Young, Not a Slow Learner

Young - Not a Slow LearnerI can’t tell you how many parents have found out that I have an education degree to go and lament that they think their child has a learning disability or neurological disorder

“He really struggles with reading, and he hates school. I’ve talked to his first grade teacher, and we don’t know what to do. She says he wiggles all the time and doesn’t stop talking. He can’t focus.” My heart goes out to the parent as she sighs and says, “I’m wondering if he has ADHD. I mean, what else could it be?” These poor parents also ask about possible learning disabilities, trying to find some way to explain their children’s aversions to school and learning.

Their concerns make sense. I’ve seen many kindergarteners break into tears when asked to read passages from books or worksheets or solve a word problem. “I can’t!” is sobbed, and the more the teacher coaxes, the more tears fall. The saddest part is when the child starts to believe that he’s stupid because he can’t do what the curriculum demands he does. He learns to hate reading because it’s hard, and attempting to read difficult passages is embarrassing. Therefore, “I can’t,” becomes his mantra, and he truly believes it.

While I’m the last one to say that disorders don’t exist (I personally have Tourettes and anxiety.), I believe our early education system is part of the reason some children are diagnosed with problems that don’t exist. Sometimes, it’s not that the child is disabled or unable to learn the lessons, but that the child simply isn’t ready.

I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education, I’m licensed to teach in two states, and I’m a fifth generation teacher. I’m currently working as a substitute because my husband’s military career keeps us moving, but as such, I’ve been able to work in all sorts of settings. From Preschool to fifth grade, from a special education para to P.E. teacher, I’ve been able to slip into the shoes of nearly every teacher at my school. And for all the time I’ve spent in classrooms watching my mother teach, volunteering, studying, and finally, working, I can say one thing with confidence:

We push our children too fast, too young.

Curriculum is Getting Harder, Earlier

School in America wasn’t always a race to prepare for tests. My mother says that her kindergarten class was more like a preschool class. Kindergarten used to be full of playtime, recess, reading, 5-year-olds sittingand a bit of time spent on letters, numbers, and the calendar. They also were mostly just half a day in length. Today, the kindergarten rooms I’ve been in are teaching addition and subtraction, pre-multiplication skills, sight words, three-dimensional shapes, and in one particular school, nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

These lessons now span the length of a 7 1/2 hour day, with one recess and some extra time outside after lunch. Indoors, the children are expected to do most of their work either sitting on the floor or at their desks. They’re told to keep their hands to themselves and to walk everywhere they go.

And believe me when I say it’s not the teachers’ faults. As someone who’s been in those shoes many, many times before, it’s impossible to run a classroom where the students are running around you in circles jumping on one another and eating the crayons. Teachers try to include more movement, using little songs and dances and intermittent periods of stretching. Unfortunately, five-year-olds simply weren’t made to sit for seven hours a day. It’s the way our country has moved in education. Recesses are being revoked and more time is spent studying for the tests.

A Note from Finland

In the last decade, Finland has shown tremendous bounds in the area of education. They’ve received world-wide attention as everyone else tries to unlock their secrets. While there are many, many ways in which Finland education differs from American education, I think we can take some good notes when it comes to how they teach their young children.

1) Traditional School doesn’t begin until the age of 7.

According to the Smithsonian article, “Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?,” students don’t officially start in the classroom until they’re 7. Children begin preschool at age 5, but the focus is on playing and socializing, not academics. Also, Education Week Teacher’s article, Happy Teaching, Happy Learning: 13 Secrets to Finland’s Success,” school in Finland is shorter, only 4-5 hours in length.

2) Play is Emphasized Throughout the Child’s Entire Education

Education Week Teacher reports, “In Finland, people believe that children learn through play, imagination, and self-discovery, so teachers not only allow but encourage play.” I was homeschooled until fifth grade, and as an adult, I look back and realize that much of what I learned as a small child was through play. My mother taught me the basics, but she allowed me to just sit with my counting toys and play. Children are far more ready to learn through play at the age of five than by sitting and watching a lecture at the front of the room.

