As I was writing a comment to a question on homeschooling Facebook page, J. looked over my shoulder and commented that this would be the first dissertation writing first in Facebook comments. (See, I'm long-winded everywhere. I could never twitter or tweet or cheep or whatever it is. The character length is shorter than my average sentence.) What was I going on and on about? Why, one of my perpetually favorite hobby horses, of course: The adopted child with hard beginnings and the effect on education, otherwise known as, "Why can't my child seem to learn anything?!"
I am a firm believer in letting a child rebuild his or her foundation for learning before asking that child to do anything strongly academic. That foundation consists of all the exploration and learning and emotional work that a young child does between being born and age six, or so. These things all combine to create a brain that is primed to do more formal academics. As a result of what the adult world sees a play, the child has become a budding linguist, scientist, mathematician, and artist. Through their play, they have learned how their bodies work and gained confidence in moving through space. They have learned about print. While they may not be able to read it, they know it conveys message and meaning, and they are familiar to with its shape and form. They have learned we can count things and that those things can be bigger and smaller, more or less or even. Through blocks and water and clay and dirt they have the foundations of physics. The advanced concepts of gravity, friction, mass, volume, optics, and fluids have their start here. Watching seeds grow, chicks hatch, squirrels climb all set the stage for biology and botany. Being with calm and attentive parents teaches self-regulation, self-image, and security, without which, no learning can occur. And the stories... let's not forget the stories. Children up to the age of five, in a nurturing home, will have logged thousands of hours of stories. Through cuddling with a parent or other loved one, listening to a book being read, they learn about the wider world, language, compassion, and curiosity.
Those first five to six years of life are equivalent to ~27,000 waking hours. In a loving, secure, and enriched home, that is a lot of hours or preparation. It is also a lot of hours lost in an insecure/impoverished environment. In that case, that is 27,000+ of the brain not only not being prepared for academic learning and emotional health, it can also be forming the brain in less positive ways, making that learning even more difficult. When we bring home our older children, there is a significant likelihood that the non-positive input will far exceed a mere 27,000 hours. In a conservative estimate, for every extra year, you can add another 5840 waking hours. That's a lot of time.
So we bring home this six, or seven, or twelve year old child. If that child has been fortunate, their previous life has had loving people and some room for enrichment. If that child has been less fortunate, there has been very little to prepare the child for what's ahead. Even with the better scenario, there has still been significant instability and probably very little time for stories, open-ended play and imagination and experimentation. In comparison to a child in a permanent family, the differences in emotional stability and resources are significant. Our children come to us with huge gaping holes in their background at the least and a black hole of experience at the worst.
The child learns English, the basics of how their family functions, probably even rudimentary phonics and reading and arithmetic. All seems well. The child is happy and learning. Sure there is a blip or oddity here or there, but there's not difference between the child born to me and this child who joined our family later in life. Except there is; an often invisible difference with vastly significant implications. Instead of building a learning life on a strong, stable, and flexible foundation, this child's foundation is shaky. It is missing important pieces. It may not be big enough. It is too rigid and can't flex and bend. It is the equivalent of trying to build a skyscraper on an incomplete and shoddy wooden base. You can try, you might even get a few stories up, but the higher you go, the shakier it gets and the chances of collapse increase. There are hours and hours of basics that the child needs to do before that foundation can be strong enough to really support what we hope can be built.
As an aside, I believe this is one big reason that we are seeing such difficulties in school with so much of our population. When you create academic preschools (talk about an oxymoron!) and make kindergarten more like first grade, it all goes against what a young child needs at every level. Sure, you can get the children to do that level of work... but should you? What real difference does it make (other than bragging rights for parents) whether a child reads at five or eight? Can you walk down the street and tell by looking at a person what age they learned to read? Nor more than you can tell at what age that person learned to walk. Ultimately it just doesn't make a difference... well, unless by pushing early academics you did more harm than good and caused the adult somehow not to reach their full potential. But I won't say that because it would be engaging in a little bit of fear mongering.
Because of this obsession our country has with pushing academics early and often, it is so easy for the parent of an adopted child to fall into the same trap. My child is 12 and they "should" be doing __________! I am unpopular when I suggest maybe the time would be better served with crayons and paint and glue than with one new curriculum after the other, each promising to be the magic bullet and each failing.
When I write part 2, I'll touch on some more concrete examples of ways we can support our children as they work to rebuild and strengthen their foundation.