There’s a tug of war going on in American schools, a tension between learners’ developmental needs and the academic rigor required to meet challenging educational standards. In the classroom, where standardized assessments are the driving force of the day, the developmental realities of learners are often overlooked and shortchanged—and it’s something we ought to be talking about.
Signs of a Struggle
My co-worker’s son, Eli, is a case in point. As a kindergartener, he was expected to sit cross-legged with his hands in his lap on an 18” x 18” carpet square for 30-40 minutes of circle time each morning—something he was often unable to do. His teacher regularly reported home that Eli needed to improve in his ability to sit still, and the enthusiasm he had for school in September quickly waned.
His mother discussed the situation with her child’s pediatrician, who replied that Eli’s difficulty sitting still was a developmental stage that was perfectly normal for a five-year-old boy. The doctor also noted that Eli was expending so much energy trying to sit still that he was probably not able to attend to what he was supposed to be learning.
Eli’s parents transferred him to a different school the following year where he was assigned a teacher who designed her learners’ activities with their developmental needs in mind. For example, she gave her socially focused first-graders many opportunities to work with other learners in pairs or groups. Eli’s motivation skyrocketed, and in addition to performing at the top of his class academically, he began describing himself as a person who liked to be challenged.
Meeting Learners Where They Are
With so much to accomplish each year, and so little time, it’s no surprise that considerations around learners’ developmental stages often take a back seat to the focus on academic rigor. But as Eli and his parents learned, a standards-based curriculum isn’t likely to be effective if students are developmentally unable to attend to the material as it’s presented.
Some educators are calling for a renewed interest in child developmentand a move toward creating more developmentally appropriate classrooms for young learners. What might classrooms look like if developmental considerations were given greater weight? Here are just a few possibilities:
- Less sitting and more movement for five-year-olds
- Downplaying competition when six-year-olds play learning games
- Adequate time for seven-year-olds to complete tasks to their high standards
- Forums for talkative eight-year-olds to explain things and try out their burgeoning vocabularies
- Nine-year-olds understand the relevance of their assignments
- Ten-year-olds exercise their burgeoning memorization and organization abilities
- Written communication with eleven-year-olds creates a sense of distance that supports strong continuing relationships with adults
- More autonomy and decision-making opportunities for middle school learners
- Programs or activities that help adolescents adjust to their rapidly changing bodies without losing academic focus
- Water, snacks, and exercise opportunities more readily available to learners of all ages
The Original Common Core
Long before we had the Common Core Standards, we understood that there are developmental stages that children step through as they move toward adulthood. Although children progress through them at different rates and there can be considerable overlap between stages, the stages are predictable for most children.
Learners bring their entire developmental selves to school each day, not just the cognitive components that are reflected in their standardized test scores. Classrooms that don’t take standards anddevelopmental considerations into account aren’t likely to move students as far ahead as they need to go to stay on track.
Educators may find that aligning communication styles and classroom activities with their learners’ developmental stages results in less time spent on discipline and more time on task. Loosening the reins a little by adapting to learners can support the more “serious” work of building the cognitive skillsthat matter so much in meeting today’s standards.
Wood, C. (2007). Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14.Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.
Eccles, J.S. (1999). The Development of Children Ages 6 to 14. The Future of Children, 9(2), 30-44.