There are likely several reasons why most schools across North America and Britain are failing children.
Hopefully this won’t sound like a rant, but it is something I am very passionate about.
Each year, there seems to be a bigger push to introduce academic skills such as letter and number recognition, reading, writing and math to kids at younger and younger ages.
This push for teaching academic skills to children at an early age began many years ago when it was realized that children from low income families or those living in poverty were not doing as well as their peers in school.
As a result, governments thought it would be best to immerse all children in equal standardized school programming with a focus on the skills that some of these children were lacking as they went through school, specifically reading, writing and math (Source).
Surely, if we start teaching these skills from a very young age to all children, no matter their family situation, all of these children will be better off as they get older, right?
Wrong, and this is what leads me to the main reason why school systems are failing young children.
#1 Reason School Systems are Failing Young Children
That reason is maturation and child development!
The bottom line is that most children are not developmentally ready to take on the challenges of the academic skills being taught!
Of course there are going to be children who are ready to read at the age of 4 or 5 (and some even younger), however, these children are in the minority. (Source)
If an adult were to take a class to learn a new language (Mandarin, for example) and on the first day of class the teacher said “Welcome to Lesson 1, today we will start with asking and answering questions in Mandarin. In Lesson 2 you will learn Mandarin for business communications”. I’m pretty sure you would feel quite overwhelmed.
This is how many children feel when they are expected to perform tasks that are above where they are with regards to maturity and development.
A child needs to learn fundamental skills, most of which are acquired through play and inquiry based learning, before academic skills can be tackled.
Let’s take reading for example.
Did you know that children who are taught to read before they are developmentally ready may struggle with reading comprehension later on?
As a result, these children often guess at words using clues such as word length and beginning and ending sounds (my daughter was this child!).
They also get frustrated after reading only a few sentences.
And usually they cannot answer questions about the text they have read.
However, when children are taught to read when they are older (over 6 years of age) or when they have shown a natural interest in reading, the left side of the brain has developed and pathways connecting both sides of the brain have had a chance to form.
These children will still memorize short sight words, but they are also about to use additional strategies such as sounding out words (phonics) and visualizations in order to read. (Source)
But this article isn’t about reading.
It is about the fact that kids are being expected to learn and excel at skills that they aren’t developmentally ready for.
Why is it that so many children have a hard time sitting down and completing “desk work?”
There are probably several reasons, but a big one is that the work being assigned is not appropriate for the developmental level of the child.
A tuned in teacher with a good understanding of child development will provide these children with movement breaks, maybe even allow them to stand at their desk or sit on an exercise ball so they can squirm around while “working”.
However, these “strategies” will only work temporarily.
Again, it all goes back to the fact that most children are not ready to learn what is being taught.
And many experts believe that a child’s ability to play will lead to school success in the future!
Is There A Solution?
The solution to this problem isn’t as simple as letting children “play” at school.
Play based learning must still take into account the child’s developmental level.
Ideally, play based learning teaches children essential skills that will help with academics later.
Play based learning can also be used to teach academic skills in a way to keep a young child interested and attentive.
Thus, the information being taught has a better chance of being understood and remembered (again, assuming that the information being taught is developmentally appropriate for the age of the child).
A great example of teaching a skill such as counting through play is as follows:
Let’s say little Tommy is fascinated by trains.
He loves to build trains out of blocks (helping develop his fine motor skills and problem solving), push toy trains around a track (helping to develop his gross motor skills) and color pictures of trains (helping to develop his fine motor skills, color awareness and pre-printing), etc.
Since he is interested, this is a good time for the teacher to start counting the trains with him.
I bet in no time little Tommy will tell his teacher how many trains are on the track, and maybe he can even figure out how many trains are left when the teacher takes 2 of them away.
But, if Tommy were given a worksheet with 5 flowers and was asked to count the flowers, he may just look the other way.
He isn’t interested in flowers.
In order for children to succeed academically they must have all the skills necessary to be successful, and many of these skills cannot be taught in a “sit at your desk and listen to me” environment.
If the skills are above the child’s current level of development, they also cannot be effectively taught through play.
Once the children have the fundamental skills required for academics they will be in a better spot to learn new information.
But even then, young children learn best when they are interested in the topic.
This is why following a child’s lead is so important.
Importance of Pre-Academic Skills
There are many skills that children need to acquire before tackling academics.
Think of these skills as building blocks.
These early skills are the foundation that will set the stage for all the other skills the child has yet to learn.
Let’s take another look at the example of learning to read.
It seems that a likely first step in teaching a child to read would be to start by teaching the alphabet and letter sounds and then memorizing “sight words” and sounding out longer words.
But did you know that the foundation skills of rhyming, sound segmentation, sound blending, etc. (also known as phonemic awareness) need to be taught first?
In fact, some of these “base skills” aren’t mastered until a child is over the age of 6.
Another often overlooked “pre-academic skill” is social emotional development.
Many children arrive in Kindergarten unable to self regulate and have difficulty vocalizing their emotional state.
And don’t get me started on sharing.
Young children are very egocentric and do not understand that other people view things differently than they do.
Ideally Kindergarten and Grade 1 should be when children are learning these foundation skills, not having to write standardized tests and learning about things they have absolutely no interest in! Fortunately in Canada (where I am) standardized testing doesn’t begin until Grade 3.
I have worked in schools as a speech-language pathologist and now as an educational assistant and I know from first hand experience that young children are falling behind and behaviors are escalating.
From what I have seen this is because the expectations placed on many of these children exceed their capabilities.
And then throw in another 20 to 30 students and one frazzled teacher and things are bound to explode!
What Can Parents/Caregivers Do?
I believe in the public school system and that children do benefit from routines and structure.
There is definitely a time and a place for traditional academics and learning.
However, teaching these “academic” skills at a young age is not the way to go.
Rather, make sure your child is exposed to many new words, books and experiences.
Children’s language skills and vocabulary size are a great predictor of future academic success! (Source)
In fact, language development, vocabulary and social skills are better indicators than being able to read or write at an early age.
Parents of 6 year old children or younger, take the time to immerse your child in a language rich environment, introduce them to many new words through play and book reading (parent reading to the child without the expectation of the child reading independently)!
And when your child is actively running around and playing he is also unknowingly building his fine and gross motor skills, problem solving, social skills, speech and language development, etc. which will help him succeed later on!