A few years ago, I attended an Educational Leadership Conference in Singapore where I heard Professor Yong Zhao speak. Yong Zhao is the Presidential Chair and Director of the Institute for Global and Online Education in the College of Education, University of Oregon. He is also a Professor in the Department of Educational Measurement, Policy, and Leadership.One of his main messages is that education should focus on developing a child’s strengths, not ‘fixing their deficiencies’. Taking this thinking a little further, he emphasises the importance of having a diverse society of talented and creative citizens – a celebration of individual difference that should begin in our homes and classrooms.
One particular story he told sticks in my mind. Professor Zhao talked about a high school teacher in America who told parents, “Children are like popcorn. Some pop early, some pop late.” We can all picture in our minds the kernels of corn in a pot and waiting to hear the pop, pop, pop as each individual kernel comes to life. I have never forgotten this little anecdote as it has such powerful messaging for both parents and educators. It is especially reassuring to consider when children first start school.
There is real pressure on children to meet certain achievement benchmarks at school. While we all want our children to be learning and on track, we also have to remember that they learn at different rates. Children take their own time to crawl, to walk and to talk – think again of the popcorn analogy. Some may find learning to read easy and race ahead with this one aspect of their learning. Another child may be a great talker and socially confident, but take longer to settle into learning early reading and writing skills. Others may love writing, know all their letters and sounds, but truly struggle with counting. We must allow children to work at their own pace.
For example, I remember one exceptional five year old who I taught. He came to school able to read, and after two days he was writing pages and pages in his writing book. But surprisingly, once this little one looked at the work of everyone else around his table, he suddenly started writing one-sentence stories! I had to talk to him about how we all learn at different rates and that it was okay to write more than everyone else. He promptly went back to writing at his own ability again.
Another experience that sticks in my memory from many years ago is that of a Year 6 child who was still learning to float, while all her peers were swimming laps. She persevered and practised blowing bubbles. I will never forget the expression on her face when she floated for the first time. “I can float! I can float!” she said to me. She then proceeded to practise, over and over again. These achievements were significant for both children, regardless of how different their learning journeys were from their peers.
It is very easy to get into comparisons. We can compare children within a classroom setting, and within our own families. Just because your child is in a particular group at school, or their interests are different to that of their siblings, is not cause for concern. Each of your own children will be so different. Instead of comparing them to others, think about what each child is good at and what you can help them with at home.
Children not only learn at different rates, they also have different strengths and weaknesses. Often I use an animal fable, written by George Reavis, to illustrate this concept with teachers as part of our professional development. The fable is about different animals in the same class at school – they are taught the same lessons and are assessed in the same way. For example, the rabbit started at the top of the class in running, but really struggled to keep up with the duck and the eel in the swimming lessons.
The moral of the story is that we all have different talents, and instead of trying to view children in the same way, we can appreciate their individuality. We can support them with subjects that they find more challenging and at the same time, nurture what they are good at and love doing. Naturally, the balance of this looks different from time to time.
As a parent, you know your children so well. In fact, you know them better than anyone else. Don’t be afraid to go and dialogue with their teacher and share what you know about your son or daughter. Talk about what they might need help with at school. Also share what they are really good at and what makes them come alive. This information may relate to the school curriculum, or it may simply help the teacher better understand your child.
Good teachers will appreciate knowing their students better so they can make learning at school more relevant and meaningful for each child. The ultimate success is when we all work in partnership to allow children to be their own person – to grow and learn at their own pace.
How you can help as a parent
- Concentrate on what your children can do rather than what they can’t do.
- Celebrate that your children are different from one another.
- Encourage your children to appreciate the different gifts and talents of siblings within a family too.
- Praise your child when they work hard and persevere when tasks get difficult. Acknowledging their effort is so important.
- Make positive links with your children’s classroom teachers and discuss any queries and concerns with them.
- Humour works well in families too! Even mum and dad have different skill sets. Laugh at yourself if you are not so good at something. This positive modelling will support your children to find humour in their own tough situations with learning.