(7/16/2011 – Comments on this post are now closed! Thank you for all your comments and questions!)
Our guest post today comes from Donna Simmons of Christopherus Homeschool Resources (http://www.christopherushomeschool.org/home.html). This is a very comprehensive look at the topic of first grade readiness. This article includes her perspective as a Waldorf educator, but also as a parent and homeschooler, and includes a deep understanding of the foundation of Waldorf Education, but also includes more mainstream resources for those of you seeking those.
This article is long, but I encourage you to read all of it. Donna will be answering your questions left in the comment box in regards to this post, and we both look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Here is Donna…..
When Should I Begin First Grade with my Child?
Waldorf education is founded upon anthroposophical knowledge of the human being. A key feature of its understanding of human development is the recognition of a seven-year rhythm that runs through the life of every human being. By studying a person’s biography (or our own), by looking at it in the light of the characteristics of each 7 year period, one can learn an enormous amount about that person, or about oneself. “Biography work” is an important part of the anthroposophical endeavor to understand the human condition, whether this takes place with the help of an anthroposophical therapist, teacher, artist or minister, who can help one gain insights into one’s destiny questions.
The most marked changes which occur during a person’s biography are, of course, those which happen as he or she moves through childhood. Here we find 3 distinct phases of childhood: birth – age 7; 7 – 14; and 14 – 21. Although every person develops at a slightly different pace and has his own individual experiences, there are, nevertheless, clearly discernable stages of development that every human being (unless there is some sort of handicap or challenge) goes through.
With these stages of development in mind, a question confronts every teacher, parent and parent-teacher: when should my child begin first grade? Unlike the arbitrary cut-off dates found in most other forms of education (which have more to do with legal and administrative obligations rather than considered observation of a child’s developmental needs), in a Waldorf school one expects to find this question grappled with solely with regard to child development. It goes without saying that this includes deep consideration of how each individual child is growing and learning.
Let’s for a moment forget about the fact that Waldorf schools (like all private schools, especially those trying not to charge exorbitant fees) are under pressure to make sure enough children come up to first grade to make a class. And let’s forget the fact that parental expectations can often push a child’s early exit from kindergarten. Let’s also forget that Waldorf Charter schools, which take public money and are thus accountable not to each school’s self-governing body (as is characteristic of a true Waldorf school) but to state legislature, might have requirements regarding school starting age which teachers are obliged to adhere to.
So putting all of that to the side, the question can be freely articulated: “when is this child ready to begin first grade?” What does that question mean? It means: when is this child best able to move from the stage of life characterized by an undifferentiated oneness with the world; with a non linear consciousness; by learning through play; and by being nurtured by imitation, repetition and rhythm? In other words, when is this child ready to leave one stage of consciousness and move into another?
And really, this is the crux of what we are talking about. The consciousness of the child in the first seven years of life is completely different than that of later stages. These first 7 years are the years of unparalleled growth, which mainly takes place in the child’s physical body. In order to facilitate this, the child must not be drawn into precocious intellectual learning as the etheric body, which supports physical growth, would then be drawn into being available for such intellectual work.
Now this is quite complicate stuff and could certainly sound like gobbeldegook to those unfamiliar with this way of understanding human growth. So you might have to bear with me – and know that at the end of this blog article I give suggestions for where to learn more if this is something which tickles your interest.
The point is that in anthroposophy we recognize that the human being is not simply the sum of her physical body. To put it in a nutshell, growth happens in all four sheaths which make up the human being – the physical, etheric, astral and ego or ‘I’ sheaths. Each has a discernable pattern of development and although one can, of course, address shortcomings at later stages of life, there are optimal times for each to blossom. The first seven year period of human growth is focused on the physical body; the second on the etheric; the third on the astral. Only at age 21 does the ‘I’ comes to the fore, now “freed up” as it were, to find its potential through free thought.
And so it follows that if there is such a discernable pattern and if there are ways to rightly support a child’s growth, then it is also possible to cause problems by overriding or shortening a phase. This is what happens when a child comes prematurely into intellectual learning.
When we start first grade with a child, a goal or keynote for what we are doing is “Awakening from the Dreamtime” (as I characterize first grade in my “Waldorf Curriculum Overview”.)
