By Smarty Guest Blogger Sybil Cohn, Palisades Episcopal School Lower School Director
When assessing and communicating what is best for children, I have used the phrase “developmentally appropriate” many times in conferences with parents, in report card comments, and even in discussions with colleagues when deciding curriculum or lesson classroom strategies. But I developed a whole new appreciation for the phrase this summer when I participated in the Gesell Institute of Child Development.
Within the first thirty minutes of the workshop, I was amazed at what a great fit this professional development opportunity was for me and my school. My training materials explained that the Gesell assessment “assists parents, educators, and other professionals in understanding characteristics of a child’s behavior in relation to typical growth patterns based on sequential, normative stages of development, (including) a child’s neuro-motor, language, cognitive, social-emotional, and adaptive development.” This particular statement truly resonated with me because it so perfectly aligned with the whole-child focus of Palisades Episcopal School’s mission which centers on “providing a classical education challenging the mind, body and spirit.” I’ve been preaching about the importance of teaching the whole child for my entire twenty-plus years (gulp) in education, so when our workshop facilitator framed her head with her hands and said that parents don’t just send this piece to school to be educated, I felt myself wanting to yell out “Amen”! It is crucial to account for the entire child and the vast number of pieces which go into the development and growth of that child. Even one seemingly minor piece of the puzzle can greatly affect a child and what is taking place in his or her development.
The Gesell Institute focuses on knowing yourself (being reflective, understanding perspective, and being aware of your own biases), understanding children (processes of development), and then knowing YOUR children (knowing developmentally appropriate practices and then modifying curriculum/instructional strategies to best support, validate, and encourage children as individuals). This is a purposeful and holistic way to create a framework of curriculum and expectations with the flexibility to adapt instruction by observing, truly knowing our children, and celebrating them for where they are developmentally at that time (NOT where we think or would like them to be, and most definitely NOT necessarily where their classmates are).
Each night after my workshop, I would reflect on all the information I had learned that day. I was fascinated! Because of my many years in the field of education, I believed that I had an extensive basis of knowledge on typical behaviors for children in Lower School grades. The Gesell Institute was eye-opening, offering both new information and comforting reminders as to the whys behind some of those typical behaviors that many parents and teachers find troublesome. This new information was transformational in my roles as both an educator and a parent. And I realized that if this was enlightening to me after twenty years of experience, I could only imagine how invaluable it would be for parents.
As I was thinking how to share this information with PES’ already amazing teachers, the phrase “knowledge is power” came to mind. While it doesn’t make it any less challenging when a Kindergarten student asks a million specific questions and tattles all the time, simply knowing that these behaviors are typical of a five-year-old because they are trying are to please, seeking adult approval, working hard to do everything just right (thus the need to question EXACTLY how to do something, many times), and wanting others to do the right thing too (“I’m telling because you broke the rule”) aids in putting those behaviors into perspective and helps the adults in their life develop strategies to enable children to handle those needs and anxieties. The best advice I can share with parents is this: all children vacillate between stages of calm balance and uncertain chaos, and, particularly in their early school years, children are moving through multiple stages within one school year. A child who begins the school year in a state of balance with life seemingly going smoothly might return from Christmas break having moved into a state of chaos, feeling unsteady, restless, less composed, and unable to sit as long as he/she was able to just a month before. This served as a fascinating reminder to me that our children’s growth is not a linear path. In order to move forward and grow, most often our children backslide in previously accomplished areas before we see that new growth. How often have I heard worried parents and teachers express that “they used to be able to do X, and now they can’t”? It’s the old, wise reminder that often “two steps forward, one step back” is not only common, but is likely and most importantly, NORMAL.
Children are all unique in the rate at which they develop and don’t always develop at an even pace, but all children will develop in the same order of stages. I used to refer back to my elementary education classes and classroom experiences while raising my daughter, but as she is now fifteen, I’ve found myself swimming (or drowning!) in unchartered waters. So when reading in my Gesell materials that my fifteen-year-old is currently in a state of confused chaos, I again wanted to yell “Amen!” For teenagers, there is an “intricate meshing of forces” (hello, mood swings!); “competitive” tendencies escalate (her incessant checking of grades!); and questions of identity surface (Who am I? What is my purpose in life?). Knowing this is life-changing! While it doesn’t make it easier when her sunshiny mood morphs into a raging thunderstorm, I have an enlightened perspective on how best to weather this stage. As I sat in her back-to-school night, it hit me that one of the best resources for supporting my child was standing right in front of me. Her high school homeroom teacher (whom she’ll have all four years) was sharing the differences he sees in students now as sophomores from last year as freshmen, as well as the forecast of student behaviors as juniors and seniors. Teachers, counselors, and coaches have experience and knowledge beyond our own observations about what our children are going through, what they are anxious about, and what they are struggling with at various stages. Trust their expertise!
I urge parents to use your school’s faculty as a resource in gauging what to expect from your child, what behaviors are typical, what they are capable of, what their needs are, and what might be causing them to worry. While we can’t prevent our children from going through these challenges (on the contrary, we SHOULD NOT prevent them from struggling because through adversity comes growth and resilience), we SHOULD empathize with their developmental challenges as we continue to support their journey to adulthood. One of the best ways to help your children navigate through life is by arming yourself with the knowledge of what is developmentally appropriate and using that wisdom to help them grow into the amazing adults we know they can be!
For additional information on this topic, join Palisades Episcopal School for our parent education series entitled “Purpose-Driven Parenting: Developing the Whole Child, One Step at a Time” on Tuesday, October 22, 2019, from 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. Visit our website to register: www.pescharlotte.org/applynow and click on upcoming events.