Does research show us that young children have evolved to where they can learn faster? Are they smarter than they used to be? No! There is no research to indicate that a child’s brain has evolved over the years to where they need a learning environment that is more difficult from the past.
What has changed is our culture. The times are different, of course. Children now face a rapidly changing world in part due to technology. But that doesn’t mean they should be pushed to learn to read earlier, or to miss out on childhood because they are developmentally more advanced. Incorporating some computer skills, done in moderation, might be called for, but demanding more academically and socially from children is putting them on a fast-track to failure!
Upon reading about preschool and early childhood education today, we are often led to believe that child development has changed—that children are more capable than ever before to read early and to function differently than children from the past. It is often called “pushing down,” and we know that higher expectations of children mean they are being forced to learn at a faster rate.
A year ago, University of Virginia researchers wrote that kindergarten is the new first grade. However, Defending the Early Years has just come out with a report, Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose, by Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin and Nancy Carlsson-Paige, which disputes the idea that young children should be pushed to learn to read so early. I also worried in a blog post last February, that forcing children to read before they were ready was actually going to turn them off to reading at an early age. HERE.
Many concerns surround the notion that preschoolers should arrive in kindergarten with reading skills under their belt, or that children in kindergarten need to accomplish various academic benchmarks in order to flourish.
Kindergarten especially has seen the end to many activities that used to be sacrosanct. Play kitchens, water tables, nap time, snacks, dress-up and building blocks are often scourged from the classroom in favor of ongoing assessment and desk work.
Most of us know how unscientific it was to remove recess, yet many schools still deny children critical breaks from the school routine. This truly is the equivalent of child abuse, whether those who enforce such regimens like to admit it.
And it is more and more common for standards to lead to assessment that casts students as needing help or not progressing fast enough when they are perfectly normal!
Many parents begin to worry that their children will fall behind, so they begin pushing as well, exposing them to literature and exercises that could be far over the child’s head and developmentally inappropriate.
A change in children’s books is a good example. Many now deal with adult themes—books about the Revolutionary War or the Civil Rights Movement. Do we want very young children working out those troubling concepts or, instead, learning to socially get along with their peers at recess?
In most ways, when it comes to learning, children haven’t really changed. They are quite similar to children born in 1950, 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010.
The well-respected Gesell Institute, since 1950, has done observational studies of young children through founders Dr. Frances Ilg and Dr. Louise Bates Ames. The Gesell Developmental Schedule was first published in 1925 by Dr. Arnold Gesell who worked at Yale. They have published numerous books that are easily attainable and understandable for parents and educators to learn developmentally appropriate behavior from preschool and into later stages of development. I personally found the Gesell books a useful resource when my own child was young.
In 2010, the Gesell Institute conducted a study of young children to find if they have indeed changed from earlier years. They had previously collected data on children ages 5-10. Their study of a national sample of 1,200 children, 3-6 years old, showed that they performed tasks similarly to children from earlier years!
Here are additional observations as described at the Gesell LEAD Press Conference: Study Results in New Haven Connecticut in 2010:
- Problems have become “apparent” in schools with push down learning, especially in kindergarten.
- According to recent studies, the current kind of teaching does not improve test scores.
- Children feel like failures as early as preschool and preschoolers are even being expelled from school.
- Social and problem-solving skills important for the job market, like persistence, creativity, cooperation, and communication, are not fully developed.
Of course there will always be children who work beyond the developmental skills of their age group and those children should receive enrichment, just like some students might need some help in reaching developmentally appropriate objectives. But pushing all children to reach the same standards is not in their best interest. Making learning enjoyable, or permitting children to work things out in play is what works.
Children also need nurturing when it comes to behavior.
It all should be done without pressure and without the testing and data collection that has been justified by the notion that children are more advanced than their earlier counterparts. They’re not.
So bring back play and dress-up and all those wonderful developmentally appropriate ways young children really work things out in their lives. And bring it back for ALL children. This is the kind of learning that matters. The children will thank you.
Kelleher, Maureen. “Gesell Institute Study Finds Stability in Cognitive Milestones.” Education Week. Oct. 22, 2010.
Pappano, Laura. “Kids Haven’t Changed; Kindergarten Has.” Harvard Education Newsletter. Available on Susan Ohanian’s Website. HERE.
Gesell Developmental Schedules. Wikipedia.
