Vygostky and the education of infants and toddlers: A conceptual framework based on the notion of inclusion of typical and atypical children

Angeles Molina Iturrondo, Ed.D.

Carmen Milagros Velez Vega, MSW

University of Puerto Rico

R_o Piedras, Puerto Rico

In April, 1993, the University of Puerto Rico's Medical Sciences Campus began to operate a child development center for infants and toddlers based on the notion of inclusion. The center serves 40 boys and girls between two months and three years of age. At least twenty percent of the children have one or multiple forms of developmental disabilities or delays. Children with special needs are integrated in groups of children with typical development, within an environment that is appropriate for infants and toddlers. The fundamental goal is to foster optimal development in all participating children, regardless of their developmental disabilities or delays, thus capitalizing on each child's developmental strengths. By strengths it should be understood any physical, cognitive, affective or social ability that becomes an asset to the child in the process of transcending potential limitations imposed by a particular developmental lag or condition. Therefore, the educational intervention is predicated on the idea of the optimization of the human potential as early as in infancy. In the case of children with atypical development, this type of intervention is intended to prevent the further expansion of handicapping conditions. The key factor in the achievement of the Center's goal is the quality of the social interaction as the tool for fostering optimal development. When referring to social interaction, we are talking about sensitive and warm human relationships established between caregivers and children, as well as among the children. These interactions are always mediated by language and reach far within intimacy of children's families. The nature of these interactions, characterized by their incursions on children's and caregivers' zones of proximal development, provide ample opportunities for the children and the caregivers to become active agents in the promotion of their own developmental process. The idea of the active human being is indeed a Vygostkian conception. A careful reading of Vygotsky's works (1962, 1978) points toward the proactive nature of children and adults, whom by virtue of their activities within the social milieu, elaborate solutions to a diverse variety of tasks and problems,that in this case are socio-cognitive and developmental.

The concept of inclusion

Inclusion is new pedagogical concept in the United States and Puerto Rico. It emerges from the legal right to integration of exceptional citizens in their least restrictive environment (Hehir & Latus, 1992). Integration was established by federal law in the United States through The Individual with Disabilities Act (IDEA, PL101-476). Nevertheless, two other important pieces of legislation, The Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights PCI (PL101- 496) as well as The American with Disabilities Act (ADA, PL101-336) also guaranty the social and academic integration of exceptional citizens (Rogers,1993). In educational establishments, integration embodies the right of exceptional children to be included with, and socially interact with typical peers of their own age. Therefore, inclusion is much more than having the special child in the classroom. Inclusion requires that the child be treated as a typical child except in those areas in which special attention is required. Vygotsky anticipated the concept of inclusion when he suggested that handicapped children needed to be educated together with typical children in challenging social environments. Tudge (1990, p.158) has pointed out that "...just as ontogenetic development is dependent upon the broad social and cultural conditions in society that have developed over time, so children's microgenetic development is dependent upon particular interactions they have with others". In the case of the present conceptual framework, adopting the Vygotskian point of view implies educating atypical infants and toddlers together and in challenging interaction with their typical peers.

Development in the early years

According to the Vygotskian socio-historical point of view, development is intertwined with learning from the child's first days of life (Vygotsky, 1978, p.84). However, learning as a form of social transaction with more competent peers and adults, is always ahead of development, exerting an overwhelming influence on its accomplishment. Vygotsky proposed the concept of the zone of proximal development to account for the performance difference between the actual and the next developmental level. Even though this concept was originally concerned with instruction and schooling (Tudge, 1990), it is also pertinent within the context of a developmental program for infants and toddlers. If we accept Vygotsky's notion that "human learning presupposes a specific social nature as a process by which children grow into the intellectual life of those around them" (Vygotsky, 1978, p.88), then it is necessary to extend and apply the zone of proximal development to the education of infants and toddlers, focusing on the nature and quality of the interaction of children among themselves and with the caregivers.

