There are many moments when I despair for our children's welfare at the hands of carers who genuinely think they're doing the right thing.
Carers who do actually care- rather than just turning up, taking their money and going home- tend to be passionate people. Sadly, thanks to the appalling wages offered in child care, they're not always particularly well-educated or widely experienced people. Passion and selective ignorance can be a volatile combination- a little knowledge is indeed a dangerous thing.
I came across just such a combination this week, and I can see that I'm going to have a hard time explaining to at least one group of passionate (but narrowly experienced and educated) carers that they're about to do a grave disservice to the bright and gifted children in their room. It's unintentional prejudice, but it's prejudice just the same.
If you've read my column about gifted and talented preschoolers (gifted children in preschools) you'll know that I'm the parent of the gifted child and have worked with gifted children for most of my career. Gifted children are the future leaders of our society, the inventors, the scientists, the writers and artists- and yet they are commonly assumed to have few or no needs for special attention compared to 'special needs' children, who struggle to keep up for one reason or another. I've spent rather a lot of my life advocating for gifted children's needs, and I feel the need to get on my soapbox yet again this week.
Ironically, I work for a few days each week at a daycare centre which is attached to an Early Intervention service. As a result the centre cares for more than its fair share of children who suffer from developmental delay, autism and a range of other disorders which interfere with their ability to communicate. Unsurprisingly, the level of experience and knowledge about special needs children in this service is unusually high, even amongst the less educated carers- and the level of belief in the validity of trying to meet these children's needs at all costs is extreme.
Sadly, I would rate this service's understanding of gifted-talented education at the usual zero.
There is much discussion in staff meetings of how best to communicate with these special needs children to enhance their understanding. Note that these children never make up even a quarter of the whole group numbers, and extra carers are provided for them beyond the usual ratio. Yet this week the Early Intervention service passed on a message to the day carers that we should strive to use extremely simple language, including consistent correct hand signs, in our interactions with the children- no, not just when communicating one-on-one with the special needs children, but all the time, with all the children, and especially when any special needs children were present in a group.
Now, I'm the first person to try to moderate my vocabulary when I talk one-on-one to a child who has limited receptive language, and I naturally use gesture to enhance meaning (see my column on talking to young children). That's common sense to me, and I've always managed to create a relationship and a useful level of communication with these children. I also try to make sure that I keep a close eye on all the children in a group situation and monitor when understanding is lost by some of them, so that I can retrace my steps.
But a blanket requirement to dumb down my language makes me see red on behalf of the children who love words, the children who love books, the children who like to experiment with sounds, the children whose language development and vocabulary are already well ahead of their chronological age. That is just wrong. What about their right to a rich and varied vocabulary in their learning environment? Some of these very bright children attend care for ten hours a day, five days a week. How would they react to having their daily soundscape reduced to single syllable words? Where will the stimulation to grow and develop their language come from?
And what will they be doing, what will they be thinking while they stand on the edge of this linguistic desert? They may not know the word 'patronising' yet, but mark my words, they know what being patronised feels like and they don't like it.
The dumbing down of language and the lowering of expectations is not a new thing in this centre and has already had an effect. In the next breath of this staff meeting (where we were told to universally compromise the level of our language even further than is already the norm), two children whom I would immediately identify as gifted were identified respectively as being 'unfocussed' and having behaviour problems. I wonder why?
And what about the child who reacts to this barren aural landscape by withdrawing from communication? Is that okay? It's not okay with me!
As for using consistent 'correct' hand signs- this is where passion starts to get completely out of proportion and make unreasonable demands of poorly paid and overworked carers. I was pulled up the other day for pointing to my ear instead of cupping my hand around it to indicate 'listen' (I might add that there were no special needs children in the group, most of the children being well towards the other end of the scale). The only person who seemed to be confused by this 'mistake' was the other carer- the children were right with me and knew exactly what I meant, and were in fact distracted by the other carer making a comment about it.
Children hear verbal synonyms every day- why not gesture synonyms? Any gesture towards an ear is likely to indicate something to do with hearing, and any reasonably unambiguous gesture is better than no gesture to enhance meaning. The sort of nitpicking accuracy demonstrated by my colleague may be crucial to a special needs worker, but in my experience it's a false crutch when it comes to supporting all children's language in a day care setting.
We are NOT specialists in special needs; we do the best we can and we don't need yet another burden. We are juggling so many thoughts, needs and demands at once; we are already responsible for children's health and safety, developmental education in half a dozen fields, creating a sense of security and plenty more besides; we are already burdened with paperwork, preparation, cleaning, meetings and a plethora of other chores for the pittance we earn.
On top of all that, expecting us to be fluent in a 'second language' of signs to accompany every word we say to the children is unreasonable and unnecessary. Burdens like this can compromise our ability to think rapidly, be creative, notice problems developing under our very eyes... and that can be fatal.