Update: My attitude to the starting age of formal education has changed a little since writing this post. I am now believe that it’s critical to ensure that the learning experiences on offer are appropriate to the age of the child.
The emotional and cognitive reality of a 5 year old.
5 is a critical age in a child’s life. “The learning that takes place at that age is creating a blueprint for life as an adult,” says Professor of Neuroscience and Education, Paul Howard-Jones. He says that, “the foundation of the well-being of an adult is based on a child’s early emotional and cognitive development. A good foundation at an early age will lead to good interpersonal relationships and self-regulatory thinking.” What a daunting proposition. What an opportunity. A chance to set up a child to be successful in life. If it’s approached it in the right way, that is. Working with children at that age is such a thrilling and rewarding experience. And such a serious endeavour. What a responsibility! That’s why I am always asking myself – “Are we getting it right? Are we doing the best for our children? Are we approaching it the right way?”
By and large, a 5 year old is still living in an egocentric world. A 5 year old’s social understanding is limited. It is around the age of 5 that a child is ready to be encouraged to think beyond itself; to develop key emotional and social skills, to understand the perspective of others, to develop empathy, to find one’s place within the group, to develop confidence in group situations, and to fit in socially. Whereas adults get to choose the level of social engagement they expose themselves to, children are typically not given much choice.
When children have just reached a formative age in terms of emotion and socialisation, we set them off on their academic journey. Before any appropriate pro-social learning has been started, let alone achieved.
5 year olds are better at working 1 on 1. Group situations can be very emotionally challenging for them. Having extra people around means having to share your time and compete for the attention of friends. Emotions of jealousy and rivalry are very difficult to process at this age. The adult’s job is to help them get these emotions under control and help them learn to self regulate. 5 year olds need to learn to understand that the consequences of not managing/controlling their feelings can result in losing friendships. They are able to learn this.
The problem with starting academic education too early (and defining education too narrowly).
5 years old is also the age that children in New Zealand start their formal academic education. That’s the age when we start to teach them to read and write and count. That’s the age we start to define them by a set of narrowly defined National Standards. Can you see the problem here? When children have just reached a formative age in terms of emotion and socialisation, we set them off on their academic journey. Before any appropriate pro-social learning has been started, let alone achieved. By starting them off on their academic journey so soon, we haven’t given them enough opportunities to develop emotionally or cognitively.
It’s naive to assume that meaningful learning is actually happening in high-pressure, worksheet-laden classrooms…
Many children are not developmentally ready to complete structured academic learning when they arrive at school. Nor should they be. Many children are still developing emotionally. That is where the teaching and learning needs to be focussed. The adoption of National Standards has made things worse by requiring the setting of unrealistic academic goals. This is turn, leads to teachers employing inappropriate classroom practice to achieve these goals.
5 year olds are being expected to learn through rigorous instruction. As Erika Christakis says, “it’s naive to assume that meaningful learning is actually happening in high-pressure, worksheet-laden classrooms where teachers tightly control the content and pacing of instruction.” She says, “we also suffer from confirmation bias — we look for evidence to support what we already believe.” Teachers are encouraged to ignore the human element of education. So while National Standards are touted as a solution, they are in fact, a distraction from focussing on real solutions. That is, equal learning opportunities for all children.
There’s a well-established scientific consensus that young humans learn best through playful, relationship-based experiences.
Today’s children have got it tough. Our academic expectations of them are increasing. Our misplaced anxieties are demanding greater academic achievement at even earlier ages. This is compounded by the reality that children are also losing their free play time outside of school hours. Children have busy schedules. They have organised sports events, culture activities and playdates to attend. Parents are busy. Children are required to fit into their parents’ schedules. Or they are being supervised by technology. Tragically, it is not so unusual to have 5 year olds in the classroom who need support to be able to engage meaningfully when given free play.
So, what’s the alternative?
There’s a well-established scientific consensus that young humans learn best through playful, relationship-based experiences. That’s academic and social learning. They learn through playful, hands on experiences with materials, and with the support of engaging, caring adults.
Nor does ‘play’ mean an unstructured free-for-all. Active, play-based experiences can incorporate language rich environments to help children develop ideas about literacy. Experience tells me that in the right environment, children will ‘miraculously’ develop an understanding and strong desire to read and write.
Yes, a daunting proposition. But also a wonderful opportunity – a chance to set up a child to be successful in life.
Update: Since publishing this post, I have discovered that the same issues are being discussed in the media in Australia. A teacher quit teaching and petitioned the government to address her concern that, “teachers are being forced to teach an age inappropriate and crowded curriculum which is pushing students too hard, too fast.” The petition asks parliament to “observe international evidence-based best practice and ensure children are six years of age or older to commence being formally taught an incremental age-appropriate national curriculum”, and “that all play for under 6-year-olds is play-based and data collection be minimised, as well as order an independent investigation into the true depth of child and teacher distress in primary schools related to the curriculum.”
Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.