Last fall I had friends over whose son was in the same class as my son at our local Montessori school. They were a bit annoyed at the school and the teacher because they felt that their son was floundering and nothing was being done; they were considering changing schools. Montessori schools are organized into multi-age classrooms and their son had just moved from a primary (ages 3-5 years) classroom into a lower elementary classroom (grades 1-3). My older son had made that exact same transition the previous year and he had had a similar experience. He had a hard time settling into an academic rhythm; instead he seemed more interested in watching what other students were doing; had difficult social encounters with other students; and just generally seemed untethered and unfocused on learning. He came home upset about interactions with other kids almost on a daily basis and it broke my heart to see him struggling. Part of me wanted to jump in, call other parents, ask the teacher to step in and protect him from what he was finding hard.
In fairness, it was his teacher who initially flagged the issue for us early in the fall and when we went in for November conferences she assured us that that she wasn’t worried about it. She saw what we saw – that he was struggling. She had been teaching this age group for fifteen years and said that this was a very normal experience for many students. She told us that this was a stage when social relationships with peers are important, and that the process of finding one’s place in a new environment was just harder for some kids. Part of our son’s struggle was his tendency to want to get his way, to want other children to fall in line with him. This was an age when his peers were willing to shut him out because of it. Yes, it was distracting him from his academic work, but this social learning was just as important as math and writing. We needed to listen to him, remind him of the choices he could make in his interactions with other students, and let him figure it out. In our son’s case her insights were spot on. By the spring we could all see him being more flexible; he had found his small group of buddies and he was diving back into his work. He was, if anything, even more engaged academically than ever and seemed to have lost no ground.
I shared this experience with our friends at the time but, understandably, they didn’t find any comfort in it. Last weekend we met up for a playdate in the park and I asked how their son was doing. He was doing much better, they said. He wasn’t coming home upset and he seemed more focused academically. They are feeling good about the school and the class again and plan to keep him there for the rest of his lower elementary years.
It’s hard for us as parents to trust our children’s well-being to other people, including teachers. But there is something to be said for the insights that can be provided by professionals who have seen a lot of children grow over a long period of time, whether these are doctors, dentists or teachers. No matter how much it feels as though our children’s experiences are unique, the reality is that development and growth follow a similar arc for the majority of kids. Think of the “What to Expect” series of books that many of us considered our Bibles during pregnancy and over the first 1-3 years. It was comforting to see our babies and toddlers hit the milestones that were laid out in black and white. I found the books less useful as my kids got older because there is a wider range of developmental milestones to hit and different kids end up hitting them at different times based on their interests, their environments and their access to opportunities. Even my two sons varied widely in when and how they developed over time whether it was when they were fully potty-trained, learned to read, or learned to swim.
We all worry about our children. As parents it is so tempting to want certainty and predictability. It gives the illusion of control and safety. And in today’s world of screenings, diagnoses and interventions we can find lots of people willing to take our money to give us the façade of certainty and predictability. But our children are human beings, and human beings are all unique in the ways they learn and grow and navigate the world. I think sometimes the best thing we can do for our kids is to find professionals we trust, professionals who can see our children more dispassionately, and to let ourselves be guided into patience.