Tag Archive | cognitive

Inspired by a Bus Driver

“Are you married?” Jesse inquires loudly. I have learned to expect the most random of questions, but this one always makes me smile. Jonathan taps my arm lightly, competing for my attention. He signs the word “funny”, raising his eyebrows to imply a question: Why are you laughing?

“Jesse asked if I’m married,” I explain, simultaneous signing and speaking so that neither the deaf nor the hearing clients feel excluded. “That’s funny because I’m only seventeen!” Jonathan nods in agreement, then catches Jesse’s attention. This time I do not translate what he is signing, knowing that I would only be spreading rumors. “No, no,” I sign at Jonathan. “I’m not divorced! I’ve never been married!” After a moment of silence, I steer the conversation in a safer direction, and soon the table is happily rambling about something else.

It’s been over a year since I graduated high school and stopped volunteering at JBC, a center for mentally disabled adults.  Sometimes I miss all the fun times I had there.  After all, playing War with these people was even more fun than my family’s hardcore games of Settlers of Catan.  And let’s be honest, I rocked at our JBC “game” of slamming the ping-pong ball to make it bounce against the ceiling.  I let the clients beat me at Connect Four, gave home-style manicures, and chatted with them about anything and everything.  I was there to serve them, but actually it was them who ended up teaching me a lot.  They reminded me to see the beauty in simple things, like the butterflies dancing in the shrubbery outside and the glittery snowflakes we cut out of paper. They were patient, always more than willing to slow down and teach me how to sign a new word. They were masters of unconditional love, and no matter how long I had been absent, never failed to great me with cheers of “Come sit with us!”  These people were among the most forgiving, understanding, and loving that I have ever met.  It’s kind of ironic that I learned such valuable lessons from such unexpected teachers.

It’s also kind of ironic that it was an equally unexpected teacher, a random bus driver, who reminded me why I was given my experiences at JBC.

This was late in the afternoon, several weeks ago.  It hadn’t been a particularly long or hard day – actually I had had fun grocery shopping with two of my friends.  But by this point in time, we had been sweating at the bus stop for almost an hour, we were totting a week’s worth of meals, and we were more than ready to get home and make dinner.  We awkwardly wrestled our groceries on board the bus, fished for the right number of quarters, and finally, gratefully, collapsed into our seats.

It was then that a man, speaking authoritatively, caught my attention.  “You can’t have that [the bin of groceries] out in the open like that.  You have to put it up there,” and he pointed to a storage area where that bin couldn’t possibly have fit.  Flustered, I glanced around for a sign – was it even ok to have such a big bin on board? – but didn’t see one telling me that I had to put my groceries anywhere in particular.  I looked towards the speaker, who was repeating his command, confused.

The man looked older than he probably was.  Forty-something, maybe fifty-something.  His teeth – the few that were left – pointed in every direction.  His clothes were not clean, his hair definitely not brushed.  His identification information hung around his neck.  In short, he was quite clearly not the authority on where I had to store my groceries.

I recognized that this man was mentally challenged and wanted to be kind, but I wasn’t really sure what to do.  I gave him a nervous smile and said that I would make sure to hold onto the bin tightly so that it wouldn’t slide around.  In response, he insisted that this wasn’t enough and that I had to move it out of the aisle.  But to where?  I smiled another nervous smile, hoping he’d let my “violation” slide.  I was just too tired for this right now.  Is it even my responsibility to inconvenience myself just to make him a little more comfortable?  Would it be horrible to…just ignore him?

This was where the bus-driver stepped in competently and confidently, speaking to the man.  “Hey there, General.  We have a problem because the girls’ bin won’t fit up there.  It’ll have to stay on the floor, but do you think you can watch it to make sure it doesn’t start sliding around?  If it does, just let me know.”

“Yes, sir!” the man responded, in a tone that made me wonder if once upon a time he had fought for our country.   He straightened his back and inched a little closer, his face serious and his eyes smiling.  He looked glad to have a responsibility.