3) Children get LOTS of Recess

The Atlantic’s article, “How Finland Keeps Kids Focused Through Free Play,” says that for every 45 minutes of instruction, children receive 15 minutes of play. The author, an American teacher who had moved to Finland, said that while she attempted to run the classroom the way she had in America, she found that after all, the students in Finland were much more prepared to learn after their breaks. Confused, she turned to the work of Anthony Pellegrini—author of Recess: Its Role in Education and Development. Pellegrini, an emeritus professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota, traveled the world to study this very concept of mental breaks, and his findings did nothing but show their success.

So What Does This Have to Do with Our Young Students?

When I tutor, I tell parents up front that we might not be working on what the child is working on in his classroom. Instead, we’ll be doing working on his level. I would rather have a child learn the basics than push him to hate learning.

Just because a child can’t meet the Common Core Standards doesn’t mean he’s incapable of learning the concept. For example, the Common Core Kindergarten Math Standards require that a student learn to “Reason abstractly and quantitatively.” Interestingly enough, Jean Piaget, one of the most respected developmental psychologists in the world, claimed that children don’t develop the ability to think abstractly, called the Formal Operation Stage, until they reach the age of 11. Reading Now and LaterWhile I believe development varies by child, I can tell you from observation that children often don’t develop the ability to think abstractly to even understand jokes until third grade.

Children who are pushed too hard before they’re ready can appear to have disorders or learning disabilities. And some children will have disorders and/or disabilities. So what is a parent to do when a child shows signs of struggling in school?

Go back to the beginning. It’s important to find where the child’s mastery level ends and what he is ready to learn. Teaching him on the level of what his classmates are learning won’t work if there’s no foundation. If Davey doesn’t know how to properly decode words with double vowels (such as -ea-, -oa-, or -ie-), he’s not going to understand how to infer the moral of a story he was told to read quietly to himself – because he wasn’t able to read it to himself in the first place. Instead of focusing on the story, Davey will benefit more from practicing his basic reading skills first with books that are closer to his level.

Just because he can’t read it now doesn’t mean he won’t be able to one day.

I write this post in an effort to bring hope to parents. School is hard. The important thing is to help the child understand the value of learning, and to try to help the child learn on his own timetable. Just because a child can’t read on level doesn’t necessarily mean he has a disability. If you’re wondering about your child’s struggle with education, the best place to go first is to his or her pediatrician.

But no matter what, whether your child has a disability or is simply a learner on a different timetable, meet him where he is, and it will benefit him in every way.

Do you have experience in this area? Please share any comments or questions in the Comment Box below. I’d love to hear what you think! Also, don’t forget to sign up for my weekly newsletter to receive extra resources I don’t include in my blog, encouragement, and a gift as a thank you for signing up. Thanks for reading!

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  • Lydia on August 23, 2014 at 1:47 pm said:

    This is very true. My mom had a saying about children “we are raising them, not racing them”, meaning each child accomplished goals at their own speed. My dad didn’t fully read on his own until his first master’s degree. He went on to get a second master’s and to become an internationally known statistician.

    • on August 29, 2014 at 3:46 am said:

      Your mom is a wise lady! It just tears me apart to see first graders who are already sure they’re incapable of learning because they’ve been introduced to too much information too early. It takes so much effort to try and fix those limits that have already been established in their minds. And that’s amazing about your father!

  • Angel The Alien on August 24, 2014 at 3:36 am said:

    I agree whole-heartedly! When I was substituting in regular education classes last school year, I was dismayed at what they had kindergartners doing. They spend so much time sitting down, doing worksheets. There is very little time for things like play, socialization, music and movement, nursery rhymes, and stuff like that… the things that kindergarten used to be about. If kindergarten went back to being the way it was when WE were kids, many less children be targeted as having possible ADHD and learning disabilities, because their bodies and minds would have a chance to mature just a little so that they’d actually be ready to do all that sitting and reading and writing… plus they’d have better social skills, and actually ENJOY learning more. I sometimes dream of opening my own school where children could learn more naturally.

    • on August 29, 2014 at 3:49 am said:

      Honestly, I would go crazy if I had to sit that much in a classroom at that age…or now, haha. Not only would my tics make it quite difficult, but it’s just too much for their little minds. As you say, they need a lot more movement and time for play. It’s amazing how much you get to see when you sub, isn’t it? I have a Bachelor’s in elementary ed, but I really enjoy subbing right now. I feel like I get a greater feel for elementary education as a whole. And you never stop learning!

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