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Helping Your Child Catch Up

We normally take our beach vacation in the beginning of September. We do this because when most kids start back at school, the rental rates for beach houses drop dramatically. Consequently, most of the children we meet at the beach are fairly young and my children find it very easy to make friends with younger kids (particularly if they have homeschooling in common).

Since our older children are now taking classes at our local Community College, and these classes start early in September, we’ve had to shift our vacation and move it up earlier. So instead of going to the beach the first two weeks in September, we are at the beach the first two weeks in August.

You wouldn’t think we’d notice a difference, but the differences have been tremendous. There are a lot of older children here now because for many parts of the country, school hasn’t started yet. These older children have tended to resist my children’s efforts to make friends (which I can understand since a family of 8 can be intimidating sometimes!) LOL

And because many of the children are older, they don’t need to be as closely watched.  So instead of building sandcastles with small children, the parents have more time to follow their own pursuits.  This means there is a lot more fishing (often with the older children), reading, and texting going on at the beach this year.

Most of the members of our family have noticed the difference and have remarked that they prefer “September beach” over “August beach” because they make more friends in September.

You wouldn’t think that four weeks would make such a difference, but apparently it does.  Timing appears to change a lot.

The evening after several children telling me they prefer “September beach”, I picked up the book I wanted to read – Outliers* by Malcolm Gladwell.

In the first chapter, Gladwell points out the phenomenon that the majority of Canadian professional Hockey players are born in January, February, and March.  This is because the calendar year cutoff date for grouping players makes these children on average a little bit older, bigger, and more capable among their peers.

I found it very ironic that after talking about the change four weeks could make in our vacation, I was reading about the change three months could make. (Don’t you love when God does that?)

Gladwell’s next point went on to discuss public education and I found the discussion of cutoff dates in education even more pertinent to this issue. Forgive the long quote, but since Gladwell said it very well, I thought I would just quote him rather than trying to summarize:

But these exact same biases also show up in areas of much more consequence, like education.  Parents with a child born at the end of the calendar year often think about holding their child back before the start of kindergarten: it’s hard for a five-year-old to keep up with a child born many months earlier.  But most parents, one suspects, think that whatever disadvantage a younger child faces in kindergarten  eventually goes away.  But it doesn’t. It’s just like hockey.  The small initial advantage that the child born in the early part of the year has over the child born at the end of the year persists.  It locks children into patterns of achievement and underachievement, encouragement and discouragement, that stretch on and on for years. (page 27-28)

Recently, two economists – Kelly Bedard and Elizabeth Dhuey – looked at the relationship between scores on what is called the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS (math and science tests given every four years to children in many countries around the world), and month of birth.  They found that among fourth graders, the oldest children scored somewhere between four and twelve percentile points better than the youngest children.  That, as Dhuey explains, is a “huge effect.”  It means that if you take two intellectually equivalent fourth graders with birthdays at opposite ends of the cutoff date, the older student could score in the eightieth percentile, while the younger one could score in the sixty-eighth percentile.  That’s the difference between qualifying for a gifted program and not. (page 28)

“It’s just like sports,” Dhuey said.  “We do ability grouping early on in childhood.  We have advanced reading groups and advanced math groups.  So, early on, if we look at young kids, in kindergarten and first grade, the teachers are confusing maturity with ability.  And they put the older kids in the advanced stream, where they learn better skills; and the next year, because they are in the higher groups, they do even better; and the next year,the same thing happens, and they do even better again.” (page 28-29, emphasis mine)

Dhuey and Bedard subsequently did the same analysis, only this time looking at college.  What did they find?  At four-year colleges in the United States – the highest stream of postsecondary education – students belonging to the relatively youngest group in their class are underrepresented by about 11.6 percent.  That initial difference in maturity doesn’t go away with time.  It persists.  (page 29, emphasis mine)

Wow. That is amazing quite honestly, a little bit scary.

And now I need to tell a personal story…

I’ve mentioned before that one of my children didn’t learn to read until he was ten years old.  It didn’t bother me at all that he wasn’t reading yet.  It would have made my life a little more convenient, but it didn’t really matter.  He was learning and growing without reading.

Every six months or so, I would break out the phonics book* we used and try again.  Having already taught children to read, it was obvious that this child simply wasn’t ready.  Shortly after his tenth birthday, I tried again and it “clicked”.  He was reading full sentences and beginner chapter books all by himself within 2 weeks.

