You are your child's first teacher

Oakwood expert shares early education advice for parents

DEARBORN, Mich. - It's important for your child to have a good relationship with his or her teacher, particularly at a young age, when their minds are developing at a rapid pace.

Fortunately, you already know who their first teacher will be: you.

"Children are very impressionable," said LaShorage Shaffer, a PHD candidate and instructor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and Oakwood Center for Exceptional Families. "They like to imitate their parents. You can be a positive role model."

You can set the foundation of a positive life-long learning attitude in your child by doing a few simple things every day, and you don't even have to wait until he or she is born. The first step is to read or communicate with your child. They can listen and learn while they are still in the womb.

"It doesn't have to be children's stories; you can read a newspaper," said Shaffer, who read textbooks aloud while studying in college and awaiting her first child. "Children just need to hear that language. Giving them lots of exposure to language through talk and through play is really important. It's going to help prepare them and build their vocabulary.  It'll help them participate in stories, and it'll enhance their creativity."

Parents can do simple things around the house to engage young children too. Talk about the process of cooking dinner while you're preparing the meal. Read the recipe aloud. Make up games while you're driving to build their recognition of colors and shapes.

"There's lots of ways to incorporate reading and language into your daily life," Shaffer said.

When you play with them, don't be afraid to get down on the floor and see things from their perspective.

Watch what they play with as well as how they play with it and engage them in their interests by asking questions -- even if they don't yet know the proper way to respond. Older teaching tools like board games can be very effective in fostering relationships and building cognitive skills, Shaffer said.

"A lot of parents think they have to keep up with the new gadget that's out there, but for a lot of kids that I see, they're more interested in the box that it comes in and what can they create with that box," she said. "Going back to basics is more important because it allows kids to develop their creativity and to problem solve with natural materials."

Shaffer also encourages parents to expose your children to different environments and different types of people. Take them out in the community, walk in nature, join play groups and take part in community activities.

"We should try to embrace that diversity and really show the value and respect that everybody brings to our world," Shaffer said. "Inclusive environments and inclusive schools offer the opportunity to learn from everybody—children with and children without disabilities gain from having that experience. Being able to work with peers of different ability levels should start very early in life. We all work with different people with different abilities. It should start early."

Finally, don't underestimate your value as your child's first teacher. 

"We know our kids the best," said Shaffer. "You don't go to school to be a parent, but realize that we teach other adults we work with by helping them with different skills. We can do the same thing with our children," she added. "We can help them develop any skills whether it's reading skills, social skills, language skills, we can do that as parents."

To learn more about the Oakwood Center For Exceptional Families, click here.

For additional resources on early childhood education, click here.

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