I realized very quickly when I became a parent that childhood is set up as a series of milestones. You are guided through this inevitable sequence of “firsts” the moment your child comes home from the hospital- the first smile, the first steps, the first words. Books, pediatricians, and pretty much everyone you encounter checks in on their firsts. They are often held up as the singular measure of whether your child is “ok” or not, and you somehow hold yourself accountable for whether they are achieved in the right order and at the right time.
In the back of your mind, you wonder who decided that these firsts had to happen at any given time and you resent the pressure it puts on you and your child to “achieve” from day one. You also look into the distance and realize there are a million firsts lined up for your child to meet through adulthood.
The first day of school in many ways feels like the last first of one era- toddlerhood and preschool life- and the start of a new one- being a “kid.” When my oldest child started PreKindergarten, I had this enormous sense of change and felt he was moving off into the next phase of his childhood. He really did seem older and more confident to me then, suddenly able to independently maneuver in the world in new ways.
This September, my second child started PreKindergarten. His older brother, now a school veteran, was heading into 1st Grade. All of my angst and energy revolved around my 4-year-old. How would he adjust to a full school day? Would he enjoy school? Would he find friends? Would a nap-free afternoon result in massive temper tantrums at 2:00? All of these hopes and worries occupied my mind as the first day of school neared. What caught me off guard was what happened on that first day.
My 4-year-old blew me off and ran into his new classroom, clearly ready for the transition, eager to be a big kid like his brother, and not the least bit worried about or aware of any first or milestone he was achieving. He waved confidently and moved on into his new status as a student, needing nothing from me other than his lunch and a quick hug.
When I turned around, it was my 1st Grade child who was looking at me with frightened eyes. He was still there, stuck by my side, with that look every parent knows- please don’t leave me here, please keep me safe, I am scared to death. I suddenly realized how much I had underestimated what the transition to 1st Grade meant to him. He now had a desk, homework, new expectations, and a new cubby. This world was radically different from Kindergarten and, to him that morning, it was completely unknown and overwhelming.
While it is a standard cliché that every child is unique and has unique needs, it is critical that schools and parents can meaningfully adapt our roadmap of milestones and measures to really adjust to that uniqueness. In addition to the range of learning variations each child presents, there is an equally wide scope of social-emotional measures that drive how a child interacts with the world around them. There is a lot of chatter in education circles about teaching to each child’s individual learning style. I find it impossible to separate that out from the child’s individual social and emotional needs. There is a reason all of the research around grit and resilience is getting so much traction. The emotional development of children is integrally related to their academic skill development. We need to approach our goals and milestones with this clearly in mind.
I am fortunate to work and be a parent at a school that gets that, and my anxious first grader ended up having the best day of his life. His teacher found the balance of guiding students through a new set of challenges while anchoring them in what they knew and trusted. She also recognized that anxious souls like my son needed a little bit of extra love and support on the first day of school.
The path through our life’s milestones is not linear like the books would have you believe, with each “first” neatly falling into place one after the other. The path is really circular and twisty, complex and vague. Excellent schools do not look at a student’s development as a clear trajectory, but as a process where we go backwards and forwards, navigating a learning and development journey that draws out the best in each child, and challenges them in the individual ways they need to be taught and supported.
If done well, each child starts and ends in a different place than one another, but each should feel they were given the best possible education.