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When Your Child Isn’t Ahead of the Curve

May 20, 2013

In the upper middle class world I am entrenched in, everyone’s child is gifted.  Everyone has a child that read at an incredibly early age, is extremely talented in sports and destined for, at the very least, a college athletic scholarship.  Giftedness oozes from every child, at least if what you read in Christmas cards or facebook status updates tell us anything.

But what happens when that isn’t the case?  What happens if, when your child leaves kindergarten, they are at the tail end of where they should be, or heaven forbid, behind?  What happens if, despite only showing your child educational television, limiting them to games on PBS, reading to them every night and discussing vocabulary with them, they aren’t reading when they leave kindergarten?  What then?  Do you lie by omission and just don’t talk about the progress of that child (when with the other children, you talked about it constantly)?  Do you elaborate on other signs of giftedness, like being able to find their way out of a paper bag or the ability to mix up every single one of their lego sets?  What then?

I had a heartbreaking, but important conversation with John the other night.  We were talking about new neighbors, first grade, and what first grade would be like.  I asked John if he was looking forward to first grade.  Madeleine, my first, couldn’t wait because in first grade you got to do harder things.  John was not looking forward to first grade for two reasons.  1)  You had to read.  2) No more centers.  I sighed and thought of my John, and how significant those two changes were.  I contemplated ranting about our current education system and taking play out of the curriculum at way too young of an age.  I thought of how hard that transition of removing play would be for John–my child who thrives in crazy, imaginative, creative play.

As I thought more though, I thought about the reading aspect.  John is maybe at a DRA level 3 (our school would like him between a 6 – 8 to go into first grade).  I celebrate that level.  He’s worked long and hard to get there.  It’s not where he should be.  He knows that.  I know that.  It makes him sad.  It makes me sad, because he is sad.


John (and a bunch of other kids) listens to Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves on a camping trip.

As I have mentioned before, I used to be a teacher in a former life.  One of the things I learned early on in college and saw first hand in teaching was that reading is developmental.  Translated for non-teachers:  A child will read when their brain is ready to read.  Learning to walk and speak is developmental.  Learning to follow rules is a developmental level/skill as is learning to think logically, thinking of yourself as the center of the universe (thinking of preschoolers when I say that), and abstract thinking.  Things develop as the brain is ready for them to develop.  It is different for each person.  As much as lawmakers and textbook writers would like to standardize learning, certain things can not be standardized because no number of laws or common core standards will make a brain develop faster than it is ready to.  Some children’s brains are ready to read at 3.  Some children’s brains aren’t ready to read until 8 or 9.  Some children’s brains will never be able to read.  It’s how it is.  It isn’t right or wrong.  We don’t judge a child’s athletic ability by how early they walk (my boys walked at 10 months.  Does that mean they are destined for athletic greatness?  No.).  Nor do we judge a child’s ability to communicate to talk about when they spoke their first words.  (Madeleine spoke later for girl–does that mean her language skills are behind everyone else and that she still can’t communicate well?  Heck no.  Sometimes I think she communicates a little too well).

Reading is different though.  Parents wear the age when their child started reading as badge of honor–it is sign of the parent’s success and a child’s brilliance.  Somehow, it gets forgotten that reading is like walking or talking–it’s developmental.  The brain will do it when it’s ready.  As a fourth grade teacher, I heard for years which children were the gifted kindergartners who read early.  You know what?  In fourth grade, I couldn’t accurately predict who read earliest.   I remember one girl in particular, who didn’t really learn how to read until third grade.  By the middle of fourth grade she was reading above grade level.  By the end, she was significantly above grade level–catching some of those children who read in kindergarten.  It didn’t matter at that point when you started reading.  All that matter was whether the children were reading material they loved and understood.  That influenced success and reading levels more than the age they could first read the Biscuit books.

Why am I off on this teacher tangent?  I know I am not the only mother out there with a child who may not be where they should be reading.  I am fortunate to have been trained as a teacher and to have taught in a public school for several years.  I have a bit more perspective.  I want to stand with those other mothers who are surrounded by parents who children are “gifted”.  Mothers, your children will read.  They will.  It’s ok if they’re not the first ones to read, or even the middle ones.  Just keep reading to them.  Talk to them about what words mean.  Laugh at books together and talk about what you’ve read.  Bring up things you’ve read together in the rest of every day life.  Make your child love books, even if he or she can’t read them.  Keep sitting with them every day and encouraging them to sound out words (and let them stop right before frustration kicks in–frustration turns off the brain.  True story.).


The butterfly that just emerged from it’s chrysalis that John found and watched.

I celebrate John.  I was thankful for the conversation I had with my reader who can’t read yet.  It made me sad, but only because I saw for a moment how he saw himself, as not smart.  Here’s a secret that not is expressed well in public education—all children are gifted at something.  John and talked about the things he was good at—he could tell us exactly what building had been torn down the past week as we drove past the rubble on the way to church.  None of the rest of us could remember, but when he told us (a building we drive past only on our way to church), we all remembered that he was right.  John also notices other things–camping last weekend, he found a scorpion inside a board on a wooden fence.  He saw it when he was walking by.  It was camouflaged and so hard to see Curtis had a hard time getting a picture of it.  John also is incredible at putting things together and fixing things.  None of these things are a category he could be labeled as gifted at school.  However, I celebrate those areas and know to have patience with the reading.  It will come.  I need to remember to have patience and to encourage him to have patience as well.  I will also wear John’s reading level as a badge of honor.  He’s worked hard to get where he is–every bit as hard as those early readers–and we should all be proud of that.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Shelly permalink
    May 20, 2013 8:43 am

    This sounds like my Gabriel! He was at a level 3 at the beginning of 1st grade…but level 24 at the end of 1st grade!!!! Do what you can to get a really great 1st grade teacher that will boost his confidence and make him feel good about himself – I think 1st grade teachers should be among the highest paid…it’s a very crucial year. One thing to note is that some kids need very explicit instruction when learning to read (reading recovery was so good at that – too bad AISD got rid of that program). Just keep reading for fun at home – I’m sure John will start reading more when he is ready!!!

    • May 20, 2013 9:43 am

      Thanks Shelly! AISD got rid of Reading Recovery? That’s crazy. I figure as long as I keep John loving books, we’ll be fine. What makes me most nervous is that there will be at least 2 (maybe 3) new-to-first-grade teachers at our school next year…..I will not hesitate to request he be moved though if he is not liking school. His teacher this year has been fabulous–no stress about his level and not pushing him unnecessarily hard.

  2. May 20, 2013 12:47 pm

    John needs a teacher like your Grandma Guengerich in 1st grade! Thanks for the blog, Melani. So glad he has you as his understanding and insightful mother.

    • May 20, 2013 1:52 pm

      Does he ever! She would have loved my wiggly little boy in her first grade classroom. 🙂

  3. Jo Novinger permalink
    May 20, 2013 1:15 pm

    Hang in there, you have it right! I hope I don’t frighten you by telling you that you are also describing my Andrew! ;-).

    • May 20, 2013 1:52 pm

      And my Curtis, who didn’t read until 2nd grade. 🙂 It’s nice to have precedent. 🙂 Patience is just hard sometimes.


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