Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Forming Character through Private Speech

I promised myself to finish up Chapter 3 of Awakening Children's Minds by March 15, so I better get on with it. This blog post covers the middle of that chapter, which points out the relationship between private speech and behavior. Parents of older children with autism often reassure parents of younger children that behaviors are at their worst between the ages of 3 and 5 (meltdowns, tantrums, overall unhappiness with something unexpected happens). This chapter got me wondering if one reason why behaviors are so challenging for young autistic kiddos might be language delays.

According to this chapter, the ability to inhibit impulses and redirect behavior "depends in part on brain development--specifically, growth of neural connections in the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex" (page 89). The frontal lobe controls planning, inhibition, and memory encoding (all challenges for children in the autism spectrum). In a paper published in 2005, neuroscientists Eric Courschene and Karen Pierce found abnormalities in the frontal lobe: they suggest that "connectivity within frontal lobe is excessive, disorganized and inadequately selective, whereas connectivity between frontal cortex and other systems is poorly synchronized, weakly responsive and information impoverished." The frontal cortex studied excessively connected with itself, making it "deficient in reciprocally interacting with other cortical regions." In short, the frontal lobes of an autistic person may be autistic! This means that people in the spectrum often find it difficult to integrate information from a variety of sources and to provide feedback to, guide, and control lower level parts of the brain. All of these issues would make it difficult for spectrum children to control their behavior.

Dr. Laura E. Berk recommends teaching preschoolers good habits through "adult conversation, guidance, and example" from "warm and sensitive and clear, consistent, and reasonable" parents. One challenge in forming habits is the sheer number of them (page 88),
But the young child who wants so much to be good must assimilate a great many rules--rules for taking care of property; rules for respecting other people; rules for safety; rules for self-care, eating, and dressing; rules for doing chores; rules for good manners; and more.
Here is the nut of this section for parents of autistic children: "And the best predictor of individual difference in self-control was language development" (page 89). Why? Children benefit greatly when adults suggest how to wait patiently by changing their thoughts or how to resist doing something unacceptable by thinking about the other person's feelings. They reference the reactions of adults to learn when to feel proud, guilty, or ashamed of their behavior. The child would have difficulty changing behavior when she finds it difficult to process verbal guidance from adults, lacks the private speech to direct herself, and cannot interpret the reaction of adults to her behaviors.

Laura also points out that how we guide children should depend upon their temperament. Sensitive, inhibited children form good habits easily and respond best to "mild, patient discipline--polite requires, explanations, and suggestions for how to resist temptation" (page 91). Impulsive, fearless children show little remorse with mild parenting but become belligerent with tough love. Relationship is everything to these children: "an early, warm sensitive parent-child bond is a good predictor of conscience at age 5 in these children" (page 91). I have one of each, and my experience matches this theory. My inhibited child (Pamela) needs a soft touch, while my impulsive child (David) responds best to people with whom he has a close bond.

I found many parallel thoughts between Laura Berk and Charlotte Mason in this chapter. Charlotte devoted many pages to developing good habits in children of all ages: infant, mental, and moral habits and physical, intellectual, moral, and religious training. Just like Laura, she realized that children who want to be good need guidance, "He is born to love the good, and to hate the evil, but he has no real knowledge of what is good and what is evil; what intuitions he has, he puts no faith in, but yields himself in simplicity to the steering of others" (page 331). She also preferred a hopeful and expectant style over a barrage of do's and don't or bullying children into submission. To teach self-management (pages 324-326), she recommended thinking about the benefits of resisting temptation, finding a diversion, changing thoughts, etc. Finally, Charlotte recognized the role of temperament and, in her book on forming character, she employed different strategies, depending upon the nature of the child. I will close with a quote from Charlotte (page 102),
We entertain the idea which gives birth to the act and the act repeated again and again becomes the habit; 'Sow an act,' we are told, 'reap a habit.' 'Sow a habit, reap a character.' But we must go a step further back, we must sow the idea or notion which makes the act worth while. The lazy boy who hears of the Great Duke's narrow camp bed, preferred by him because when he wanted to turn over it was time to get up, receives the idea of prompt rising. But his nurse or his mother knows how often and how ingeniously the tale must be brought to his mind before the habit of prompt rising is formed; she knows too how the idea of self-conquest must be made at home in the boy's mind until it become a chivalric impulse which he cannot resist.

1 comment:

cooscoosbaby said...

I was googling for pictures of neural connections to use in my upcoming presentation to parents with autistic children when my eye was unexpectedly caught by the text of your blog - Private Speech? Awaking Children's Minds? That's exactly what I've been studying! Our son (7) is recovering from autism. We have been on the RDI journey for 3.5 years. The joy of slowly seeing our son learn to connect with us and engage his world has been amazing. Now my husband and I are reading books on the RDI professional training list and reaching out to share what we've learned with other parents who are struggling. We live in Tunisia, North Africa, where my husband teaches English to university students. For the last several months we've been working on translating and contextualizing RDI concepts to share with parents and professionals here. Your blog affirms all we've been doing with our son and echoes what we've been saying to other parents. Thank you for articulating these concepts so clearly!