Why Sooner Isn’t Better
HEY, QUIT PUSHING
How We Put Children at Risk by Starting Academics Too Early
By Larry Garf
© Copyright 2005-2013 by Larry Garf. All rights reserved.
Like all parents, you want your children to thrive and succeed in school. I recognize that today’s families are under extreme pressure — from schools, from the media, and even from well-meaning friends and relatives — to push their children into academic work earlier and earlier. The seven guidelines below, which summarize the key points in Hey, Quit Pushing: How We Put Children at Risk by Starting Academic Too Early (© 2005-2013, Larry Garf), explain that, by forcing academics with young children, not only are we failing to raise academic levels, we may be mislabeling or even damaging many of our bright, well-adjusted children.
PRESSURE AND PARENTING
The latest trends in education tell us that children who are taught to read earlier will become better readers and more successful students. This may sound logical on the surface, but in reality, it’s an enormous assumption, and one with no foundation.
Renowned professor and developmental psychologist Dr. David Elkind, author of such bestsellers as The Hurried Child, reminds us that “there is no correlation between pushing children into early reading and later academic success.” Obviously, young children who are formally taught to read early on will, at first, read more than their peers who have not been taught. Nevertheless, within a couple of years the difference disappears completely.
What’s even more disconcerting is that children who had attended academic, rather than developmental preschools, tend to exhibit higher levels of anxiety and self-esteem issues, along with reading scores that, in the long term, are no better. Therefore, when you feel guilt and pressure because your neighbor is telling you how well his four-year-old is reading, or if your two-year-old niece is reciting her alphabet (at Thanksgiving dinner, no less!) you can feel confident that your child is in no danger whatsoever of being “left behind” academically as long as you’ve provided a stimulating, invigorating environment. Pressure and anxiety are not necessary components of a solid education for your youngster and, in fact, can have long-term negative effects.
FASHIONS AND FADS IN EDUCATION
The current trend of pushing academics so early is just that, a trend. Much in the way that clothing styles change every few years, there are fashions in education as well. Without doubt, this situation will eventually shift. But given the current climate, it is in your child’s best interest to protect him or her from today’s capricious educational fads and fashions.
What’s going on in our classrooms is being presented to us as though (a) it’s based upon firm research, and (b) it’s always been done this way. Neither of these statements is accurate. In fact, what’s happening is a vast and risky experiment, one that is already showing signs of failure. I would strongly advise you not to allow your child to become a victim of this trend.
If your preschooler or kindergartener is being pressured to do work that seems beyond his or her developmental level, talk to the teacher or, if necessary, the director. What I mean by “beyond his or her developmental level” is this: is your child required to do work that is difficult and frustrating? Does he or she have to be pressured into completing it? Are there tears at night? Are there stomachaches in the morning? If any of this is taking place, don’t hesitate to do whatever is necessary to put a stop to it. Further, I do not believe that preschoolers should be getting any homework at all.
SUCCESS IN SCHOOL
The most effective way you can help your child be successful academically is to provide a very stimulating environment at home. Here are just a few suggestions:
- Talk with your youngster constantly. This is important right from the beginning, well before the child begins speaking. Once the child does begin communicating with words, be ready to answer the thousands upon thousands of questions that you will be asked. Remember, one of the very strongest indicators we have of later academic success correlates with the amount of talking that adults engage in with the child. (Keep in mind that television does not provide the same influence as live conversation.
- Teach your children to read, not by forcing or pressuring them to read, but by reading to them, every day. Bear in mind that this can begin as soon as they’re old enough to focus on the most basic story. Have a variety of books, but also read the same book over and over. Eventually children begin “pseudo-reading,” pretending to read the story even though they have actually memorized it. This is one of the classic stepping-stones to literacy.
- Singing songs and learning poems are wonderful ways to develop what is called phonemic awareness. As youngsters begin to integrate the concept of such phenomena as rhyming words, their literacy skills will be enhanced.
- Have your child tell you a simple story, then write it down. (One or two sentences comprise a “story” for preschoolers.) When you read it back to the child, the potent connection between words, writing, and reading starts to become established. If you’ve transcribed a number of these little stories, staple them together to make a book. Your youngster can create a cover, as well as make up a title.
GOOD INTENTIONS WITH NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES
I have often heard parents report that they gave their child a big boost by talking the principal into starting him in kindergarten, even though he was born later than the cut-off date. I’ve met a number of parents who recounted, with great pride, that they lied about their child’s birthday on the school application in order to get her into kindergarten a year sooner.
The logic of such moves is easy to understand. After all, if one were interested in accumulating a financial “nest egg” for the future, it would be wise to get an early start by beginning to save as soon as possible. I am certain that many well-meaning parents sincerely believe that they are endowing their child with a wonderful gift, an early “mental savings account.”
I appreciate that they are only doing what they think is best for their child, but consider the potentially toxic mechanism that they have now put into motion: from kindergarten on, their child will be working with – and, for better or worse, competing with – many children who are much older, sometimes an entire year older. From a developmental point of view, this can be highly significant.
When it comes to adults, a year is not the least bit significant in a developmental sense. In other words, when I was 40, I wasn't at all different from my lifelong buddy Greg, who's a year older than I am, in terms of my abilities, skills or perceptions. There was nothing he could do at 41 that I couldn't do as well at 40. But when we were four and five, that one-year gap would have been momentous. And, given that today’s kindergarten curriculum is what used to be the first grade curriculum, even many of the “older” kindergarteners are often struggling with the tasks at hand.
Therefore, by pushing their child, by seeing to it that she is one of the youngest in the class, these well meaning parents haven’t given their child a boost at all – they have actually engineered the exact opposite, putting their little one at far higher risk for struggles and even failure.
THE WISDOM OF WAITING
In an era when we are pushing and pressuring younger and younger children to perform academic tasks in the hope that we’re building better scholars, I am reminded of a story about my own children’s preschool experience. The Director of the Topanga Cooperative Preschool, when my twins were incoming three-year-olds, illuminated the issue quite succinctly when, during parent orientation, she was asked whether she teaches academics to the new children. Without a moment’s hesitation, she replied:
Well, as I see it, I have 2 choices.
I could spend six months teaching them the alphabet now,
or I could wait a year and teach it to them in six hours.
Nevertheless, all too many schools are pushing and pressuring our young children. The key point it this: if we simply waited until they were developmentally ready, they would master the same material with joy and enthusiasm instead of stress and anxiety.
HIGH STANDARDS AND HAPPY CHILDREN
When considering a preschool or kindergarten for your child, remember that a developmental approach is not about lowering our standards. Quite the opposite: it’s about ensuring that your children achieve those high standards. What does not work, however, is simply pushing down the curriculum to ever-younger ages.
It’s wise to think of children as seedlings. As parents and teachers, our job is to see to it that the young plant has enough water, fertilizer, sunlight, etc. It’s also our task to remove stones that may be in the way, blocking the seedling’s ability to thrive or reach its fullest potential. These factors are the enriched environment, stimulation, and preparation to which I refer above. What they do not include, however, is trying to yank at the seedling, pulling it with ever more pressure, in hopes that it will grow faster. It doesn’t work that way with plants. Or children.
A solid developmental program, combined with a supportive and stimulating environment at home, results in the happiest children . . . . . and the highest test scores.