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Child development shortchanged by schools?

Updated: Feb 18

It may be that you haven’t thought about child development in a while, especially if you have a child in school. So many new and expectant parents turn to What to Expect When You’re Expecting and other baby books, closely following the milestones of in-utero, infant, and toddler development, fascinated by the magic and often worried they’ll miss something important. It seems common, though, to close the books at least by the time the child turns five. Society tells us that around age 5 we must hand over our still-developing young human to a school system and expect they’ll mostly take over - isn’t that the next step? 

We want to be responsible parents and have been told that this means entering our children in a schooling system that molds and measures them by particular “standards.” Unfortunately, these standards are simply and objectively out of line with their actual needs for successful growth in the stages we call “childhood” and “adolescence.” This article is not about keeping your child home forever. It’s about questioning important assumptions adults make about the school systems most of our children are currently participating in. Are you ready to open the book again on your developing child?

Many parents bring their child to kindergarten hopeful and slightly nostalgic for their own first school days with fresh pencils and new friends. Some of these parents soon start to worry they’re handing their developing child over to a system that is simply not designed to encourage the important elements of their continued development. I hear that many kindergartens of yore used to be almost exclusively focused on socialization and play, but today where I live in Miami-Dade County that has yet to be the experience I hear about. 

Ready or not to question it, the system we hand children into is so obsessed with academia that actual developmental milestones are overshadowed by artificially-invented curricular benchmarks. “Progress” is determined by a rigidly-defined grading system created with a philosophy that “trickles down” from university professor ideals (Listen to this fascinating interview to hear from a former Columbia University professor who was part of this early top-down determination process and deeply regrets it). As much as administrators and teachers care about children, the current school system was simply not designed to align with the actual essential measures of growth and development for our children ages 5-18. 

Many parents whisper to each other, “I don’t think children should be asked to sit still that long.” Or they complain about the expectations of homework that more often create anxiety or strife and more and more require extreme parental intervention and oversight. But most adults have culturally learned to justify this misaligned system by clinging to ideas like, “Well, it’s good for them to learn some discipline.” “These are skills they’ll need in college.” “It’s important for them to socialize…” I would wager in the back of many minds is the nagging doubt that this is the right way to actually accomplish any of those goals. 

What is the end goal of childhood? We get caught up in the year to year, semester to semester grade goals that march our children to graduation, but there is a larger and much more important goal of graduating from childhood. Take a moment to consider about this question: What do we hope or expect for our children when they leave childhood and adolescence? 

I would argue that we expect children to graduate childhood ready to be effective young adults. 

Please note: I have been an educator for over 15 years. I’ve been a very well-meaning teacher in traditional school settings and I still have extremely well-meaning and hardworking friends and colleagues in traditional settings. I have also worked with and witnessed teachers and administrators who approach education as a power struggle they will always win - yes, schoolchildren get yelled at much more than most of us want to believe in many school settings, even “excellent” ones. What I want to look at right now, though, is not the individuals in the system but the system itself - the system that educators and, more importantly, your children, are expected to navigate. I lovingly challenge each reader to question the often blindly followed assumption that childhood academics is a “natural” or even an “important” part of childhood. I would like to radically suggest that it is a potentially damaging program, a waste of needed and precious time, and a sadly false promise. We’re not pulling punches here, friends. I love my fellow educators, but I love our developing children much more. Gloves off.

Let’s look at those “benefits'' many parents hope are the silver lining in the storm of pressure that quickly builds in most K-12 experiences, keeping in mind that we expect children to graduate from childhood and adolescence prepared to be effective young adults. Let’s start with those common justifications we often hear for an “academically-rigorous” K-12 program - and let's dive deep. Our children are worth more than societal convention, are they not?

Discipline - “Well, it’s good for them to learn some discipline.” At the outset, let’s define the difference between “discipline” and “self-discipline.” The first, “discipline,” can be defined in various ways: following orders, punishment, consequences, obedience. If one is attempting to get compliance with a particular agenda, it’s essential for those involved to follow orders, to be obedient to the agenda. Perhaps at home it’s around teeth brushing, safety, bedtime, etc. In a classroom, in order for an adult to have a group of children (or even other adults) follow their agenda, they will likely need to motivate them, which typically amounts to instilling an obedience program called “discipline.” If we want people to do something they don’t necessarily want to do, we expect to use “carrots and sticks” to make them do it. 

