Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Respect the Ages and Stages of Childhood Learning

This is an excerpt from my book Common Sense Excellence: Faith-Filled Home Education for Preschool to 5th Grade.


God has designed human beings to grow into their responsibilities. We don’t birth miniature adults! Children progress through natural stages of learning as they mature; much of our frustration can be avoided if we learn what we can reasonably expect. Then we can avoid the temptation to pressure our children to do things better or faster than they are ready to do them. Parents often ask, “When should I start?” You already started educating your child at birth, and you’ve been doing it ever since. The question really should be, “When should I introduce this or that skill?” or “When should we start more formal academics?” or “What methods should I use at this stage of development?” Here are some tips:

Keep it basic.
Elementary education doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s supposed to be just what it says: ELEMENTARY! The dictionary definition of elementary is: “dealing with or arising from the simplest facts of a subject; rudimentary; introductory.” Your child does not have to master each and every concept that he encounters. You don’t have to feel guilty if you don’t get around to dissecting a frog or diagramming a sentence. Think about what he needs right now. Can he use it in his daily life? Does he need this skill to build on in future months and years? Is he even interested in this subject? Can he reasonably interact with the information on his own level, or is it way too much for him? Use these questions to determine how advanced you want your child’s education to be right now.

Establish good habits early on. Work on basic reverence, respect, kindness, diligence, or orderliness from a very young age. This investment of time and energy will pay hundredfold dividends in the future. Imagine teaching a child who is cooperative, willing to work hard, and cleans up after himself! Work on it every day!

Introduce a skill when your child is ready, shows an interest, or needs it to function. There is no set age at which a child is ready for focused paper-and-pencil seatwork, and it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing anyway. You could be doing short phonics or math sessions without having three hours of “school” each day. If you still want a guideline for what your child could be doing at each grade level, you can take obtain a scope and sequence from a curriculum publisher such as A Beka (, or from your local school district. Our county schools actually put these on the Internet.

Use concrete methods, rather than abstract methods, for a young child. Hands-on learning is so important in a child’s developmental progression. Young children can’t automatically understand abstract concepts. They must start with concrete learning experiences using things they can see, hear, touch, move, smell and taste. Just watch a toddler explore the house -- opening and shutting drawers, banging a spoon on the table, pouring juice from one cup to another, dumping out a bucket of blocks, and hopefully putting them back again. Math is another great example of the principle of concrete learning. You could show a four year old a piece of paper that has “2+3=5” written on it. The squiggles on the paper, and even the spoken words “two plus three equals five” are abstract symbols for something. Unless he can decode the symbols and translate it into real life experience, it means nothing to him. He will get frustrated if you expect him to make sense out of it. But if you put a pile M & M candies on the table, you’ve got his instant attention. He counts out two groups, shoves them together, and counts the total. That’s concrete learning. That’s common sense learning.

Start with the simple and move toward the complex. In nature studies, a preschooler may be able to tell the difference between a zebra and a giraffe in a picture book, but the older student will learn about how they live, what they eat, why they have their unique markings, etc. In story telling, a picture book usually has very simplified plot, setting, characters and ending; a more advanced story adds details, throws in some sub-plots, and develops the personalities of the characters. In math, the young child counts and adds small numbers, while the fifth grader will encounter mathematical terminology, symbols and processes (dividend, divisor, quotient, various formats for division problems, how to do long division, etc.) Looking back to the preschool years, it’s hard to believe that a child has learned so much, because it has come in lots of little baby steps, with an occasional quantum leap forward.

When giving instructions, use the KISS formula: “Keep It Simple, Sweetie!” You can say, “Give me the book!” to a toddler who has it right in her hand, while a kindergartner could understand, “Go get the red book on your bed.” A 2nd grader could handle a two step command such as, “Look on the bottom shelf for the book called Polar Bears and read it before you eat your lunch.” A fifth grader can follow an even more complicated sequence, like “Go ask Susie where her polar bear book is, then finish reading it to her, starting at chapter five. Be sure to write it down in her record book!” If you need to give a sequence of instructions to a child who has trouble with multiple steps, either write them down, have her repeat them back to you, or give one instruction at a time and then have her come back for the next one.

Work on “readiness skills” with young children. Read stories, recite rhymes, and sing songs. Introduce them to the foundations of early education: letters, numbers, shapes, colors, sizes, sequences, etc. Let them draw, string beads, stack blocks, and do puzzles. This seems like play, and it is! But it also gets them ready, in a gentle and pleasant way, for the more serious stuff down the road.

