Thursday, August 14, 2014

"Falling Behind"



































What would you think if you saw a mother hovering over her two month old infant drilling her on vowel sounds? Or how about a father coaching his five month old on the finer points to walking? I expect you would think they were at best wasting their time: two month olds can't talk and five month olds can't walk, let alone be taught. Talking and walking are things children just learn. Now imagine that when these babies failed to acquire these capabilities that are clearly beyond their developmental grasp, these parents began to fret that their child was "falling behind." You would think they were crazy. If a doctor told these parents their child was "falling behind" we would think he was either incompetent or cruel.

Sadly, there are actually people out there doing things like this. I've written before about hucksters who assert that babies can be taught to read and there are devices on the market that purport to help babies learn to walk. The good news is that while there are some naive parents who fall for such gimmickry in the misguided attempt to somehow one-up nature's long, successful history of "teaching" talking and walking according to well-established developmental timelines, most of us know better than to worry about these things that virtually every child stressless-ly learns without any special interventions.

My own daughter spoke her first word at 3 months old, consistently saying "Papa" when I played and cared for her: she was putting together full sentences before 6 months. This same "advanced" child didn't crawl until her first birthday and wasn't walking until close to 20 months, a full lifetime "behind" some of her peers. Today, as you might expect, she talks and walks like the rest of the teenagers: if she was ever behind she caught up, and if she was ever ahead, the others caught up with her.

This unsavory practice of taking advantage of new parent insecurities in the name of profit is one that deserves to be called out where ever it rears its nasty head, and it's borderline criminal when they play the "falling behind" card, which is why I'm writing today.

I'm not here in Australia to talk to teachers about this bizarre notion of "school readiness," but every place I've been the subject has cropped up in the discussion. "School readiness," often translated in the US as "kindergarten readiness," is essentially code for reading. It seems that the powers that be in our respective nations have decided to sell parents on the snake oil that if your child isn't starting to read by five-years-old she is "falling behind." They are doing this despite the fact that every single legitimate study ever done on the subject recommends that formal literacy education (if we ever even need it) not begin until a child is seven or eight years old. They are telling parents and teachers that children are "falling behind" despite the fact that every single legitimate study ever done finds that there are no long term advantages to being an early reader, just as there are no long term advantages to being early talkers or walkers. In fact, many studies have found that when formal literacy instruction begins too early, like at 5, children grow up to be less motivated readers and less capable of comprehending what they've read. That's right, if anything, this "school readiness" fear-mongering may well turn out to be outright malpractice.

But the worst thing, the unforgivable thing, is the cruelty of the assertion that five-year-olds are "falling behind." It's one thing when commercial interests attempt to move their crappy merchandise by playing on fears, but when schools are doing it, when teachers are doing it, that's unconscionable. Listen, I'm a staunch supporter of my fellow teachers here on these pages, but I am calling my colleagues out on this one. Teachers should know better than to help these guys sell this stuff: it's bad for kids, it's bad for families, and it's bad for society. We are the professionals. Teachers need to put our collective foot down, point to the research, rely on our own experience, and if we can't refuse to subject young children to developmentally inappropriate, potentially harmful "readiness" garbage for fear of losing our jobs, the least we can do is refuse to take part in the crass abusiveness of "falling behind." If we can't do that maybe we don't deserve to call ourselves professionals.


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21 comments:

Courtney Ostaff said...

http://curmudgucation.blogspot.com/2014/07/picking-your-fights.html.

Aunt Annie said...

Oh, amen to that. I fear that some parents are actually trying to teach their child to be 'gifted', which is not possible; early readers (I was one) are not taught to read, they just learn it by a sort of mental osmosis. Those children WILL be ahead, or at least they will until the school system manages to drag them down and make them hide their light under a bushell because they're inconveniently advanced. It seems the admin is never happy. Be better earlier, they scream! But not too much better!

Sandra Gumula said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Thank you. As a parent and teacher I am often appalled at how often parents and kids are told they are falling behind. There is such a race to get kids to become adults and possess skills that are not necessarilydevelopmentally aappropriate.

I always appreciate your posts and advocacy for children.

delightseeker said...

This article is beautiful, and perfect for me today. As a preschool teacher for many years, I've always felt this way. As a parent, I've somehow let myself worry whether my own child is developing properly. I just dropped him off for his first day of school without me, and found myself crying, as I struggle to let go. Reading this article, I felt my shoulders drop as I let go of the fear that I haven't taught him enough. Thank you so much.

Jaclyn Curtis said...

Once again spot on Tom! Let them be little. My son was 'falling behind' at 6 because he didn't read (he wasn't interested) I encouraged a love of reading (by reading to him, not pushing him with sound cards). At 10 he is reading at an adult level. As a 4/5 year old I ignored work sheets and flash cards and we experienced play, often being told that he was falling behind. Children need to learn things when they are ready, it's that simple. :) Love your blog, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Amen. I will spread the word!

Teri said...

Well put! I like your page very much.Your program sounds great! I teach four-year-olds in a public school in Massachusetts. There is constant talk about "getting them ready for kindergarten." I started here three years ago and my two assistants used those words in the first month of school. It was culture shock for me. I had just come from a wonderful child-centered lab school at Tufts Univ. and from a public nursery school in England where those words were never uttered. (I previously worked in public schools here for 17 years and it was hardly talked about.) I try to emphasize the here and now. Let's embrace it! It's such a wonderful place to BE! I am working on this with the colleagues around me. I want to abolish the term "preschool." It's not pre- anything really. In England they say "nursery school" and in France it's "la maternelle." I hope you don't mind me pointing out something I noticed in your bio. You say that kids leave you "ready for kindergarten." I know what you mean, but I think it perpetuates the misguided ideas you are speaking about here. Kindergarten should be ready for them, don't you think? Thanks! Teri

Mindy H. said...