Relaxing now that the situation was under control, I started to watch our bus driver, realizing that he was not only driving responsibly, but also chatting cheerfully with a few other handicapped passengers.  I knew he had probably had a long day already, and still hours of driving ahead.  He probably couldn’t wait to get out of this bus and stretch his legs.  And yet, he was beyond courteous to these people who needed much more of his attention than his “normal” passengers who rode in silence.  He had obviously taken the time to get to know them over other similar trips, because he knew how to keep them calm and satisfied now.  If they wanted to think that they were in charge of making sure people stored their belongings properly, he was happy to play along, and was clever enough to do so in a way that didn’t inconvenience his other passengers.

I was impressed and inspired by the way he interacted with these people.  Thinking back, I knew I had learned enough at JBC to have come up with a solution like he did.  Like him I knew the value in these people, like him I had at least basic experience talking with them, like him I had had plenty of opportunities to be patient and handle situations even when I was not in the mood.  But I hadn’t been prepared to use those skills in my “real world”.  Actually, I had never really thought that I would ever use them outside JBC.  Now I know that I will need to, and that next time there probably will not be such a gem of a bus driver nearby with the kindness, willingness, and ability to handle the situation; next time I should be ready with the kindness, willingness, and ability to handle it myself.

Sometimes we students fall into the trap of thinking that for now we just accumulate knowledge and that sometime in the distant future we will use all that knowledge to do good for the world.  How self-centered!  With that mindset, we will never get around to doing good.  What we learned yesterday, we should try to use today.  Life is not about waiting until you are thoroughly equipped to do a job perfectly.  Do your best now, with whatever you have, and whatever you know, and whoever you are.

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Toddlers and Television: Do They Belong in the Same Sentence?

Mommy and Grandma were in my grandparents’ kitchen putting the finishing touches on our thanksgiving dinner. My siblings and cousins were in the corner playing a rowdy game of cards with our uncle.  Had there been no TV in the house, I would have wanted to help stir the gravy or whoop Uncle Steve in Rat-A-Tat-Cat.  But instead I lay curled up on the sofa, watching the game with my adult relatives.  To this day I have little interest in or understanding of football.  But that didn’t matter to five-year-old me – even when commercials came on and the others got up, I could not tear myself away from the set.  I was watching TV, a magical, forbidden toy.

A few months later, I was goofing off with my brothers on the way home from soccer practice, when suddenly, instead of turning into our development, the car sped back up.  “Do you guys want to come with me to buy a TV?”  Of course none of us believed Daddy; we weren’t allowed to watch TV, except for sometimes at Grandma’s house, and even then Mom didn’t like it.  But we were still excited – a surprise was obviously on its way, and surprises often included ice-cream!

Much to our utter amazement, fifteen minutes later we were actually in a store and surrounded by TVs of every size, shape and color – including a pink one covered in “Hello, Kitty” stickers.  Thrilled and finally convinced that we were actually going to take one home with us, I tried to persuade Dad to choose that one, but he was busy talking to a worker.  We ended up with a boring black one with a screen not much bigger than my current laptop, but still, it was a TV!  We stopped at the library on the way home to pick up a movie; Dad chose a rendition of Macbeth because that’s what we were learning about in school, and we headed home, loud in our excitement.

When Mommy got home from grocery shopping with baby Noah, she found all five of us squeezed onto the couch, eyes glued to the screen.  There was a moment of heavy silence as she glared at Daddy before she interrupted Lady Macbeth’s monologue to insist that he take it back.  “It’s for educational purposes only!!” Daddy tried.  “See, we’re watching Macbeth!”

Then all of us kids were sent to bed so that Mommy and Daddy could talk, and we lay in bed, praying our little hearts out that he would convince her to keep the television.

