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February 2016

To Expect or Not to Expect—That is the Question.

What IS “Normal” in the Elementary Years?

Stacey Wolking, HSLDA Toddlers to Tweens Consultant

Stacey Wolking Stacey Wolking

We often get calls from parents concerned about their elementary-age child’s progress: “He’s behind.” “He’s not reading yet.” “She misspells so many words.” “She can’t write.” “What am I doing wrong?”

With the vast majority of children, absolutely nothing is wrong. Rest assured, there is a very wide range of “normal” when it comes to the elementary years. For example, one of our own children was reading by age 5, but for another child it didn’t click until he was 9 years old. Ultimately, the age at which each child began to read didn’t seem to make any difference; both of these children graduated from an academically challenging college and have successful, productive careers.

Often young children are advancing more than you think. Day-to-day mistakes and frustrations can cloud our ability to see slow progression. Assessments and evaluations can be very helpful for making sure you are moving forward. I administered a spelling test at the beginning and end of each year using the spelling scale that was included in my Phonics for Reading and Spelling curriculum; there are others to choose from as well. Other options for assessing progress are a one-on-one evaluation or evaluation checklists.

Even though the children I just mentioned were both boys, gender can make a big difference as well. Girls tend to mature and develop language skills earlier than boys, who are often more interested in moving, building, and climbing. Not surprisingly, PET and MRI brain scan research confirms what seems obvious to us: boys’ and girls’ brains are wired differently.

Here are 10 strategies to help create a productive learning environment for both boys and girls:

  1. Many children learn better while moving. Movement has been shown to increase children’s neurotransmitters. They can sit on a ball, read on a treadmill, use a balance board, play active learning games, or sit on a Wiggle Cushion. Fidgeting can actually help some kids stay alert, so let your child play with that silly putty or squeeze ball and use manipulatives whenever possible—especially for science and math. Research also shows that rocking, spinning, and swinging stimulate the cerebral cortex, which helps children focus. So when you lose your child’s attention, or if he is getting stressed, send him out to the swings for a few minutes or joyfully spin him around for a brain reset.
  2. Make sure they have plenty of breaks from school work. When they are young, 15 or 20 minutes of focused work may be all they can handle before getting antsy. Get to know your child’s limits, or use a timer. Time Timers can be a useful tool, especially beneficial for visual learners.
  3. Girls may gravitate toward creative, imaginary play while boys prefer puzzles and building and manipulating things. Switch it up. Make sure boys and girls are experiencing all types of play; “Their play is their work.”
  4. In my experience, boys are less likely to ask for help. Be proactive. Ask them if they understand their work or need help. Don’t assume silence means they are getting it. Also, try to use shorter instructions with boys. It seems to be as true as when they are adults, guys often hear better with fewer words.
  5. Boys also tend to need more assistance and instruction in organizing their work and notebooks. Help your boys to succeed by taking the time to teach them the skills that sometimes seem obvious to us as adults. Setting a good example and modeling organization starts with the teacher.
  6. According to the book, Why Gender Matters, boys tend to overestimate their abilities while girls tend to underestimate theirs. We need to continually encourage our girls to persevere, all the while giving our boys reality checks and enlightening them about natural consequences…hopefully BEFORE they seriously injure themselves.
  7. Specifically work on fine motor skills with your boys and gross motor skills with your girls; these don’t come as naturally to them. See here for help with motor skills.
  8. Boys tend to like a challenge and can handle school stress better than girls. Whereas girls can find it taxing, boys are often motivated by a time-limit or a competition against others.
  9. Don’t be afraid of or discourage a boy’s natural inclination to aggression. Give them a safe outlet and make sure they know the difference between right and wrong, and make sure the good guy is good and the bad guy is bad. Video games that avoid graphic violence, such as Age of Empires: Age of Kings, can satisfy their need to conquer. (See “Resources” below for more video game suggestions.) And even though it is probably not mom’s first choice for fun, strategy games with the theme of conquest—such as Risk or Settlers of Catan—are excellent games to play with your kids, especially your boys. Or better yet, make a game day with other kids a regular part of your school week. In our area, a wonderful mom organized a weekly “Left-Brainiac Strategy Games Club” at our local library. Many kids are motivated to get their work done by Friday afternoon so they can attend!
  10. Practice and even require eye contact, but not necessarily while they are doing school work. Research says that boys prefer to sit beside someone while girls like to face others and make eye contact. So while we do want to teach them good manners, boys may learn better while we rub shoulders instead of sitting eye-to-eye.

Of course, gender isn’t the source of all learning differences; personality and environment play an important role as well. But more and more research is exposing the harm done to young boys who are expected to behave like girls. This is just one of many reasons we homeschool; the ability to tailor our teaching to the individual child and not follow the one-size-fits-all model. According to Leonard Sax, There are NO differences in what girls and boys CAN learn. But there are BIG differences in the best ways to teach them.”(1)

Desiring to equip and encourage,

Stacey Wolking
HSLDA Toddlers to Tweens consultant
“A joyful heart is good medicine” (Proverbs 17:22a)

(1) Sax, Leonard (2005) Why Gender Matters. New York: Broadway Books.
Brain-based Gender Differences by William McBride, Ph.D.

Some of our favorite games:
Sim City—create and build a city  
Age of Empires: Age of Kings—create, command and conquer ancient civilizations
Dr. Brain Series—by Sierra, puzzle adventure games  
Clue Finders—solving mysteries adventure games
Roller Coaster Tycoon—create the ultimate amusement park  
Carmen Sandiago —detective globe-traveling, geography, history, reading comprehension and problem solving, 
Oregon Trail —1800s covered wagon adventure, history and geography skills, problem-solving

Other conquest games:
Empire Earth—create, command and conquer, replaying all of world history
The Settlers Online: Castle Empire—(Online) Build an empire and conquer lands.
Machines at War 3—Commander over military vehicles in order to defend and conquer.
23 Video Games That Could Make You Smarter

Still not sure if your child’s progress falls within the broad range of “normal”? Visit our struggling learners section for insights into dyslexia and dysgraphia or other challenges.

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