I was my son’s age when I started school, which at four and a half years old, made me one of the youngest kids in my class.
Luckily, I was a child of the ‘80’s when kindergarten wasn’t the new first grade and the academic pressures on kids were dwarfed by modern standards.
But, times have changed. We’ve moved on and become more sophisticated. Modern kids, it seems, are more advanced. They can read and write and add and subtract at younger ages than ever before, with one friend telling me recently that second graders are mastering computer coding. Seriously?
It seems as though we are so preoccupied with whether we can teach (or train) a child, we’re not stopping to ask if we should.
With kindergarten on our family’s horizon, it is assumed by friends, family and strangers that our son will be starting his academic career in September. But, if motherhood has taught me anything it is to question everything, to remain open-minded and make informed and proactive choices.
Because, government policy doesn’t necessarily reflect the psychological and developmental needs of children and rather than moving at my son’s cheetah speed, they tend to be slow to react when scientific findings run counter to cultural expectations or popular opinion.
A 2015 study titled, The Gift of Time? Starting School Age and Mental Health found strong evidence that delaying kindergarten by one year provides mental health benefits to children, allowing them to better self-regulate their attention and hyperactivity levels when they do start school. The effect was long-lasting, virtually eliminating the probability that an average eleven-year-old child would have an ‘abnormal’, or higher-than-normal rating for inattentive-hyperactive behavioral measures.
This is powerful information, yet public education policies in western nations fail to evolve.
With diagnoses of conditions such as ADHD, anxiety, depression, stress, movement disorders and sensory integration challenges skyrocketing, we need to stop and ask why.
A study published in the Medical Journal of Australia, which analyzed more than 300,000 school children found that children who were born in the last month of the recommended school year intake were roughly twice as likely to have been prescribed ADHD medication than children from the first month of intake. These are not isolated findings. A population study of almost one million Canadian children found that the youngest boys were thirty per cent more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD and forty one per cent more likely to be medicated.
Is this mere coincidence? Dr. Martin Whitely of Curtin University, lead researcher of the Australian study, believes, as do I, that some children are being misdiagnosed based on observations that are merely signs of normal age-related immaturity.
When we consider that the elements taken into consideration for diagnosis were factors such as whether children are distracted too easily, playing too loudly, fidgeting too much, climbing too much or interrupting too often, surely, alarm bells must be ringing in the minds of every parent of a five-year-old child.
Because, these are the traits that young, healthy children are naturally wired for.
Our focus on academics is skewing our persepctive and leaving children sitting in their seats, while simultaneously sidelining the crucial interplay of movement and social-emotional development. Young children, at least until the age of seven, need to spend most of their time playing. They need to climb, explore and move their bodies to allow normal brain development to unfold.
Through her research, Dr. Carla Hannaford has found that the same regions in the brain that are responsible for movement are the regions that are involved in higher level thinking. She suggests that there is a link between children having plenty of time for free play involving whole body movement and their ability to perform higher level thinking such as problem-solving, creating and designing, anticipating outcomes, curbing impulses, and delaying gratification.
Underpinning this is the invisible work our children are doing on a daily basis; brain integration. The integration of the right and left hemispheres in the prefrontal cortex is critical to the development of executive functions and until this process is complete, a young child will remain impulsive because it is simply beyond their ability to do otherwise.
“We can no longer limit the learning environment to sitting still, being quiet and memorising stuff.” Dr. Carla Hannaford, Author of Smart Moves
So, when is a young child ready to start formal education? Dr. Deborah MacNamara, author of Rest, Grow, Play, suggests that the answer isn’t an arbitrary age but when their brain is sufficiently developed. Typically, this will occur between the ages of five and seven, IF ideal development has been allowed to take place. However, one size does not fit all; the timeline for a highly sensitive child, for example, will add an additional two years to this process.
Scandinavian countries recognize these needs. They are famous for being among the most literate (and happy) people on the planet, while also delaying formal teaching of skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic until children are seven years of age. Research that examined the efficacy of starting formal education at age seven in Denmark and the US found that it dramatically reduced the number of students who were displaying attention and hyperactivity problems. It is proposed that by delaying school, a child’s young brain was allowed to integrate in the prefrontal areas, giving rise to focused attention and impulse control.
“In other words, maturity, not academic instruction is the answer to student success.” Deborah MacNamara Ph.D
Yet, our results driven society is pushing us to mandate teaching skills at younger and younger ages, even though there is no evidence to suggest that reading at age five leads to greater academic success. In fact, the opposite may be true; pushing a child to read before they are developmentally ready can create stress, inhibit learning and lead to feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and confusion.
It is time to pause, to take a step back and ask, what is it that we are trying to achieve? Our rapidly changing world demands that our children will need to be able to think for themselves, shape their own destinies and be confident with a lack of externally provided framework in the future. Funneling them into a system that prioritizes following the rules, memorization, rote learning and scoring well on tests, no matter how well-meaning, may be doing more harm than good.
“What we want to see in the child is pursuit of knowledge, not knowledge in pursuit of the child.” George Bernard Shaw
As a mother of an almost five-year-old little boy, I firmly believe that positive change begins with brave parents asking the tough questions, in spite of the predictable criticism and resistance of naysayers. It’s our responsibility to take charge and protect our kids from the overwhelm society has created, no matter how “normal” it is deemed to be.
As Kym John Payne so eloquently explains in Simplicity Parenting, normal personality quirks combined with the stress of too much too soon can propel children into the realm of disorder. A child who is systematic may be pushed into obsessive behaviours. A dreamy child may lose the ability to focus.
Childhood serves a very real purpose and cannot be rushed without consequence.
Because, some things we do know for certain; kids need their childhood, it isn’t optional. They need time; time to play, think, create, daydream, rest and grow.
Speaking personally, our family’s path forward is unknown and that can be scary, but it is also incredibly exciting. I wish I could give you a blueprint, a cheat sheet, a defined path forward, but we all face unique challenges; from the level of family support we receive to financial considerations and our individual child’s needs. We need to uncover our own solutions but we can be there to support one another, offer guidance, tools and examples.
Not a single day passes that I don’t think about what form of education we will choose. I value education strongly, but, that doesn’t necessarily mean traditional schooling is the answer. I am grateful to live in a society where options exist and we’ll make a conscious decision that reflects our family values and our son’s needs.
As difficult as it may be to stray from the herd, our children need us to be brave guides willing to advocate for them, to go against the grain of society in order to go with the grain of natural childhood. We need to be willing to think anew, to be conscious and considered in our choices so that we create an environment in which our children can thrive, both now and in the future.
“It is hard to swim against the current and risk the negative judgments of parenting peers. Yet, some do, and if enough begin to swim upstream, the river may change its flow.” Peter Gray, Free to Learn