Musings on School Readiness and Older Children
It’s that time of year again…parents agonizing about whether their six year old should start first grade or stay in kindergarten….Such a big decision.
Steiner’s entire picture of the development of the human being rests on an understanding of the seven year stages that each human being passes through. Obviously, each individual develops somewhat differently – but everyone, unless there is some kind of organic or environmental impediment – passes through clear and discernible stages. Every baby learns to roll, to pull herself up, to crawl or shuffle (or, as in the case of both my sons, to by-pass crawling in favor of going right to walking!), to speak and to recognize herself as an ‘I’.
These are, of course, the biggest hallmarks of human development, those which are the foundation to that which makes us human. We are upright beings; we can speak; and we know ourselves and others to be an ‘I’. It takes many years for this process to finish – and of course, in may ways, it never finishes as each human being, for as long as she is alive, continues to learn and to grow. But in terms of completion of what is necessary for each individual to realize herself as an individual, this is completed by age 21, when the ego or ‘I’, fully incarnates. At this point, the young man or woman is able to act out of true freedom and responsibility.
There is, of course, much overlapping in the development of a child for many reasons. A child’s family life, education, the way she is parented and, most mysterious of all, what she just seems to have brought with her to this life, determine exactly how she grows and matures. Her sympathies and antipathies, her interests and inclinations will all play into who she becomes. One child will learn certain skills at a very early age – another child will learn them later or not at all.
But the question is what is required by the inner growth forces active in each child? What is called for to maximize growth and potential? Do we simply stand back and leave our child to just grow? Do we involve ourselves along the way? Do we parent and educate a three year old like we parent and educate a 7 year old?
A way to help one navigate this seemingly impenetrable series of questions is to really study and attempt to understand Rudolf Steiner’s indications for how human beings develop. And we can start by reiterating that these stages are this: birth to age 7; 7 to 14; 14 to 21. Six years of age falls within the first stage of childhood. And this is the stage of repetition, imagination, creative play and imitation. Thus 6 year old children should be in kindergarten. And that’s that.
But…it’s not so simple because, unfortunately, children go and get born at all times of the year! And this causes awkward problems for those of us adamant that six year olds should be in kindergarten! So we have to roll back a bit and say that no child younger than 6 1/2 should move up to first grade. (These issues are all addressed further in the articles which I link to at the bottom of this blog article).
This is how it is in most Waldorf schools in the eastern half of this country. Unfortunately, on the west coast there is the increasing tendency for younger and younger children to end their time in kindergarten and start first grade. And I know why that this is at least partially true – because younger and younger children – tiny little ones of 2 and 3 – are starting kindergarten! So yes – they are well and truly tired of it by the time they are 6 and the teachers are eager to have them move on! But if things were as they should be – and were as they were at the school in the UK where I did most of my teaching and received instruction from world renowned Waldorf teachers like Erika Grantham and Stella Jarman, then no child would begin kindergarten until 4 1/2. Before that they would be at home and their lives would simply be a gentle part of homelife.(Do have a read at some of my old threads on how Waldorf early years ed is increasingly pushing ever younger children into a formal out-of-the-home setting).(And just as an aside, let me tell you that I have had hundreds of conversations over the years with parents, Waldorf kindergarten teachers and Waldorf teachers about all of this. And is it that barely six year old children coming up into the grades are more ready and settled than they were in the old days when they used to be at home until about 4+ and then only had part time kindergarten – and then part time first grade at no younger than 6 1/2? Are people telling me that as far as they can see, this works well because first grade teachers are having such an easy time with children who are more relaxed and ready for first grade? NOT A SINGLE PERSON HAS TOLD ME THIS! Not one. Not one teacher. Not my neighbor who has been a Waldorf kindergarten teacher for over 20 years; not the scores of Waldorf teachers I know and speak with; not one of the parents who has contacted me with questions about how their child’s school is working – or not working. So….. it’s not as if this trend of earlier out-of-home experiences for children plus younger aged first graders is producing great results!).
Having said all of this, there are those who say “But older 6 year olds can be so ready to move on! They are just not met by another year of kindergarten!” One also hears “My older 14 year old eighth grader is so done with elementary school. He just wants to get out and go to high school.” And “I am having a hard time with my high school senior. He is over 18 and just does not want to be in school anymore!”
These are all really important concerns. Each identifies the fact that a child/teen’s developmental needs are not being met and that the child/young person is showing this by her dissatisfaction – which can range from misbehavior to apathy.
But I would say that the solution is not to move the child on or to regret that one did not start first grade with a young 6 year old. What needs to be addressed is the fact that the kindergarten/school experience is not at the right level for those older children. And that is what needs to be adjusted – not the child! Older 6 year olds in kindergarten can certainly get cranky – but they need to be challenged and their level of independence needs to be tapped into. If the teacher is not able to work with the mixed ages that are now so popular in Waldorf kindergartens (it was not always like this) then she needs to adjust her expectations and what she can offer. The same goes for eighth grade and twelfth grade. One can view these ages as tension points, as times when a child is getting ready to move from one developmental stage to the next. It is right that this causes some discomfort. That shouldn’t be the problem. It’s all a question of how one meets that discomfort.
