Summer Blog Series: Highlights from The Bulletin (#8)

This Summer, we are sharing some of our favorite articles published this past year in The Bulletin. Enjoy! 

Protecting Childhood in the Digital Age:  A Look at Waldorf Education and The Big Disconnect by Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair

By Vanessa Lee, Bulletin Coordinator

Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair came to Green Meadow Waldorf School on November 1 and spent a full day talking and working with students, faculty, and parents.  As a developmental and clinical psychologist, her views of children’s development echo Rudolf Steiner’s view of developmentally appropriate education.  The Waldorf philosophy of meeting the children where they are is founded on the understanding that each child goes through three distinct phases of development: early childhood (birth to 7), grade school (7-14), and adolescence (14-21).  In each phase, the child is engaged physically (willing), emotionally (feeling), and mentally (thinking); however, one aspect of this three-dimensional approach is emphasized based on what is developmentally appropriate.  Early childhood is grounded in willing; grade school in feeling, and high school in thinking. 

In The Big Disconnect:  Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, Dr. Steiner-Adair breaks down her research into five phases of childhood:  The Brilliant Baby Brain (birth to 2); Mary Had a Little iPad (3 to 5); Fast Forward Childhood (6 to 10); Going, Going, Gone (11 to 13); and Teens, Tech, Temptation, and Trouble (Teens).  Her book discusses the developmental needs within each stage and how media and technology can affect children.  The following article discusses the phases of childhood, the GMWS media policy, and the research from The Big Disconnect about the impact of media and technology on childhood and on parenting.

Early Childhood (birth to 7):  A Healthy Will (Character Skill Development)

The Waldorf approach to Early Childhood education focuses on creating an environment and rhythm where the child is able to develop, from within, what in Waldorf Education is referred to as a healthy will.  A healthy will can also be described as a set of character skills, and those include impulse control, perseverance, reverence, curiosity, and optimism.  This is nourished through self-initiated play, work, movement, and stories.  Free, unstructured play develops emotional maturity through social interactions as well as developing a child’s attention span through problem solving and imaginative thinking.  Imitation is also key in Waldorf Early Childhood education, as it is through imitation that children at this stage learn.  The child’s imagination becomes activated by what is offered through oral storytelling and puppetry.  The skills which are developed in the first seven years become the foundation upon which future learning takes place.  The gift of a media-free early childhood protects the space within the child where the development of these character traits is taking place.

Early Childhood:  GMWS Policy

In an effort to support this developmentally appropriate education, the GMWS media policy states that “children enrolled in the Early Childhood program at Green Meadow should be given the gift of a media-free childhood…” (p. 29, GMWS Parent Handbook)

You Can’t Reboot Childhood – The Big Disconnect

In The Big Disconnect, Dr. Steiner-Adair advocates for a tech-free infancy and toddlerhood.  She says that “too much tech at any age, but especially too early an introduction to it – before age two – shortchanges a young child on the time and mix of experiences the sensorium [brain] needs for well-rounded development.”  (p. 78, The Big Disconnect)  The images that come through electronic devices come very quickly, more quickly than a young child’s brain is equipped to handle.  Apps are made to stimulate but this stimulation is detrimental to a young child’s brain development.  Young children also need to move and sedentary media does not engage a child’s will forces, which are at the center of Waldorf Education during these early childhood years.

Middle Childhood (7 – 14):  A Healthy Feeling Life

Once a child enters first grade at a Waldorf School, the education shifts from a focus on willing to a focus on feeling.  The child’s feeling life is engaged through a close connection to the class teacher who cycles with them, usually for several years.  The child’s learning develops through their inner engagement with stories and art as well as movement and music.  The world of science and math as well as language arts are taught by engaging the whole child and working with the feeling life.  There is a rhythm of inner and outer movement and focus that nurtures the natural ebb and flow of children’s attention.  In this section, Lower School (Grades 1-5) and Middle School (Grades 6-8) will be separated, as there is an important developmental shift around the age of 12.

Lower School:  GMWS Policy (Grades 1 – 5)

At GMWS, our media policy grows with our children and recognizes a split in this 7-14 age group.  “Consistent with Waldorf Education’s emphasis on learning through direct experience, children in the lower grades (1-5) should be allowed to develop new ideas and attitudes based on real personal interactions, without the distortion of mediation through technology.  Children in the lower grades should not be exposed to electronic media in their daily lives.  They should not watch television, movies, or videos, play video games, or use computers.  Additionally, exposure to radio and recorded music should be limited and age-appropriate.” (p. 29, GMWS Parent Handbook)

Fast-Forward Childhood – The Big Disconnect

Dr. Steiner-Adair talks about the dangers of what she calls “Fast Forward Childhood.”  “At a developmental time when children need to be learning how to effectively interact directly, the tech mediated environment is not [emphasis mine] an adequate substitute for the human one” (p. 135).  Children need direct interaction with parents, siblings, friends, and teachers in order to develop social and emotional skills such as eye contact, understanding verbal cues, and understanding the impact of one’s words upon another person.  Texting takes all of this away.  At this age, children become more critical of themselves and others; social media and texting (in their one-sided, quip-style communication) can be easily misunderstood or used more maliciously as a platform for social cruelty.