Doing things we don’t necessarily want to do is of course part of life and, developmentally, part of learning that the world does not revolve around our whims and personal agendas. AND, let’s think again about what the end goal is for our children here: to become effective young adults. Star charts and public shaming can be very effective teachers for learning how to follow another person’s agenda “or else.” How, though, will 13 years of trained obedience serve them when it’s time for them to call the shots? And the next question is, “Is the school’s agenda so important that it requires 13 years of heavily mandated compliance?” 

“Self-discipline,” on the other hand, is an internal compass of self-regulation. It’s learning to decide what you want more, the benefits of one thing vs. the other. It takes much more time to develop self-discipline than to be boxed into a system of external discipline. It takes patience, practice, trial and error, and the discovery of an agenda that squares with both personal and societal needs. Self-discipline has never been part of any school’s core curriculum I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t square with most academic agendas. What, though, is more important to learn - obedient repetition of discrete facts or the ability to regulate one’s self?

Skills - “These are skills they’ll need in college.” What skills? Let’s look! If you went to college, what skills did you most need? Most college students succeed or fail based on skills such as: managing one’s own time with new freedoms to choose, resilience in the face of failure or setback, and, of course, self-discipline. Hours of elementary and secondary math on worksheets or computer programs does not equate to the personal development skills that actually “make or break” most college students.

Students who’ve trudged through childhood academia have typically become practiced in reading long passages, writing paragraphs, solving equations, and memorizing information. They may be “ready” for more of that in college. They may also be completely burnt out and resentful of doing these tasks. Was that the best use of their childhood time?

You may be surprised to hear that not having had extensive practice with these particular academic skills doesn’t necessarily make those skills that much harder to acquire or master as a young adult. Developmentally, the brain becomes more able to order and analyze words and numbers. Acquiring these skills happens at a much faster rate in young adulthood than it typically does in childhood. Those who struggled over the same material years before may wonder what all the struggle was about - it was likely about poor timing and misplaced force. Many children are fearfully threatened that they will never succeed if they don’t master a particular reading or math content, when nothing could be farther from the truth. They will never succeed if their spirit is broken. There is always time to learn something new.

Sooner is not necessarily better for academic success. More practice with something that’s not necessarily developmentally appropriate can in fact be counterproductive. Did the baby books suggest holding up your infant at 2-3 months of age to help them start walking? It would be frustrating for everyone, possibly hurtful, and a waste of that precious time in a baby’s development to try to give them a “head start” at something they will likely easily acquire later. They have other important “work” to do that might not look as “productive” as walking or reading, but is absolutely essential to their overall growth. Your 5, 10, and 15 year old also have serious developmental work to do that may also not look so “productive” to adults but is no less essential for their growth.

I recently toured a popular preschool in Miami with a cousin looking at it for her two young children. The director proudly described how basically every month, week, day, and hour were pre-planned for the children to experience particular things - much of it sensory and seemingly play-based, but none of it really free play based. It was clearly organized around introducing letters and writing as soon as possible. These children would begin the push toward competitive academia early. While the pictures and videos were beautiful and appealing, the real work of children is rarely picture perfect, matching, and organized - it’s not supposed to be. Behind the tasteful projects is the message that the goal is to produce and perform as planned. Memorizing and parroting letters and words gratifies the adults - it looks so "advanced!" - but it is stealing from precious and highly productive free play time. There's plenty of time for letters. Sooner is not better.

Children do not, in fact, need to learn to read by age 5 or 6, not for their development. (The natural range for becoming a reader is between 4 and 14 -read more here). They only need to read by 5 or 6 because most schools now require it. Some children will naturally become readers early on (not, in fact, making them any “smarter” than others - shock!), and others will be forced to meet this artificial deadline or be shamed when they do not. This is not only ridiculous, it is potentially very damaging.

You likely know, or perhaps you are, an adult who was told they were a “slow reader” as a young child. You may have been labeled with a variety of other issues, likely much too early on. What is celebrated as “early intervention” is too often really “inappropriately early expectation.” It can be difficult to identify issues that truly need early intervention while our society is obsessed with children performing beyond their natural, and often very individually-paced, stage of development. Negative self images are formed while most of the same children being drilled and pushed would be quite capable of much less painfully grasping these symbolic concepts later, on their own timeframes in more meaningful contexts. 

