Dr. Martha Bridge Denckla:
An Expert Voice
from Johns Hopkins
She loves to talk—before gathering her thoughts for another scientific research paper—she has over a hundred to her credit—and she therefore welcomes the opportunity to address a mixed audience of professionals—medical and educational— when she appears at NYU’s Child Study Center this month. Much of what she says will also constitute at least the opening chapter of a book she is preparing for parents. She has something extremely important to say on a subject that has her passions roused. Dr. Martha Bridge Denckla, internationally known researcher and clinician in the area of developmental cognitive neurology, has pushy parents and too-earnest educators in her sights. Let them beware: she comes well armed—with numerous studies in brain science and telling anecdotes—not to mention an engaging sense of humor and down-to-earth delivery she proudly ascribes to Brooklyn roots..
New York was her home town (her father was a pulmonary specialist) and her grandchildren live there, though for most of her highly successful professional life, she has been working in Boston and then Baltimore. She currently directs the Developmental Cognitive Neurology Clinic at the Kennedy Krieger Institute—a world-renowned center dedicated to improving the lives of children and adolescents with pediatric developmental disabilities. Though the theme of Dr. Denckla’s talk should resonate in this country, where the idea that earlier is always better, scientists and educators abroad may also pay heed, particularly since a skills-readiness assessment Dr. Denckla devised, when she was only 30 —The Rapid Naming Test—has had world-wide application.
At the center of her concerns is the sense that “readiness” seems to have been forgotten in the rush to instill reading and writing skills in the very young—those 0 to 3, for example. Dr. Denckla has no doubt of the probable results of such excessive academic diligence—damage, both motor and psychological. She hopes to reach as many professionals and parents as possible to tell them that “the road to hell is being paved with good intentions,” We’re “killing” our children “with science,” and she is “up in arms” it.
There is nothing wrong with exposing the very young to a rich environment but No Child Left Behind accelerated a movement originally ignited by studies showing that infants’ brains were more complex than previously thought. Yes, they are, so why not pursue what studies show young children can do well early on—learning foreign languages, music and gymnastics. But do most schools act on these studies? No, they’re obsessed with inculcating academic skills, and in their drive to get pre-K children to read, write, and exercise behavioral control at age three, they ignore “readiness,” a concept that brain studies show is much more various and discrete than parents and pedagogues appreciate. And so the anxious pull down the skills curricular age, demanding of a four-year-old what formerly had been presented to a five, six, or seven year old—indeed, up to grade nine is fine! And they ignore the fact—and it is a scientific fact—that different children are ready for different skills at different ages.
Nursery schools increasingly adopt global grade curricula, totally indifferent to “readiness.” Dr. Denckla has no doubt that many components if not causes of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) can be traced to such misbegotten concepts about learning and intelligence. She talks about three-year olds, boys particularly, whose motor skills hardly allow them to manipulate a pencil properly. Watch them, she says, they are still at an age when they simply can’t work the thumb and index finger, and so, pushed, they try to write with their hands, different musculature. The habit will be hard to break when they are older and computers notwithstanding, they will suffer difficulty, if not pain.
When her book is finished, Dr. Denckla insists it be a paperback and cost no more than $20 because she wants to get her message out. “Older is better.” In fact, brain circuitry isn’t fully completed until about the age of 30. Want to know why more girls are going to, and succeeding in, college? It’s not because they’re more intelligent but because they’re more mature and can organize their brain circuitry and skills earlier. When she was a girl, she sighs, algebra used to be presented in the 9th grade. Now it’s introduced years earlier: “we’re pushing kids over the edge.” Parents, teachers, principals, superintendents would be well advised to get a copy of Dr. Denckla’s (see it, say it and do it with speed) Rapid Naming Test, and, of course, to heed her heartfelt words and expert findings.
Dr. Denckla will be speaking on Friday, May 19th at the NYU’s Child Study Center. Call for info.#