Did I damage my own children by teaching them too early?

EYFS is in the spotlight at the moment and there is plenty of discussion around the extent to which we should let nature or nurture dominate a pre-school and reception year child’s early academic and social life. Most are in the nature camp with their commitment to choice, play-based provision as the ideal way for children to learn, whereas I’m in the nurture camp with a belief that if a child does not know (how to do) something that the majority can do, it’s because it needs to be taught or modeled in a friendly and no-nonsense way and then for that knowledge to be embedded via plenty of practice/experience. Of course, I have to defend myself when experts assume my idea of practice = sitting down all day writing, or of forcing new born babies to walk (c’mon, really?). When analysing this difference in opinion, the main issue does seem to come down to the concept of practice to automaticity and how much experience that child has had. In reception year, a child who is behind on some aspect of education is viewed as not ‘naturally good at’ or not ‘ready’, whereas the same child in year 1 who is behind is assumed to need more explicit teaching or discrete practice, as per neuroscience.

If you mention the words teaching and practice in EYFS, a curious but dominant counter-narrative from the experts will state that if we teach children to read, write, calculate or know about the world around them ‘before they’re developmentally ready’, then said children will be harmed forever. My ResearchED talk brought some interesting evidence to the table to oppose this claim, but I didn’t go into detail about other evidence, including the fact that I attempted to hack education for my own children and teach them the basics before they started school. Could I (and many other mums) have damaged my own children? Let’s consider a couple of the claims.

#1 Physical damage to the hands from writing too early

If you believe what the experts are saying, teaching a child (especially a boy) to hold a pencil and form his letters properly ‘before he’s ready’, will cause untold physical damage that will need to be dealt with by an occupational therapist. I’ve not been in education as long as some of you, but over the last few years I’ve not seen or heard of any case where an occupational therapist has had to help a child physically damaged by writing too early. Rather, I see a huge amount of damage done when children are allowed to hold a pencil in the wrong way for too long such that their poor pencil grip becomes a habit and muscle memory prevents change. It doesn’t take long, but once the poor grip is embedded before or during reception year, you’re looking at someone who will struggle to write 5 years later – we’re talking physical pain, embarrassment and avoidance, particularly for males. These children weren’t taught too early: they weren’t guided enough or even taught at all when they were making their first steps, alone, as writers.

My main message to Early Years educators here is that if you are going to have a play-based writing area within continuous provision for 4 and 5 year olds, then it needs to be manned constantly. There’s a lot of pseudo-scientific language around pen hold development and it’s important to remember that writing is biologically secondary knowledge, therefore I’d advise against assuming that writing develops ‘naturally’ as if it is somehow within our DNA and we are evolved to do it. Really, what we can all think of as a ‘caveman’ grip is more the result of having to work with writing tools designed for the adult or older child’s hand – fat crayons, felt tips and whiteboard markers will force a small hand to hold the writing tool in a certain way. This is plain old physics.

The physical damage warning contrasts with the view of chopstick use in the Far East. Here’s a good thread on different attitudes to learning. If we took the Chinese view (never too young to learn), then we’d have slim little pencils with grip aids for all small hands and those first purposeful steps would involve hawk-like oversight of the learning process, not to be confused with free play. If the child really can’t*, then put the pencil away and don’t let them form bad habits; give them some finger painting or potato stamping instead. Grip aids do get deployed in primary schools, but typically they are used as a correctional tool after the child has gone wrong with pencil hold. Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to use them this way? Wouldn’t it be great if all 5 year olds could hold a pencil properly, automatically, in much the same way as all 5 year olds at ballet school are taught to move and hold positions in exactly the same way?

#2 Long term emotional damage from being taught knowledge too early

This is interesting and there are plenty of middle class experts who will tell you all about how their children learned to read, write and add up just through general immersion in a lovely, play-based and language rich environment. At the same time, they’ll warn you off taking a more proactive approach with your own children. If you can bear it, here’s a link to the typical heart-string tugging advice being offered up to the general public.

This narrative feels familiar, but it’s like when thin middle class women tell you that they they are naturally thin despite having an allegedly huge appetite and you suspect they might be starving themselves, but can’t quite prove it. They’ll bring in lovely cakes to work to fatten their frenemies, but behind the scenes they are frantically checking their fitbits and zumba-ing their thighs into submission. If you announce that you’re joining in with the dieting and zumba, they’ll warn you off with reminders about kidney failure, ‘slow metabolism’ and ‘you’re fine just the way you are’.

