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Pressure on children under seven

“My 6 year old child gets angry and frustrated when he is made to write”.

“My daughter is tearful about going to school because she is afraid that she won’t get all her spellings right”.

“My son has become anxious and is tired all the time since starting school”.

“My child is 5 and won’t read”.

These are just some of the concerns that parents increasingly voice to me every day, worried that their child, only in their first year at school, already has a problem.

While some children will struggle in mastering the 3 “R’s” and will need additional support, there is also considerable variation in the age and stage at which individual children will be “ready” to read and write, with natural differences occurring between boys and girls of the same age.

Girls for example, tend to develop language and fine motor skills slightly ahead of boys, while boys generally need more time and opportunity for robust physical play.  The current school system does not take these different needs into account.  Some children are ready to read from four and a half years of age, while others may not be ready until nearer seven.  Respected experts in child development from yesteryear such as Rudolf Steiner and Maria Montessori observed that the time of reading readiness tends to coincide with the shedding of the first milk teeth, usually from around six years of age.  Despite this, and playing lip service to the importance of developing the whole child, the application of the early years’ curriculum in many schools is dominated by a “top down” approach, which focuses on outcomes and targets at the expense of the developmental needs of the child.

Mastery (and enjoyment of!) reading writing and numeracy develop in the context of a child’s physical, social and emotional understanding of the world and are nurtured in the milieu not only of instruction but also of play and reflection.  Language skills for example begin with hearing, listening, vocalising and interactive communication.  This is because written language evolved from an oral tradition in which knowledge and experience were passed down through the telling of stories, singing of songs and ballads.

While vision is the primary sensory pathway through which children learn to read and write, visual processing alone is not enough. Visual symbols must then be translated into an auditory “image” as if hearing a silent voice inside the head.  This auditory component is necessary to facilitate decoding of complex words, spelling and to aid short-term memory. In other words, we read as much with our ears as our eyes.

Preparation for the aural aspects of written language develops through one-to-one conversation with a responsive adult; through practising sounds, repetition, singing, listening to stories and learning to hear the ‘music’ of language, sometimes described as the non-verbal aspects of language, which convey meaning and intention through subtle changes in tone, inflection, timing and intensity.

Writing involves even more than this. Writing needs coordination between the hand and the eyes – together with the ability to readjust focusing distance at speed, if copying – and the ability to translate thoughts into visual symbols on the page when free writing.  This is a complex skill for which there are considerable individual variations in the time when a child will be “ready” to master the mechanics involved.

The education system is based on the assumption that children enter the school system with the physical abilities in place to meet the demands of the classroom and that this is universal for all children of the same age.  Research has shown that this is not the case and many children enter the system at a disadvantage in terms of physical readiness for school[i] [ii].

Of course teaching of specific skills and practise are important.  Practise is the process by which newly learned material is translated from working memory into long term memory and through which those skills become automated freeing “higher” brain centres to concentrate on cognitive aspects of the task and releasing creative expression.

But, if children start to become frustrated, anxious or repeatedly fail at a task, teaching and testing more of the same is not the answer.  Teaching and practice need to be aimed at the level from which the child succeeds and built up from that point with the ground for those skills being prepared in a more holistic environment of sensory-motor experience.

Children learn best when they enjoy what they are doing and the key to success in any form of learning is to meet the child where he or she is in terms of their understanding and tools.  Unless a “prescriptive” system of education takes child development into account and allows some flexibility in how it is applied we will continue to see an increase in young children and parents suffering unnecessary anxiety.

[i] North Eastern Education and Library Board (NEELB) 2004.  An evaluation of the pilot INPP movement programme in primary schools in the North Eastern Education and Library Board, Northern Ireland.  Final Report.  Prepared by Brainbox Research for the NEELB.

[ii] Goddard Blythe SA, 2005.  Releasing educational potential through movement. Child Care in Practice. 11/4:415-432.

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