The Selective Use of TV and Videos for Advancing the Development of Special Needs, Typical and Accelerated Preschool Children

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Robert J. Doman Jr.

TV/Videos and The Preschool Child

For over twenty-five years, the National Association for Child Development (NACD) has had the opportunity to serve a large, international caseload of children covering the entire functional spectrum. Our work with innovating ways to accelerate the development of children with profound developmental issues (such as brain injury, autism and Down syndrome) has provided us with significant insight into the development and education of typical and highly capable children as well. Because NACD trains parents to work directly with their own children, we are privy to the structure of the child’s day, diet, and free time activities as well as their developmental, educational and therapeutic input and opportunities. Our unique position has afforded us the opportunity to find out, quite simply, what works.

We have found that carefully selected television programs, commercially available videos, and individually designed videos can be powerful tools for advancing the development of preschool children across the spectrum—from the severely developmentally delayed to the highly capable and gifted.

Using Television to Develop Visual Function

Our years of working on ways to improve visual function have yielded a number of techniques of visual stimulation. Many of these techniques have proven to be helpful not only in the development of vision but also as educational tools. One of these techniques involves the use of television. Below we offer a brief explanation of some fundamentals of child development, and specifically visual development—including some common problems that occur—to provide a framework for understanding how and why television, properly used, can be an important tool for helping even very young children develop and learn.

To develop well a child needs to follow a specific path and to move through the normal developmental steps fairly rapidly. At each stage of development there are specific things that the brain is learning to do. The brain will tend to keep working at a stage until the next piece starts to kick in. Staying too long in one stage is not a good thing. In normal development we see all children start off life as visualizers, meaning that they think in pictures not words. They think in pictures because words have no meaning. In normal development the ability to process language starts kicking in within six months or so, and the child begins to think in both pictures (visualizing) and words (conceptualizing). If it all happens as it should, language starts to develop, and we end up with a good balance between the ability to think in pictures and the ability to think in words.

Vision develops essentially the same way in all children although at different rates. The peripheral vision develops first, followed by the central (macular) vision. You avoid running into doorframes with your peripheral vision; you see detail, and learn, with your central vision. When reading a book, you are using your central vision. When looking at someone across a table, you see their face in detail using your central vision while the rest of the room is slightly blurred because only the small circumference of that face fits within your central visual field. One good way to recognize your central versus peripheral vision is to recall the after-effect of a flashbulb going off in your face. Your macula, the area responsible for your central vision, is located in a small spot on your retina, and it is very photo/light sensitive. When that flashbulb goes off it temporally bleaches out your macula so that you lose your central vision. The spots you see are actually temporary blind spots where your central vision should be. The development of your central/macular vision is very important to many aspects of learning and overall development. Many of the problems exhibited by children diagnosed with developmental delays result from the lack of properly developed central vision.

Problems with Visual Function in Autistic Children

One of the most common characteristics of autistic children is the lack of development of the central vision. Autistic children do not make good eye contact—not because they don’t like you, but because when they look directly at you they can’t see you. Autistic children typically havehyper (enhanced) peripheral vision and hypo (diminished) central vision. Therefore, they experience the visual world more through their peripheral vision and less clearly or not at all through their central vision. They display this lack of visual development in another characteristic commonly associated with many autistic children: They don’t watch television. Many will stand directly in front of a TV and bounce or display excitement in other ways, but they are not “watching” the TV, they are “stimming” with the TV. Essentially what the child is doing is engaging in a form of repetitive sensory play that amounts to “playing with what is broken” in their vision (i.e., their vision is not functioning properly because the central vision is undeveloped, therefore they are playing with—and reinforcing—their peripheral vision only).

The Danger of Stimming—“Debilitating Sensory Addictive Behavior”

There are many forms of repetitive sensory play, and all fall under the informal heading of “stimming,” short for self-stimulating behavior. NACD has developed new terminology for this behavior, which we call “Debilitating Sensory Addictive Behavior,” because of the addictive nature of the behavior and how detrimental it is to development and even to the structure of the brain itself.

