Most pre-school children amaze us with their ability. Little Hanlie, at aged two, can name all the animals in her favourite picture book. Hansie names most of the cars on the road before his third birthday and many four year olds are fascinated by dinosaurs and know their long, difficult names.
Then they begin school and the wheels come off. This can be devastating, especially if they have been encouraged to start school early because of their demonstrated intelligence. It is so important for families to know that even if their child has learned to read at a very early age, they may not be ready to learn. Things may go well in the first year or so but slowly progress falls behind. Very often parents come along (wisely) for a neurodevelopment evaluation and tell us that the child will be repeating
Grade R because of emotional immaturity. This is not entirely accurate. Failing to cope with school has far more to do with brain maturity – what we call a state of learning readiness at school-going age.
Brain age vs chronological age
The trouble is that children are sent to school at an age determined by their birthday rather than by their stage of brain development. We are not robots, programmed to behave predictably. We are human beings who have a very personal timetable of development. Our brains are not ready to learn at a prescribed date but are subject to growth spurts that determine its level of functioning. Strategies for teaching reading, for example, will be different for children who have not yet fully developed the connections between the two brain hemispheres. Children may seem to be learning to read well but after Grade 3, begin to fail because they have relied on the look and see methods which is basically aimed at the right brain hemisphere. This is too limiting and they may have to be taught all over again.
Teachers are very well aware that boys are slower in brain development than girls. We also know that there are more boys who experience learning and school-related behavior problems (e.g. hyperactivity) than girls. The theory goes that, since boys’ brains develop more slowly, their brains remain longer in the very early brain stages, making them more vulnerable to viral damage or any slight accidents.
A maturity lag can cause all kinds of problems. If, for example, a child’s visual system is not fully developed, he might not be able to clearly differentiate letters. This means that he may learn the word ‘d-o-g’ by recognizing the shape of the whole word, reinforced by having the word accompanied by many pictures. But using pictures to remember individual words won’t help him when he has to do more advanced reading. They don’t help him use letters to read other words. These are ‘splinter skills’ that children develop that work well for a while but not in the higher grades.
And in the higher grades, few realise that the child is having problems because he was never ready to read in the first place.
Its important to know a child’s stage of brain development
It is so important to consider an assessment of brain development before deciding on school entry. Far more important than school readiness is the knowledge that the child’s brain is ready to learn.