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April 22, 2010

The Brain Motor Accountability Connection

Brainfunction Pre-k educators who began teaching before the dawn of the No Child Left Behind era remember some important concepts that have since fallen into disuse. Developing skills like thinking, feeling, talking, manipulating, and moving are no longer as important as knowing the answer to a narrow set of questions such as "What letter is this? What number is this? What color is this?" When I began teaching in 1995, the five domains of child development were actually considered to be equal to one another. The different fields include cognitive development, social emotional development, speech and language development, approaches to learning, and physical - motor development. Pre-k educators were able to develop the whole child through the natural flow of the school day. The social emotional domain was so integrated into the day that it was not difficult to address. Fine motor development was easily incorporated because we drew pictures every day and did at least three crafts per week. Reinforcing gross motor skills was easy, we would just sing, dance, run, jump, around and have fun.

Then the push for accountability took such a hold of the political consciousness that we had to become more focused on reading and, at least in the beginning, that was a good thing. We devoted more attention to emergent literacy (speech and language development) and I believe overall the children in our classes benefited from the increased effort. Over time however, cognitive development became the only thing administrators and policy makers outside of the classroom cared about, possibly because it was the only thing that was measurable. Over the past 15 years, pre-k has become more about testing and less about learning. Here is a recent rant from a pre-k teacher in Texas:

We are testing things that I used to test in first grade, so that is how the curriculum has bumped down. It is a waste of instructional time to ask our kiddos 40+ phonemic awareness questions, when they don't even know simple rhyming words or nursery rhymes. [At my school], Kids don't come with much home literacy experience, but many have the potential to learn in the right environment.
When I read something like this I know how this teacher feels. I have been there. I remember completing an individual developmental screening followed by the Head Start National Reporting System testing, then the state emergent literacy assessment, then the Child Observation Record (COR), and lastly a pre-k report card. Total time spent in assessment: 90 minutes per child in a class of 19 students plus entering and scoring anecdotes in the COR. This all happened in the first three months of school when, as a teacher, I was really trying to develop relationships with my students.

That much assessment can really warp your perception of what you are supposed to be doing in a classroom. But, thanks to the trend in brain research that looks at what happens with the brain while it is learning, we find that good-old-fashioned developmentally appropriate, touching, moving and playing type preschool practices are what kids need for optimal brain development. A recent article on Early Childhood News titled, Optimizing Early Brain and Motor Development through Movement describes "windows of opportunity" in the early childhood years for developing the brain. The authors, Carl Gabbard, Ed.D., and Luis Rodrigues write:
These windows begin opening before birth and then narrow as a child grows older. In theory, there are a series of windows for developing motor control, vision, language, feelings, etc. If a child misses an opportunity, his or her brain may not develop its circuitry to its full potential for a specific function.
So apparently, it is OK with scientists if we play in the mud again. Maybe it will be okay with policy makers too, as long as we can tell them, "We're building neural pathways with every mud pie."
Thanks to @balmeras of The Grass Stain Guru for the link on twitter.


It is great to hear all of the renewed interest and emphasis on brain development and DAP. It certainly feels great to know that scientists continue to support our long held beliefs. The new research validates what we've been saying all of these years, and the news seems to be sticking this time.

But, assessment and accountability are not going away. I'm hoping for a day when we can all agree on THE right measures, THE right approaches, and THE right seamless, painless methodologies, so teachers and children are no longer tortured by hours of testing.

Fran Simon, M.Ed.
Engagement Strategies

I was struck by your comment about so much assessment of young children. I would argue that the issue is not the amount of the assessment, but rather, the purposes of the assessment. Authentic assessments like the COR should be used as lenses to sharpen teachers' focus as they observe children and provide a basis for individualized planning to meet every child's needs and support every child's strengths. In my mind, assessment in early childhood goes awry when it becomes disconnected from practice and becomes solely about accountability, but that doesn't mean that ongoing assessment is incompatible with active, engaged play.

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