A friend recently emailed an article to me that he thought I would find interesting. The article was about overachieving students and their rate of burnout. I immediately thought of my college age son who is double concentrating within his major and, therefore, overloading on credits. I also thought of my high school age son who is cringing at the thought of PSAT, SAT and college application time. I began reading the article and discovered that it didn’t apply to either of my children. It was, in fact, about overachieving elementary school students and their rate of burnout by the 5th grade.
What are we doing to our children? According a 2006 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Parents are receiving carefully marketed messages that good parents expose their children to every opportunity to excel ... and ensure their children participate in a wide variety of activities.” The pressure to have children excel has only increased in the past 5 years.
As an early childhood education professional, I see the signs of this need to have children excel every day. Parents of 2 year olds are concerned about how much success preschools will guarantee in regard to reading and writing. Children are enrolled in activity after activity with their peers and we often note pre-k students comparing themselves to others. Competition seems a part of their everyday life both in academics and recreation, from the time they are too young to remember any other way.
We can simply bemoan the pressure placed upon children or we can try to understand its origins to see what we can do to mitigate it. Most people would agree that the increasing rate of burnout in elementary school is unacceptable. We have 7, 8 and 9 year olds showing signs of stress, depression and fatigue. How did we get here? To really examine the cause of the pressure on the youngest students, we must discuss two distinct areas of their lives – school based activities and recreational activities. The current state of each is reflective of our ever changing world but each has its own origins. Thus, the topic requires a two part discussion. Let’s begin with academics.
With college admissions becoming more competitive and increased emphasis on annual standardized test scores, we seem to have forgotten some very basic facts about how children learn best. The pressure begins early – in early childhood centers. We cannot open up children’s heads and pour information into them. Children have to be developmentally ready to receive the information. Our youngest learners, those in early childhood settings through 3rd grade, learn best by building their knowledge through experience. They are not at their best when placed in front of endless workbooks. They are at their best when exploring their world. They are most receptive to new information when all of their senses are engaged in learning. Jean Piaget, a cognitive psychologist whose studies have contributed immeasurably to our understanding of child development, taught that when you attempt to teach a child something before they are developmentally ready, you deprive the child of the opportunity to understand it completely. Children can memorize facts and figures but that doesn’t mean that they have a deeper understanding of the information they are regurgitating. A child can count to 1000 but not understand the meaning of the number 3. A child can put sounds together to read but be unable to demonstrate meaningful comprehension.
We give children the best chance of later success when we recognize that everyone develops at different rates and we allow them an environment that encourages individual growth & fosters their curiosity. It is fine to expose 4 & 5 year olds to tracing letters and recognizing beginning sounds but to expect or guarantee mastery by every child of that age is simply unrealistic. Studies show that the majority of student’s abilities level off by 3rd grade. I promise that no college has ever called me for preschool transcripts. Parents face just one question – What do you want your child’s experience to be at the age of 2, 3 or 4 years old? A child who is developmentally ready to read at age 4 does not realistically have a better chance of college acceptance by age 18. A lot can happen in those 14 years. Many things happen that you cannot control. You have little or no control over the pressure placed on students in the elementary schools to produce acceptable standardized test scores. You can, however, determine the experience that your child will have in the preschool years. Do you want your child to have a love of learning that will be the foundation for future school experiences? That love of learning comes from an early childhood environment that fosters self-esteem, decision making, exploration and curiosity. It comes from preschools with realistic, age appropriate goals. I encourage you to seek out a preschool environment that has as its goal providing your child with a well-rounded start to a lifetime filled with a love of learning.