These same women amaze the NCT group when their babies or toddlers are the first to talk, crawl, walk, use a knife and fork, eat vegetables, sleep through the night, use a potty etc. Behind the scenes, everyone’s secretly teaching their child either through lots and lots of modelling and hawk-eyed facilitation, or through actually telling and showing a child what to do and then when their child inadvertently demonstrates his prowess in front of other mums, the proud mother hears those words she longs to hear…

Oh, he’s just so naturally advanced for his age

I heard the same words when my sons started school. I had done my research and found out that the group or table a child is allocated to when he starts school will be the one he stays in for pretty much the next 13 years. So I taught them some basics in reading, writing and calculating before they started reception year and I also ensured they were hearing fun stories and good quality adult conversation about the world and everything in it. The difference between me and the typical middle class mum is that at least I admit it. Why else would early educational games be so popular? People spend a fortune on them! And, for the record, my sons went onto the top table; it’s been well over a decade and they are still on that top table.

mud kitchen
My children never got to do this, not because I didn’t want them to, but because we lived in a block of flats when they were young. They did get to play lots though!

In the ensuing years that I have been in education, I have NEVER seen a child psychologically damaged by learning to read, write, calculate or know about history, science and geography before the majority. If anything, these children are given a psychological leg-up because they receive extra praise and attention from the teacher and they enjoy that sense of wellbeing that comes from being allocated to the dodecahedron group and given extra opportunities to flourish. While everyone else is still messing about in the mud kitchen, Harry-hedge-fund-manager is furiously calculating into the hundreds. Further, these advanced children get so much more out of life when they know more about the world, when they can read and understand stories, the circuitry of their minds lighting up like billions of stars in the night sky with every conversation, image, song and narrative. The elite among these children are paraded in front of inspectors, consultants and visitors; their faces are more likely to appear in the school photos that end up on the TV, or in the local newspapers. Later on, they shimmy into the top stream classes at secondary school and so are shielded from silliness, low-level disruption, violence even.

It’s the ones who are allowed to fall behind who end up depressed, angry, frustrated and feeling inferior. Those purporting to be their champions are consumed with the ‘truth’ that these children were made to sit at a desk all day long, copying off a blackboard when they should’ve been allowed to play in order to develop creativity and self-esteem. Where does this come from? The EYFS is statutory and it is play-based, so there won’t be any evidence to support this idea that depressed children are depressed because we made them sit down, listen, write, converse, calculate and think about interesting knowledge all day long.

Au contraire, these depressed, angry and frustrated children who maladapt to either avoid or disrupt class work, typically can’t read. They also cannot understand what the teacher is going on about because they do not have enough knowledge in their heads to make the relevant connections with. They weren’t taught enough and they weren’t given what their middle class chums were given at home. The strugglers learn to switch off and are locked out of learning very early on, feeling inadequate in front of their friends. I see how this plays out and it doesn’t play out that well, despite the best intentions and hard work of every teacher in every year group they progress to.

So, let’s not kid ourselves. Advantaged children are not miraculously more advanced or intelligent compared with disadvantaged children – they were given a leg-up at home and they certainly weren’t damaged because of it.

Let’s just give all children what they need and deserve rather than waiting for them to fail.

Who’s with me?

*Worth bearing in mind that if a child can’t, it might be because you are asking him to try and write while standing up, lying on his belly, straddling a soft toy or bending over an easel, all of which is impossible and WILL damage wrists, hands and fingers.






5 thoughts on “Did I damage my own children by teaching them too early?

  1. Oh yes. Think what a genius Mozart could have been if he hadn’t been subjected to burnout at such an early age . . .
    It is, in fact, a tragedy that our local education system misses some of the most vital developmental years before teaching takes place.


  2. Oh, and Shakespeare – poor chap subjected to memorisation and reciting etc at a young age. ….

    Anyway, I came into school with solid knowledge, somehow, and it frustrated me to no end as a student, and even more so now as a parent and teacher, how children are dumbed down through half-truths in philosophy, approach, and practice of pedagogy and curriculum.

    I’m with you, again!


  3. I always make fun of the idea that when children start learning too early, it damages their chances of succeeding academically, because I started preschool at 3 years, and my mother was delighted when the children reached the 3 year birthday. I remember saying my 2 and 3 times tables, whether I understood it or not, I did not know, but what I did know is that I started my elementary school year at five knowing some multiplication tables, and I could have written fairly well, and I knew that because I had hated those children’s double lined copy books as our writing books were then called. And I have worked as an Education Assistant before, and expressed my objection to the idea that children must be playing most of the time to the chagrin of the administration. But the children who suffer most from that fallacious idea, are the students with SENs. They are destined to behind their grade level, and since they would not pick up as the regulars, they need early intervention,but the play based kindergarten does not facilitate this. I have a little relative who is on the spectrum, who laments everyday that he hates school, because all they do at school is play, and it is boring.

    The article has adequately described the trajectory of those who need early intervention. They are the students who would never learn to read because they did not pick up, and they would never learn because they have to read to learn, and eventually they will use challenging behaviour as an escape hatch to avoid doing work or to avoid looking dumb, and they will eventually enter the bad boys club. By the time they get to high school, it is too late to do anything, because they have missed so much ground. It is sad that educationists have the power to wreck children’s live through following fads, that never work except to stymie the academic lives of the weaker students.


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