"Time is of the Essence." This is a legal term that states if whatever needs to be done is not done within a specified time the contract will be breached. Lately, in the education realm this has begun to mean that a child who does not grasp something cognitively by a certain age will be behind his peers (and the less often stated consequence; he will NEVER catch up). I'm all for having children exposed to things and all for early learning but I don't buy into this whole time is of the essence scenario when it comes to learning.
I don't care where the child is cognitively when he comes into our program. I meet that child where ever he is and we go from there. It's that simple. I know there have been studies done where children who have been isolated for many years never learn language, but let's be realistic. Those cases are rare and it's not something I deal with and I'll venture to say that most people in education don't deal with this type of scenario. We deal with more run of the mill scenarios. Kindergarten kids who don't recognize the letters, who have no concept of counting, who can't write their name, who haven't cracked the reading code.
In my profession when a child like this comes into a program what I usually hear are very negative comments. "Their parents never read to them." "They (the parents) haven't taught them anything." "He just does not get it." Sometimes it goes on and on...blame, blame, blame. I see this scenario all to often and at times I've been guilty of this type of blaming myself. The more I learn about child development, the less I engage in this type of thinking.
I believe learning is done more easily in a supportive environment, however a supportive environment is not necessary for learning. As long as there is nothing purposely impeding or jeopardizing the process, children are learning all the time.
My goal is to provide an environment where learning is expected and encouraged, regardless of where the children are or where they come from. If a child come to me at age 6 and cannot write, it does not mean he has failed to learn. This child may well have learned a great many things and he may well be poised to learn to write. If a child is struggling with reading it does not necessarily mean their parents don't read to them (I read to mine ALL the time and she struggled to take that first reading step), it may mean that they have been preparing this whole time and will soon begin reading.
When children are learning to walk they embark on a process that takes time. They stand and fall. They take a step and fall. They take two steps and fall. We don't write them off. We don't say, "Oh no, he is 14 months, at this rate he'll never learn to walk!" We don't see a child struggling to walk and pass judgement on the parents. We don't automatically assume the parent is too busy or too lazy to teach the child. We have faith, that the child will learn to walk.
In Raising Lifelong Learners, Lucy Calkins writes:
"We expect babies to join in by approximating conversation. When babies talk, we respond as if whatever they say makes sense. "Baa Baa," our child says, reaching with outstretched arms toward the banana on top of the refrigerator. We don't worry that the child will fixate on bad habits, that she'll say "baa baa" instead of banana for the rest of her life. We don't say, "Shh, Don't talk until you know the right word."...Instead we see what she is trying to say, and we produce the fruit for her. "Banana? You want the banana?" we say cheerfully. "Here you go" And so our children learn to talk. They learn to talk without workbooks, homework lessons, curriculum guides, tests or assignments."
If we watch a child when he is learning to walk we realize what is necessary for learning. First, look at the environment. A child who is learning to walk needs room. Ideally he has things he can hold on to. An adults hand or a coffee table, something to pull himself up on. He needs time to practice. Get up, fall down. Up, down. It's awesome if he has some encouragement. "Come to mama. You can do it."
So too with reading. Are books available? Is the child given time to practice (allowed to peruse books at his leisure)? He is being encouraged? When the child reads to you by telling you what is happening in the pictures, do you say, "What a great story." or do you say, "You're not really reading you're just looking at the pictures." The first comment is encouraging, the second is deflating. When teaching a child to write, Lucy Calkins has this to say:
"How can we teach our children to write? This is a question not only about writing but also about teaching. Teaching is always a mystery. It is never exactly clear how one person can teach another. Randy Bromer, my colleague at Teachers College, points out that this is especially true if we are teaching someone to do something. We cannot really "give' a child the ability to talk, swim, sing or to write because ultimately it is the other person (in this instance, the child) who must do the talking, swimming, singing or writing. In the end, our influence will inevitably be indirect. So it is with writing; all we can do is to create the conditions in which children can learn to write."
In our program it is more important for me to know where the child is and to provide an environment that is conducive to support learning than it is to place blame. I work with the parents to encourage them to provide an ideal environment for their children that nurtures learning. I encourage parents to have faith that even if their children are not on par with their peers at the moment, that all hope is not lost. Learning is a lifelong endeavor. I remind them that Helen Keller had been written off by many, except by Anne Sullivan.
There is much we can do to help our children not only learn but to become passionate lifelong learners. Meeting them where they are is simply the first step.