Respecting Children's Social and Emotional Development

Child holding stack of books with mortar board chalk drawing on blackboard concept for university education and future aspira
Child holding stack of books with mortar board chalk drawing on blackboard concept for university education and future aspirations

My granddaughter had a wonderful opportunity. She was invited to participate in Orchestra Day at the local high school. It was an inspiring event, culminating in almost 300 students in the high school and middle school orchestras performing together. It was also a perfect example of how a child's ability can come into direct conflict with her emotional development.

My granddaughter, who is in fourth grade, plays violin well enough to participate in the 7th and 8th-grade middle school orchestra. But at age nine, she is not physically or emotionally ready to handle the demands of spending an entire day in high school.

I happened to be driving her home after the day and she was silent. That is so unusual for her that I asked if she had a good time at Orchestra Day. "Sort of." What was the problem? Were the high school students nice to her? "Yes." Was it cool to see how well they played? "Yes, but I'm super tired from having to sit all day and just work."

Of course she was. She's nine years old.

Parents often ask me why am troubled by a recent study by the American Education Research Association, that kindergarten is the new first grade. Haven't we learned that children are much more capable of learning at a younger age? Haven't most kids been to some kind of preschool or daycare?

Well, no and no. Some kids have had more exposure to learning at a younger age and we know more about the brain, but that doesn't mean the developmental trajectory of children has changed. And according to the National Center for Education Statistics, "The percentage of 3- to 5-year-olds enrolled in pre-primary programs increased from 59 to 64 percent between 1990 and 2000, but there has been no measurable increase since then."

OK, so for 64 percent of kids in kindergarten, shouldn't they be learning what children used to learn in first grade? My answer is that they should not. Even if some (more than half at some schools and very few at others) are intellectually capable of learning a first-grade curriculum, most five-year-olds are not developmentally ready to be drilled on reading and math. Like my granddaughter, they would come home exhausted. Depleted. Dispirited. Drained. Except for my granddaughter, it was one day. For children pushed beyond their social and emotional capacity, it's day in and day out.

My son was intellectually precocious. He taught himself to read before he was three. But that didn't mean he should have been reading books with mature content in kindergarten. Just because he could read and understand the words did not mean he could grasp the subject matter or that the ideas were appropriate for a child so young.

Similarly, because he was also a math wiz, the school suggested sending him to middle school for math when he was in fourth grade. Yes, he could have done the work, but socially, emotionally, and chronologically he was younger than many in his peer group. The prospect of attending classes every day with seventh graders was frightening to him. So I said no way, and his wonderful elementary school teacher gave him work to do at his own level and let him work on his own during group math instruction. And he went on to be a math major in college and to use those skills as a professor of environmental health.

I tell my son's story as an example of allowing time for children's social and emotional sides to grow to be in sync with their abilities. Another story I often share is that of a precocious little girl who skated with my daughters. She was a pretty good figure skater for a child who was not even three. But her mother insisted she be included in ice shows in which she could do the moves but not remember the choreography. I saw her backstage nursing with skates dangling from her feet. There was something wrong with that picture. She was still a very young child developmentally, and not respecting that led to a very short-lived skating career.

Many adults these days think it is fine to teach five-year-olds the curriculum previously taught to first graders. And to use the same methods of instruction: worksheets, drills, and teacher presentation of materials to the whole class. But I find myself asking what's the rush? Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.