Use the Three-Period Lesson.
Dr. Maria Montessori developed this three-step approach to teaching young children about names of objects, as well as characteristics of size, color, shape, texture, etc. Most parents do this naturally, without knowing what to call it, but here is a summary of the three steps:
  • Period 1 -- Recognition of Identity: The parent tells the child what the object is. This may take several times, perhaps by looking at the same pictures in a book each day. For example, the parent might point to a picture and say, “This is a daisy,” perhaps adding a little description to help the child recognize it in the future. Nothing is required of the child but to look and listen.

  • Period 2 -- Recognition of Contrasts: The parent tells the child to select a particular object from several which are similar: “Which one of these flowers is the daisy?”

  • Period 3 -- Discrimination Between Similar Objects: The parent asks the child, “Which one is this?” and the child must give the correct name -- “Daisy!”

Many workbooks use this Three-Period Lesson concept when teaching letters, numbers and shapes. In a Period 1 lesson, a book may show groups of objects with corresponding numerals, such as five apples with the numeral 5. In Period 2 lesson, the child might be told to match groups of objects with their corresponding numerals, perhaps by drawing lines. In Period 3 lesson, the child might be shown a group of objects and told to write the number, or shown a number and told to draw that many objects. You can also do this concretely by playing with hands-on objects or flash cards. As your child gets older, he will be able to make more subtle distinctions, such as identifying a bird he has just seen, or classifying his rock collection. He will know what characteristics make each specimen unique from the others.

Let the seen explain the unseen. This is another extension of moving from the simple to the complex. There are some things that children cannot see up close and personal, but they can still begin to understand based on what they can see. A child can’t see the electricity running through the wires behind your walls, but he can see the room light up when he flips the switch. If he visits a zoo and lingers to observe each animal eat and move around, he will have a much better understanding of those species that he can’t see in their own natural habitats. If he watches his parents make a budget and then try to stick to it, he can begin to comprehend how business or government leaders must decide where the money goes. We can also use the seen/unseen principle to start teaching about God. Romans 1:20 reminds us: “For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” Even a very young child can grow in appreciation for the things in his own life that God has made (pretty flowers, their beloved pet dog, yummy strawberries, fun siblings and playmates, etc.). As he watches your example of Christian living and listens to the testimonies of others, he may begin to understand the need for personal salvation, and also vicariously see the consequences of wise and unwise behavior before he has a chance to make the same mistakes.

Build a mental framework and fill it in as the years go by.
When a child learns new information, he needs a place to put it in his brain. He should develop the capability to create mental hooks to organize the information, especially in relation to what he has already learned. “We are learning about butterflies. They are insects. Ants are insects, too.” or “George Washington became President after the Revolutionary War.” You can help this process by pointing out the natural relationships as they come up. Unit studies are a good way to organize information so that it hangs together in the child’s mental file cabinet. If you are studying pioneer times, you can find a typical wagon route on a map, show pictures of covered wagons and pioneer clothing, eat cornbread, make candles, go without electricity for an evening, and read a Laura Ingalls Wilder book. Your child begins to associate all of these mental images with frontier living.

Aim for at least a basic acquaintance with major topics. As your child builds the mental framework, make it your goal not to leave any glaring gaps. In the early elementary years, the focus is usually on basic skills (reading, writing, and arithmetic) with science and social studies tucked in as you are able. However, by the end of elementary school, a home school student should be somewhat familiar with all of the major historical periods, continents of the world (and some specific countries), kinds of plants and animals, major branches of science, how the human body works, and so forth. You won’t be able to teach everything your child will ever need to know, but you can at least give him a good start! In this book, I try to give a comprehensive overview of possible topics to cover for each subject. What Your First Grader Needs to Know, and E.D. Hirsch’s other core knowledge books can be a big help here.

Develop your child’s ability to work independently. A preschooler or kindergartner is pretty much dependent on you to read to him, help him with written work, explain math concepts, and show him how to do things around the house. Once he learns to read fluently, however, you can often hand him a book to study by himself. By about fourth grade, he might be expected to produce regular written assignments, such as original short stories or factual reports. He can also pursue his own topics of interest, perhaps checking out several related library books on his own. He may even help you select his own curriculum from home school catalogs. Later elementary grades are when home school parents often turn to more structured curriculum for math and language arts, if they haven’t done so already. This saves time, provides for a continuity of skills progression, and gives a child “something to run with.” In Horizons Math, fourth grade is when the work book pages present new concepts directly to the child; there is less reliance on oral instruction from the parent. Throughout this process, you will still be there to provide help, but there is less hand holding and more coaching.

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