Human development is indeed, an active process of internal transformation of structures and functions. This process is multidirectional, dialectical, and continuous, taking place within the context of a particular set of socio-historical dimensions, that are also dialectical and dynamic. This process is strongly influenced by three factors: (1) the activities that human beings generate as they interact with the social environment from birth; (2) the cultural expectations and demands within a particular socio-historical context;(3) the biological dimensions (Molina Iturrondo, in press). These three factors interact among themselves, creating a complex array of reciprocal influences on the cognitive as well as socio-affective dimensions of the human development process.

Cognition and language in the early years

Early mastery of language is perhaps the fundamental developmental accomplishment taking place in the first years of life. Therefore, it is a key component in the conceptual framework we have conceptualized. According to the Vygotskian point of view, the significance of early language development probably emerges from the strong influence it exerts on the configuration of incipient thought processes. Ontogenetically, language starts off as a social phenomena, with a different genetic root from that of thought. Language is then internalized by the young child, thus providing the basic structures that eventually give form to verbal language and conceptual thought. Its our contention that the role of language in early development of infants and toddlers, in its oral and written expression should not be underestimated.

The research literature abundantly documents the exquisite relationship that seems to exist between frequent dialogic story reading with young children (Valdez-Menchaca & Whitehurst, 1992), and their cognitive, linguistic and metalinguistic development (Dickinson & Smith, 1994; Phillips & McNaughton, 1990; Whitehurst, Falco, Fischel, Debarsyshe, Valdez-Menchaca & Caulfield, 1988). Contemporary research literature also points toward the intimate relationship and continuity that seems to exist between the development of oral and written language in the preschool years (Kavanagh, 1991; Snow, 1983; Snow, Cancino, Ganz_lez & Shriberg, 1989). My own research in progress, a longitudinal case study on the origins and evolution of literacy in early childhood, has documented the powerful influence that dialogic story reading and the creative exploration of the written language, has exerted on one five-year-old girl's cognitive and linguistic developmental history since infancy (Molina Iturrondo, 1994). The early exploration writing has the potential for allowing very young children to discover its symbolic function. This process eventually evolves from a first to a second order of symbolism which requires the exercise of sophisticated cognitive processes that only have their true meaning within the social context where they are used. As Vygotsky (1978, 116) suggested, children's meaningful and playful engagement in literacy writing activities should be a "natural" component of early childhood education. Since for preschoolers, reading and writing are located in their zones of proximal development, these activities as creative and playful explorations need to be integrated in developmental programs for children as young as infants and toddlers.

Play and its role in early optimal development and learning.

Play is probably the activity that best defines childhood in eastern societies. As natural and spontaneous act, it emerges during the first year of life as a sensorimotor action. Eventually, sensorimotor play evolves into dramatic play. According to Vygotsky (1978, p.94), emerging dramatic play is not symbolic from the start, but it allows the child to realize tendencies and desires that cannot be gratified in any other way.

The Vygotskian point of view stresses the relationship between play, cognition and affective dimensions of development. But play is much more in the sense that it fosters an internal transformation in children (Vygotsky, 1978, p.101) that is fundamental in the developmental process. The reason is that play is an activity that also belongs into the zone of proximal development. As Vygotsky indicated, "In play, a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a bit taller than himself" (Vygotsky, 1978, p.102). Therefore, in the present conceptual framework, play becomes the best mean through which foster optimal development in the infants and toddlers, regardless of their developmental levels.

Final comments

The present conceptual framework, elaborated in an unpublished document (Molina Iturrondo, Alonso Amador, Velez Vega & Gonz_lez, 1994), represents a deliberate effort to provide theoretical guidance to the education of infants and toddlers in inclusion and regular programs in Puerto Rico. Modalities of educational interventions with infants and toddlers are very recent in Puerto Rico. Too frequently these interventions have been atheoretical, focusing only on the child care dimension. Through this conceptual framework, we hope to bring to light and openly discuss the urgency of adopting a socio-historical stance on early childhood education, that promises to be fruitful for enhancing all children's optimal development.


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