Sunday, May 23, 2010

Order in the Classroom

One of the less fortunate side-effects of standards for growth and development is the pervasive belief that a child's age defines what he should or shouldn't have learned, what he should or shouldn't be capable of doing, etc. When it comes to the metrics employed in raising children, our society is almost exclusively focused age-appropriateness. We see age-specific charts for height and weight at the pediatrician's office. We see specific curricula designed for each year of elementary school. We're taught at what ages children become self-aware and at what ages they become capable of abstract thought.

Almost from birth, parents begin comparing their children to the standards. How much did Bobby weigh at birth? How much at six months? When did he start crawling? When did he first start pulling himself up? When did he take his first steps?

Some parents make it really important that their child be within a certain percentile of growth and development. They become downright distraught if she's not in the top twenty percent of this or that age defined metric.

Some parents try to "help" their children by artificially accelerating their development employing special programs and lessons designed to get them off the charts and over the top: reading at age four, Chopin etudes at age ten, calculus at age twelve, and so on. Although it's all for the children, most of us seem to derive a sense of pride and satisfaction when our children are ahead of the curve.

The Big Problem
The problem with age-appropriate standards is in how we use them. Age-appropriate standards simply reflect ages at which children typically acquire certain skills and knowledge. That's fine; however, we don't stop there.

The first place we go awry with age-appropriate statistics is when we take a statistic (the percentage of children who have acquired a certain skill by a certain age) and translate it into a metric (a required skill for children of a certain age).

The second is when we compare our children to the metrics and make their alignment with the metrics meaningful and important. I'm worried about little Susie, she's thirteen months old and still not walking. Little Frank is so smart, he started reading books at four.

The third (and perhaps most insidious) is when we let age-based metrics define the developmental curriculum for an individual child.

Here's how it goes. We start with something that reflects typical development, for example:
4-5 years old:
know numbers and letters
6-7 years old:
perform addition and subtraction and read simple stories
8-9 years old:
perform multiplication and division and abstract the meaning of stories
We translate the statistics for typical development into a should. Mary's almost eight years old; she should be able to do addition and subtraction by now!

Having converted a statistical norm into a mandate, we do everything we can think of to help Mary learn addition and subtraction: tutors, summer school, special games, videos, etc.

Sometimes it works, many times it doesn't.

Oftentimes, when it doesn't, we'll have a child repeat a year of school. Why? Because we assume that the issue has to do with the child's rate of development. Her development is slow. We treat her not being able to do math as we would treat her being short. If we simply put her into a group of younger children, everything will be fine.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Rate of Development vs Sequence of Development
Now, here's the problem. The reasons that Sally can't do addition and subtraction, the reasons that Billy can't comprehend the higher order meaning of a story, and the reasons that Alice can't catch a ball have nothing to do with their rate of development (how fast they learn and grow). The reasons have do to with their sequence of development (the ordering of acquired skills and knowledge.)

Although we can use age-appropriate criteria to identify when a child is not developing typically, age-appropriate criteria tell us nothing about why he is developing atypically. Fortunately, in addition to the statistics that reflect the ages at which children typically acquire skills, there are data that show the sequence (or order) in which skills are acquired (regardless of age).

For example, regardless of the age at which she does it, a child will typically roll-over before she crawls. She'll crawl before she pulls herself up. She'll pull herself up before she walks.

A child might respond to touch before responding to eye contact, eye contact before gestures, gestures before words, words before phrases, phrases before sentences, and so on.

Although we might identify typical ages at which children acquire these skills, the importance is not the age at which they're acquired, it's the order in which they are acquired. The reason the order matters is that most skills build upon previously acquired skills. When we skip a prerequisite skill, it makes acquisition of dependent skills difficult or impossible, regardless of age.

Almost invariably, when a child of ten is struggling with multiplication and division, it's not because he's developmentally slow; it's because he's skipped a developmental step. It could be addition or subtraction or basic orders of magnitude (e.g., understanding tens versus hundreds versus thousands). The older the child and the more complex the task, the longer the list of potentially missed developmental steps. When a child of fourteen is struggling with algebra, it could be addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, abstract thought, reading comprehension, or any of a number of factors.

Since the cause of the current challenge often has to do with a developmental step that was skipped years before, having a child repeat the current lessons over and over won't be of any use and can even be counter productive.

I Can't Do Math
Almost everyone I've ever met can identify some skill that they simply do not have. It may be math, it may be music, it may be dancing, it may be speaking, it may be writing, it may be throwing a ball.

Invariably, with a little exploration, we can identify the missing developmental step.

For example, I've met lots of adults who, after years of lessons, frustratedly gave up on learning the piano. As we explore why piano was so difficult for them, it typically comes down to having skipped an important developmental step: discerning pitch. (Discerning pitch involves hearing the difference between one note and another note, and identifying which is which.) Without this minor developmental step, the only way to know whether or not you're playing what's on the sheet music is to look at your hands.

I've known many people who can do arithmetic, but can't do algebra. A little exploration typically reveals that the problem has nothing to do with math, but instead, the inability to quickly shift between concrete and abstract thinking. We'll talk about an algebraic formula like (a + b) * c = d, and the I-can't-do-algebra person will say something like, "Yeah, but how do you know what a is?"

What to Do
To be sure, it can be quite useful to understand the ages at which children typically acquire various skills and capabilities. However, it can also be quite a hindrance if you want to help a child overcome developmental challenges. We end up focusing on a symptom of the challenge, not the root cause of the challenge. At best, we can help a child pass all the tests that certify him as having achieved all the age-appropriate developmental goals, but it's highly likely that he doesn't really get it.