Children can engage in Debilitating Sensory Addictive Behavior with any “broken” or underdeveloped sensory channel. Engaging in these repetitive behaviors actually becomes addictive, much like an addiction to a drug. As the child engages in the behavior his brain produces endorphins—which are feel-good chemicals that can become as addictive as narcotics. The more a child engages in the behavior, the more endorphins are produced, and the stronger the addiction becomes. Unfortunately, not only is the child becoming addicted to a useless behavior, he is reinforcing what is already wrong with his sensory system. As described above, kids stimming with television are strengthening their peripheral vision and failing to develop the central vision.

Autistic children (and other children with visual delays) learn a variety of ways to “stim” with their peripheral vision. They often become adept at spinning objects or flipping anything that is not nailed down in an effort to get their “fix.” NACD has discovered, however, that although the TV typically provides an autistic child with an opportunity to “stim,” the TV can also be utilized very specifically as a tool to develop the central vision. Developing the central vision is the key to normalizing the vision so that learning—rather than stimming—can occur. TV is, in fact, such a great tool for the development of central vision that if it did not already exist as an instrument for entertainment we would have had to create it as a therapeutic tool.

Early Stimulation of the Central/Macular Vision is Crucial to the Development of Children within the First Two Years of Life

As mentioned earlier, all children’s vision develops pretty much in the same sequence. Peripheral vision first, followed by central vision. Typical babies begin life using their peripheral vision; then, as they receive specific opportunities/stimulation to use their central vision, it develops as well. (It is no accident that nature’s survival system for babies is designed to place them eight to twelve inches from their mother’s face when being fed and held.)

A typical baby deprived of specific opportunities/stimulation will be slow to develop their central vision, and if they are very deprived of these opportunities they are in danger of becoming globally developmentally delayed. To some degree all babies “stim” simply because early on it is the only thing they can do. If they fail to develop the global neurological maturity needed to engage in exploratory or play behaviors, they become increasingly adept at stimming, and their development slows or stops. Early stimulation of the central/macular vision is crucial to the development of children within the first two years of life.

How Reading to Your Child Stimulates Development: Vision, Language, Sequential Processing

It is often said that if you can’t do anything else with your baby, read to them. As most parents discover, “reading” to babies and very young children involves not so much reading text as it does looking at picture books with them, pointing to or directing their vision to specific pictures (or, if you will, teaching them to use their central vision). The closer something is to a child, the more the child’s central vision is engaged and the less peripheral distraction there is.

No one questions the importance of reading to children, but it is important to look at the development that occurs throughout the process. When you read to your child there are the obvious psychological/bonding /nurturing benefits. There are also very significant auditory benefits. Essentially, we use reading to teach children a “foreign” language—their first language. Initially we point to a single object and name it “puppy,” then we expand the information as the child’s receptive language skills develop, and it becomes “black puppy,” then “little black puppy.” We proceed along, matching visual information (the pictures) to the auditory cues (the words). In so doing we are not only teaching language, we are also developing a vitally important neurological function—we are developing the child’s ability to take in and manipulate pieces of auditory and visual information in a sequence. This ability to process information is called “sequential processing.”

NACD Innovates Methods of Developing Sequential Processing

At NACD we have been investigating and working on methodologies to build and develop auditory and visual sequential processing, as these are the basic components that give us access to our innate intelligence. (NACD has actually started an international initiative to raise the sequential processing skills of people all over the world through a program called “The Project 9 +/-2.”) We have found the act of reading to a young child—or showing a child pictures and naming them—achieves a vital step in the developmental process.

