This is the full transcript of Zahra Kassam’s TEDx Talk titled ‘How to expand your baby’s potential with education from birth’ at TEDxManhattanBeach conference. In this talk, she shares why education from birth to three is so important, and how parents and caregivers can maximize a child’s ability to learn in the future.
Listen to the audio version here:
Zahra Kassam – Founder of Monti Kids
This is a graph of brain development over time. The most dramatic growth occurs before age 3, when 85% of the brain is formed.
This red line shows public spending on education. The relationship? The relationship is nearly inverse, with less than 4% of funds invested by age 3. Research shows that brain development is cumulative, so the early years lay the foundation for future learning.
New studies at Harvard University show that genes implicated in learning are actually turned on or off based on a child’s earliest experiences. And yet, there is an education void during the most formative time in a person’s life.
I’m here today to talk about how parents and caregivers can address this education void during their child’s most critical years.
I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I was 10 years old. I spent my after-school and summer jobs teaching, pursued degrees in psychology and education, went through two Montessori trainings, and finally began my dream job as a preschool teacher despite all the criticism that I was throwing away my Ivy League degrees.
Then I became a mother. In my background, I was so excited to give my baby the best education from birth. When he arrived, I got a 7-pound, 11-ounce reality check. Between diapers and feedings and sleep deprivation, I couldn’t keep up with his developmental needs, and I felt like I was failing him.
I realized that parents like myself, who are by default our baby’s first teachers, are sorely under-supported to do that job. So I left my classroom and devoted myself to empowering new parents in their role as educators.
As a society, we haven’t been talking about education for babies, assuming it might steal away from the ease and joy of babyhood. Toy industry advertising has colored our ideas of what babies should be learning. Decades ago, marketers at some of the biggest toy companies added letters and numbers to baby toys against the advice of their learning experts, simply because it sold more products.
I want to be clear that education from birth to three is not about racing to academics like reading and math. Now is the time to draw from a compelling body of research and proven practices from infant-toddler classrooms to define what education for babies looks like at its best.
Beyond offering loving connection and responsive caregiving, the most effective thing you can do for your baby’s education is to thoughtfully prepare their environment. Babies are learning how to learn, so we make the most impact by helping them develop healthy learning habits, such as concentration and focus, perseverance and problem-solving, creativity and a love of learning. These habits are early building blocks in a set of skills researchers call executive function.
Executive function is what allows us to meet goals while managing our thoughts, emotions and behavior. It is a better predictor of academic success than IQ, as well as a predictor of long-term income, well-being and health.
Montessori learning environments are proven to help children establish executive function skills which will serve them throughout their lives. Preparing a learning environment for your baby at home, one that is beautiful, inviting and rich with experiences, does not have to be complicated. It starts with a low shelf and a few toys.
In fact, more toys do not equal more learning. Just like an adult who finds it hard to focus on work when their office and desk are a mess, a child feels overwhelmed by an overflowing play area. Research shows that adults function better in orderly environments and the same applies to children.
Displaying a few good options on a low shelf and rotating them as needed will allow even a baby who is not yet walking to independently choose the toy they want and concentrate without distraction. That’s my youngest baby at 10 months old.
If you want your baby to remain actively engaged during play, choose toys that are baby powered, not battery powered. Electronic toys with sounds and lights can put your child into passive mode, pushing a button and waiting to be entertained. Simple wooden toys, on the other hand, need a child to activate them so they naturally invite engagement and creativity.
Keep in mind that if you place both electronic and non-electronic toys on the same shelf, it’s like offering your child a plate with junk food and brain food side by side. The best way to encourage healthy choices is to curate their environment.
Beyond toys, we can create opportunities throughout our homes for babies to exercise executive function skills. Setting up a water cooler where a newly walking child can get a drink when they’re thirsty not only allows them to practice their motor skills and independence. It also allows them to build up their planning, goal setting skills, and their self-control, key elements in the development of executive function.
We can build similar skills by hanging low hooks for their hats and jackets and providing a mirror at eye level so they can actively participate in dressing and caring for themselves.
Observing your child in their environment will allow you to present the appropriate level of challenge to stretch their skills. Not so little that they are bored and not so much that they give up. Research shows children thrive in this zone. Teachers know that setting children up at this optimal level of challenge and offering help only when needed cultivates perseverance and problem solving.
For example, when a baby is trying to grasp a ball that is just out of reach, they are building both their gross motor skills and their perseverance. They might make noises similar to how adults sound when lifting heavy weights at the gym. Just as we would never take weights away from someone who was working hard to lift them unless they really needed help, we don’t want to steal growth opportunities away from our child.