I had a friend (Dan) share his experience with me of home schooling his oldest daughter (Jina) and the challenges he faced as he tried to start her education too early in his opinion. He began homeschooling his oldest daughter when she was about four years of age. His goals for the 1st year was simply for his daughter
- to learn to count to 10
- to recognize the letters of the alphabet
That was all he wanted for the first year of instruction. Dan friend knew Jina was young, perhaps too young, so he did not want to push it. He just wanted to develop a rhythm of learning and instruction in the family along with the two goals above. In addition, his family was one of only two families who home school their kids in his community and he wanted to make sure his daughter was always on par academically with the other children in the neighborhood as a witness to the benefits of homeschooling.
Yet, a strange thing happened. Both academic goals were achieved in less than four months. Now Jina was getting bored with school already. This meant that Dan now had to raise the level of complexity with more goals
- recognize numbers
- Know the sounds of all the letters of the alphabet
By the end of the first year (age 5 now), without any pressure, and by going at her own pace my friend’s daughter could read simple words, count objects, recognize numbers, do simple addition, subtraction, and had the rudiments of telling time. However, near the end of the first year of learning some strange things began to happen.
- One day Jina would complete a task with no problems but the next day she could not seem to remember the slightest way how to do it. She seemed to inadvertently lose motivation for no reason.
- Some concepts (telling time) never stuck no matter how many times it was taught and review.
- She was inconsistent in her ability to recognize words and seemed to lack any ability to generalize concepts (transfer) to other settings. For example, realizing that ‘cap’, ‘snap’, ‘lap’, all end with the -ap ending.
When she turned five, Dan and his wife formally started Jina in an official home school curriculum rather than the ad-hoc stuff they did for the first year. Jina now had the ability to do 1st-grade work thanks to her parents prior teaching. Old struggles subsided and new ones appeared. Unlike the ad-hoc curriculum, the formal home school curriculum had weekly lesson plans and Dan was determined to stick to the “schedule.”
Why the Struggle
Dan still wondered what the problem was. Jina was progressing but it was a chore and I couldn’t understand why. Isn’t it good to start kids in school early? That’s when he asked me.
I explained to him some of the basics of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. This is not just any theory. Piaget’s ideas are taught to almost all undergrad education majors on the planet.
Piaget proposes that there are four stages of cognitive development
- Sensorimotor (0-2 years)-Learning only through senses
- Preoperational (2-7)-Symbolic thinking and pretend play
- Concrete Operational (7-11)-Ideas applied to literally objects, understand time and quantity.
- Formal Operations (12-adult)-Abstract thinking, logic, transfer possible.
Dan was teaching his daughter all of these abstract ideas (counting, reading, telling time, etc) when she was at a preoperational level cognitively.
Reading is a highly abstract experience. Letters on a page have a sound attached to them and these letters can be combined to make words etc.? This is astounding for a child and their minds will struggle with this if they are not ready. Numbers on a page represent an actual amount in the real world? This is another astounding breakthrough for a young child. Dan was teaching his daughter to tell time when she had no idea what time was! He was frustrated when she could not transfer knowledge to new settings when this is normally not possible until they are 11 years or older.
If a child is not developmentally ready for these complex ideas they will struggle with school. If Piaget’s theory is correct (and not everyone agrees), formal schooling should not begin until age 7 for most children. What is meant by formal schooling is the study of math and reading. They should begin learning math and reading at 7. However, traditionally, students have been studying these subjects for several years by the age of 7.
This is not a totally radical idea. Many parents are delaying the enrollment of their child in kindergarten by a year in order to allow them to develop more. The term for this is redshirting
What He Did
By the time I had spoken with Dan Jina was six years old and already in second grade. She was doing better but now Dan and his wife worried about burnout. He did not want to stop her studies completely because stopping now would mean having to fight with her to begin again. I suggested that they decided to slow down the instruction. Now they complete a weekly lesson plan over two weeks instead of one. This helps to minimize the damage that has taken place while still maintaining a structure of learning in the home. Unfortunately, Jina is learning multiplications when she should be learning to count.
I can say that there is evidence that early education is not best for children. If Piaget is correct a child under 7 is not ready for rigorous study and should be allowed more hands on experiences rather than abstract ones. Of course, there are exceptions but generally, you can start too early but it is difficult to start too late. If a child starts too early they will be in a constant state of struggling. All children are different but I think that parents should be aware that waiting is an option when it comes to formal instruction and one benefit of home schooling is the ability to have authority over your child’s education.