Milestones are an important marker to track progress, especially if you’re a parent. We know that a child is growing up as expected when she starts uttering her first words, takes her first steps, and interacts with people at a pre-determined age. These tell us our baby is healthy and “normal” and doing excellently as expected.
But times have changed. It is no longer enough that our kids meet the standard — they have to exceed them. Milestones are not anymore just for keeping track of progress; they’re opportunities to say my child is better than your child, because he can run, talk, read, and is potty-trained way before most of yours are.
And now, with more people following the trend of sending their kids to school at an earlier age (some as young as 2 years old) so they can learn to read and write, it may be correct to say that just as times have changed, so have our expectations of our kids over the years. We’re in a big hurry to see our kids reading, writing, and to keep them ahead of everyone else. Guess who’s paying the price?
Consider this: a study compares kindergarten teachers’ expectations of their students’ reading proficiency within a 12-year period. In 1998, only 31 percent of the teachers expected the children to learn to read in preschool. By 2010, this percentage is much higher: 80 percent of the teachers now expect the same of their students. This, despite research pointing to early literacy doing more harm than good to the child.
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Professor Nancy Carlsson-Paigeet al wrote a report entitled Reading in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose, part of which reads: “When children have educational experiences that are not geared to their developmental level or in tune with their learning needs and cultures, it can cause them great harm, including feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and confusion.”
What follows is a string of misdiagnosed “learning disabilities” — learning delay, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — just because we forgot that they are just kids, and could not keep up with the impossibly high targets we have set for them. No wonder the number of cases have risen over the years.
ADHD is a neurobiological disorder characterized by the difficulty to pay attention and being overly active. It is one of the most commonly diagnosed behavioral disorders in kids, affecting 4 to 5 percent of children worldwide, according to the American Psychiatric Association in its 2013 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
A report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that in 2003-2004, only 11 percent of kids aged 4 to 17 years old were diagnosed with ADHD. This number increased by 42 percent in 2011-2012, with one-third of the cases being diagnosed in children under six years old.
According to Timothy Layton, the lead researcher of a study conducted by the Harvard Medical School, there’s a “possibility that large numbers of kids are being overdiagnosed and overtreated for ADHD because they happen to be relatively immature compared to their older classmates in the early years of elementary school.”
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The study finds that a child who enters an educational institution as the youngest in their level is more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than those who are older than her, even just by months.
Ask anyone from the older generation of parents and they will tell you that school these days is far different from how they probably remember it from their childhood. There’s more homework, more projects, and the lessons seem to become more complex for the kids’ age. Is it a case of too much too soon? It’s really up to the parents to decide, but Kerry McDonald, a senior education fellow and author of the book Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom, writes:
“As schooling becomes more rigid and consumes more of childhood, it is causing increasing harm to children. Many of them are unable to meet unrealistic academic and behavioral expectations at such a young age, and they are being labeled with and medicated for delays and disorders that often only exist within a schooled context. Parents should push back against this alarming trend by holding onto their kids longer or opting out of forced schooling altogether.”