Childhood development can be a complex issue. Of course, every child develops at their own pace, and a variety of factors influence this. Yet there are some baseline elements of child development that experts expect children to reach at different ages and stages of life.
We now see challenges emerging as a result of two+ years of life with the Covid pandemic. Children who would typically be in school, navigating peer relationships and gaining autonomy were often at home, learning through a screen, and having limited peer interactions. There is no question that development has been impacted by these circumstances. The question is – in what ways will we see these changes played out as children return to classrooms this fall? And what should adults know about childhood development in order to best support students?
We’d like to take a moment to talk about two different types of development: experience expectant and experience dependent.
Experience expectant development refers to experiences that a child in an average or typical environment will develop over the course of childhood. These include things like vision, hearing, walking and understanding language.
Experience dependent development refers to experiences that depend on other experiences. These are skills that are not necessarily wired in utero, but are adaptive skills that people engage in. Examples include division, reading a map or riding a bike. Experience dependent skills depend on a series of other skills and experiences. In order to read a map, for example, you must first understand basic directionality and orientation, spatial awareness, and knowledge of symbols and markers. A person can’t open a map and innately understand it without the other skills first being introduced.
Educators understand that many classroom skills, such as reading, are experience dependent. A fourth-grade teacher depends on students having gained knowledge in third grade, second grade, etc. A fourth-grade curriculum is built upon the experiences that children have already gained.
In light of this understanding of development, we can begin to think about how to support children in a new way. Think about the nature of the skill the child is struggling with.
If the skill is experience expectant…
This means that a child either a) has not had the typical or average environment necessary to develop this skill, or b) there is something getting in the way of the child’s ability to develop this skill even in a typical environment. For example, if a child struggles with language (an experience expectant skill), it could be that the child is in an environment that is not rich in language. Or it could mean that the child has a learning disability getting in the way of their ability to develop language.
So what to do if a child is struggling with an experience expectant skill?
Imagine for a moment that the challenge is with a physical skill – let’s say vision. If a child struggles to see the front of the room, you would likely refer the child to have a vision test. And you’d encourage accommodations, such as glasses, to help the child overcome the challenge. This is the same approach for any experience-expectant skill. It’s likely that the child didn’t have the experiences one would expect in a typical environment or has something getting in the way of their ability to be successful in this area and may need additional support. Let’s think of a social emotional skill that is important in the classroom: solving conflicts with other kids. We expect kids to have lots of interpersonal conflicts and they typically resolve a majority of these without adult intervention. But when kids of the same age haven’t been around each other for a long time, these skills don’t develop because they an experience deficit. Teachers may need to take time to teach kids how to resolve conflicts with problem-solving techniques like take turns, set a timer, walk away, or ask for help. Direct instruction will help kids catch up when they’ve been deprived of typical experiences.
If the skill is experience dependent…
This means that the child hasn’t had the necessary prerequisites to be successful with this skill. If a ten-year-old is struggling to read picture books, they likely haven’t had the reading education that a typical ten-year-old would have received. This will be more common than usual as we return to classrooms in a more normal fashion for the first time in several years. Students have missed out on many experiences that other experiences build upon.
So what to do if a child is struggling with an experience dependent skill?
Provide them the necessary skills that the other skill depends on. Even if it seems elementary, start there. Children will need extra support as they make up for lost time.
Be patient! Know that children will not be where students at their age and stage typically are, and that’s okay.
Praise students for their hard work. Think about how much extra effort will go into developing the skills that they should have been learning over the past several years. They will need to receive constant recognition of their efforts to keep them motivated to work hard.
We must all have grace with ourselves, each other, and with students as we navigate a return to normalcy. Childhood development has been impacted, and we will all learn together how to move forward and support children on a path to long-term success.