Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Five-Year-Olds "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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Anonymous said...

Thank you again, TT, for helping the obvious become common sense again.

edblisa said...

I have a 14 yr old and an almost 12 yr old and live in an affluent suburb in MD outside of DC (often cited in surveys and magazines as Best cities to reside). The spring before my oldest was to enter Kindergarten there was a parent meeting and the reading teacher strolled in and announced that every child was to know the "50 sight words" before the start of the school year. My oldest wasn't interested, but the whole summer we worked on that task. Two years later I did the same with my younger one. It seemed to initially work, but by about 3rd grade, the kids that were not drilled eventually caught up with the "drill and kill" kids. I resent that a teacher made me feel that I would be letting my children fall behind the crowd. I know that this was probably forced on her to keep our rating/rankings high in the "best places to live" magazines, but I still resent it to this day. I apologize to my kids for having made them do this and for depriving them of summer fun in the name of a fake education. They would have eventually learned all these sight words (they did know many) by my reading to them and tracking the words, which would have been a lot more fun and educational than stupid flash cards!

Anonymous said...

I wholeheartedly agree Tom! Lets alsi be mindful not to accuse parents of pushing when children are "ahead". Some kids simply are reading at 5 and want to. We also should not deny them the opportunity to playfully explore this skill because research says they "shouldn't" learn until 7. You cant stop them amy more than yiu could stop your daughter speaking at 6 months. Commercial exploitation based on false developmental norms is shameful. And so is inflexible oppressive teaching based on the same fixed development mindset. Lets let the kids determine what they are ready to explore and when without limitation on the opportunities in their environment. You do that so well which is why I love reading your blog.

Anonymous said...

I wholeheartedly agree Tom. It is scandalous for commercial interests to exploit the idea of a supposed "normal" development path for profit. On the flipside, too often I also see children who are "ahead" denied their right to play and explore, and parents accused of hothousing, because "the research says kids shouldn't read until 7" so your 5 yr old shouldn't be ALLOWED to read those books she so loves. I think whenever we start teaching or parenting to a reasearched development timeline, rather than supporting the natural development of the child in front of us, we're in trouble.

Nancy Schimmel said...

I was "falling behind my peers" in getting into mischief, but I caught up.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing about this. Lately, I (and my daughter soon to be 4 year old) have been given a hard time about her not being potty trained yet. I've always trusted/believed that they have their own time/pace for their growth and development such as talking, walking and potty training also. However, it won't be true if I say I don't feel pressure or don't really care what others say. Even a preschool that I wanted her to go wasn't able to accept her because she is not potty trained. Just like how you describe your daughter, she is great in other areas except that she is not ready to give up on diaper.. Anyway, I had to share that I really appreciated this writing of yours and believe in readiness for each child..

Trisha said...

I really needed to read this today. Thanks for the reminder, Tom.

Julie said...

I homeschool my 3 kids who are 8.5, 7.5, and 3.5. I see this struggle so much in the homeschool world - is my kid behind, what cirriculim should I buy for my 4 year old or why isn't my 5 year old reading as well as Johnny. It breaks my heart for these mamas who somewhere have been told that they have unspoken rules of where their children are supposed to be. It's ok if little Jenny doesn't start reading until she's 8 or if Dan never learns to spell Mary Poppins' favorite word. These things should never be the end all in life. Instead we should look at more important things - is my kid happy, is he growing, is she enjoying life, is she playing.

Kids will learn when they are ready. It's not a contest.

cesarean debate said...

This is easily one of the best blogs I've read on this subject in a long time, and I say this as a former teacher, a parent of a summer born boy who was headed for just this type of 'falling behind' labeling in England, and a journalist campaigner who set up the website summerbornchildren.org so that parents who want to wait (not 'delay') until their child reaches compulsory school age before entering the Reception class environment in which all this labeling begins (if it hasn't already in pre-school) can do so without penalty.
You are right to call the professionals out on this one. Yes, they must answer to their heads and to Ofsted, but the wellbeing and best interests of children - based on evidence - must start coming first.

Unknown said...

Thank you for saying so, I have friends who are parents who do buy into all the garbage marketing their is because they swear it helps their child. And unfortunately I too was one until I took my ECE child development classes and found out how wrong I had been. It is a sham and a shame to profit from potentially damaging children's cognitive/physical/social and emotional states. These companies lie but every parent wants a leg up on the competition because they know when their children grow up the jobs will be scarce and resources will be dwindling so they make easy targets. A lot of these merchandise and technology said to improve your child's learning also offers to take the place of stressed and way too busy parents so they don't feel guilty about not spending time with their children. Society needs to change and start viewing parents and caregivers has the child's first and best teachers and give parents/caregivers the respect, time and resources to do the job well.