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Son Seems Immature
Q: My oldest son is ten-years-old and in fifth grade. I believe that my husband and I have been dishonest with ourselves in confronting our son's reading problem and learning problems in general. He's just started school again, and we know that it's still early, yet. But he seems so immature compared to his peers. He's very slow with all of his work. His comprehension is weak. Math is difficult. And he complains that all the other children in his class have a wonderful vocabulary. In previous years his teachers just discounted our concerns. He scores well (above average) on standardized tests (Iowa Basics), but just average in reading and comprehension. Are these tests fairly accurate? Or are we just expecting too much from him? We want to do what's best for him. We do know that he feels different from his classmates. The sad thing is, he has no confidence. I'm beginning to believe that we might be at fault. How can we get some help? Thank you for your suggestions.
A: We know that children develop at different rates, and some seem "young" in comparison to others their age. An increasing number of parents request that their children (especially those who are close to the cut-off for school entry) start school a year later than they might have, based on the age cut off. As a result, a child who would have been the youngest in the class is now the oldest. This practice helps the child by giving his skills a bit longer to develop naturally. However if many parents do this, or if lots of these kids in the class are just more mature by the luck of the draw, then the child who is comparatively younger, either in age or development, can find himself struggling to keep up. Teachers try to vary instruction according to developmental level, but teachers with large classes often "teach to the middle." This can make life in school very frustrating for some students.
Be wary if teachers discount your concerns based on standardized test scores. Some children can do pretty well on tests, but the scores don't reflect day-to-day performance. (We know the opposite is true, too.) "Average" on standardized tests often means: "compared to all other kids in America," and not "compared to those wiz-kids sitting on either side of your child, who, by the way, are almost a year older than he, and who's parents are Nobel prize winners, and who are in the gifted and talented program at the museum of science." The point is, your son may be a wonderful kid with average skills and average potential sitting in a class in which he's essentially a minority. The advantages of being in such an environment are many: expectations are high, language is rich, learning challenges abound, and under the right conditions your son benefits from all of this. However, if teachers don't see this as a potential problem, your son can compare himself to his classmates, and never quite feel that he's making the grade.
It's also possible that there are impediments to your son's learning (although the average Iowa test scores argue against it). You should have the child study team (also called the Teacher Assistance Team or the Teacher Support Team, or something like that) take a look at your child. This team of teachers and other professionals has the responsibility of determining if children may be in need of special education services, or if they will do better if the classroom is modified in some way. This team may suggest a comprehensive evaluation, or you may request that yourself. Be careful about how test results are interpreted, though. In some school districts, an average IQ or achievement test score is the standard for normalcy -- it's what's expected of most kids. Unfortunately, in other areas it's a cause for concern or even, sadly, a mark of shame. It may turn out that there are no learning disabilities or other impediments to learning. If you don't feel that your son's teachers can individualize in a way that will make your son feel good about himself without standing out too much, then you may want to consider another class (or school) in which the students exhibit a wider range of academic and potential.
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Jerome (Jerry) Schultz is the founding clinical director of the Learning Lab @ Lesley University, a program that provides assessment, tutoring, and case management services for children with learning challenges. Schultz holds a Ph.D. from Boston College, and has completed postdoctoral fellowships in both clinical psychology and pediatric neuropsychology.