~~

The psychological, neurological, and sociological literature largely agrees that television-watching has a negative impact on the young child’s cognitive development.  The American Academy of Pediatricians has issued a warning that children under the age of two should not be permitted to watch any TV at all.  However, there is also a great deal of less conspicuous evidence that TV can actually benefit the child’s cognitive development when used correctly. Parents should by all means be made aware of all the negative effects of TV on their child, but also know that they do not have to go so far as to convert to a life completely without television.  By using it in the right ways, they can turn the TV experience into a benefit for their child.

My parents, like many others, decided against owning a television because of the plethora of evidence pointing to harm (Winn).  Television use has been associated with obesity, diabetes, a decline in overall fitness levels and sleep disorders, for example (Linn&Poussaint).  However, a perhaps more compelling case against television is the extensive research suggesting that exposure to television harms the infant and toddler’s cognitive health in three main ways.  It serves as a distraction from healthy play, thus preventing active engagement with the world.  It becomes a barrier to communication with their caretakers, slowing language development.  Finally, it is linked to behavioral problems, short attention spans, and ADHD, all of which make learning more difficult.  For these reasons, the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly encourages parents not to permit their infants and toddlers to watch television, instead encouraging real-life interactions.  Let us now look a little more closely at the evidence for each of the harms listed above.

One of the most obvious problems with toddlers watching TV is that they are wasting time that would be better spent in active play.  Optimal mental development depends on the young child’s active engagement of the world for himself at his own pace, but television causes him to revert to passivity (Winn, 21).  Even watching age-appropriate educational programs robs children of the opportunity to play creatively (Salkind).  Moreover, such passive attitudes can become habitual and extend beyond the hours actually spent in front of the television screen, further slowing the cognitive development that should be occurring through normal play (Winn, 84-85).

Young children also depend on active play in learning to communicate.  Language and eye contact are critically important in early development, and when the television is on, the child vocalizes less and interacts with his parents less (Christakis).  While it is true that some educational shows can teach young children new words, learning occurs much faster if the words are presented by a live person (Troseth).  The director of Harlem Center, a work focused on preschoolers, noted that many children came to him unable to speak in coherent sentences, but without physical or mental defects.  “It is usually diagnosed as a speech defect,” he said, “but most often I have found it to be simply the result of hearing bad English, listening to nothing but television, and being spoken to hardly at all” (Winn, 76).  A New York Times review of recent research studies concludes that “the number of words an infant hears each day is the single most important predictor of later intelligence, school success, and social competence.  There is one catch –the words have to come from an attentive engaged human being…Television [does] not work” (Blakeslee).

Another reason to avoid child exposure to television is that it is associated with poor behavior, shortened attention spans, and ADHD, all of which impede learning.  Television tends to have fast-paced audio and visual cuts which can be over stimulating to the young child’s developing brain, making him jumpy and hard to teach.  Kindergarten teachers have noted this directly in their classes, and scholarly work backs up their observations (Christakis; Winn; Zuckerman).  An observational study of 1,300 children found a positive correlation between television viewing before the age of three and attention problems at the age of seven.  Moreover, for every additional three hours of watching television per day, children were 28% more likely to have attention problems (Zuckerman).

Because of these harms to the young child’s cognitive development, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued a warning.  It strongly recommends that instead of allowing children under the age of two to watch television, they should be encouraged to actively play or interact with a caregiver.  Beyond infancy and toddlerhood into early childhood, it further recommends that TV watching be limited, always be accompanied by an adult, and have stress placed on interacting and talking about the show with an adult (Linn&Poussaint; Jolin&Weller; Anderson&Pempek).

This warning is warranted and parents should take it very seriously.  However, they should also be aware that there is also reliable evidence suggesting that when used in the right way, TV can actually benefit the child’s cognitive development.  No study claims that extended television-watching benefits the child, but if TV time is limited to consistently watching the same few educational shows while interacting with a caretaker about it, television may become an effective tool for sharpening the very young child’s mind (Register; Zilmann et al.).

