As I’m sure many people my age would say, becoming a grandparent has been a life-changing and joyous experience for Cinda and me. We’ve been particularly fortunate, because eleven years ago Cinda committed to providing day care for all four of our grandchildren until they entered school. As a result of her commitment, we have seen or will see all of our grandchildren nearly every day from the day they were born until they turn(ed) five years old. This has enabled us to create memories and forge relationships that will last a lifetime. We are thankful for that.
The personal joy we have received from having grandchildren wasn’t shocking, but what has surprised me is the professional impact the experience has had on me. My daily observations have reminded me how children really develop physically, intellectually, socially, and emotionally. It also reminded me how essential the support system in the home plays in that development. Because of these personal experiences, I credit (or blame) our grandchildren for turning me into the relentless critic of the political hijacking of public education that I have become. I am more aware than ever that the political discussions that result in educational mandates have nothing to do with how children learn. So, they are meaningless, yet, they continue unabated.
Our experience with our third grandchild, Carter, has further solidified my beliefs. It became obvious fairly early in his life that Carter was not speaking as early as most children do, even though, by all accounts, he was a bright child who was otherwise developing appropriately. His language delay was a concern to us, because we know how important a child’s early years are to his or her language development. Knowing this, Carter’s parents took advantage of a wonderful, FREE county program called “Help Me Grow,” which is available to parents of children with developmental delays. Through this program, children can receive specialized instruction from a speech language pathologist (SLP) and other specialists, if need be, beginning at eighteen months and continuing until their third birthday.
Carter’s SLP through “Help Me Grow,” Diane, has been a godsend. She began working with him on a weekly basis when he was nineteen months old, and she will continue to do so until he turns three. She has used strategies with him that have been proven to help children learn to talk, and she educated Carter’s parents (and us) about the intricacies of language development. She taught us the strategies she used so we could reinforce her work to be sure he was immersed in a language-rich environment. In other words, this was a full-court press from a specialist with great expertise and from family members who were committed to giving their child every opportunity to be successful.
If I am honest, Diane, as well as Carter’s mother and grandmother, have led these efforts. Progress has been slow until the last couple of months, when his verbal skills have exploded. He talks more each day, and he uses words we didn’t know he knew as well as words we thought he knew but would or could not say. The difference between his speech today and his speech two months ago is monumental. There is still work to do, but he appears to be on his way to developing the verbal skills he will need to be successful.
Because Carter is a human being, we have no way of knowing if the early intervention with which he has been provided is the reason he is now talking. His newfound speech may be a direct result of that hard work; or he may have begun talking even if he had been left alone; or he could have remained non-verbal despite everyone’s best efforts. We will never know for sure what the truth is, because once a path is taken it is impossible to return to “start” and see how another track would have worked. There are some answers we just can’t know for sure.
But, what we know for certain based on the best research available on childhood literacy is that starting very, very early in his life, providing him with intense intervention by a speech therapist coupled with parents and grandparents who would support what he was learning would give him the greatest opportunity for success. Our work did not guarantee success, just as doing nothing didn’t guarantee failure. If he were still not speaking, it would not be an indictment of Diane, of our work, or of his efforts. What was most important was that what he was offered was based on what we know to be true about how children develop language skills. That was the least we could do for him, and that is what every child deserves.
And, that is our politicians’ greatest failure. The mandates they force upon us have nothing to do with creating an environment that fosters success and everything to do with pointing fingers at people they have decided, through their misuse of data, are failures. THAT is what I rail against. Our children deserve better.
So, I refuse to pretend as if discussions on topics like the Common Core, teacher accountability, test scores, and school district report cards are meaningful, because they are not. It is time our “leaders” begin engaging in discussions based on what we know to be true instead of on their misguided opinions. I, for one, will accept nothing less from them.
Tom Dunn is the superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.