Children Don’t Develop At the Same Rate

By Dr. Yvonne Fournier, Scripps Howard Columnist


Every year my son’s teacher complains that he “is the only child” having his kind of problems. Now in the fourth grade, his teacher insists he doesn’t know his math facts and has trouble spelling words he should have learned in the first grade. I spend every summer reviewing these with him. I know he knows them. My son loves history, science and geography. He followed the last elections with us and has his own opinion about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has us recycling everything to save the planet. He reads constantly. When does the teacher decide to teach him?


Your child conceptualizes and places details within the big picture. His knowledge is not just for recalling facts to a teacher. He uses it to solve problems. He demands activism from your family by recycling. He is already aware that his backyard is but a speck on the globe. He thinks outside of the scope of what he learns. He uses knowledge for conclusions to take action.

Dr. Yvonne Fournier
Dr. Yvonne Fournier

Regardless of how bright your son is, there is something that neither you nor his teachers are able to control – his natural development. The skills that his teachers are concerned about are basic skills. Mastery of basic skills requires the accurate “automatic retrieval” of those skills, also referred to as “basic sequences,” such as math formulas and multiplication tables, grammar and spelling rules, etc…

Every basic skill is a sequence that, once fully imprinted in your child’s mind, will be retrieved correctly and automatically. The fact that your son has mastered his reading basic skills is an example of his capacity to master a basic sequence.

If your child is having difficulty recalling math facts, know that he most likely is still developing automatic retrieval of a basic sequence that with repetition and time will be mastered.

The problem is not that children are not able to learn these. The problems are in the teaching of these basic sequences:

– Development of sequencing skills: These are often treated as if they were short-term memory skills. Example: children are told to learn a group of math facts by a certain date. The assignment in itself does not take into account that no two children develop on the same timetable. It is an irrational request that demonstrates the teacher (or parent) making it does not understand normal child development.

– Mastering basic sequences: Once teachers assign these facts to be mastered accurately by a certain date, they begin to test how fast a child can retrieve them. The horror of this is that instead of focusing on mastery with accuracy, teachers move to how fast can the children recall these facts? In other words, speed trumps accuracy.

If your child has not learned math facts accurately, then he/she will miss math facts over and over again for many years to come. Often, these children are inaccurately called careless. Grades will be used to justify that something is “wrong” with your child.

Parents I counsel frequently tell me they get called in to listen to often inaccurate conclusions. Here are just of few I hear over and over from parents: the child is not paying attention because he knows the correct answer one day but misses that same answer the next day (example of not mastering basic sequences, in this case 7 x 6 = 42); your child must have attention or memory problems, even ADHD, so you should have her tested; and your child is the only one having this problem.

Regarding that last example, every parent knows their child is not the only one with “that” problem because they’ve talked with other parents who have heard the same conclusion about their children!

Children develop skills at different rates. You can’t mandate a child learn basic skills on a timetable. The only way to teach a child his/her basic sequences is to know which ones are already mastered and which ones are not.


Focus on those not yet mastered. Have your child take three math facts and place note cards all over the house. Play with these by making a math problem out of a family event. For example, let’s say your son is having trouble learning 5 + 3 = 8. So, we have five family members and three guests for dinner tonight. How many settings do we need at the table? (5 + 3 = 8).

As for spelling, get a list of Dolch words (the most commonly used words when we read and write). All you have to do is Google “Dolch Words” and plenty of sites with access to the list will come up. Begin to teach him these. When your son writes sentences or paragraphs, make a list of misspelled words. Find patterns in what he misses and teach the rules to the patterns (for example, “sion” and “tion” as in vision and action).

And parents, reject the myth that all children should be on the same page of a curriculum’s timeline. That can do more harm than good for your child.


Have a question about education, education-related issues or your child’s school or homework? Ask Dr. Fournier and look for her answer in this column. E-mail your question or comment to Dr. Yvonne Fournier at [email protected]