Stimulating Central Vision

How much does a young child learn from a book or picture card twelve to eighteen inches from their eyes as opposed to things placed further away around the room? NACD’s findings suggest that a young child learns a lot from things placed at the distance of a book being read, and much less from things across the room. When we bring a book up to a child we are pulling it into their central visual field. At twelve inches the child may be seeing a significant part of the page in detail, and with the peripheral field being limited it is relatively easy for the child to attend and to see the image. If you held a book out ten feet and had the child look at it, you would find the child’s attention would generally be much shorter and more difficult to hold because, at that distance, the child would have difficulty locating the image within his central visual field. This is because when attempting to see a small object held at a ten-foot distance, perhaps 95% of the child’s visual field would be peripheral, not central. Remember, peripheral vision develops before central vision, so for young children, particularly those under two years of age, their focus is constantly pulled to those things around the periphery. In other words, they are “visually distracted” or “distractible.” The more visually distracted the child is, the less she will pay attention to visual cues, thus the less attention she will pay to the information being “taught,” and the less stimulation and development of the central/macular vision will occur.

Will My Child Learn More in Preschool than at Home?

At NACD we have been privileged to work with some of the most motivated and informed parents in the world. All of the families we work with—be they parents of children with significant developmental issues or parents of “typical” children—wish to help their children achieve their innate potential. They come to us because they want to assume the primary responsibility for their child’s development and education. They want the best for their children and use schools and outside services only as an adjunct to what they do at home with their children. For many of these exceptional families one of their first big decisions is if and when to start their children in daycare or preschool situations.

Ultimately the answer comes down to the needs and resources of the family. But, one of the questions asked more often than not is, “Is my preschool child going to learn more at a school than at home?” The younger the child, the simpler the answer because the younger the child the more they need direct, one-on-one contact and interaction. The younger the child, the more specific the developmental/educational input needs to be. In general, nothing beats one-on-one teaching. Teaching one child at a time permits the input to be designed to fit the individual; it also permits virtually immediate modification of the input in response to the child. Most parents are not even aware of how often and how rapidly they modify what they are doing with their child when they are interacting one-on-one. For example, if you observe a parent looking at a book with their child you will see the parent constantly responding to the child’s cues. If the parent picked a book with more text than the child can process, you will see the parent start to simplify the story or even start just pointing at the pictures and talking about them; they may even put the book away and get another or go to something else altogether, naturally and spontaneously modifying the input to fit the child. The further you get from the 1:1 teacher to student ratio, the more difficult it becomes to provide children with the specific, appropriate input needed to stimulate their brains and maximize their developmental progress.

The Significance of the Learning Environment

There are tremendous differences in the quality of preschool learning environments.
Preschool children are distractible and have short attention spans. It comes with the territory. Preschoolers have short attention spans because their sequential processing skills have not yet developed to where they can process a lot of associated pieces of information. They can move from this to that, taking in little pieces and chunks of information, but they cannot attend to one subject for a long time if their processing is not up to the task.

The significance of the learning environment cannot be overstated for children at this age. The more distractions there are in the environment, the more difficult it is for young children to filter out the extraneous input and focus their attention, even if there is something in the environment that is appropriate to their learning level. How many adults would attempt to study new information in an environment containing the distractions that exist in a room full of preschool children and a lot of “fun stuff?”

Many parents ask about putting their children in schools and situations with other children so that they can learn from the other children. NACD recommends parents be very selective about such situations. The better organized and structured the environment is, and the fewer visual and auditory distractions in the environment, the better the odds are that any child will in fact learn something specific and appropriate.

Learning Occurs when Specific Input is Provided with Sufficient Frequency, Intensity and Duration—Random Input is Distracting

In any given environment a child will generally learn that which is being presented with the greatest intensity. Imagine a room with fifteen or twenty children where a few are playing in a sand box, a couple are looking at books, a few more are painting, a group are huddled around a teacher reading to them, and one is throwing a humongous tantrum because he can’t have the truck he wants. Guess what is being presented with the greatest intensity—and guess what is being learned? The reality is that for most preschool-aged children in a room with many other kids, a myriad of toys, and a lot going on, it is very difficult for them to learn what we would like them to learn. Learning/development occurs when we provide the brain with specific appropriate input, and the input must be provided with sufficient frequency, intensity and duration. Random input is distracting, and random extraneous input does not stimulate neurological development or the learning process.