To awaken from the Oneness of the kindergarten years is to move into a new stage of consciousness, of childhood.
And when is it best to do this? It is best to do this as those first 7 years of focus on the physical body draw to a close.
And so the answer to the question of when to start first grade is: when the child is as near to 7 as is possible.
Now some people say yes, but I can just start slowly and kind of do a hybrid kindie-first grade year. We are homeschoolers, after all, so anything’s possible! But…there are two objections here. One is that the core of first grade is about this gentle Awakening – and once Sleeping Beauty awakens, she does not fall asleep again! And the other issue is that everything in the curriculum is created to speak to these clear patterns of soul growth in the child. So if one begins first grade with a child who is 6 or barely over 6, she will always be just off-sync with the curriculum. The whole practical-based work of third grade, for instance, is carefully crafted to speak to the emerging ‘I’ of the child going through the 9 year change. The history of the Romans as well as the nature of the physics lessons in 6th grade are crafted to speak to what is happening not just in the intellectual/emotional bodies of the child but even in the physical substance itself! And so on.
So the child who begins early will always be slightly off and won’t quite reap the benefits that other children, whose development is answered by the curriculum, will.
Another possible way round this issue that some homeschoolers advocate is simply not starting first grade until late fall or even January (and yes, I am talking Northern Hemisphere here – those of you who might be reading this in the Southern Hemisphere will need to translate!). While this could be ok (and, as a dyed-in-the-wool homeschooler I always like to endorse flexible and creative solutions!) I have to say that really, it’s far from ideal. This is because there is a reality to the beginning of study, of schooling, of back-to-school in the Fall. After the great out-breath of the summer, the inward gesture of readying oneself for school, study and formal learning has a truth that echoes in the reality of seasonal changes. Learning to work harmoniously with cosmic/seasonal rhythms is an incredibly potent part of Waldorf pedagogy and any therapeutic work.
So first grade begins in September for 6 year olds who are about to turn 7 in October, November, December, January, and February as well as for those who turned 7 the preceding May, June, July and August (and of course those who turn 7 in September).
That leaves March and April. Those are the difficult months. One can argue both ways and here one really needs to tune into that individual child’s needs. For that child will either always be slightly off for most of each year, being, for instance, 8 for only a couple of months of second grade, or will really be a bit on the old side, being 8 for the tail end of first grade. Neither is the best scenario. All things being equal, however, I would generally opt for a later start for boys and risk an earlier start for girls. After 25+ years of observation and teaching, it is clear to me that boys are always somewhat behind the curve and need slowing down. Having said that, quick, bright little girls might also need the further grounding that a slower start could give.
Another way to look at this is to take in the deep wisdom articulated by Master Waldorf teacher Kevin Avison in his “Handbook for Waldorf Class Teachers” where he says that a child should experience seven Easters on Earth before starting first grade. If the cosmic rhythm of the setting of the date of Easter has any truth in it, then this is an important nodal point which should be considered as one struggles with this issue.
For ease of reading I’ll now split up my remaining comments into a Q & A format:
What About School Readiness Signs?
Many of you will be familiar with the various school readiness signs that Waldorf teachers use to assess which children should spend another year in kindergarten and which should go up to first grade. My sense is that these signs are not as reliable as they might have been in the past. Children grow and mature OUTWARDLY and PHYSICALLY more quickly in this present generation than in the past. And so being able to touch hands behind the back, the disappearance of dimpling on the knuckles and other OUTWARD signs may not be so useful any more.
I also include in this list the phenomena of the change of teeth, that great Waldorf hallmark of school readiness. Once upon a time all children basically began to change their teeth around 6 and a bit. But no longer. Just as modern girls often get their periods at a very young age, so many children loose their teeth precociously.
But just as a 9 or 10 year old girl who has had her first period is still very much a child, so too the 5 year old who has a couple of adult teeth is still firmly in that first stage of development.
Who Says First Graders Should Be Six?
This seems to be a strongly West Coast phenomena. Over the years as a Waldorf consultant, working with both Waldorf teachers and with parents, I have seen a clear difference between Waldorf schools on the West Coast and those in the rest of the US (and in the UK). Despite what seems to be favored in Oregon, Washington and California, most Waldorf schools in this country and in the UK favor an as-close-to-7 start for first graders.
