Developmental Readiness is Not An Exact Science

Dear Dr. Fournier:

My daughter is in preschool, or what many call 4-year-old kindergarten. I was called for a conference with her teacher. You can imagine my surprise and dismay when I was told that my daughter wasn’t keeping up with the other children. The main problem is that she is not drawing circles and squares yet. Her teacher suggested I consider having her tested for attention deficit disorder. She thinks that if she has it, it will be important to find this out early. Do you agree?

Audrey H.

Seattle, WA

Dear Audrey:


The roots of this problem go back for generations. They can be traced to the panic caused by the need to maintain a competitive edge against the Soviet, and later Japanese, Chinese and Indian neighbors on the global stage.

The thought was that in order to keep a competitive edge, this country needed to expose its children to more information. One of the easiest ways to go about this was to begin educating our children earlier. What was once fine for a five or six year old was now taught to a three or four year old. The assumption was that since some children showed that they could handle the pushed-down workload, then it was suitable for all children of like age.

Today’s hurried society continues to tell us to do more and do it sooner, which for many has been translated into finding potential disabilities as early as possible. Although early intervention might be a worthy goal in some cases, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and we must be careful to give our children the time to grow and develop within normal ranges.

Here is a news flash for educators, administrators, and parents alike: Development is not an event. It is a long-term process that we cannot hurry and we cannot measure with a yardstick. Developmental checklists might give the opposite impression. Yes, there is a specific time by which all children should – but not necessarily must – know how to do the same thing. Different children will get there at different times. What manifests for one first grader may not come out in one of his or her peers until the third grade, which is roughly the grade where children tend to level out, statistically.

When my son was in preschool, his teachers had long lists with developmental expectations, including one that I particularly dreaded for my son: “Can tie his shoes.” I knew that I still tied his shoes for him, and was apprehensive in anticipation of his “failure” in this category. Then one day I looked at his tiny hands and wondered if this was a battle that I wanted to fight. I knew the day would come when his little hands had grown as much as his desire to tie his shoes.

As I read all the “expert” opinions and weighed them against my son’s developmental readiness, I came up with what I called “The Velcro-Kid Theory:” When children are not ready to learn something because they need more developmental time and are still within normal ranges, find another solution. Mine was to buy my son tennis shoes with Velcro flaps until one day he came to me and said, “Mama, I want to learn to tie my shoes.”

Remember, different children will reach these developmental milestones at different times. As parents, we must watch to see when help might be needed, but we must give our children the time to develop on their own.


If your child has developed in other areas and is lacking in one particular skill, ask yourself whether you believe additional development time is needed. If so, you might have a Velcro kid – one who needs a different solution while you give her the time to grow.

In this case, buy a stencil that has a circle and a square. When other children are drawing their shapes freehand, your child will use her stencil. She can then learn exactly what she is expected to do, but can rely on the stencil. In time, her little hands will likely begin to draw her own circles and squares.

In preschool, a few months’ difference in birthdates can mean a wide difference in developmental readiness. But the need for extra developmental time does not stop there. In higher grades, children might still need alternate solutions, such as using a calculator until their math facts are automatic, or using a pencil instead of a pen until their fine motor skills have developed.

Some have suggested that these alternate strategies are not fair to the other children. I agree: they should not be implemented for children who do not need this kind of solution. That said, the chances are that at some point the “other children” will need alternate strategies of their own. Remember, the greater goal here is not about fairness; the goal is that the children are learning.

Dr. Yvonne Fournier
Dr. Yvonne Fournier