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Homeschooling and Waiting for Readiness

I was incredibly frustrated with my daughter Eleanor. It felt like I had been working with her on basic reading skills forever. She was 5-years old and preparing for Kindergarten. I had tried everything—flashcards, writing exercises, video resources. Now we were sitting at the kitchen table, foam letter cut outs sprawled across the tabletop, trying to help Eleanor understand how letters combined to make words using simple examples like cat and top. Yet, despite months of work and a multitude of methodological approaches, we were getting nowhere.

She just didn’t get it.

You may have had similar experiences homeschooling your children. Ever sat up night after night working over the same mathematical principles with your 13-year old struggling to understand Algebra? Ever seen your teenage daughter flop her head down in an open Latin book and groan “Ughhh I just don’t get it!” Ever tried to explain a philosophical idea to your 12-year-old son, only to have him respond with an absent-minded, deer-in-the-headlights look?

It can be tremendously disheartening when your child seems “stuck” in a subject over a long period of time. It causes you to second guess yourself, “If I was better at this, my kid wouldn’t be stuck. Maybe they’d be better in a school.” It is always difficult to watch your child struggle.

Sometimes these things just take time. Sometimes a student needs to wrestle with a subject for awhile, slugging it out in the trenches until they gain some expertise. But other times the problem isn’t you or the subject; it’s the timing. It’s a matter of waiting for “readiness”.

Understanding the Development of Cognitive Skills

Though the brain reaches its maximum size by adolescence, it continues maturing into our twenties (source). What does it mean that the brain “develops” or “matures”?

The development of the brain is associated with different cognitive skills, which are mental tasks the brain is capable of performing. There are many milestones of cognitive development we pass in our journey to adulthood. Take, for example, spatial awareness. Spatial awareness is a cognitive skill that allows us to recognize our position relative to external objects, and the relative position of objects to each other. Spatial awareness emerges in children over the first 18 months of life, as they learn to recognize that they have a body, where their body ends and the external world begins, learn to recognize movement, and eventually understand concepts like direction, distance, and location.

Many cognitive skills are associated with academic ability. For example, the hand-eye coordination necessary to hold and use a writing utensil. Have you ever noticed how kids’ drawings are wild and loopy when they are young but grow in precision with age? This is related to the development of hand-eye coordination, among other things.

As our brain matures from birth into adulthood, we gradually develop different cognitive skills, ranging from basic stuff (“Oh, mom hasn’t disappeared just because she left the room,”) all the way up to complex ideas (“Ah, now I understand Aristotelian metaphysics!”)

How does this concept of cognitive skills relate to children getting stuck?

A Spectrum of Development

The public school system has drilled into our psyche the idea that child is “supposed” to be capable of a certain skill by a given age. They should be reading by 1st grade. Doing multiplication by 3rd grade. Writing book reports by 5th grade, and so on. We’ve accustomed ourselves to thinking of these skills as coming on a fixed schedule.

The truth, however, is that these skills do not emerge on schedule. It happens on a spectrum. No two children are alike, and cognitive skills emerge uniquely in each child. We all know this when it comes to basic developmental skills in young children—children potty train at different ages, learn to ride a bike at different ages, talk at different ages. Yet we tend to forget this when it comes to academic development. We get worried when our six-year old still struggles with writing or our twelve-year old can’t understand “grade appropriate” readings. When our child isn’t doing well, we tend to default to a pragmatic approach. “Maybe if I change the way I am doing this or that!” “If she would only try harder!” “Perhaps some better study skills or a new tutor would do the trick!”

Of course, sometimes it is a practical matter. However, we should never forget that all cognitive skills develop on a spectrum, including those relating to academic prowess. Sometimes the reason your child is struggling with reading is because her visual processing isn’t fully developed. Understanding mathematics requires cognitive skills such as directionality, visualization, timing/rhythm and visual-spatial memory. If any of these aren’t developed, it is going to be challenging for your child to grasp mathematical concepts.

These skills all develop on a spectrum. For example, visual-spatial thinking develops over a period of years from age ten to eleven and on through adolescence. This means some students will enter adolescence with underdeveloped visual-spatial thinking skills, which can make STEM subjects extra challenging (source). A 12-year-old student with underdeveloped visual-spatial thinking isn’t struggling in Geometry because they are being stubborn or because you are a bad teacher. They are struggling because their brain hasn’t grown to the point where it can process advanced visual-spatial concepts as found in Geometry.

Time and Space

We need to give our kids time and space to grow into these skills. In my years of teaching, I have noticed that children learn to comprehend abstract concepts between the ages of 11 and 15. Abstract reasoning is what allows you to understand big ideas, like the -isms of history.

In my history classes, around 7th to 8th grade I start introducing students to historical ideologies: What was Jacobinism? Nationalism? Communism? Fascism? Students who have a developed a sense of abstract reasoning can follow these kinds of discussions. Conversely, children who have not developed this sense yet, tend to give me the deer-in-a-headlight stare. But that’s okay! I understand they are all moving along their own spectrum of development. If a child doesn’t grasp the concept right now, I know they will probably be able to grasp it next year. In the meantime, exposing them to a discussion about may in fact help to stimulate that cognitive skill.

So let your child have time, and give them space to work these things out. In the case of my Eleanor, I kept working with her over the months. At a certain point, after maybe a year, she had a breakthrough. She suddenly got it. It was like a light went on in her head. She started arranging the letters on the table correctly and reading the words with ease. Over that year, her sense of phonemic recognition kicked in, giving her the cognitive skill to understand that the words made sounds that, when strung together, created words. The results were stunning; it was a day and night difference.

In my story, I kept working with Eleanor despite the fact that we seemed to be making little progress. This brings up an important point: Just because your child may not have fully developed the cognitive skills she needs is no reason to not expose her to the material. Yes, sometimes you just need to wait. But while you’re waiting, continue to expose your student to the concepts. This can help stimulate the development of the necessary cognitive skills.

Bottom line: don’t worry if your child seems to be “stuck.” Kids don’t all progress at the same pace. Give it some time, give it some space. Keep the car on the road, but hold the wheel lightly.

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