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V.3 #1 Early Childhood - Commercial Educational Products and Learning Disabilities: What Educators and Parents Should Know

September 1, 2009

 

One question I frequently receive from teachers and parents interested in learning disabilities (LD) deals with commercially available educational products. Consumers will recognize the names of a few of the more well known products, such as Baby Einstein®, BabyPlus®, and Doman and Doman’s (2001) How to Multiply Your Baby’s Intelligence, originally introduced in 1984. Although good commercial programs carefully designed to create, adjust, and monitor optimal environments for child development are available, consumers should evaluate the merits of each product, for the specific needs of the individual child, and what the product claims to accomplish.

 

Many concerned individuals want to know whether these products facilitate or remediate cognitive, behavioral, and emotional development among children with LD, since testimonies of the effectiveness of these products among children with LD can be gathered from various internet sites. This leads some parents to blame themselves, believing that their children may not have developed LD had they been exposed to such educational programs earlier in their lives. Before addressing the validity of these concerns, however, let’s first examine a sampling of these products.

 

High Profile Commercially Available Early Education Products

 

Many commercial products make claims that exposing children to various stimuli enhances their “intelligence.” For example, Baby Einstein® primarily targets children from three months to three years of age, and the program consists of various audiovisual materials (e.g., DVDs, CDs, etc.) and a wide selection of toys, which allegedly enhance a well-rounded development. Similarly, a series of books and workshops stemming from Doman’s book, How to Multiply Your Baby’s Intelligence, provide instructions for parents to begin teaching their infants, right after birth, a wide variety of knowledge and skills. BabyPlus® markets to even younger children—who are still in their mothers’ wombs and claims that, with BabyPlus®, babies will enjoy “…an intellectual, developmental, creative, and emotional advantage” (www.babyplus.com). America’s fascination with these products is demonstrated by former U.S. President George W. Bush inviting the founder of Baby Einstein® and acknowledging the contributions made by the company at the State of the Union address in January, 2007.

 

Problems Associated with Commercial Products

 

Despite the great enthusiasm with which these commercial products have been received, we as educators interested in LD, need to objectively evaluate such programs before forming opinions or establishing policies based on the claims made by these programs.

 

Claims are not supported by research. Research has not substantiated claims made by some companies, and there is no evidence that the product can enhance children’s cognitive, behavioral, and emotional development. For example, Baby Mozart by Baby Einstein®, exposes infants to Mozart’s music, so as to maximize their cognitive development. This top seller’s premise is based on empirical research by Rauscher and his colleagues (1993), in which playing Mozart’s sonata for two pianos in D major in the background was found to temporarily enhance the spatial task performance among regular-education college students. In other words, the “Mozart Effect” was found among college students with one specific Mozart piece on one set of tasks, and the research findings do not directly support the company claims.

 

There may be harmful consequences. New research suggests that there may be harmful consequences associated with some products. A research investigation by Zimmerman and colleagues (2007) demonstrated that each hour children were exposed to some products resulted in these children understanding six to eight fewer vocabulary words. What may be the explanation for these unexpected outcomes? Since infants are not readily able to move away from the sources of over stimulation, they “shut down” their perceptive systems when over stimulated. Chronic over stimulation may thus delay cognitive development due to extended system down time. As over stimulation is not monitored in commercially prepared early childhood programs, this explanation appears plausible to researchers.

 

Efficacy of products not tested on kids with LD. The impact of these products has not been tested on children with LD. This is a concern because children with LD: (1) frequently do not respond the same way to cognitive and other stimulations; and (2) usually require carefully-crafted, individually-based educational materials and responsive environments. In other words, they are much less likely than their regular-education counterparts to benefit from generic media products. 


Conclusions for Teachers and Parents

 

In conclusion, research suggests that parents and teachers should not concern themselves with commercially available educational products claiming to enhance children with LD’s learning and development. The effectiveness of these products is questionable given that the products have not been tested on children with the varied concerns that encompass a LD diagnosis. Additionally, there is some evidence pointing to the harm brought about by mindlessly exposing children to these products. Therefore, parents of children with LD should not blame themselves for not having introduced their children to commercial products early on. There is no reason to believe that doing so would have changed their child’s developmental pathways whatsoever. In addition, parents and teachers should be aware that the use of these products as a remedial means to address the learning difficulties of children with LD is completely unwarranted. Thus, educators and parents should continue to focus on individually accommodating children with LD based on psycho-educational assessment findings and proven individualized intervention strategies. In this way, each child’s needs can be understood so as to optimize their current and future cognitive, behavioral, and emotional experiences.


References

 

Doman, G.J., & Doman, J. (2001). How to Multiply Your Baby’s Intelligence: More Gentle Revolution. Garden City Park, NY: Square One Publishers.

 

Papousek, H. (1977). The development of learning ability in infancy. In G. Nissen [Ed.]. Intelligence, Learning, and Learning Disabilities. (p. 95-93). Berlin, Germany: Springer-Verlag.

 

Rauscher, F.H., Shaw, G.L., & Ky, K.N. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365, 611.

 

Zimmerman, F.J., Christakis, D.A., & Meltzoff, A.N. (2007). Associations between media viewing and language development in children under age 2 years. The Journal of Pediatrics, 151, 364-368.

 

Daisuke Akiba, Ph.D. is a tenured Assistant Professor (Educational Psychology) at Queens College and the Graduate Center of CUNY, where he teaches Child Development, Motivation, Cultural Psychology, and Research Methods. He has studied and written extensively on the developmental, educational, and family experiences of children who are non-normative in their cultural backgrounds and psychological characteristics.

 

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