Using Video Tapes to Teach

I have been known to tell parents to save their money and not send their child to the preschool, but to go to the preschool and videotape a child doing the things they would like their child to learn. Video tape a child climbing the slide, doing the monkey bars, riding the trike, drawing a circle, taking off their coat—doing any of the things they would like their child to learn from another child—then let their child watch it at home.

I used to do a lot of all-day seminars. We would start off with my speaking throughout the morning, then take a lunch break, and, because we had a lot of information to give the attendees in a day, we would show a video of me speaking during lunch. After lunch, we would follow up with me speaking live throughout the afternoon. A lot of me! After we had done a number of these seminars I started to watch the attendees during the lunch break, and it became evident that they paid better attention to me on the video than when I was standing in front of them. The videos were no great production—they were simply a talking head, my talking head, the same head they had been hearing all morning—but the audience seemed more focused and less distracted watching me on TV than when I was standing in front of them. Once we recognized this phenomenon, our first thought was that our society is in big trouble because we have become so trained to watch the tube that these adults were simply reflecting that training. (To some degree that may be true—I don’t think too many people would argue that the use of audiovisual media has been abused, particularly with children, and that the majority of the content is garbage.) But the answer was not so simple as that. We wanted to understand what was going on in the brain that would make people pay more attention to a person on TV than to the same person standing live before them. One of the questions we asked ourselves in order to find the explanation was, “Who does notwatch television, and why not?”

Well, experience had shown us that many autistic children do not “watch” television; little babies do not watch television; many children with obvious visual issues do not watch television; many children with globally low developmental function do not watch television; and, except for brief moments on Animal Planet, my dogs don’t watch television. And what do all of these examples of individuals who do not watch TV have in common? They all have poor or underdeveloped central/macular vision.

As we looked further into this and explored the development of attention to television in our children, we came to the realization that television provides a unique form of visual stimulation. The images on television can only be perceived using central/macular vision; one cannot process the information on the screen with peripheral vision. Children with poor or underdeveloped macular vision do not attend to television because they cannot see it; the image provides them with no meaningful information.

NACD Discovers TV Can Be a Powerful Tool for Visual Therapy and More

We decided if we needed to develop central/macular vision then perhaps we needed a specific instrument that required the use of that vision—the TV. We started having parents sit in darkened rooms about two or three feet from the TV, with their “blind” or visually impaired, or autistic, or delayed, or simply young children, and we “taught” them to watch TV. For content we used whatever we felt would best attract the individual child’s attention. We used a lot of homemade videos of everything from Mom talking directly to the child to videos of themselves or siblings, to spinning objects and black and white shapes. We incorporated their favorite music and voices and in general used whatever we felt might attract their attention. In the vast majority of cases the children would first glance at the TV and then, generally, over a relatively short period start attending for longer and longer periods of time. Within a short time the children did start to attend to the television and develop their central vision. They then began to make eye contact, and look at books and pictures better, and in fact do all the things they should be doing with their central vision to learn about their environment. In autistic children we saw a significant decrease in the visual sensory play (Debilitating Sensory Addictive Behaviors) and a corresponding improvement in their overall function.

Not only were we discovering that the children’s visual function was improving, but because of the content we were using, the auditory and language skills were developing as well. Once we had the children attending to the TV, we started to experiment with content, and many of the programs we designed for families began containing various therapeutic and educational videos.

TV Screen Holds Visual Attention, Helps Brain Tune Out Peripheral Distractions

So, back to my mesmerized audience, why did they attend so well to the talking head on TV? We found the answer, once again, by working with our clients. As we began to use therapeutic videos, we were happy to see that many children learned exceptionally well using the methodology, but we were surprised to find that many parents were having the same experience I had at my seminars. The children were often attending better and learning better from the videos than when the family was actually presenting the information live! We were learning that not only is television a great tool for developing central vision in children, but it really is an outstanding educational tool.

