What are your top three tips for parents of toddlers to equip them with the skills they need to navigate the world we’re living in?
- Remember, you are your child’s first and best teacher.
- It takes time, practice, experience and role models to develop all skills – both IQ and QI
- And, for the parent who finds him/herself frustrated with their toddler’s behavior (which is inevitable), just remember that it is literally your toddler’s job to test your limits (as this takes curiosity, creativity, and an interest in understanding how the world works!). It’s just your job to make sure you set some. And when you do, focus on doing so as a matter of necessity – for safety’s sake, and/or for learning (so that your toddler learns that when he/she does something, it consistently results in the same positive or negative outcome). That’s how toddlers learn!