However, any such benefit in television applies only applies to certain shows.  Age-appropriate educational programs, like Sesame Street, effectively encourage cognitive development, but other shows can be very harmful (Kunkel; Huston, Donnerstein&Fairchild; Anderson).  Watching certain child-audience shows is associated with improved scores on academic skills tests, while watching general-audience programs is associated with poor scores (Wright et al.).  Programs meant for children can teach basic academic skills like the ABCs, counting, and early reading skills, as well as introducing the child to cultures, animals, and places that he might not normally see (Neuman&Koskinen; Baydar et al.; Kunkel).  This benefit is especially true for children who originally had low academic skills (Baydar).  Overall, parents of first graders who watched educational shows were more confident in their children’s progress than parents of those whose children watched no television at all (Gunter&McAleer).  Further, the benefit of television for young children depends on the shows being watched regularly and repeatedly (Baydar et al.).  Crawley et al. found that with repetitious watching of educational shows, children began interacting more with the TV and comprehension improved.  Finally, the parent or caretaker should interact with the child about the show as they watch.  Co-viewing in silence is not enough – although this is better than letting the child watch TV alone, it is far more conductive to learning for the parent to help the child understand the show and encourage him to talk about it (Dorr, Peter&Catherine).

Thus, although research has primarily concluded that television-viewing is harmful to the young child, it seems that it can actually be beneficial when used in the right ways.  Why then does the AAP simply recommend that young children not be permitted to watch any television at all (Linn&Poussaint; Jolin&Weller; Anderson&Pempek)?  This overcautious recommendation is problematic because it is largely ignored, likely because advising parents to give up television altogether is simply too much to ask.  Rather than leading to fewer children watching TV, there is now a negative trend of toddlers watching more TV than ever; On average, children under the age of two watch 2-4 hours of television per day and 88% of preschoolers watch public television (Christakis; Signman; Linn&Poussaint; Zuckerman).  After all, the television is a convenient babysitter, something to keep the kids busy when they are bored or sick, and a way for the caretaker to find a moment of quiet for himself (Zuckerman; Spiegel; Linn&Poussaint).  Granted, being told to switch from this overdose of television to none at all is an incredibly intimidating choice for parents to make.  However, if they were instead encouraged not to completely ban television, but simply to be much more cautious about the way in which it is used, they may be more likely to develop much more beneficial TV habits for their children’s sake.

Television is not inherently bad for the young child.  In fact, there is evidence that when age-appropriate educational programs are watched frequently and with the attention and interaction of a caretaker, TV-watching in small amounts can actually speed cognitive development.  However, as Barrie Gunter and Jill L. McAleer wrote in their book Children and Television, “These benefits do not all happen by accident or good luck; however, they can be cultivated and controlled.  We must learn how to use television to enjoy its full benefits and we must teach our children to do likewise” (Gunter&McAleer).