When Dr. Steiner-Adair spoke to the parents at Green Meadow, she said that the World Wide Web is for adults, not children; and that a smartphone is not a phone but a handheld computer with access to the adult world of the web.  Today, we are three clicks or less away from disturbing images that young children and adolescents cannot process.  She cites many examples of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) in young adolescents who ended up on websites that were way above their developmental capacity.

Another important consideration for us as parents at this age are movies and exposure to TV.  Many movies and TV shows have adult images of good and evil, as well as violence.  When we read a book, our children create images in their mind.  This in itself is beautiful and should be cherished and we have to consider when and if we would allow the images from a book made into a movie to usurp the child’s own imagination. 

Another point Dr. Steiner-Adair makes is that the book and a movie are two very different experiences for children because “…a kid only imagines what his or her life experience allows, [and] watching violence is different from imagining violence.” (p. 127, quoting Michael Rich at the Center on Media and Child Health)

Middle School:  Transition to Media

GMWS is currently implementing a Cyber Civics course designed for the Middle School to help transition our children from a Lower School “No Media” policy to the High School “Know Media” policy.  Cyber Civics is a middle school digital citizenship and literacy program that meets an urgent and growing need to prepare students with the skills to be ethical, confident, and empowered digital citizens, and after much research and discussion, the program is beginning in January for grades 6-8.

Middle School:  GMWS Policy (Grades 6, 7, and 8)

“During Grades 6, 7, and 8, it is appropriate for students to have a gradual and guided introduction to the applications and use of electronic media.  During these transition years, use of and exposure to media should be very moderate, under clear parental guidance and participation, and not work to the detriment of the social and educational climate of the class.  Media exposure can be a socially divisive influence in these years and often works directly against what is brought in the classroom.” (p. 29, GMWS Parent Handbook)

Going, Going, Gone – The Big Disconnect

In the chapter on Tweens and Screens, Dr. Steiner-Adair says, “The idea of middle school as a transition zone between elementary and high school was created to punctuate the notoriously complicated three-year period in which children by 11 or 12 are no longer thinking and acting like they’re 8 or 9 but they are also not yet the relatively more sophisticated abstract thinkers they’ll be at 14 and 15.  It is the age of awkwardness and uncertainty.”  (p. 163)

She says that the preadolescent brain is not ready for the level of responsibility required for unrestricted access to online media, where a message or image can go viral in seconds and have serious consequences for both sender and subject.  “Hanging out, geeking out, and messing around all have a place in a healthy media diet for children this age.  But as a therapist, [she] also see[s] the darker side as pre-teens struggle with … body image and identity and flex their social power and capacity for cruelty more boldly and often anonymously online.” (p. 174)  She also cited research that middle school girls are the most likely group to give out personal information, including names and addresses, to strangers online.  She encourages parents to educate early and continuously, to set up house rules on the appropriate use of media, and to install parental controls on devices during this turbulent middle-school period.

Adolescence:  14-21:  A Healthy Thinking Life

In the Waldorf high school, the students are still engaged actively, emotionally, and thoughtfully; however, the focus shifts appropriately to thinking, which is developed through the subjects that are taught and through habits of mind that are cultivated.  Each year of high school presents a different question, which awakens specific aspects of human intelligence.  In Ninth Grade, the question is “What?” as students are asked to awaken their powers of observation further.  The question of “How?” is the focus in Tenth Grade as observation is expanded to include comparison.  Eleventh Grade brings the question “Why?” as the students develop powers of analysis and abstraction.  And Twelfth Grade is the time to step back and observe the whole, culminating in the question of “Who?” or “Who am I?” (Jack Petrash, Understanding Waldorf Education)

High School:  GMWS Policy

“The media policy in the High School recognizes that it is appropriate for 15- to 19-year-olds to learn to critically approach and effectively use media.  The school recognizes the importance of media literacy, including educating students to understand the technological principles underlying (and the social transformations resulting from) electronic media, and seeks to meet this need through a curriculum that includes internet research skills, computer programming, the science behind new technologies, and the social consequences of the ongoing media revolution. 