I am never against learning. It isn’t reading, writing, or acquiring new knowledge that’s the problem here. It’s the pressure and the power struggle that turn learning into a punishment. It's the very narrow definition of learning that has come to define intelligence and success. I was “good” at learning at school. I played the game well. I passed my AP history exam, but never once cared about the material. It wasn’t until I discovered historical fiction and period films that I came to actually engage with “history.” In school, I mostly engaged in doing what I was told and that translated there and in society to having “learned” so much. Forced learning is not the only way to learn. Arguably, it is an unnecessarily long and painful way to learn anything and to spend one’s time.

The human person is hardwired to learn. In fact, we all know that we best learn when we are internally motivated. When we truly need or desire something, we typically stop at nothing to master it. How many years did you study a foreign language to later joke with friends that you can at least say, “How much is the lettuce?” and “Where’s the bathroom?” Whereas in months you may have become functionally fluent in another language when the actual need or desire arose. Struggling with academics throughout childhood need not be a “right of passage.” There is so much more work that a child should be doing outside of two-dimensional, symbolic learning.

Academics has its place, but that place should not be at the center of childhood and adolescence. Just because college students or adults are analyzing texts and balancing spreadsheets, does not mean that is the work of childhood. As radical as it may sound, the real work of childhood is play, socialization, exploration, and discovery. 

Struggling with academics throughout childhood need not be a “right of passage.”

Socialization - “It’s important for them to socialize…” Well, at least they can socialize at school, right? We think of all the friends we made during our school days and wish that for our children. Being around other children is indeed important, but once again it’s not being done in a developmentally appropriate way at most schools. Researcher and psychologist Dr. Peter Gray has wonderful articles on this topic that I highly recommend. I’ll do my best to highlight a few important points about the lack of authentic socialization in schools today.

Just being around other people does not automatically equal effective socialization. Prisoners and factory workers are around each other constantly. Real socialization involves the opportunity to choose, to negotiate, to disagree, and to compromise - that's what we're really looking for when we talk about the importance of socialization, is it not? In a classroom setting, children are carefully managed to comply with the agenda and there is typically not much time for authentic socialization. There’s lunch and recess, mostly with same-age peers all coming out of a kind of pressure cooker stretch of time of sitting and being forced to engage in particular activities. There’s often a desperation at these times that creates heightened emotions and conflict. Maybe now we’re also thinking about all the difficulties experienced with bullies or cliques, or the times when verbal or physical aggression went unnoticed by a teacher, and so didn’t “count.” This form of socialization isn’t necessarily healthy or productive, sorry to report. Children typically make the best out of it, as people are wont to do, but it’s not necessarily the best use of socialization time during this important period of development.

Recently with the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine that forced school activity to move online, many saw that taking the social element of school left them wondering about the value of the rest of it, while it gave others a reprieve from anxiety-provoking interactions they had little ability to change. Yes, our children need to be social, but not all socialization experiences are equivalent in value for healthy development.

Authentic socialization (the kind that develops real “people skills”) simply cannot happen in the confines of a desk, a 30 minute recess, nor the treadmill of a “rigorous curriculum.” Real people skills really do take a lot of practice time. Our society used to have a lot of that practice time available after school and on the weekends as children played games and roamed their neighborhoods together. Some places may still have this vital opportunity, but many simply do not. Even if the opportunity were available logistically, more and more children at younger and younger ages are saddled with homework that keeps them inside or at battle with parents. Without getting too much into it, suffice for now to say that educational research does not support the kind or amount of homework most children return home with. At best it’s not very helpful and at worse it’s detrimental. 

But they’re learning, right? In the short term, it will look like children in most schools have learned important things like math equations, science facts, historical figures… In the long term, they will have learned that learning is about obeying and performing, that what matters is what the teacher values, that learning is often a punishment, and that they must always wait for direct instruction. 

Worse, even some university professors argue, many children today learn to resent or even hate the very “subjects” they were often forcibly forced to “learn.” I typically meet second or even third graders who may still enjoy reading, but most schoolchildren I meet after that age, especially those forced to read by programs like “Accelerated Reader (AR),” quickly start to see reading as a chore that needs reward and punishment to engage in. I see young people with an almost traumatic triggered reaction to programs like iReady. Children learn that learning is work imposed on them and they learn either to excel for the rewards or resent the punishments. Their learning does not belong to them. It belongs to their teacher, is valued only by letter grades, and they must perform or suffer. Many have started on this trajectory very early.

The unfortunate truth is that true curiosity simply has no place in a traditional curriculum. It was never given a place. It takes too much time. It cannot be standardized or graded. Cutting curiosity and play out of our children’s childhoods is the real waste - a waste of the essential elements of an effective childhood. It’s a waste that’s not easily fixed or recovered later in life. An increasing number of young adults are emotionally paralyzed by anxiety, fear of failure, and “failure to launch.” They were given facts and figures, but simply weren’t given the launch pad time they really needed to grow into young adulthood.  

