Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Just Wait a Few Months

A mother recently showed me a letter from her child’s first grade teacher.  The teacher wrote, “Most of the children in today’s math class do not know how to…  Please work with your child  on this concept.”

Assuming the teacher was correct and a majority of the students didn’t understand the lesson, there are a number of reasons for this letter. This post is only going to focus on one reason an entire class may appear clueless. Nope, I don’t think there is more free floating dyscalculia. I do think, however, that too many curriculum writers display too little awareness of child development.

Do you remember referring to developmental timelines when your child was an infant?  Everyone knew there was a time to expect a child to sit, crawl, walk, and talk.  It wasn’t a specific date but a general time frame. We knew children were different, and we also knew that there were early and late walkers and talkers.  Most of us are aware of the angst of early adolescence and the fact that some teens are more mature than others.  Is it surprising that  children in elementary school also have developmental timelines? Just like toddlers, they do not march in lockstep when reaching specific cognitive milestones.  Piaget’s theory of development covers many of these steps. Current  brain research can visually show  the growth and changes in a child’s brain.

What does this have to do with math? Quite a bit. For example:
  • Many children in first grade can’t really understand reverse thinking.  It is apparent to adults that  6 + 4 = 10 so 10 - 4 = 6. This reverse process isn’t  clear to many first graders. That kind of thinking is a developmental step which some children haven’t reached by age six.
  • Place value and symbols representing it are also difficult for many children. Some children with good language skills appear to understand  place value only because they can parrot back the information. Those same children cannot apply that information to a differently worded problem.
  • Fine motor skills also develop at different rates. We often do not realize how much effort a small child may put into copying numbers, or writing answers in the correct place. As adults we use writing as a tool. For some young children getting the numbers down on paper is a huge part of the problem.

To reiterate: children mature at different rates. Some children find arithmetic easy. They may or may not be good at math throughout their school years. Others are mature for their age or have great language or fine motor skills. And some children aren’t quite there yet. This has nothing to do with intelligence, any more than early walking denotes a future track star.

Children’s brains are developing and changing as the child ages, but our schools are pushing higher academic expectations at a younger age.  Many older teachers will tell you kindergartners  are now given work done by first graders twenty years ago.

If your early elementary child is having difficulty with math you need to look at what is being asked of him. Is he the youngest in the classroom? Do you think of your child as immature for her age? Is writing difficult?

The most important question may be are the expectations too high for most of the children in the classroom. I asked two first grade teachers about math expectations for first grade. Both rattled off the curriculum expectations. Do the students really understand all those concepts? Both teacher laughed and said, “Heck, no” or words close to that.  

Having realistic developmental expectations is not watering down the curriculum. For a child to progress in math there has to be a building upon specific skills.  Rushing through these skills, while disregarding if a child is ready to learn that skill, almost guarantees problems later on down the road.

Oh course there are many other reasons math class may be difficult for a child. Some of those reasons will be covered in future posts.

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