Delayed Academics (aka Developmentally Appropriate Learning)

Just today this article was shared on a Facebook homeschooling group I’m part of:

I really enjoyed the article. Not because it was the most well-written or scientifically backed up article, but just because of it’s message, which essentially was – back off of early academics!

Today, when people choose to postpone formal learning past the age of 5, it tends to be called “delayed learning” or “delayed academics”. I disagree. Postponing formal learning until age 6 or 7 or even 8 is not delayed at all. Instead, it is following the the way children were naturally created, and it should be called Developmentally Appropriate Learning.

This is a topic that I am rather passionate about, and I will admit, actually fairly knowledgeable about. I may not have initials after my name (well, technically I do, but they’re not Ph.D or M. Ed), and I may not have published studies, but I have spent years doing countless hours of research, reading documents and studies on child development and academics. I am also surrounded by friends and family who do have the initials after their name, who are in the education profession, with whom I have had great conversations on this topic. I’ve also talked to psychologists and other professionals about the topic.

Delayed academics seems to be a sensitive subject. Of course anything that is counter-cultural tends to be. When I have spoken up about the topic on online forums, I tend to get blasted by the “But my four year old loves her grade 1 phonics program!” moms. Unfortunately, whether the child is capable of doing the work or not, whether they enjoy it or not, science is science, and brain development is what it is. Thus, just because a 4 or 5 year old can do something, doesn’t mean they should be.

I think one of the reasons why we homeschoolers start our children so young (and as a side note, I was guilty of this with my first), is because we fall prey to cultural pressure, even subconsciously.  But also, I feel like we  tend to have a very narrow definition of learning, and ultimately seem to only equate learning with formal academics, with textbooks and workbooks and flashcards. We also mistakenly see a child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn, and think that means they are ready for formal learning.

Now, I know people can argue that each child is an individual, and they learn at their own pace, and that is true! I certainly would not argue that, and if your 4 year old expresses an unprompted desire to learn to read, I wouldn’t ignore that. What I would do however, is to teach her in developmentally appropriate ways – and plunking a formal phonics program down in front of her, is not it.

The same goes for math. Children will naturally pick up on math if we just get out of their way. It’s rather astounding to watch and see what they can learn for themselves, just through life experiences. If your child wants to learn math, then teach them – through games, hands on activities, playing store, through concrete real life experiences. Let them play with counting/lacing beads, pattern blocks, Cuisenaire rods, even Lego! But again, hold off on the formal math programs until they’re older. Children need to learn through direct, concrete means first, before they are ready for abstract approaches – and workbooks are abstract, not concrete.

If you research the history of education, going back to the beginning of the classical era of education, clear up until the early 1900s, learning was first done through concrete means and then reinforced orally. Only after it was well learned, did written work get introduced. As such, written work was minimal in the early years.  Math especially was taught through hands-on, concrete methods and drilled orally for typically 2 years before students ever started writing sums on a slate. Reading was taught with a reader, oral drill and some simple copywork.

I think it’s important to remember that this is an era (before and just after the turn of the century) where schools were producing students with better reading, writing, grammar, vocabulary and arithmetic outcomes than most have today. They also started later, and ended sooner. Overall, they had far less instruction. One could argue that perhaps it’s because children started later, when they were developmentally ready, and they were taught in more developmentally appropriate means.

At any rate, following a developmental approach does not mean your child is not learning, it just means they are learning in appropriate ways. So if your 4 year old wants to learn to read, you could start by teaching them their letters through alphabet books, puzzles, maybe even flashcards, through drawing letters in the sand etc… You could get letter tiles and let them build words, and you could go through very simple, basic readers together, always following the child’s lead. If your 5 year old is content to learn nothing more than basic CVC words for 6 months, then so be it. In the early years, the child should set the pace, not the teacher.

I have heard many homeschoolers say they started their young children on formal academic workbooks when they were just little, because they wanted to be like their older siblings, and “do school”.  Now, this more than likely isn’t actually about the desire for formal learning, as much as it’s a desire for your attention. So the first thing I would say is, make sure that your youngest ones are getting adequate one on one attention, and that they don’t feel excluded during lesson time. If at all possible, include them at the table. Have a busy box full of coloring books, puzzles, games, Play Doh, a small slate and chalk for drawing or practicing letters etc… Or, perhaps you could invest in some Lauri products which are lovely developmentally appropriate learning products. You could even call this box their “lessons”.

But do not be afraid to tell them, “No, I’m sorry, you can’t have a workbook right now. You’ll get your turn to have workbooks when you are older.” We don’t hesitate to say no to our children when they’re begging for a third cookie or they want to play with matches. We are quick to stop them from doing something that’s not good for them, or potentially harmful. And yet, we seem to refuse to say no to our children when they want to do work that is developmentally inappropriate, and potentially harmful long-term.

Homeschoolers often think that “developmentally appropriate” doesn’t apply to them because we’re not teaching in a school setting. However, what we need to realize is, the problem is not the setting, the school. The problem is that God created children with very specific stages of brain development, and He did this for a reason, and our God-given stages of development do not change whether we’re in a school doing work for 5 hours or at home doing work for 1 hour. The reasoning for delaying academic learning is primarily about brain development and how children are wired.

So, with that, I will give you an extensive list of articles and studies about early academics. While the list is certainly comprehensive, it is by no means exhaustive.


One thought on “Delayed Academics (aka Developmentally Appropriate Learning)

  1. Fantastic post!! I couldn’t agree more. I made this mistake with my first two kids. My son I forced to start too early, my middle daughter was eager and I felt much ready to start early. My youngest now I’m not doing any type of formal “school” and she started to read here and there on her own and has been fascinated by all things about the human body since she was 3, she is 5 now. She knows more about it than I do. 😂 I’m just letting her explore things and learn on her own as much as I can and I have relaxed immensely with my other too. Today I let them focus a lot more on their own interests and just guide them gently into it. 🙂

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