• The Sooner The Smarter

    Is Early Enrichment A Breakthrough In Child Development, Or A Test-Driven Craze?


    Before children are old enough to attend their first day of kindergarten, more and more are attending early enrichment and tutoring programs. This is part of a broader trend toward introducing so-called brain-boosting activities to childhood at younger ages, be it at nursery schools stressing early academics or in homes in which parents have been influenced by books like David Perlmutter’s “Raise a Smarter Child by Kindergarten: Raise IQ By Up To 30 Points And Turn On Your Child’s Smart Genes.” Not surprisingly, the trend has been seized by some parents hoping to give their kids an edge on IQ tests and other exams used for school admissions in public and private schools.

    To clarify the trend in early enrichment and the related issues parents should be thinking about, we spoke with local child development experts as well as people who run enrichment and tutoring companies.

    Most parents don’t need to be convinced of the benefits of music and art classes for young children, but are less clear about what is meant by early enrichment as it pertains to the life of the mind. What do these sorts of programs offer?

    The directors of the enrichment centers and tutoring companies we spoke with emphasized a similar overall theme: their programs offer fun, engaging work that unlocks a child’s natural ability and builds upon it. “We want to make children better life-long learners,” says Diane Sutowski, director of Kumon of Battery Park City.

    Kumon does this with flexible math and reading exercises in 20-minute sessions, and their pre-K students learn to identify letters, numbers and sounds. EBL Coaching, a multi-sensory tutoring program on the Upper East Side, works both with children with normal academic challenges as well as with children with particular learning needs. “We specialize in providing one-on-one and group tutoring that is individualized for each child, from pre-K on up,” says Dr. Emily Levy, director and founder of EBL, who meets with each child herself to match them with a specialist and a specific researched-based, multi-sensory plan.

    What does it mean to “tutor” a 4-year-old?

    “When children come to us, it’s often their first introduction to formal learning,” says Bige Doruk, CEO and founder of Bright Kids NYC, where the goal is to
    “give kids basic analytic skills that they need to master learning”
    through sessions with a professional tutor. During a typical one-hour
    session, children are encouraged to be flexible in their approach to
    problem-solving. “We teach them to approach the problem so they don’t
    get frustrated,” Doruk says. “We want them to be comfortable, and to
    build their confidence.”

    Another
    local tutoring company working primarily with young children, Manhattan
    Edge
    , offers 40-45 minute sessions for learning logic, playing memory
    games, and tackling mental challenges. The sessions help children
    organize their thinking and develop their learning abilities. “We teach
    them to block out distractions, focus and concentrate,” says Harley
    Evans, president of Manhattan Edge. “We want children to enjoy learning
    and become better students than they might otherwise.”

    Is there a downside to early learning?

    Michael
    Leone, a Kumon instructor, says in his experience early enrichment is
    invariably going to help as long as it’s aligned with a child’s
    readiness and ability. EBL’s Levy agrees: “Any student can benefit from
    enhancement, but it has to be the right approach for that child.”

    The
    organization that sets the guidelines for the admissions process for
    local private schools (isaagny.org) says that private test prep is
    against their rules as it pertains to preparation for the exam
    administered by the Educational Records Bureau (ERB). But if children
    are learning to improve their thinking skills, is there anything
    ethically wrong with being tutored (as long as the students aren’t being
    exposed to specific questions from the test)?

    “There’s
    no cheating going on,” says Evans, stating that at Manhattan Edge they
    “just help the child become familiar with the skills needed to succeed,
    such as working memory and delaying gratification.” The former head of
    the local ERB office, Sharon Spotnitz, Ph.D., draws the boundaries this
    way: “It’s one thing to cultivate a love of learning and develop
    learning skills; another to pursue a test-taking advantage to get a
    better score.” Plus, she says, tutoring that’s test-focused creates an
    ethical dilemma because it makes the job of assessing natural ability
    very difficult, hampering schools from ascertaining whether a child
    would be a good fit for them.