This is a Letter to the Editor just published in the Indianapolis Star. I feel your frustration!
http://ux.indystar.com/story/opinion/readers/2014/08/12/promote-value-play-kindergarten-students/13966091/

Anonymous said...

If I could afford a bespoke event I would organise a Teacher Tom talk at our daughters' preschool.

Our daughters' preschool here on the Northern Beaches of Sydney started a Letter of the Week program early this year for their Kangaroos group (mostly 3.5 to 5 year olds, though some start kindergarten much earlier than 5!). I think the program started around March and they are doing one letter of the alphabet a week till the end of the year. Like most "good" preschools these days, they pride themselves on having a play-based curriculum. I was the only parent to complain and back up my arguments with research. The annoying thing in these cases is that you can't just pull out your child, when they love the place, have heaps of fun and good friends there.. Long story cut short, my daughter is the only one not following the letter of the week program. I have to admit, though, they seem to have handed it really well, and she spends more time doing painting or similar with the Joeys or by herself (her choice) during this time.

Unlike most children here, our daughter won't start kindergarten till she's 2 months off 6 years old. Until then, she'll be attending this supposedly play-based preschool 3 times a week and a bush kindy once a week (both together with her little sister).

claudia said...

Thank you for this. You are a shining beacon of reason in the world of early childhood education.

Parenting with Heart and Mind said...

I completely agree, Tom! My 15 year old loved to read on her own until in elementary school, they required and pushed reading like it was meant to be an obsession. She was literally told to carry a book everywhere and read in every spare moment. That is great for the classic bookworm for whom this may come naturally, but it made her hate books and avoid reading. Thankfully, the desire is returning to her in High School, where she sees through these senseless tactics and has the wherewithal to stick up for herself. Thank you for calling this out.

Annie Hosking said...

In the UK our conservative government is pushing reading and writing down into the early years curriculum. This is opinion based policy, not evidence based policy. I feel incredibly frustrated by this but I have to find a way of working with it while trying not to do too much damage.

Trisha said...

Thank you for your voice!

Hi from Ruth! said...

Thank you for your post...as a h/schooling parent, I couldn't agree more.
My 10-year-old son resisted my earlier attempts to teach him how to read and so I essentially left him alone - after receiving much wise advice from other homeschooling parents, I just decided to wait until he was ready (not an easy thing to do in our society). just three months ago, he developed an overnight-sudden interest in learning how to read and asked if we could work together so that he could learn. Within four DAYS, he was reading almost at 'grade' level. It was like watching a miracle unfold before my eyes...he had clearly absorbed things over the years and he was simply, suddenly, developmentally ready to read, and now I amazingly have a child who loves reading.

I hope it's ok if I publish your blog post on my blog, with all credit going to you (obviously!) and including a link to your blog. Here's my blog for reference: www.ruths-rambles.blogspot.com

Thanks for posting!

Ruth

Leah Mosca said...

I completely agree with Tom, Readiness as it's often termed, should be about Educators and Families working together, supporting their children to cope at School..... Personally, Socially and Emotionally.

Sure familiarize children with literacy, math and science through fun exploratory play.

If we don't build on skills related to PSE, then we are not aiding their next natural steps of learning.

With what recent studies show then we should be stronger advocates for Children's RIGHTS TO BE 0-7 year olds...shouldn't we?

Leah Mosca said...

http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/discussion/school-starting-age-the-evidence

Teacher Tom said...

Of course, Ruth. Please just provide a link back here! Thanks!

Karen said...

I'm really enjoying this blog. My kids are just starting in the Australian system which has made compulsory schooling starting from as early as 4.5yo. I don't know much about the evidence behind it or behind reading - I thought it could be a bit mixed as to early start vs late start?

That said, my experience is that kids are learning to read in pre-primary/kindy to please the adults - not to work something out for themselves. I don't know if that is universal or just what I thought I was seeing.

One activity I love to do with my kids is to read aloud to them and the kids "act" out the book as I'm reading. The kids love it and it means they have to listen to the words, create the characters (either themselves or with other props like stuffed toys etc) and then show the story back to me as I'm reading to them. It might be too chaotic for a classroom but it is perfect for my two kids at home. It also shows me how much of the words they are understanding and how much they are getting out of the books I'm reading to them as well as making comprehension active and fun.

So much of "reading to kids" advice being sold to parents seems so prescriptive (ie create a routine and make it a habit..) when I believe it should be much more active and fun and engaging from the kids end.

Best Blogger said...

Education becomes wonderful when the same was taught by the wonderful teachers. It will even more beautiful when it comes through the preschoolers. Your Post is the Best ID Card of Successful teachers who always strive to teach differently.

Hayley said...

Oh thank you thank you, my delightful 5yr old daughter's teacher keeps telling me she is not at standard, it is heart breaking and frustrating and it makes me sooooo angry. This teacher has also made my child anxious about her reading, 'because she is not going to move up with her reading group'. Not a happy Mum!

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