‘He doesn’t know his letters!’ I told the support teacher regarding Pax, a 7 year old that just entered our classroom. As an educational psychologist, I was a visiting teacher this past year at a public Montessori school in Oakland to gain perspective. The class was an active one, 30 children ages 6 to 9 and lots of energy. Sitting in circle for 5 minutes required all the strategies I have learned in the last 20 years to sustain their attention: puppets, peer support, wiggle seats, you name it . Even then someone would invariably roll onto someone else, scream for the fun of it, jump up and starts running, or start a conversation about their shoelaces to the neighbor. In the midst of the chaos was Pax sitting with patience, hands in his lap, engaged in the lesson.
In the first weeks of school, teachers are busy assessing each child to determine their academic skills. These initial assessments should help drive their lessons and provide targeted instruction for the class and referrals for intensive instruction for those in need. In a class of 30, I was happily surprised to discover all the students knew the sight words expected for their grade level at the start of the year. All but one, Pax (name changed for privacy) who seemed confused by the concept of letters and only knew how to read the word ‘I’. Pax is new to the school and I immediately sent a message to the intervention teacher to have him screened for dyslexia. A 7 year old who doesn’t know his sounds and has no sight words? Something must be wrong. But Pax showed curiosity and always accepted invitations to read with me, collaborated with his peers, and when it was challenging he persisted and showed gratitude for the support. Despite this I continued to be concerned about his progress. If someone had asked me about students in the class who needed support, Pax’s name would have been number one on my list. But then something happened.
I met with Pax’s mother after school and I found out crucial information. Pax had attended Waldorf school for Preschool through first grade. I knew little of Waldorf aside from the fact that children stay with the same teacher for many years and there is a priority on teaching hand crafting skills like knitting and making felted dolls that look like elves. Upon researching I learned, academic skills such as reading are not formally introduced until children are 7.
In an age where 4 year old children in America are being pushed to write their names, know all their letters and sounds, and count to 50 to be ‘on track’, 7 seems way too late to start. Parents are even tempted to buy videos which teach your toddler how to read. It seems like it can’t hurt to introduce academics earlier and earlier. As I stepped back and looked at the situation from a new perspective I realized the skills Pax brought to the classroom were the most valuable for learning. Out of the 30 children in the classroom, Pax was the child with the strongest socio emotional skills: he was friendly and kind, able to focus and regulate his behavior, did not demand constant attention from adults, independent in his learning, and understood complex directions. He was able to persist with challenging tasks without giving up and ignore distractions. In contrast, the majority of students in the class who were at grade level academically lacked these skills: they demanded constant attention from adults, interrupted, slapped others if they tugged their shirts, made loud noises without thinking, gave up when things became challenging, and were unable to tolerate a minute of boredom without complaining.
How do we teach these crucial skills? Schools have started to load up on socio-emotional curriculums which introduce skills as lessons. This model expects children to apply skills learned to real life situations. Anyone who has been in an emergency situation knows it is not always easy to apply skills in the heat of the moment. While we were focused on teaching academics to very young children, we did not make time for them to develop essential skills for emotional regulation and social skills in the moment. In the meantime, children have developed maladaptive skills such as excessive aggression, demanding attention, and distractibility. These maladaptive traits are difficult to unlearn. While we may measure these student’s academic skills and believe they are on track, they actually will be faced with serious challenges as adults. We are missing the window of opportunity when they are young to teach cooperation, self control, and problem solving and will have to work harder when children get older to instill essential skills.
When you visit your child’s preschool or elementary school, instead of focusing on how they prepare your child to read and do math, ask how they support children in developing social skills. How are they learning to take turns, calm down when they become upset, build self esteem, and communicate with others? Once they have these skills, children will be able to maximize their learning in the classroom and are prepared to handle the real challenges life has to offer.