Sheila Resseger says
Nancy, This is crucial for parents to understand. The current demands made on all children, particularly young children and children with a variety of learning needs are counter-productive. Children are not proto-workers or proto-consumers–they are unique and precious human beings who deserve nurturing challenges, not oppressive demands.
Nancy Bailey says
You nailed it, Sheila! Terrific!
Julie Anne says
Loved this article!
Stacey Allen says
I am a kindergarten teacher with 22 years experience. I feel like my students are starving for rich childlike experiences. Many are not ready for sight words, addition/subtraction, and reading leveled books. The need story time, organized free play, and activities to develop their fine motor skills.
Nancy Bailey says
Hi Stacey, Thanks for sharing. It is great you recognize what your students need and that they have you for their teacher.
What baffles me is that more speech language pathologists and psychologists are not involved in this. There are YEARS and YEARS of statistical norms out there that show developmental norms. Not only that, some children that start K are 4 and some are 6! Pre-reading readiness is much much different than these new standards. I am a speech pathologist and see what is happening in Pre-K classes and it scares me.
Nancy Bailey says
Excellent point, Karen. Many professionals are left out of the loop. There are many serious learning variables being sacrificed. Thank you.
I agree that language is crucial. we have long known that many learning disabilities and behavior problems really are language issues. But teacher training and other interventions have reduced the knowledge most people have about language development and how it impacts communication and learning. The only way we know what people know is by communication so delays can really make cognition look impaired. I really think if we could improve language accessibility, reception, expression and pragmatics, we may even be able to alleviate or at least ameliorate some of the debilitating effects of poverty on brain development. Basically, we need good health care, social and emotional supports, physical activity, play and language. With all of that going well, reading is really not a big deal to learn. But when children live in stress, or have untreated medical issues such as middle ear infections, none of this matters. The first indicators of delays are usually language delays. What is sad if these are not caught until the child comes to school, we move from curing the child to compensatory education and remediation. Starting from behind is not the best way for anyone to start school! And we are expecting teachers to fix medical and language issues, when they are not prepared to do so.
Nancy Bailey says
Absolutely, Janna! Speech issues, for example, can be resolved before kindergarten–before they worsen. And all the other issues you mention are so important to helping children get a great start to school. Pushing children mostly in reading is just not wise. Thank you…
Well you should move to my school district! Our lovely superintendent of (4 years now) started last year “Advanced Pods” from 2nd up!! This is CRAZY!!! On SO many levels I can not even start. And every thing he does come down to test scores. That is all he has turned our school focus into. I hate it!
Cait Fitz @ My Little Poppies says
As a school psych, the demands placed on young children has always bothered me. We have so much research indicating that this is not the way to go, and yet the pressures abound and grow every year. I am now (unexpectedly) homeschooling our six year old and it is completely refreshing to no longer have to worry about this. Thank you for this post!
Nancy Bailey says
Back again to say unfortunately some comments and my replies were lost on this post, and they don’t seem to be retrievable. My sincerest apologies. I am told the problem has been corrected and should not happen again with future posts.
Suzanne Arena says
Well said. I think a lot hasn’t and has changed. Hasn’t changed: not much by way of identify children with Dyslexia and giving them the appropriate science based tools instead of putting them 2, 3, 4+ grades behind. Yes, Child Abuse.
Changes: By way of ‘free play…thinking’, this is squashed. Transparency/beauricratic b.s. is muddy. Both parents work today, often being more hands off to their children’s education because if this was 30 years ago, mothers would be filling the School Committee buildings and demanding accountability.
SCIENCE, yes it has been proven that Recess, free play are needs and stimulates a child’s body/brain in ways that testing does not. FACT, children are having gastrointestinal, anxiety, depression, anger…etc., vs. what we did when I grew up. Teachers are quitting and speaking out (the good teachers who are not afraid of retaliation/confrontation) and saying we are going the wrong path and they are frustrated. FACT, more mothers are staying home to homeschool their children.
Self proclaimed experts are something i am so sick of hearing from those in Education. I find the flexibility of many in education to be lacking in sight, then again…it’s difficult when you wear a Blindfold.
Janet Harrison says
David Elkind’s book, The Hurried Child; Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon, 1981 nailed it perfectly. This did not stop the voracious greed of publishing companies, testing industry, etc., in the US Market State. Profits drive pedagogy…Practice and policy being determined by bureaucrats; politicians, etc., does not make for a sane approach to teaching young children.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you for the reminder about Elkind’s book. Absolutely! And thanks for commenting, Janet!