Three ways our schools can honor children’s developmental learning stages.Every week I get calls or emails from discouraged, frantic or anxious parents. Why? Their child’s school has just let them know that their child is behind or not measuring up in some way, academically or behaviorally.

The parents then go on to describe a bright and inquisitive child who has difficulty sitting at a desk all day, or is not reading at grade level, or gets distracted while doing workbook pages. The child is usually referred for testing, and recommendations generally include medication, remediation, a rewards-and/or-punishment behavior plan, or a combination of these.

My heart breaks for these children and their parents. I know that there is nothing wrong with these kids. The real problem is that there is no room for developmental or learning style diversity in our classrooms; they are one-size-fits-all and everyone must fit into the standardized curriculum. This is very damaging for far too many students.

Whenever a child is forced, punished, or labeled because he/she is not mastering some skill or subject, that child is damaged. When a child comes home from school crying every day, that child is damaged. If a child is given homework that takes more than 30 minutes, that child is damaged. If a child is given homework that he doesn’t understand, that child is damaged.

If a child goes to school every day feeling anxious and believing that she is not intelligent and is incapable of “measuring up” that child is damaged. When a child is put into the “low” group, that child is damaged. If a child is made to believe he is learning disabled (dyslexic, ADD, etc.), that child is damaged.

It’s bad enough that these sad scenarios occur in public school, but when I hear of yet another instance occurring in a Catholic school, that’s when my heart totally plummets.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Department of Catholic Schools’ Web site (under “About Us”) includes this statement (my italics for emphasis):

“Jesus Christ is the foundation for our community, the Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. His call to teach is our inspiration; His image the model for our students. In partnership with parents, we prepare our students to become full and active members of the Catholic Church, to serve others, and to make a difference in the world. We commit our schools to provide a quality education so that a Catholic Education is an Advantage for Life.”

My first question is, how is Jesus calling us to teach? Would he not accept where each child is — developmentally, emotionally, academically? Would he not build a child up rather than causing him to feel deflated and to believe that he is inadequate in some way?

How is Jesus calling us to teach? Would he not accept where each child is — developmentally, emotionally, academically? Would he not build a child up rather than causing him to feel deflated and to believe that he is inadequate in some way?

Because the truth is, he is not inadequate; everyone is brilliant in a different way. We must give up the notion that students who don’t learn with desks and workbooks are disabled learners who need fixing.

My second question is, what is a quality education? Is it a one-size-fits-all program imposed by a secular system of standardization and testing? Or is it a drawing out of the unique combination of gifts and talents put inside each child by God, a gentle nurturing and mentoring guided by the student’s interests and passions?

In fact, the Web site statement also encourages us to “understand their [students’] gifts. We encourage all students towards excellence, but most importantly to use their gifts and talents in service to others.”

That brings me to my third question. If all students are forced to do the same thing at the same time, regardless of their developmental stages or their learning styles, how will their learning needs be met so that they will recognize their gifts and talents and have the confidence to share these with the world? Sadly, the answer to this last question is, they won’t!

Over the years, I have provided parents the option of a customized independent study program that meets their child’s learning needs. In just a few weeks, we see a different student — a smiling, happy person who is interested in learning. It’s not uncommon for a parent to comment, “I have my child back!”

Can this type of customized program be implemented in the classroom? Absolutely! Especially in Catholic schools. Here are three ways for our schools to honor the developmental stages and learning styles of our children:

---Discontinue grade-related standardization. There is a belief, for example, that children should begin reading and writing in kindergarten, for sure by first grade. And if they’re not by second grade, they have a problem. The truth is, the majority of children are not ready to begin learning to read and write until they are 8 or 9 years old. They don’t even have the developmental readiness required with eye movements and fine motor skills. Forcing these kids to read sets them up for failure and being labeled with a learning disability. This is just one example of the negative effects of standardization.

---Find out what’s RIGHT with every child. Assess each child’s learning styles; this includes dispositions, modalities, interests, talents and best working environment. Educate students about their own learning styles and teach them to use strategies that meet their learning style needs. Allow students to fully integrate their interests and talents into everything they are learning, and to choose their own topics of interest.

---Stop comparing students, and discontinue testing and grading to determine rank (yes, this goes for high school, too!). Not only is this not useful; it is not, in my opinion, Christian. It does not facilitate discernment of the path God intended for an individual student. In fact, it does quite the opposite, often crushing the seeds of goals and dreams and leading students to doubt their abilities and interests. This sets the stage for anger and resentment. They begin to wonder why God made them and see no purpose for their lives.

Do you think I am exaggerating here? I’m not. The damaging effects of school are quite serious and can last a lifetime.

I am eagerly awaiting the day when Catholic schools will separate themselves from public school rules and step up to the challenge of honoring each child’s individual learning needs. Not only will they then truly provide an education that is an advantage for life, but the lists of families waiting to get in will be longer than they could ever imagine.

©2012 by Mariaemma Pelullo-Willis, M.S.

Mariaemma Pelullo-Willis is a California credentialed teacher and holds a Master's Degree in Special Education. She is co-author, with Victoria Kindle Hodson, of "Discover Your Child's Learning Style" (Random House) and "Midlife Crisis Begins in Kindergarten." For many years a Master Catechist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, she attends Mission San Buenaventura. She can be reached at [email protected].

{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2012/0323/wills/{/gallery}