Communicating Partners, Fall 1996 Newsletter

Letter from Barbara
     It's been a few years since my son was in preschool--he's in second grade now-- but I wish I had known then what I know now. Much of the curriculum is too difficult for children with developmental delays.
     Looking back over his IEPs from preschool, I understand why he was often reluctant to do what was asked of him. Although he was four and five years old, he was only comprehending and behaving like a two or three year old child. Parents are led to believe that their delayed child will pick up more mature behavior, social and language skills, and early academics simply by being with other children. But, as the song goes, I learned "it ain't necessarily so."
     At one time or another, most parents of children with develop-mental delays are told that their child is not going along with the group. All sorts of words are used to describe these children, "noncompliant" and "resistant" probably the most common. Sometimes it's because they won't answer questions or do as they are told. Much of the time they are "off task" or not paying attention. Often-times they need to be "encouraged" or "prompted" to follow directions. In general, they march to the beat of their own very slow drummer.
     I would like to recommend a book to parents, preschool teachers, and anyone involved with programs for young children with develop-mental delays: When Slow is Fast Enough by Joan Goodman, a child psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She did a three-year research study of preschools across the country and found that, "For the most part, the curriculum seems too hard and remote for children functioning at only half their age." She observed that these children, "respond to the difficulty with failure and resistance, thereby forcing teachers to take on excessively restrictive and repressive roles." (page 250) She continues, "The burden of this book is that from every standpoint--psychological, empir-ical, and moral--a corrective shift toward a freer, more child-centered (i.e. progressive) model is needed." (page 250)
     Parents want to be informed advocates for their child, but few of us have time to read all the literature written about child development. This book gives a great deal of background information as well as presents Mrs. Goodman's plan for changing the preschool curriculum. It is especially enlightening to parents who feel like I did, "something's wrong here." I want to include a few paragraphs I like, simply because I think there are other mothers who share my thoughts and experiences.
     "We cannot disregard the 'environmentalist' argument that children acquire such qualities as passivity, rigidity, and inat-tentiveness as a protective defense against environments poorly calibrated to their developmental level. (Some children) are dis-tractable at circle time when they cannot follow all the calendar talk ... When a teacher 'redirects' children from 'off-task' activities to difficult tasks, they are overwhelmed, may narrow their foci and block out adult entreaties (appearing rigid or slow); or without a good match for their interests, 'float' (distractable). If we keep in mind that these children are functioning at half their age, the possibility of overload seems plausible. By analogy, consider a four-year-old alone at Grand Central Station in New York City. Is it not likely that he would either roam distractedly or hunker down and become absorbed with a toy or with his body? Indeed, do we not all either space out or pull in when the demands of a situation get too great? Of course, we would not subject a four-year-old to the challenge of Grand Central Station (but we might an eight-year-old). Are the usual preschool demands not equally overwhelming to a four-year-old functioning at the two-year level? In short, is it not possible that these children's failures--to absorb instructions, to learn spontaneously, to initiate activities; their unresponsiveness, rigidity, and persever-ation--signal distress from excessive demands, not, as teachers would have it, defects requiring extra repetition and control of attention?
     Finally, it is possible that we simply misread the children; the distractability and rigidity may be in the eye of the beholder. 'Inattentive' behaviors may be 'off-task' ... only according to our definitions of 'on-task.' And 'rigid' may simply be our character-ization of plodding, repetitive behavior that, for the child who works slowly on a small palette with fewer colors, may be rich in discoveries." (pages 200, 201)
     When Slow is Fast Enough is published by The Guilford Press, 72 Spring Street, New York, NY 10012.
Barbara Mitchell

  Revised: February 22, 1998.