After his tenth birthday, quite suddenly, his brain was able to process the mechanics of reading and he learned to read very quickly.  And his delayed start in reading did not have any long-term consequences.  If you now compare the reading skills of all my children, you would not be able to tell which started later than average.

During those years (between 6 and 10), the hardest part for me was managing other people’s expectations for him.  Most people in our lives couldn’t understand why he wasn’t reading yet.

Many people thought there was a problem with him and encouraged me to have testing done.

I wasn’t about to do this. I knew this child was brilliant.  He is super smart, incredibly creative, and a problem solver.  When we played cards, he was a brilliant strategist. He just wasn’t ready to read.

Many others thought there was a problem with me – that I wasn’t being responsible enough about his education.  They thought I should put him in public school so that would “fix” his reading problem.

Fortunately, while their opinions hurt a little, I was confident that I was doing the right thing (as was Jim).  I knew that if I put this child into public school, he would be at a disadvantage and labeled a “slow learner”.  I also knew that because he couldn’t read he would fall further and further behind in every subject.

So I did my best to manage other people’s expectations and make his reading a non-issue.

But mostly I worked really, really, REALLY hard to be aware of this child’s confidence and make him comfortable in his strengths and inate talents.  I did not want anybody (including himself) making him think that he was stupid because he wasn’t reading yet.

It wasn’t too difficult those first few years, but once he had younger siblings that were reading, and he wasn’t, it started to become a bit more of a challenge.  I just focused on his strengths and tailored his education around those.  It took a little effort, but it wasn’t that hard to read out loud to him or put him in a group with an older child who could read.

While writing this post, I just asked him his thoughts and he said:

“It never bothered me that I couldn’t read.  It bothered me that other people knew that I couldn’t read.  I was embarrassed to tell people that I couldn’t read.  But the fact that I couldn’t read never bothered me at all.  I never thought that I wouldn’t be able to read.”

I can’t even begin to tell you how much that thrills me to hear him say those words.

Let’s get back to Gladwell’s words for a moment:

Success is the result of what sociologists like to call “accumulative advantage.”  The professional hockey player starts out a little bit better than his peers.  And that little difference leads to an opportunity that makes that difference a bit bigger, and that edge in turn leads to another opportunity, which makes the initially small difference bigger still – and on and on until the hockey player is a genuine outlier.  But he didn’t start out an outlier.  He started out just a little bit better. (page 30-31)

I want to speak for a moment to any parent who is concerned that their child is just a little bit (or a lot) behind his peers. As the previous studies stated, your child may not be able to catch up.  But as my story related, your child may.

So what should you do?

Evaluate your child.  You are your child’s parent.  Nobody knows or loves your child better than you do.  Even the best teachers in the world only spend so much time with your child.  What are your child’s strengths?  What are his weaknesses?  Are they not living up to the potential that you see in them? What is the root cause?

Evaluate the system.   What is preventing your child from reaching his full potential?  Himself?  The system he is in?  If he is in public school, the system may be stacked against him.  I prefer homeschooling because you can personalize the education to the individual child.  But while homeschooling may help, it is not a perfect solution either.  Regardless of how you educate, what is your role in influencing the system to improve your child’s chances for success?  What other systems (e.g. sports, activities) are influencing your child’s progress?

Address the situation. As the parent, you are your child’s advocate.  You need to address the situation and not just hope it will improve on its own.  If there is a problem, please work to find a solution instead of assuming the situation will improve as your child gets older.

Put in ongoing effort.  It takes effort (and lots of it) to raise children.  Raising successful children requires even more effort.  Don’t despair if your parenting isn’t currently producing the results you want.  Instead, study to be a better parent!  Read books. Read blogs. Listen to podcasts.  Find mentors.  There are no parenting manuals, and even if there were, you’d need a different one for each of your children since they’re so unique.  Know that you are parenting for the long-term.

As you’re answering some of these questions, you need to determine if the simple passing of time will fix your child’s difficulties.

Because sometimes it is a matter of being patient.

But sometimes, the existing system is causing the problem.  And if the existing system is the cause, you have to decide whether the system can be fixed for your child’s benefit.

And if it can’t be fixed, are you in the position to remove your child from the system? That’s not always easy, but sometimes it is necessary.

I focused during this blog post on children, but please realize that this applies to us as adults as well.  Are you currently in a system that has you at a disadvantage?  If so, what are you going to do about it?





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