Because the inappropriate or excessive use of electronic media undermines teenagers’ living relationships to other people, the world around them, and themselves, however, parents should continue to monitor and limit their teenagers’ exposure to electronic and social media and should maintain an open dialogue with their teenage children about the role of media in their lives….”  (GMWS Parent Handbook, p. 30)

Teens, Tech, Temptation, and Trouble – The Big Disconnect

“Teens…[must balance the] disconnect between what they feel compelled or pressured to do, what they are emotionally and developmentally ready to do, and the desire to stay true to their self.” (p. 198)  This is true in all aspects of teenage life and heightened in the digital age.  Adolescence is the time for impulsivity and tech can delete the pause between impulse and action.  Additionally, “[t]he normalization of porn in teen life, the ease with which tech and texting are used as weapons of communication, the emotional intensity of the age, and the amoral environment of the online culture make it a dangerous mix in the hands of adolescents.” (p. 219) 

“Our children are quick to use tech, but how to set limits and use it wisely requires more self-discipline and emotional maturity than most…children have…developed.” (p. 156)  All technology can be addictive.  Video games, especially for preadolescent and adolescent boys, are created to be addictive with their immediate rewards, and have skewed gender and race representations.  Playing video games can adversely affect the developing brain by engaging the primitive brain which causes people to be reactive, less thoughtful, and unbalanced emotionally. 

Parenting in a Sustainable Family

On the evening of November 1, Dr. Steiner-Adair spoke to about 230 parents and guests in Rose Hall, and focused on the effect of adult tech use on the family.  She started the evening by telling us that we had chosen wisely in choosing Green Meadow Waldorf School for our children, as she was pleased by her observations around use of technology on campus and her conversations with the middle and high school students.  While there are positive and negative aspects of technology, she said, she encouraged us to be conscious in our own tech habits, especially around our children.  She cited examples of children trying to get their parents’ attention but unable to do so as the parent was texting or checking email.  She also said that when parents say they are “just checking” email, it typically lasts between 25 minutes and two hours.  In her research, children expressed anger, sadness, loneliness, and frustration when they were unable to get their parents’ attention. 

She noted three signs that we may be psychologically dependent on our cell phones: 

1. Someone else’s phone rings and we reach for ours;

2. Phantom ring syndrome: when we think we hear our phone ring;

3. Taking the phone into the bathroom. 

She also cited brain research that shows that our primitive brain becomes engaged while using our devices, causing empathy and hearing to decrease.  The challenge with not being able to read social clues, mentioned in earlier sections of this article, also applies to adults as we cannot read a person online in same way we can face-to-face.

Dr. Steiner-Adair cited five pivotal points in the day when it is good to be off of our devices: 

1. First thing in the morning – she cautioned against using smartphones as alarm clocks as the temptation to check email/text is too strong and can activate our primitive brain too early. (However, she also suggested that we get up half an hour earlier to text/email before the children get up rather than being distracted once they wake up);

2. Drives to school – don’t text and don’t let children be on their devices; the car is a great way to talk about family values;

3.  When children come home from school, as it is an important time to be fully present with our children and debrief the day;

4. When you come home from work, do not come home on the phone and do not check email as soon as you get home;

5. Bedtime and bathtime (for those with younger children).

Julie Scelfo, in her NY Times article entitled The Risks of Parenting While Plugged In (June 9, 2010) also cited children feeling hurt when their parents were on their devices instead of paying attention to them during three critical times: 

1. Meals;

2. Pick-up from school or extra-curricular activity;

3. Sports events. 

There are positive aspects of media and technology, including the social element, as they help us stay connected to extended family and friends. We all know, too, that they can be time-savers, as we can get quick responses via a text or our GPS helps us not to get lost.  However, as parents, we need to be aware of the dangers of technology as the values of many online activities, communities, and games are extremely toxic.  We need to move from being “clueless” to being informed and realistic.  Dr. Steiner-Adair also said that parents need to shift from being “scary and crazy” to being parents who are approachable and calm; we need to move from being a reactive parent to being a responsive one. (See box on page xx.) This applies to parenting with or without technology but the digital age has accelerated the pace of life and parenting and asks us to be even more conscious and responsive.

A positive outcome of having Dr. Steiner-Adair come to talk with our students, faculty, and parents is the information that was shared and the conversations that have ensued amongst the students, the parents, and the faculty.  Green Meadow Waldorf School is a community of individuals and families who are all striving to do our best in raising our children in this digital age and we can recognize and appreciate these efforts in each other.  As a family, we can protect unplugged time for all of us.  Creating a capacity for solitude is a true gift to our children and to ourselves; a time to hear our inner voice and connect to ourselves.  We can also look within our community for support in our approach to sustainable parenting in the digital age.