Early Childhood, IQ, Mutism and Political Intrigue: All in a Day's Conference

Who says professional conferences are a snooze?  

Round up some academics, some therapists and throw in a public health or education official - and there's bound to be some drama, in this case, some indirect political intrigue of the big-city kind incidentally involving thousands of school children. 

So the keynote speaker blew off the 8th Annual Young Child Expo and Conference last week. 

Yeah, a real bummer for those of us in the audience waiting for inspirational fodder from some well-regarded public figure. Okay so it was in New York City and the official speaker was Dennis Walcott, the Deputy Mayor for Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  And it was early Friday, April 8th, the same morning Mayor Bloomberg announced Mr. Walcott as the new schools chancellor.  Or should I clarify, announced his second choice following on the heels of the public relations mess over his first choice, Cathleen Black. 
(FYI: I attended the conference thanks to Wellsphere, the health website that provided me with a press pass.  Just in case you're imagining me living high on the hog in NYC - there were no goodie bags, no celebrity photo ops or lavish meals, only coffee and the city's finest, H2O).

After initiating a carefully constructed child care plan, I arrived at the Hotel Pennsylvania in Manhattan eager to learn who the conference organizers had convinced last minute to address the crowd of early childhood enthusiasts.   

One Sophia Pappas, the Executive Director in the Childhood division of the NYC Department of Education.  In other words, a young woman stalking better early education, a noble aim by anyone's standards.  Taught preschool in Newark, NJ, can you imagine? Did another stint at Teach for America.  A master's from Harvard's Kennedy School.  Wrote a memoir of her early teaching days.  No slouch.  Her "keynote" was more casual chat over coffee rather than the typical lecture/sermon/speech. 

The attendees spanned The Childhood Professional Spectrum.  The usual suspects.  The special-ed teachers, the learning-disability tutors, occupational therapists, speech therapists, school psychologists and perhaps some parents.  Mostly women, but that pretty much goes without saying. 

Plenty of sponsors showed too from the high-faultin' and like Fordham University, New York University's Child Study Center, the Children's Hospital at Hackensack University Medical Center, and the Brooklyn Children's Museum to smaller companies and who can forget the special interest non-profits such as my personal pet peeve, Autism Speaks.  Rest assured, I did not pick up any of their propaganda or tchotchkes, or any other ones at the conference save a flimsy "Young Child Expo" bag filled with the conference program and assorted flyers. 

So other than the keynote drama, what struck my fancy?

Some biggie topics, like parental involvement in education, changing definitions of autism (both which I missed) to smaller but still fascinating ones like teaching natural science, picky eating, oh and selective mutism - a disorder in which children but sometimes adults cannot or do not speak in certain environments (i.e. school, in front of adults). 

The reigning theory links it to social anxiety and shyness.  Even a decade ago many psychologists thought it the result of an oppositional personality or post-traumatic stress.  But now some good studies have basically ruled that a bunch of bunk.  Some of you may recognize the symptoms in the guy from The Big Bang Theory who can't talk to women unless he's good and sloshed.  Lots of characters from books and film - like Charles from A Wrinkle in Time.  As someone who remembers being very uneasy speaking to adults and strangers as a kid, I can relate to this so-called social anxiety disorder.  Frankly, I'm still not crazy about making small talk with people I don't know, especially in large gatherings (i.e. the school fundraiser, weddings, etc.). 

The roster also featured clinical assessment, the art and science of figuring out just what's going on and not going on with a child. Their weaknesses and strengths from the physical to the socio-emotional, cognitive and intra-uterine environment. 

Got a kick out of hearing Dr. Vincent Alfonso, Professor and Associate Dean in the Graduate School of Education at Fordham speak about assessing young kids, especially those who fall through the cracks (i.e. those from non-English speaking homes, those low on the socioeconomic ladder). Guy energized what could have been a very boring, at times technical talk. Save the distraction of the women loudly filing her nails behind me Alfonso kept me right with him. 
Here are some of my favorite nuggets from the child assessment expert, many that relate to child research:

We've only been formally assessing youngsters since 1975, the year the first legislation addressed the need.   Before that there was very little recognition kids needed any special interventions, behaviorally or psychologically speaking.  Head Start began just in 1964 - the idea that kids benefited from early education.  So the whole "special needs" thing was at least a decade away.  Amazing since we have loads of researching showing early interventions do work for both the "special needs" and the disadvantaged crowd.  So when we talk about rates of this and that, keep in mind that we haven't been tracking many disorders for so long, nor particularly well in the past when we did. 

Cognitive abilities have gotten dissed of late. It's easy to forget they do matter when we tend to hate IQ tests.  Hate SATS.  Think they're rubbish (my words).  Alfonso reiterated intellectual skills serve a protective function, they help make kids more resilient in the face of multiple challenges.  The lack thereof, it's a real challenge. A difference between an IQ of 70 and 90, is enormous.  At these same time we despair of measuring intelligence we get too fixated on the upper end, breastfeeding so as to optimize tiny neural circuits. 

By the way, we now speak of "intellectual disability" and not mental retardation or mental handicaps.

Don't forget parental stress.  There's the stress of parenting itself then the additional non-child related stress.  Children can be affected by it in any number of ways.  Addressing and managing anxiety is key, one of the most important tasks a parent can do for their kids.  Note to self: schedule girls night out, nix travel-team soccer. 

Then there's the assessment tools, the scales and surveys.  You have to consider what they ask, how they ask it and also score it.  That's something that all researchers have to remember too.  And those who interpret their results.  Lots of similarities between doing assessments and doing research.  The benefits of gathering lots of data over multiple times and settings.  Using the best scales and measures.  Making sure they're not too old (i.e. within last decade for assessment). 

Speaking of which - Alfonso told of a child whose assessments just didn't match.  The professional report didn't jive with the survey the parent completed.  The parental answers just seemed off.  Then he realized the parent couldn't read.  That's right, she'd randomly completed the questionnaire.  Unusual circumstance but as someone who's conducted assessments in let's just say "dysfunctional" families, I am not surprised.  Extending circumstances always seemed to be the case.  Of course these were children who'd passed through the court systems.  Dysfunction on all fronts was the rule. 

Early childhood specialists should like kids. 

Seems necessary - but is it? Certainly someone who has extended contact or interaction like a teacher or therapist but what about the psychologist called in to do a one-off assessment.  It's clear they should not dislike kids but should they just love little kids?  They should understand, empathize, yes, and that probably goes along with liking but I've never though about it.  I appreciate my pediatric dentist's (and hygienist's) seemingly natural affinity for kids.  I often do wonder why the children's librarian at my local library seems to dislike children but do all pediatric professionals need to really like kids? How about pediatric cardiac surgeons? 

Just for the record, I do like little kids.  And babies.  Though I don't wish to parent any more of either.

What about everyone else? Fess up. 


TherExtras said...

I like 'em - in my work. In my personal life I'm happy to wait a while to enjoy some grandchildren.


Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

It's Monday so I cherish all kids now that the weekend roster of birthdays parties, athletic events and too-late-dining temper tantrums disrupting my adult night out are finished for the time being....

TherExtras said...

Your post deserves more commentary than you and me trading quips.

Note to self: Research often attempts to validate the obvious.


Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

You think? I'm considering adding updates from TMZ? What do you think? A little celeb gossip next to the research? It's kind of HuffPo.