We want to believe we’re sending our children to the logical next step in their development. Perhaps it validates our own experience of struggle. Perhaps we just can’t see or imagine a viable alternative. Developmental researchers around the world have known for decades what really matters, but their voices are not heard above the megaphone of the entrenched school system, or they themselves dare not challenge systems they grew up in or have their own children in.

What is a child’s most important work? You likely know yourself. Our children MUST play. They simply must. Not just until age 5. They learn through play into their teen years! (Google headquarters would argue into adulthood. Harvard also has some thoughts on the importance of play). Play is how people best and MOST effectively learn and grow, as crazy as that sounds to our schoolish ears.  

Many twenty-somethings try to recover this time, but you can’t always go back to developmental milestones you missed. As an honors dorm RA in college, I watched straight A students flounder when they were no longer being externally managed and others that tearfully changed course as they discovered that what they’d previously been so rewarded and celebrated for wasn’t really what brought them life. They missed an important time of free play and exploration and were desperately trying to quickly make up for it.

Many children can “make do” and sit and obey and earn the gold stars and high marks (I did!). That does not mean it's good for them. If a parent confined their toddler to a highchair for 4-5 hours a day and bragged how the child barely complained at all, that they just patiently sat there and “read” the books put in front of them (“so advanced!”), we would likely be horrified rather than impressed. Children need to move, and not just toddlers. They need to experiment. They need to fall and get up. They need to disagree and negotiate with peers. They need to wonder, without the “right answer” always expected or quickly given. 

Their needs are not being met by most schools - and not just the underfunded public schools - but I would argue they’re not met by any school that believes that “rigorous academics” are essential in childhood. Parents are often so anxious that their child will “fall behind” and they’re told, sometimes as early as preschool, that the competition begins now. I’ve seen the anxiety in the faces of parents. Then I see it in the faces of their children. How did we turn childhood into the time of great anxiety?

Are we really worried our children will not learn to read or calculate the essentials? They won’t if, for example, they’re blindfolded, kept in a closet, and cut off from society entirely. But in the absence of that extreme scenario, our children are hardwired to learn the tools of the world around them. Do any of our children live in a world without print or digital material constantly available to them? The honest truth is that when they are ready and motivated by actual need or interest, they will do the thing human beings are exquisitely designed to do and highly capable of - they will learn. 

Gasp! Without direct instruction? Rewards? Punishment? A meticulously outlined curriculum? Is this writer bananas? You may be afraid to listen to the voice inside yourself that whispers this may indeed be true, because it likely puts current circumstances into question, questions that might culminate in, “Well if not the school system I know now, then what?” 

It is typically very difficult to imagine something we ourselves have not experienced. Many of us may subconsciously find personal validation in having our children repeat our school experiences - having them go through what we went through. “It was good enough for me, wasn’t it?” It may feel vulnerable to question our past and even more vulnerable to think of doing something differently with our children. What we know feels safe. What we must also remember is that our children are not us - they are, in fact, their own unique selves in a world that is simply different from the one we grew up in. They have options we didn’t. They undoubtedly have interests and needs different from our own. The challenge is to be bold and brave enough to see this and to explore the unknown - for and with them.

Remember how children learn by doing? How childhood is designed to be experiential, giving our children the tools to learn anything and thus do anything they find important or interesting? This is the “what.”

No, it does not involve sitting and obeying a single authority figure. If we want our children to learn personal and social responsibility, they must have ample opportunities to practice self-regulation (very different from being regulated by external reward and punishment). They must practice in an environment that demands social responsibility while allowing for trial and error. They cannot be constantly corrected and expected to learn self correction. 

Are there developmentally-appropriate options? As I mentioned, I’ve taught at traditional schools - high schools, a private university, and various elementary settings. I was often frustrated by the narrow confines of grades, the learned passivity, and often the resistance and resentment that traditional schooling had taught most of my students. Ten years into teaching and after having taken a leap of faith to pull my own children from the seemingly “alternative school” they were in (after watching my oldest son’s teacher scold and belittle the mostly darker-skinned portion of his class), I came across a book about how children have actually learned throughout human history and how that should inform our approach to education and childhood today. In that book (Free to Learn) I also learned about a model that’s been successfully following this historical and functional understanding of human development for the past 50 years. 