I speak of this not only as a former early years educator but also as a homeschooling parent and as a (present) high school teacher. I can tell you that I far, far, far prefer to have 15 year olds in my Freshman classes than barely 14 year olds. The level of maturity, concentration, skills and just plain old common sense is not comparable. Fourteen year olds, by and large, do not know whether they are coming or going. They may seem terribly mature for eighth grade – but that is where they belong! They are too young for ninth grade.
And I speak as a parent on that too. My eldest son, for a variety of reasons, went to high school as a just-over-14 year old. In many ways he was one of the most mature students in the school – not just in his class. He was even allowed to co-teach a social studies class – he knew far more about the particular subject than the teachers and he was able to command enough respect from his peers to keep order in the class. He was also on the Board of the school (which is usual for this particular school). But there was a disastrous argument between one parent and several others which wrapped the Board in all sorts of incredibly painful wrangles – and my son was in the thick of it. He even had adult members of the Board approach him and complement him on his cool-headedness and maturity and ability to act while all the adults helplessly flailed about and were unable to deal with the situation. To those looking in from the outside, who just measured “success” in terms of what a child/teen wanted to do at the time, how well they managed and how mature it showed them to be, Daniel was a success.
So what’s the complaint? Isn’t this a great thing I’m describing? No – it was not. And I should have stopped it. Or better yet not allowed it to arise in the first place. My son was swept away by having way too much responsibility placed on his too-young shoulders. It was a burden – not a joy. And yes – he learned a lot from these experiences. But the toll was very high on emotional, educational and social levels. He never quite recovered from it all, either, though 5 years on he can now speak objectively about the whole thing. He was simply not old enough to have decided to take on these responsibilities and should not have been a) put in the position to be able to or b) allowed to have done this. I go on to say in this article that pain and discomfort are good things on the path to growth – but when they become overpowering and define an entire part of a child or teen’s experience, then they cease to be useful. They become harmful. And that is what happened to my son.
So….back to our six year olds in kindergarten who need adults to meet their transition stage. Giving more responsibilities to the older 6 year old is one possibility. At home this can be chores, caring (with adult help) for plants or animals. It means more complex crafts and cooking projects. It means more involved story material. But it does not mean academic work. The etheric body which builds up the physical body is needed throughout all of the child’s first 7 years. If for some unavoidable reason one must start school with a young 6 year old (which for me that means after about 6 and 3 months) perhaps he can start gently on numbers (but wait on letters as they are far more abstract than numbers) and do a sort of combined first grade and kindie for the first half of the year. This is far from ideal, though. There simply is no good or positive reason in the world why any child should begin academic work before 6 1/2 unless laws or other non negotiable circumstances dictate this. As Steiner said so passionately in The Kingdom of Childhood (and elsewhere) it would be so much better if children didn’t actually read and write until they were 12 or 13! He acknowledges that one has to make some compromise with the educational authorities and thus one does have to start sooner! And what he was referring to was preserving the earlier stage of consciousness so that it is allowed to mature in its own time, thus enhancing health and proper growth. Waldorf education is all about health. The question must always be “how can I promote my child’s health?” Health encompasses a child’s physical, emotional and spiritual well being. The way to maximize health is to parent and educate in harmony with a child’s developmental needs. And intellectual work is most definitely not a need of any 6 year old!
On to the older children/teens. An eighth grader might be bored because all his friends are already in high school or because, in school, he is restless and ready to move on. That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with a teen feeling this. Pain and discomfort are critical parts of growth! What is problematic is when the child does not cope well with this and real problems arise. But the solution is not necessarily to move onto to the next stage of schooling yet! What responsibilities can the eighth grader take on? Work, chores, an independent project, service work….there are many options. At home, an eighth grade Waldorf education probably looks very little like what they do in the classroom (as Waldorf eighth grade is almost entirely taken up with a play, fund raising, class trip and eighth grade projects). This is your opportunity to really work with your child, perhaps in a new way. Eighth grade should be a year of partnership. Your child still needs your guidance and help (and will continue to need this for a few more years) but her interests should be acknowledged. Eighth grade can be a wonderful year for exploring all sorts of possibilities which have not featured in earlier years of schooling.
And the 19 year old? Well, happy to say the school where my eldest had his disaster a few years ago has learned and has moved on. Co-teaching – or even teaching a whole class – is not offered to younger students but is an option for seniors which can be a wonderful opportunity for a 19 year old. Mentoring younger students and tutoring those having difficulties re also very appropriate ways for older teens to stretch themselves and to contribute to helping in their school community. In this particular school they can also opt out of classes they do not wish to do and are encouraged to pursue their own interests of take classes elsewhere if necessary. They also complete a senior project which can range from a photography exhibit to carving wooden signs for the school to writing a play. At home, it is fairly easy to meet the needs of an older senior with a bit of creativity and access to the internet! Unfortunately, in most schools – yes, including Waldorf schools – this could be difficult as the school I am referring to above is not typical at all and thus a student feeling constrained could be a real problem. But again – is this a problem of the student’s age or is this a problem of what is offered in the student’s education?
Here are a few articles on my website about School Readiness: