Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Your Child Is Not "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 wherever 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've had the opportunity these past few years to travel around the world to talk to teachers and parents. Every place I go I find myself discussing this bizarre notion of "school readiness." Often translated in the US as "kindergarten readiness," it 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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Stephanie Binder said...

Thank you Tom! It's up to all of us, teachers as well as parents, to put an end to early academics and the relentlessly time-sucking, happiness crushing drive to give kids some kind of non-existent "leg up."

What everyone seems to forget is that human beings have been on this planet a very long time (not as long as dinosaurs, as a 9-year-old student reminds me). Our success has had a lot to do with play, growing generation after generation of creative, adaptable, and cooperative adults.

We (parents as well as teachers) seem to forget that kids need to MOVE. Want reading and math readiness? Emphasize joyful movement, especially in nature.

Here's really excellent proof.

"Reading Readiness Has to Do With the Body"


"Uncoventional Guide to Improving Handwriting"


Carolyn said...

Again, I couldn't agree with you more! Children develop at different levels and labeling them because they are not "at level" is cruel. Intelligence has nothing to do with how early your child reads or how many facts he can spew out. Teaching children to question, think for themselves, find answers to their questions, and letting them have time to play is what will make them successful in life. I homeschooled my child from 2nd grade until high school, and at some points we couldn't do much of anything because her OCD was so bad (obsessive compulsive disorder). She couldn't hold a book or look at pictures of people, or sit still for more than five minutes, but I read to her every night (some books that I didn't even know some of the words, or had sentences that went on for a whole page), we explored outside, and looked up answers to her questions. She didn't get a formal education and missed a lot of information, but she learned how to learn. She reads daily and graduated with high honors from high school, and is going to college. We concentrated on her strengths and excepted her weaknesses. It is a shame that schools can't do this.

Unknown said...

The only problem is kids 'reading rockets' take off a different times. (As I often explain to them) And kids know when 'xxx' is reading and they are not (or are much further behind). Then self esteem blumments if we are not careful. Kids do make comparisons. Self-esteem and confidence are essential to the process of learning to reading. With a bunch of 25 kids, they are all going to be 'ready' for reading a different times but they do all happen to be in the same class! There in lies the reality!

Unknown said...

I was pushed into signing my little one, just turned 3 for preschool. She likes it, but isn't it ridiculous. She has medical issues that classify her as special needs but she is developmentally on track. Reading the article make s me feel like pulling her out..

Unknown said...

Great post TT!

Jayneen... as a grade 1 teacher who fully believes in letting kids call the shots on readiness, I do understand how much confidence plays into reading. But teachers who create classroom cultures where all reading behaviours are valued, where all skillsets, talents, types of representation (not just writing) are valued, can help build that confidence. It's also our job to help parents understand this.

Anonymous said...

Good on you Tom! I totally agree with you, thanks for sharing this for all us parents, so much so that I shared your article on my blog www.sixdegreesofselina.com Thanks :-)