    The
    territory of early enrichment— whether or not there’s a test-related
    goal in mind—does seem like a potential minefield of undue parental
    pressure, no?

    “Parents
    who set the success bar at the highest level can ironically be the most
    detrimental,” says Bronwyn Charlton, Ph.D. and co-founder of Seedlings
    Group
    , local developmental psychologists who advise parents on best
    practices related to child development. More particularly, Charlton
    advises parents to be wary of encouraging achievement by “taking all the
    fun out of learning.”

    Are early enrichment and early tutoring programs providing anything that parents can’t do themselves?

    The
    directors from EBL, Manhattan Edge, Kumon and Bright Kids NYC
    share the general thought that while there are some parents who could
    teach their programs if they’ve done years of research and have lots of
    time, for the majority of parents, it’s easier and more effective to use
    an enrichment center or a tutor. “Kids can usually talk their parents
    out of doing the hard stuff,” says Evans, an NYC father of two. Doruk, a
    downtown mother of three, agrees: “I’m a parent, but teaching [my kids]
    is another thing.”

    However,
    Spotnitz and Charlton disagree. “Parents are the best teachers,” says
    Spotnitz, adding, “nothing is as enriching as reading stories together,
    solving a puzzle together or taking out crayons and coloring together.”
    Charlton adds, “It is best to leave ‘enrichment’ to quality preschools
    and quality parent/caregiver child interactions.” Charlton advises
    parents to teach skills like focus and attention through fun games like
    “I Spy” and musical chairs. Sorting games and nature walks help kids
    classify, and learning flexibility with rule changes helps them
    multitask. “We have so many teachable opportunities as parents and so
    many ways of making learning fun,” says Charlton. “We just need to seize
    the moments and to be confident that in doing so, real learning will
    take place.”

    Can one really draw conclusions about a child’s academic potential when they are only 3 or 4 or 5?

    Apparently
    not. One of the unfortunate ironies of the use of IQ-like tests in NYC
    is that even many of the test-makers themselves agree that, with very
    young children, the tests are not reliable predictors of future academic
    success or success in life. For more on this topic, interested parents
    can check out the related-chapter in last year’s provocative bestseller,
    Nuture Shock: New Thinking About Children.”


    Tutoring And Enrichment Centers In NYC

    Bright Kids NYC, 54 Pine Street, 917–539–4575
    Club
    Z!
    Locations vary, 866-448-8867
    EBL Coaching, 17
    East 89th Street, Suite 1D, 212-249-0147
    Kumon Center,
    Various locations, 877-586-6673
    Launch Math, 173 West 81st
    Street, Lower Level (between 81st and Amsterdam), 949-528-6240
    Manhattan Edge, 44 Wall Street, 4th Floor,
    1-888-407-8688
    Mathnasium, 1597 York Avenue,
    212-828-6284
    The Princeton Review, 594
    Broadway, Suite 502, 646-613-9500


    “Testing For Kindergarten” Offers Everyday Strategies For Preparing Young Kids For Placement Exams

    Karen Quinn, a local school admissions expert who has been featured on programs like ABC’s “20/20” and “The View” and in “The New York Times,” has a new book of simple strategies to help young children succeed on standardized tests. Whether your child is preparing for a public school “G & T” test or a private school admissions exam, the guide, “Testing For Kindergarten,” helps take some of the stress and guesswork out of the process by offering everyday strategies for enhancing your child’s learning experience, like making the most of before-bed reading and tips to strengthen your child’s memory. Quinn also throws in fun activities to help develop your child’s abilities in what she describes as the seven key areas needed for academic success. An NYC mom of two and one of the original founders of Smart City Kids, Quinn is best known as the author of “The Ivy Chronicles,” which took a satirical view of school admissions. This time, she’s not playing around! For more information, visit testingforkindergarten.com. —Beata Cherepakhina