Child Development

Question:

What are your goals in sharing knowledge about child development with students’ families, and how do you go about it?

A: One goal that my teaching partner and I have in talking with families about child development is to help them understand our teaching and assessment approaches. For example, if families know that it’s developmentally normal for seven-year-olds to begin writing smaller and faster than before, they’re more likely to understand why their child’s writing may suddenly look messier than in first grade. It’s important to communicate that we focus more on the content of children’s writing than the look of their handwriting.

We invite families to participate in Morning Meeting, read to children in the classroom, and help on projects or field trips. This allows them to see children’s abilities within the context of a classroom setting. For example, each spring the children do an activity involving planting seeds. Last year, this activity created a big mess, and the parent volunteers offered to stay after and clean up. When Amy said, “That’s okay, the kids will clean up,” the adults seemed skeptical. She explained that one common developmental trait of seven-year-olds is that they love to clean. When they’re taught how to clean and are given the responsibility (and their own personal sponges), she told them, they rise to the occasion.

We also tell about incidents such as the plant cleanup in our weekly newsletter so that more families can benefit from the experiences even if they are not able to be in the classroom.

The common theme here is that we try to communicate about development within the context of school work and classroom happenings. Giving families articles to read on the topic is helpful. But bringing in the topic while you’re talking about assignments, school activities, and lessons can be so much more effective.

Patty Lawrence teaches second grade at Hunnewell School in Wellesley, Massachusetts, job sharing with her teaching partner Amy Clouter. Patty is a Responsive Classroom certified consulting teacher and a former professor at Wheelock College Graduate School in Boston, Massachusetts.

A: The students I now teach are ten going on eleven, moving from childhood into adolescence. Their families tend to have a lot of concerns about the often astounding changes their children go through during this time. One of my main goals, therefore, is to help families understand this stage of development so they can best support their children.

Early in the year, I prepare a two-sided handout for families, drawing on the book Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4–14. One side of the handout shows the typical developmental characteristics of ten-year-olds; the other side shows those of eleven-year-olds. I suggest that families keep the charts handy—on the refrigerator, in an often-used drawer, etc.

In casual conversations throughout the year, I try to remind families to look at the charts, just so they develop a baseline awareness of developmental issues. Then, whenever a parent or guardian specifically expresses some concern about a child’s new “strange” or “outrageous” behaviors, I again refer to the charts.

For example, a parent recently told me at a February conference, “I can’t believe my child’s behavior. She used to be so quiet and sweet. Now she’s challenging everything, saying things aren’t fair. And she’s so into herself!”

“Remember those developmental charts?” I said. I took out the copy that I keep close at hand. I flipped it over to the eleven-year-old side. “Your child recently turned eleven. Let’s see what this says about elevens.” There on the chart was listed, “Moody; sensitive. Oppositional; tests limits. Loves to argue. Self-absorbed.”

Of course, even though these traits are normal, adults still need to intervene with guidance and redirection. But knowing that the traits are normal helps families feel that the situation is manageable. Often, that feeling clears the way for them to know what to do to help their child.

Pat Fekete teaches fifth grade at Hawken Lower School in Cleveland, Ohio. She has twenty years of experience teaching fifth through eighth grade language arts and has a passion for teaching writing. Pat is a Responsive Classroom certified consulting teacher.

A: I have several goals in sharing information about child development with families:

  • to reduce families’ anxiety about their children’s learning and behavior
  • to help families understand that all children develop at different rates, and that the rate may be influenced by personality, culture, and environment
  • to help families see how children’s developmental characteristics affect what we can expect of them in school

At a curriculum night early in the school year, I start a conversation about the physical, social, cognitive, and language traits typical of the ages of the children in the class and the classroom implications of those traits. I give families a handout to look at during the conversation.

For example, if it’s a class of mostly nine-year-olds, I might explain about nine-year-olds’ growing attention to detail and greater interest in why things happen as they do. We might talk about how, in working with this age on writing, adults can therefore expect more character and plot development, cohesiveness, and believability. This is just one example. There are many developmental characteristics and classroom implications to share with families.

To keep up the communication on child development during the rest of the year, I often include items on the topic in the weekly newsletter I send home. Also, many community newspapers have weekly columns on parenting and child development. Teachers can clip these to share with families.

The more we educate and remind families—and ourselves—of children’s developmental stages, the more we can respect our students’ needs at each age and offer the academic and social curriculum that will benefit them the most.

Gail Zimmerman is a literacy specialist at Jackson Mann Elementary School in Boston, Massachusetts. She has taught in the Boston public schools for over thirty years and has been a Responsive Classroom certified consulting teacher for nine years.

A: As a counselor, I get calls from families with concerns not just about their children’s school behavior, but also home behavior. One of my roles is to help families understand what’s normal behavior for children at various ages and help families learn parenting strategies that support healthy development.

I find that using careful, empathic language when talking with families is key. I always begin by validating the family’s concern. The parents of a young six-year-old recently complained that their child seemed very oppositional lately. “Even when we tell her many times not to do something, she continues to do it.” After further listening, it became clear to me that the child’s behavior was not so much defiance, but a kind of impulsiveness.

“That kind of behavior can be hard to live with. No wonder you feel concerned,” I said. Although impulsiveness is quite normal for six-year-olds, it was important to show empathy for the parents’ feelings before offering further comments or advice.

Next, I help families see the difference between socially unacceptable and developmentally abnormal. “While that behavior may try your patience and may not be socially acceptable, it’s normal for her age,” I might say. I then share some supportive, calm ways that teachers might work with a child in that situation. This often gives families ideas to try at home.

Of course, if a child’s behavior is not normal for his/her age, I’ll let the family know, and together we’ll make a plan to address the problem. But more often than not, the behavior is quite normal. Using empathic, clear language as well as providing supportive strategies helps families see this and leave the conversation more assured.

Amy Wade has been a counselor at Canandaigua Primary School in Rochester, New York, for the past ten years. She is a certified elementary teacher as well and a Responsive Classroom certified consulting teacher.

Some Resources on Child Development

Ilg, Frances L., MD, Louise Bates Ames, PhD, and Sidney M. Baker, MD. 1981. Child Behavior. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Konner, Melvin. 1993. Childhood: A Multicultural View. Reprint edition. Boston, MA: Little, Brown & Co.

Miller, Karen. 2001. Ages and Stages. Developmental Descriptions & Activities, Birth through Eight Years. Revised edition. Beltsville, MD: Telshare Publishing Company.

Wood, Chip. 1997. Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4–14. Greenfield, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

Tags: Child Development, Family Connections, Working with Families

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