One Mom’s Fear: Is My Child Already Behind on Day One of School? Probably Not, but It’s the First Thing to Talk About With His Teacher on Back-to-School Night

It was Back-to-School Night for my son Abraham’s kindergarten class. My husband and I walked around the room, making polite conversation with the other parents, looking at displays of curriculum materials and children’s work. We stopped in front of a bulletin board filled with pictures of flowers.

The teacher explained that the children had been practicing their observational drawing skills using some potted sunflowers. She had also encouraged them to write their names at the top of their drawings. My husband and I smiled along with the other parents and listened as they pointed out, “Oh, there’s Raji’s! Look at the colors on his flower petals.” “There’s Mika’s. Look how her M is so big.” My husband made a joke about how it seemed some of these children were ready for college, with their detailed drawings and perfect penmanship.

All our eyes seemed to land on Abraham’s drawing at the same time. While it had some of the same colors as the other children’s drawings, it was unrecognizable as a flower. You could almost make out the “A” in his name, but that was it. A father standing next to me said in a half-hearted voice, “Oh, there’s Abraham’s. OK.” Then the other parents slowly walked away.

I went into protective mama bear mode. I wanted to shout, “He just turned 5! You know he is the youngest in the room. And he can write his name when he wants to. So he can’t draw a flower. What’s the big deal? When he’s 30, I’m sure he’ll be able to draw a flower if he wants to.”

I looked at my husband, who gave me the “Should we be worried?” look. That look brought me back to reality and reminded me who I was — not just a parent, but an early childhood educator. “No,” I said, shaking my head. “Just because Devon is ready for Harvard, doesn’t mean that Abraham is behind.”

Children move through progressions of development and learning in their early years, and our widely held expectations for each age or class level help us to support and challenge them as they grow and learn. But an understanding of these progressions, and the different rates at which children move through them, helps keep our expectations appropriate, realistic, and healthy.

If you’ve worked with children, or have more than one child, you know that development is far from rigid. All babies don’t start walking at 11 months; all 5-year-olds don’t wake up the morning of their birthday able to tie their shoes. Rather, development is overlapping, uneven, and interrelated. Skills build on each other over time. Children may go through long periods where it appears very little development is taking place, and then, all of a sudden, their development seems to skyrocket.

Abraham is a perfect example. He did very little drawing in his preschool years. It didn’t interest him, and when he did put pencil (or crayon or marker) to paper, he quickly became frustrated and gave up. Then, the summer before kindergarten, he discovered a real passion for Legos. My husband and I watched in amazement as his fine motor skills seemed to bloom overnight. And while he entered kindergarten with that same frustration about drawing, he quickly moved beyond it when he learned to transfer the fine motor skills he’d worked so hard to develop with Legos to his ability to hold a pencil and control it. Within a few months, his drawings were getting more detailed, his writing more consistently recognizable.

As you head to Back-to-School Night this year, keep this context in mind. Ask the teacher about the range of skills your child will be developing over the year and the progress you can expect to see. Be prepared to share one or two strengths your child brings to the classroom — as well as something you know he or she needs support in to develop and improve. Not only are teachers grateful for the insight you can provide, which will help them build a relationship with your child and better meet his or her needs, but they in turn can share some expert perspective on child development and learning.

Perhaps then, you won’t be so worried if you look at that flower drawing and discover your child isn’t quite yet ready for the Ivy League.

Kai-Leé Berke is a lifelong educator and CEO of Teaching Strategies.

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