Rudolf Steiner himself was clear not so much about the actual date of starting school but what in being adamant about what is appropriate for children at different stages of development. Working from his indications, it is absolutely clear that the first stage of childhood is not birth – 6, but birth – 7 and that academic work then should not begin until age 7. In more than one place (“Kingdom of Childhood”, “Conversations with Waldorf Teachers” and in other lecture cycles) he clearly stated that one has to compromise to please the authorities and that really, with such things as reading and writing, it would actually be best for children to be 11 or even older before they embark on such work.
Most “Waldorf authors” are clearly in the 7 year old first graders camp. Two notable authors, however, do cloud the water somewhat. I refer to Francis Edmunds and Marjorie Spock. Both speak repeatedly of 6 year olds for first grade. However, my suspicion is that this is shorthand for 6 ½ year olds (which many children certainly would rightly be). I base this suspicion on the fact that if one reads their books closely, it becomes abundantly clear that this is indeed the case, that knowledgeable people like them are certainly aware of how the curriculum has been crafted in terms of child development and that they express this in their writing!
Joan Almon (Master Waldorf teacher) talks about how it is better to wait than to go ahead early. She says that she has never seen a situation where she regretted the former. And I have to back that, having gently talked numerous parents into waiting a year more with their 6 years olds. While I have met plenty of parents who later regretted starting their children early, I have never met any that regretted starting “late”.
Here’s an article by a “Vermont Mom” about how she decided to wait after beginning too early:
Earl Ogletree’s article is an overview of the “late or early” debate and he quotes people like David Elkind, Piaget, and the Moore Foundation (authors of the excellent Better Late Than Early which every homeschooler should read). You can read that here:
What About High School?
Many parents and teachers worry about the prospect of 19 year olds in high school (which is what they will be if they begin school at 7). This is an understandable concern as the needs of young adults are certainly very different than those of teens only a few years younger. I know that there are Waldorf teachers who advocate an early start to first grade for this very reason.
But this, I would say, is mistaken. It is a clear case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. For while it is undoubtedly true that 19 year olds can be extremely challenging to have in the high school classroom (or at home, homeschooling), the problem here is lack of proper pedagogy, not an inherent problem of having 19 year olds in school.
And I speak from experience, both as a parent who partially homeschooled her sons during the high school years (they were almost entirely homeschooled earlier) and who has taught both in a local Waldorf-ish high school and Charter high school. Both had numerous 19 year old seniors and they could be a real pain in the butt as they were “sooooo done” with school. However, if one was able to challenge them in the right way, to enable them to create mainly independent programs of self study, to keep them raised up to high standards and to engage with them as fledgling adults and not as overgrown children, then that last year of formal school could be an enormous gift to them.
The other thing I can say as a high school teacher is that it is immeasurably better to have a classroom full of 15 year old freshmen than a class dominated by 14 year olds. The former are far more in control of themselves, serious, self-knowledgeable, and willing to work hard, whereas the 14 year olds still tend (especially the boys) to act like large children.
Aside from the fact that by starting a child’s schooling closer to 6 than to 7 that he will always be somewhat out of sync with the deeply therapeutic benefits of the Waldorf curriculum, I also need to state that as a matter of principle, based on those 25+ years of working with all manner of teens and children from many racial, cultural, economic and educational backgrounds that late is always better than early. As we as a society move into darker times, times of grave economic, political and ecological turmoil, I especially feel that the first 7 years of childhood should be even more sacred, more inviolate, than ever. We owe it to the next generation to gift them with as peaceful, nurturing and carefree a time of childhood as possible, one that allows them not to rush to the linear, logical, rational way of thinking which dominates out culture and which, though absolutely necessary and of great value in its rightful place, is not the only way a human being has of understanding the world. To allow a child to be a child and to only slowly come into the adult realm, with its adult forms of thinking, communicating and consciousness, is to validate all aspects of the growing human being. It is to enable each child to create a strong foundation for life, a foundation which will stand her in good stead when it is time for her to take her rightful place in our challenging world.
Thank you so much Donna, for your wisdom and perspective.