Observing our audiences’ and clients’ responses taught us that television—and computer—screens provide stronger macular input than other images. As I am writing this article my vision is focused upon my computer screen. The screen offers such strong macular stimuli that my brain almost entirely tunes out the peripheral field. If I look up from my screen to my coffee cup, for example, not only do I see the cup, but also my vision gets pulled out to everything else that is cluttering up my desk because the cup does not have the same power as the computer does to hold my central vision. Now, when I switch off my computer screen and look across my office to a twelve-inch television (not turned on) that is sitting on my credenza, my vision is pulled to the books, pictures and various memorabilia I have on my shelves. The TV before it is turned on has no more—and probably less—power to hold my attention than most anything else. But, turn the television on and everything else goes away. If I turn the TV off again and look at the credenza, most everything there has the same ability to attract or detract from my visual attention. We can safely assume that for a young child who is just developing their central vision, the peripheral distraction they have to deal with is significantly more compelling than mine.

Videos are Powerful Learning Tools—Content Counts

As NACD learned to use therapeutic and educational videos, we encouraged families to make their own videos. These included close-ups of Mom saying words and emphasizing the various sounds heard in the English language; showing objects and naming them; filming animals and naming them; modeling directions being followed; modeling progressions in expressive language; modeling self-help skills; showing children how to crawl, ride a bike, and do long division. We have found this kind of video to be an excellent tool for stimulating development and teaching knowledge and skills.

In recent years, commercially prepared videos and DVD’s have been developed specifically for babies and young children. Some are really good, and some not so good. If the content is good—that is, it is teaching the child to identify a letter or a number, or to differentiate between a cow and a horse, or modeling appropriate actions and behaviors, that is all fine. I believe commercial producers are just beginning to scratch the surface relative to content, and they have a long way to go before they really understand the best ways to present the information. However, the tool exists, and it is powerful.

It is important for parents to understand that videos can be an extremely useful tool in the education of young children, but they should be selected carefully and used judiciously. There certainly can be too much of a good thing. And, any amount of a bad thing is too much! I personally find most children’s television programming to be horrendous. In the language of computers, “Garbage in—garbage out.” Content counts.

I also find that parents are spending far too little time interacting with their children. It seems our society subtly pressures parents to abdicate the responsibility for their child’s development and education to the “professionals.” I personally do not perceive most daycare and preschool programs as a good thing. So few of them recognize or provide an optimal environment for neurological development and learning. In our current culture they are a necessary reality for many families in which both parents need to work. However, we must not kid ourselves into thinking that having a two-year-old spend eight hours a day in preschool/daycare is a good substitute for quality time spent with parents. When it comes to helping young children learn and grow, the more one-on-one interaction the better.

Informed Parental Involvement is the Key to Good Child Development

I often comment that those of us who function reasonably well are lucky accidents, and those who don’t are not so lucky. The reason I feel this way is that most parents do not have much of a clue as to what pieces need to come together for their children to end up having their neurological act together, and, unfortunately, it appears most professionals do not either.

We can continue to throw more money at education, increase the hours children spend in school, and develop yet more reading and math programs that are not significantly different than the thousand that preceded them, but until we get back to parents taking a primary role in teaching their children, and acknowledge the necessity of providing individual attention and an environment that nurtures neurological development, we are going to continue to see our children fail to achieve their innate potentials.

To stimulate a brain—to teach a child—we need to provide specific, developmentally appropriate input. If we provide a child with appropriate input in an appropriate environment, not only will learning occur but the brain will learn how to process more information better. It is up to parents to make sure that information is of a quality that enhances the physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth of our children. Parents who do so are their children’s heroes, and the children of such parents are our society’s hope for the future.

Reprinted from the Journal of The NACD Foundation (formerly The National Academy for Child Development)

Reprinted by permission of The NACD Foundation, Volume 19 No. 5, 2006 ©NACD