I asked my child psychiatrist husband what he thought of allowing children to develop at their own pace within a mixed-age community the children themselves help run... he immediately said it sounded much healthier than what most children are subjected to now. He spends time every week trying to help parents see that their children’s school expectations or environments are a major factor in their personal or family difficulties. He himself was so bored as a child, even in his “excellent” private schools, that he often wishes he would have had a different option available. 

He said it made total sense to him that children who are allowed to run and regulate their living and learning through play and community would excel at college and business. Without the academic pressures commonly seen today as “necessary evils,” children can more effectively develop personally and socially - which leads to greater capacity to develop intellectually and emotionally. 

Sudbury schools (the model I read about and now am part of as an educator) and other truly student run school democracies may look like, “But they’ve just played all day, wasted their time, and had no structure…” Hopefully you just caught in that statement the classic societal assumption that play is a “waste of time” for children, when nothing is farther from the truth. There’s also the assumption that because the adults aren’t demanding obedience and imposing an agenda for each young person that there’s no “structure.” What’s actually true is that there is more authentic structure in these kinds of learning communities than in many adult civic communities! The structure is held together by every participant to ensure the wellbeing of each member. It’s a scaled down city, not at all a “free for all.” My guess is that many can only see in the dichotomy of rigid classroom time vs. wild recess time and by default assume there’s chaos when that’s not what’s actually at play.

​The Long Term Benefits. While day to day my students now enjoy determining their activities and being part of the governing structure of the school, the real magic is in the long term benefits. Because of this developmentally appropriate approach, they will have learned that learning happens all the time, that what matters is curiosity, communication, and community, and that they are capable of captaining the ship of their own life. There's exciting data and extensive testimony from school environments like Sudbury that show young people emerge from their childhood and adolescence confident, happy, and able to engage with people and systems in a way their peers have to catch up with.

What will they really need in adulthood? Lots of practice finding the theme in a blandly written passage about sailboats or the “right” answer to a strangely worded word problem? We should all know better. Our young must learn how to regulate themselves, how to interact with other people, and how to navigate the world around them. These skills can never be learned from a textbook, no matter how fabulous or expensive the book. Children are experiential learners. We are designed this way and pretending otherwise is a disservice to all. 

Let us not waste our children’s childhoods on the false promise of early academics. Childhood only happens once and there is a lot of developmental growth to be done. There's plenty of time for “academic” pursuits as older teens and young adults, there really is. If given the opportunity, research and experience show that they will pursue those things of their own accord. But they must be given the time and space to learn how to pursue whatever it is they need or desire as personally and socially responsible, self-directed human beings. These skills cannot be put off in the name of standardized testing and curriculums. 

Schools are unfortunately not designed around or for child development. They are designed, especially today, to demonstrate that children can be made to do academic work. This is not the objective needed. Developmental stages do not revolve around times tables or five paragraph essays, though schools have made it seem so. The important events that become catalysts for growth are often sadly lacking in the places our children spend a vast majority of their time.

"Initiative vs. Guilt," "Industry vs. Inferiority," "Identity vs. Confusion." These are some of the classic developmental “conflicts” to be resolved during childhood and adolescence (according to the famous and influential psychologist Erik Erikson). Children learn initiative by being allowed to take initiative, not by being micromanaged or guilted into submission. They learn industry by learning how to choose being industrious, not simply by being forced or made to feel inferior. They develop their identities not simply by fulfilling the roles others have given to them, but by having the time and space to explore who they are and what they enjoy amid authentic social relationships. If purpose, confidence, and integrity are the intended developmental outcomes during the 5-18 year old period, they will not reach these essential milestones in a desk, anxious about performance, and highly managed for the sake of an arbitrary academic grade point average.

Don’t put down those books on child development assuming the textbooks will take over. Your child is still developing and needs you to step out and find the environment that will really let them continue their essential education in becoming an effective young adult, not just the “scholar” society has decided is more important than the “person.”

For further reading into how developing children learn, I highly recommend Free to Learn by Peter Gray. For more information on schooling today and its checkered history, I recommend Schools on Trial by Goyal. For a brilliant podcast on “decolonizing” "schoolish" education through unschooling I recommend Akilah Richard’s “Fare of the Free Child.” For more information on self-directed education for the whole person, check out The Alliance for Self-Directed Education. And for the scoop on the school I currently work at, The Miami Sudbury School, I invite you to explore the other pages on this website. Mostly, thank you for being courageous in reading these musings and challenges. Confronting “convention” is often quite uncomfortable.

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