In the end, taking the age-appropriate approach is akin to getting a child to grow from four-foot-five to five-foot-eight without passing through five-foot-two. The steps in between matter.

I believe wholeheartedly that (with rare exception) anyone can do algebra, anyone can play piano, anyone can learn to dance, anyone can learn to write. However, if you dismiss yourself or your child as being too old or as "should have learned that by now", you'll never get there. If you dismiss the possibility because you've "tried it before", you'll never get there. If you try again, simply running the same program that didn't work previously, you'll never get there.

However, if you take time (on your own or with someone) to determine the developmental steps that build to the desired skill, to identify the ones that you might have missed, and to work on acquiring the missing building blocks, you can get there.

If you're interested pursuing this further, you might google phrases such as developmental sequence and age appropriate curriculum, along with the specific areas of interest.

Order in the classroom!

Happy Sunday,


  1. Hey Taffy (am I dyslexic or just a wise guy?)!

    OK, I guess I haven't done a good job of explaining but this is EXACTLY what I take Andy to the Vision and Conceptual Development Center in Washington SC for. Their whole schtick is to identify where each child skipped steps alon a variety of developmental lines and go back and fill in the blanks, proceding forward from there. Dr. Wachs' book - Thinking Goes to School - Describes this in some detail while documenting the application of this concept in a public school system. For those who are interested, the work of French psychologist Jean Piaget is the foundation for this type of approach. Thanks for highlighting this subject and for being not only insightful, but actually useful as well!

    Love always,

  2. - anyone who'lll volenteer to help me find the missing blocks in creating and retaining relationships?

    PS: I have just finished chapter 23 of "Scattered Minds" by Gabor Maté which adresses the problem with the school system adressing all kids equally - and the consequences to ADD-kids.

    Listining to this to these audiotapes made me understand (once again) how important the teaching style and the teachers personlity has been to which subject I excelled in.

  3. Mark K: Jean Piaget was from Schweizerland/ Suisse. - but close to France...

    This description is quite inspirering

  4. Joy, I think the relationship one might be as simple as blowing past attraction and looking for someone with mutually reciprocal wants (desires).

  5. Tef, your answer helped me reflect.
    First I thougth: the answer I was looking for was more in line with doing dialogues to uncover which add-behaviors that was "in my way".

    I must say that I do have a lot of nice friends, but what I don't have and I do want is someone to do sports with and someone who likes to go out dancing...

    So I do know what I want, but I settle for relationships where I don't get it.

    As I think of it most of the friends I rarely see are all the kind of relationships where we'll drink coffee (or wine) and chat. - so in one way they are all the same.

    So I guess that my frustration came from spending time with different people who all gave me the same - and yet I was longing for something else which I didn't get in any of them.

    Thx. Joy

  6. So Joy, seeing as you know what you want, why don't you have what you want? Why do you settle?

  7. LOL - my programming was to simple

    Let's say I had a list of 10 things I wanted to do with friends. If a "friend prospect" fullfilled one of these - great, I would make sure to catch up with person.

    A more suffisticated programming would tjek:
    ahh this is a friend friend type A
    - then it would tjek:
    Do I have room for more people people in type A
    if not
    do I want to replace one of the existing friends type a with the new prospect?


    My old software would at times check the friendsstatus:
    A times it would do a check for specific friends such as: do I know a running friend, a cinema friend etc.

    But for the general check it wasn't programed to check each of the friendcategories.
    It had different check-points such as: how many people have called me this week? how much time did I spend alone.

    It had a very simple output:
    Enough friends yes/ no

    Often this answer would No and in that case I would tend to call a friend (or a prospect) - BUT
    this practise would ofte provide me with a friend in a full category and I would still miss out on the running friend...

    Until recently I had a similar programming for shoe shopping and it provided me with a lot of runningshoes
    - which is not the ultimate shoe-choise when you are wearing a dress...

  8. Joy, wow, that's quite a, ummm... err... algorithm. I wonder if there's a correlation between "percentage of shoes worn to percentage of shoes owned" and "number of friends to number could-be friends".

  9. Dad-this is a GREAT post! After Logan was born, I immediately (as many new parents do) began to read books about what my baby should be doing according to his age. DId he roll over at 5 months? Is he sitting at 6 months? I found it to be stressful when Logan wasn't "doing" what the book said he "should' be doing. I would then look at my son and find myself obsessing about it instead of embracing him and enjoying him. When we learned that Logan had a stroke, I became even more aware of the timelines. It was devastating for me! Then, I met his physical therapist who explained to me that it's not "when" your child meets a developmental milestone, it's the order in in which he/ or she does. Just as you stated. It's more important how they get there then when they get there. So, I stopped reading and obsessing and began to accept my child for who he was and for the path he was going to take. This made coping with his stroke diagnosis so much easier. I would often hear Mother's in his little gym class bragging about how their child never crawled, but just starting walking. I would think to myself, that while they were proud this may not be the best thing for their child. How is the child supposed to build arm strength, total body coordination, develop the arches in their hands etc? To make a long story short, it was totally enlightening to accept the sequence rather then the "should be able to". It didn't matter to me when Logan walked, it just mattered that he was able to complete all of the various steps he needed to in order to walk. Now, as he gets older the same philosophy applies and it's a much more relaxing and loving way to parent your child.

  10. Joy (daughter), Thank you!

    It's so cool that you figured all this out with Logan. So many parents don't figure it out and then, doing the best they can to help their children, do all sorts of things that are anything but helpful. It's really easy to obsess when you're inundated with information about what your child should be doing at this age or that.

    Maybe we come up with a catchy tag phrase or illustration and create t-shirts that help parents to understand that, when it comes to child development, sequence trumps age.

    Love, Dad


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