Last night, my wife was reading aloud to us from A Wrinkle In Time when the following passage, spoken by five-year-old Charles Wallace Murry, stopped my heart:
“I really must learn to read except I’m afraid it will make it awfully hard for me in school next year if I already know things. I think it will be better if people go on thinking I’m not very bright. They won’t hate me quite so much.”
It spooked me.
You see, I learned a few weeks ago that my mother pretended to not know how to read when she entered kindergarten in 1932. “I thought there was something wrong with me. Five-year-olds don’t know how to read. None of the other kids could read. I didn’t want anyone to know. In first grade, there was some sort of contest on the class bulletin board to encourage kids to read. Kids would put up a card for each book they read. Kids were adding a card every week or two. I was reading a book every day or two, but I only put a card on the board every couple of weeks. I didn’t want the other kids to feel bad.”
“I didn’t have any friends at school. Books were my only friends, and I couldn’t talk to anyone about them. They would have known there was something wrong with me.”
I have to imagine that Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle In Time’s author, is telling us a similar story about her own childhood through Charles Wallace’s words. It is a story I have heard repeated over and over from parents of atypical learners.
One of my reasons for writing is the hope that through better awareness we can spare some kids needless suffering.
While the majority of kids, even the vast majority, develop at similar rates, there is a small number of kids that develop at rates far different from the norm. This is true whether we are talking about height or weight or cognitive development.
There are universal needs, but kids do not all have the same needs at the same time.
When a child grows at a rate dramatically faster or slower than the norm, we don’t force them to wear clothes sized for a “normal” kid the same age. Yet, the American primary and secondary education system does just that. Classes are organized almost strictly by age with seemingly arbitrary cut-off dates.
This system may work for kids within throwing distance of the norm (which, after all, is the vast majority of kids), but it falls short for that small number of children whose development is highly atypical. And the less typical the child is, the more this system fails, sometimes leading to poor or disastrous outcomes for students that should be among the most able.
We could improve the system immensely by acknowledging that atypical development exists and placing kids in classrooms based on their cognitive needs rather than their birth dates. The onus should be on schools to have children actively learning rather than having them merely be responsible for making sure that kids know certain things by certain ages. Kids should have a guaranteed right to learn.
School’s role is not simply to provide our children with basic content knowledge and the rudiments of reading, writing, science and arithmetic. Social-emotional learning and lifelong habits of learning are just as crucial.
We want our children to emerge from their education with a positive sense of self, intrinsically motivated, and with the essential knowledge and attitudes required for acquiring further knowledge and skills. The school system need not supply mastery but must provide the tools to pursue it. Learning how to learn and how to work through setbacks are critical skills schooling should nurture.
In the abstract, all children share a crucial set of educational needs. Key among them are:
- an emotionally and physically safe environment
- a stable environment, adequate shelter, health care and nutrition
- a curriculum that provides basic content knowledge and the rudiments of reading, writing, arithmetic and science
- a curriculum that encourages the development of patience, perseverance, and learning skills
- challenging lessons that actively move children’s knowledge and skills forward
- engaging lessons and activities
- an environment that encourages healthy social development and a sense of well-being
- teachers and administrators that support student needs
- an appropriate peer group
While these needs are universal, it is extremely difficult to meet all these needs for both age-typical and extremely atypical learners in the same classroom when placement is determined strictly by age. The more age-atypical a learner is, the more difficult it is to address their social-emotional and academic needs in the same room as same-age typical learners.
Appropriate levels of challenge and appropriate peers are needs particularly poorly served in our age-based system. I’ll be looking at those issues in the next installment.
NEXT TIME: PART 2: Challenge, Peers and More
 There is data indicating that the single most-effective way to improve academic performance of lower-income children would be to improve their nutrition and the stability of their home environments. Constant stress has been shown to have a deleterious impact on children’s ability to learn.