When a toddler takes a few steps and falls down, we say he is “learning to walk.” We don’t say he’s “failing to walk.”

But just a few short years later, school-aged kids are compared to an arbitrary standard of academic progress. If they don’t measure up, they are often labeled lazy or inept.

It doesn’t seem to matter that the pace of childrens’ learning varies widely when they’re young, nor that the standards may be altogether developmentally inappropriate. Poor scores may show kids are struggling to adapt to the school setting (not that they’re incapable of the work).

Do “Common Core Standards” Predict Success?

When kids are placed in a learning environment that works for them, their gains can come very quickly. Some may need special interventions to help them succeed, or more support around certain skills, but all are likely to benefit from more autonomy over their own learning.

Twenty years ago, kindergartners were not expected to read. They learned letter names and combinations, and learned to love stories and characters. Kindergarten was play-based, a chance to socialize with peers and build foundational skills like problem-solving and motor coordination. The modern Common Core standards that demand sight words and even spelling in kindergarten are not backed by research, and a child’s mastery of these skills does not predict long-term literacy. Schools are asking kids to do what they are not ready to do, and labeling them deficient if they don’t.

In fact, the best long-term predictor of strong reading skills is what developmental psychologists call “invented spelling.” When your child is writing the first letter or two of a word, followed by random letters, they are on the path to full literacy. Tinkering with sounds and trying to decide which letters align phonetically contributes to long-term literacy skill far more than passive memorization of correct spellings. (As a full-time writer and editor, whose childhood vocabulary was large but whose spelling was abhorrent — dare we say apourint — I can confirm this.) As we see in other realms, a child at play is learning more effectively than a child filling out worksheets or copying from the board.

A 1984 study compared student outcomes from traditional classroom instruction to individualized, one-on-one tutoring. Students who got individual attention outperformed their peers, and achieved learning gains equivalent to two or three years of classroom instruction in just one year.

In the most rigorous study available, kids placed in Pre-K based on adult-led academic instruction for 5 hours per day scored better on standardized tests for a year or two, but by the third year, kids who hadn’t gone to Pre-K caught up, and eventually surpassed the “early prep” group. By sixth grade, the control group scored higher than the Pre-K group on every available measure of achievement.

Being excluded from “evidence-based early instruction” was the best thing that could have happened to these kids.

How Do Kids Succeed?

The Sudbury School, one of the oldest self-directed learning communities in the US, has a high percentage of kids who, for any number of reasons, struggled in traditional school. Once admitted to an energetic, empowering community, many who have been diagnosed with learning disabilities or ADHD find those labels had more to do with the setting they were in, than the kid that they are..

The students were always capable, the environment just wasn’t compatible.

Self-directed learning requires buy-in from kids, and follows each child’s interests, rather than relying on coercion by teachers who cajole kids to meet preset “standards.” Once kids are on board with their own learning (instead of fighting it) they can master reading and arithmetic up to a fifth-grade level in just 200 hours of instruction (90 minutes a day for six months). The endless repetition of institutional school is only required to teach kids who aren’t ready or aren’t willing.

The Compass School, a public charter in New Hampshire, serves a high-needs population (high rates of poverty and learning disabilities) who would normally achieve a 75% graduation rate. But the school boasts a nearly 100% graduation rate, and 90% of those graduates are accepted to college. By targeting at-risk students with customized, content-rich learning, Compass can defy the odds and set any child up for his individual definition of success.

How can you help your kid succeed, even if they’ve struggled?

If your child had a tough year at school, didn’t mesh with a teacher, or struggles with the “skills standards” recommended for his age, don’t panic. If you’ve been told your child is “behind” in school, don’t assume that means something is wrong with your kid. It may be that they aren’t well-matched to the style of instruction, or that the standards are not reasonable (which is often the case). Either way, not fulfilling the current skills standards says absolutely nothing about your kid’s long-term potential to succeed academically.

If public school isn’t cutting it, look for an alternative education environment that might serve your child better. Ask questions of any potential schools about how they support children — not just academically, but as whole people.

To support your child’s academic progress at home, here are some strategies:

  • Ask your child about what environments or tasks support his learning about something new.
  • Support a growth mindset: praise tenacity and effort, and remind your child that all skills are built over time. Help your child recognize that progress, not perfection, is the goal.
  • Identify your child’s strengths and weaknesses. Tailor learning activities to her interests and strengths, whenever possible.
  • Consider supplementary educational resources such as online learning platforms, educational apps, occupational therapy, or tutoring.
  • Give guidance and assistance when your child asks for it, and otherwise allow for independent pursuits.
  • Provide abundant access to books, games, craft supplies, nature, and other tools for brain-building.
  • Help your child to build up grit and slowly lengthen their attention span. Sitting with a problem or task for just a minute or two longer than they could last week leads to great gains over time.
  • Encourage your child to see connections between concepts learned and real-world consequences.
  • Set a positive example by learning new things and experimenting with new skills yourself.
  • Recognize and celebrate your child’s academic achievements and milestones.
Laura Williams

Laura Williams

Laura Williams is a communication strategist, writer, educator, and mom to a self-directed learner based in Atlanta, GA. She is a passionate advocate for critical thinking, individual liberties, and the Oxford Comma.

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