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Prof. Sieneke Goorhuis-Brouwer: ‘You can't treat toddlers as if they are already schoolkids’

24 November 2010

Children are being geared up for the knowledge economy at much too young an age. ‘The effect is counterproductive’, states Sieneke Goorhuis-Brouwer, professor by special appointment in Speech and Language Disorders at the University Medical Center Groningen. ‘Many children become over-stimulated or develop a fundamental insecurity that is expressed by all kinds of abnormal behaviour. We are seeing more and more healthy children with supposed developmental problems.

Professor Goorhuis-Brouwer mentions the recently introduced Ontwikkelingskansen voor Kwaliteit en Educatie [Development Opportunities through Quality and Education] Act as an example, which the government hopes will reduce language and arithmetic deficits. Educational programmes originally meant only for children with developmental problems are now being introduced in childcare facilities. ‘But children must experience every aspect of their toddler and pre-school period to the full’, is Goorhuis-Brouwer’s opinion. ‘When we talk about the nutrition and safety of children, we all know exactly what is needed. Nobody feeds a young baby on curly kale and smoked sausage. On the other hand, that is exactly what we are doing in education, metaphorically speaking. And then we’re surprised when the child develops stomach problems, again metaphorically speaking!’

Emotional stability

‘The best foundation is not that a child can read at a very young age, but that it develops emotional stability and can develop its own personality to the full’, according to Goorhuis-Brouwer. ‘If that is allowed to happen, children then learn everything put in front of them.’ At the moment, education is concentrating on later school success right from the start. ‘And that’s completely ignoring the development of the individual children.’

Behavioural problems

‘The number of children with behavioural problems is increasing hand over fist. Schools for special primary education are fuller than ever, but no-one seems to be asking themselves whether this might have something to do with our education system’, is Goorhuis-Brouwer’s conclusion. ‘You can’t treat toddlers as if they are already schoolkids. Neurologically they’re nowhere near ready for that.’

The very hungry caterpillar

Goorhuis-Brouwer compares toddlers to the very hungry caterpillar. ‘They stuff themselves with everything you offer them. How they are spoken to, which toys are available, the possibilities of playing make-believe, to climb or clamber around... these are the things that every toddler makes use of to develop in their own unique way. This is why you also see differences between children; they each process it all in their own way and at their own speed.’

Specialized primary teacher training

The problem highlighted by Goorhuis-Brouwer is partially acknowledged. From the educational side the demand for specialized primary teacher training is growing – differentiating between teachers for older and younger children. ‘Since the abolition of the nursery school and the introduction of the primary school 25 years ago, knowledge about young children has gradually ebbed away. Many teachers simply do not know how to deal with young children.’

Goorhuis-Brouwer is in favour of a primary teacher training specialization in the youngest children. Minister van Bijsterveld also thinks that the division should be reintroduced in the primary teacher training colleges. ‘I’m very keen on that’, says Goorhuis-Brouwer. ‘We need teachers again who see textbooks as a source of inspiration rather than being entirely dependent on them. Textbooks are too often treated like cookery books – take child a, get it to do b and the result is c. But young children make their own choices about how they process information.’

Their own way of learning

Teachers can support children in this process by observing them properly. ‘They have to develop an eye for the way that young children learn and challenge them with games, rhymes and songs. If you treat young children in the same way as a child of six or older, that just creates problems,’ states Goorhuis-Brouwer. ‘Literally.’

Children who are presented with information that they cannot yet process run a high risk of developing all kinds of problems, including behavioural. Fear of failure is just one example. Goorhuis-Brouwer: ‘I regularly see children in my office hour who think that they are stupid. “I can’t understand what the teacher means”, they say. The result is that they are no longer allowed to play at school but have to perform tasks to eradicate their developmental delay. People think that this is the best way to help children with their later school performance, but that is absolutely not the case.’

Curriculum vitae

Prof. Sieneke Goorhuis-Brouwer (1946) studied Orthopedagogy at the University of Groningen while simultaneously training in speech and audio therapy. She joined the Ear, Nose and Throat discipline group at the UMCG in 1977. In 1988 she gained her PhD with research into language development disorders in children. In 1999 she became Professor of Speech and Language Disorders in children (endowed chair). She conducts research into the epidemiology of speech and language problems and the effects of speech and language problems on the socio-emotional development of children.

Note for the press

More information: Prof. Sieneke Goorhuis-Brouwer, tel. (050) 361 3341, e-mail:

Last modified:12 March 2020 2.38 p.m.
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