~~

To complete my personal narrative: God must have heard my five-year-old prayers that we be allowed to keep our brand-new television—or maybe my parents were just well-versed in the research literature.  We used the new TV to watch foreign language videos when we learned French and German, and science and history videos to compliment our homeschool experience.  Occasionally, we even sat down as a family to watch “Lost in Space” or “Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang” just for fun.  Even when we got older and branched out to some more modern films, my parents always encouraged us to watch with others and remain mentally alert so that we could discuss the film after it finished.  To this day, I am grateful—especially after growing older and discovering for myself both the addicting nature of television and the intellectual uselessness of most of the content—that my parents shielded me from television when I was young.  But I am equally grateful—for example when German comes so much more naturally to me than languages that I was not exposed to as a child—that they struck the right balance and used TV effectively to enhance my learning experience.

~~~

Works Cited

Anderson, Daniel R. “Educational Television is not an Oxymoron.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 557, no. 1 (May 1, 1998): 24 -38.  Anderson, Daniel R., and Tiffany A. Pempek. “Television and Very Young Children.” American Behavioral Scientist 48, no. 5 (January 1, 2005): 505 -522. Baydar, Nazli, Çiğdem Kağitçibaşi, Aylin C. Küntay, and Fatoş Gökşen. “Effects of an Educational Television Program on Preschoolers: Variability in Benefits.” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 29, no. 5 (September): 349-360.  Blakeslee, Sandra. “Studies Show Talking With Infants Shapes Basic Ability to Think.” The New York Times, April 17, 1997.  Christakis, Dimitri. “Infant Media Viewing: First, Do No Harm.” Pediatric Annuals 39, no. 9 (September 2010): 578-582.  Council on Communications and Media. “Media Use by Children Younger Than 2 Years.” Pediatrics 128, no. 5 (November 1, 2011): 1040 -1045.  Crawley, Alisha M., Daniel R. Anderson, Alice Wilder, Marsha Williams, and Angela Santomero. “Effects of Repeated Exposures to a Single Episode of the Television Program Blue’s Clues on the Viewing Behaviors and Comprehension of Preschool Children.” Journal of Educational Psychology 91, no. 4 (1999): 630-637.  Dorr, Aimee, Peter Kovaric, and Catherine Doubleday. “Parent-Child Coviewing of Television.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 33, no. 1 (1989): 35-51.  Edith Spiegel. “Yes, ‘Sesame Street’ Has Its Detractors.” New York Times. New York, NY, August 5, 1979.  Greg Toppo, and USA TODAY. “‘Secondhand TV’ can hurt kids”, n.d.  Gunter, Barrie, and Jill L. McAleer. Children and Television. Psychology Press, 1997.  Huston, Aletha C., Ed Donnerstein, and Halford Fairchild. Big World, Small Screen: the Role of Television in American society. University of Nebraska Press, 1992.  Jolin, Edith M., and Ronald A. Weller. “Television Viewing and Its Impact on Childhood Behaviors.” Current Psychiatry Reports 13 (January 26, 2011): 122-128.  Kunkel, Dale. “Policy Battles over Defining Children’s Educational Television.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 557, no. 1 (May 1, 1998): 39 -53.  Linn, Susan E, and Alvin F Poussaint. “The Trouble with Teletubbies: The Commercialization of PBS.” The American Prospects, no. 44 (June 1999): 18-26.  Neuman, Susan B., and Patricia Koskinen. “Captioned Television as Comprehensible Input: Effects of Incidental Word Learning from Context for Language Minority Students.” Reading Research Quarterly 27, no. 1 (January 1, 1992): 95-106.  Register, Dena. “The Effects of Live Music Groups Versus an Educational Children’s Television Program on the Emergent Literacy of Young Children.” Journal of Music Therapy 41, no. 1 (2004): 2-27.  Salkind, Neil J. Encyclopedia of Human Development, 3 Volume Set. 1st ed. Sage Publications, Inc, 2005.  Sigman, Aric. Remotely Controlled: How Television is Damaging Our Lives. Ebury Press, 2007.  Lewin, Tamar. “Children Watching More Than Ever.” New York Times (October 25, 2011): 18.  Troseth, Georgene L. “TV guide: Two-year-old Children Learn to Use Video as a Source of Information.” Developmental Psychology 39, no. 1 (2003): 140-150.  Winn, Marie. The Plug-In Drug: Television, Computers, and Family Life. 25th ed. Penguin (Non-Classics), 2002.  Wright, John C, Aletha C Huston, Kimberlee C Murphy, Michelle St. Peters, Marites Piaon, Ronda Scantlin, and Jennifer Kotler. “The Relations of Early Television Viewing to School Readiness and Vocabulary of Children from Low-Income Families: The Early Window Project.” Child Development 72, no. 5 (September 1, 2001): 1347-1366.  Zilmann, Dolf, Brien R. Williams, Jennings Bryant, Kathleen R. Boynton, and Michelle A. Wolf. “Acquisition of Information From Educational Television Programs as a Function of Differently Paced Humorous Inserts.” Journal of Educational Psychology 72, no. 2 (1980): 170-180.  Zuckerman, Diana. “Does Early TV Viewing Cause ADHD?” Youth Today, May 2004, 13 edition, sec. 5.