Imagine A New Way of Doing School

Meet Sarah and Joseph.

Sarah is about to turn five. She and her parents are excited to enroll her in kindergarten. With a pediatrician mother and a father who is a part-time engineer and part-time stay-at-home-dad, Sarah receives enrichment and education at home. She knows her letters, numbers, colors, and shapes. She can write her name, ‘reads’ her favorite bedtime books by memory, and can tell you important information like her address, phone number, parents’ names and her birthday. She is bright, curious, and active.

abc books chalk chalkboard

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There is one problem.

Sarah’s birthday is September 2.

One day past the birthday cut-off for kindergarten at her home school.

Her parents are forced to wait one year for her to start kindergarten.

Sarah’s parents decide to make the best of the situation and place her in preschool for the year. In preschool, she excels academically and socially. She has the temperament and home support to be a great friend and a good student. At the end of the year, Sarah can identify simple sight words and compute basic math.

The wonderful day finally arrives when Sarah can go to kindergarten. She is more excited than ever to meet her teacher and classmates. Yet she encounters frustration within the first week as she discovers that her classmates have barely begun to learn their letters and numbers. Her parents meet with the teacher and school administration about accelerating her education, but unfortunately the school simply does not have the resources to give Sarah what she needs. As the year goes on, Sarah’s skills inevitably drop as she attempts to slow her pace to meet her peers. At Winter Break, her parents pull her out of school and decide to homeschool.

boy in brown hoodie carrying red backpack while walking on dirt road near tall trees

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Joseph is also about to turn five. His parents are looking forward to his first day of kindergarten as well, since they struggle with daycare. While Joseph’s parents are not together, they have worked out a schedule of care that divides the young boy’s time between mom, dad, and Joseph’s paternal grandparents. His grandparents complain about his “high energy” and “defiant attitude.” Joseph’s parents are criticized on the lack of control they have over their son. Joseph does not get bedtime stories at night. He does not have a stable home, and does not eat a balanced diet. He has trouble regulating his emotions and still throws frequent tantrums. He also has difficulty pronouncing some words, which makes it difficult for his caretakers to understand him when he is throwing a fit. He cannot recognize his name when it’s printed, does not know his letters or numbers, and has never spent a significant amount of time in the presence of other children. He is very nervous to go to school since it will be the first time he is away from his mother, father, or grandparents.

The three caretakers are anxious to take him to school and stop juggling his time between their households. They agree to register Joseph at the school near his grandparent’s house, where the birthday cut-off for entering kindergarten is September 1.

back bus education school

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Joseph’s birthday is August 28.

He starts kindergarten while still four years old.

For the first week of school, Joseph cries in the office all day, every day.  The second week he starts each day with tears, but is able to sit in the classroom. He does not engage with adults or peers, and starts to cry if he gets called on. About a month into the school year, Joseph’s behavior turns outward. At recess, his high energy results in scuffles with the other students, and they learn very soon to keep their distance from him. He doesn’t stay in his seat, shouts things out, kicks and pushes other kids, runs away in line, and in general does not listen to any adult in the building. As the year progresses, his teachers and caregivers push for getting him tested for special education services and ADHD.

accomplishment ceremony education graduation

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full length of man sitting outdoors

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I know this seems like a stereotype or an exaggeration, but both students are based off of children I’ve known. If I were to bet on Sarah and Joseph’s futures, I would place good money on the chance of Sarah graduating from high school with honors and attending a prestigious four-year university. She could continue to a high-paying career of her choice, and in general be a success in life. Joseph, I would bet, may not even make it to high school graduation. It’s possible he could be arrested before he turns 18. He could get a girl pregnant, thus continuing the low-income cycle. Whether or not he remains in school, his education would be fraught with frustration and failure.

Sarah would succeed because she started with success

Joseph would struggle because he started with struggle

And all of this because of a four day difference in their birthdays.

But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if, instead of focusing on the end result of our students’ education, we used our resources toward the start of the process to build a developmentally appropriate approach to school?

A developmental approach to school means that we begin with the start of a students’ education rather than the end.

Imagine . . .

A school that starts students when they are developmentally ready to start school.

analysis blackboard board bubble

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It’s the first day of school for Joseph and Sarah, two students in the same Year 1 class at the neighborhood Developmental School. It is the last week of September, the start of a new term.

Sarah is elated about coming to school, and has been asking her parents every morning for weeks when this special day will arrive. She can’t wait to tell her education guide about her fifth birthday, which she celebrated a few weeks ago. That was when she was able to take, and pass, the School Readiness Check (SRC) to demonstrate her developmental readiness for entering Year 1.

Joseph is a little nervous about school, as he does not want to leave the Early Education School he has attended for a year. He enjoyed the games he played at the Early Education School and loved the guides that worked with him to regulate his emotions. A year ago, on his fifth birthday, his parents tried to start him at the Developmental School. While he did very well on his colors and shapes, he could not quite name all of his letters and numbers. In addition, he showed some behavioral immaturity in his response to peer conflict. After one year at the Early Education School, he can identify letters, numbers, colors, and shapes. He can write his name, address, and phone number.

group of people taking photo

Most importantly, Joseph’s parents are impressed with how the guides at the Early Elementary School improved his peer relationship skills. On his sixth birthday, he passed the School Readiness Check and demonstrated he was ready to start the fall term in Year 1 at the Developmental School.

At the end of the first day of school, Sarah is picked up by both parents. She tells them about Beth, whose fifth birthday was in February but also just started today. Beth had tried to take the SRC in February for the Spring term, but needed just a little more work on being away from her parents all day. She went to the Early Education School for two terms, getting used to saying goodbye to her mom every morning. Today, she is ready to come to school without tears.

Joseph rides the bus to his grandparent’s house when school is out. He is full of excitement about making friends with Matthew, a boy who has been in Year 1 for one term already, and had the same Batman backpack. At their outside play time, Joseph was welcomed into Matthew’s friend group during a game of superheroes. He got a little rough during the game, but was able to take a walking break with his guide, apologize to Matthew, and have a great rest of the day.

Let’s continue this mental exercise and imagine a ‘Pie-In-The-Sky’ future for Sarah and Joseph.

dream filter infrared surreal

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Sarah, of course, would most likely have the same exact future, but both she and our schools would benefit from having her in the classroom.

Joseph could very possibly graduate from high school. He may not need ADHD medication, may not need special education support, and may not gain a reputation as the ‘bad kid.’ The one year difference between barely five and turning six could show that Joseph doesn’t really need medication, he just needed some time for his body to settle. It’s possible he wouldn’t struggle academically because of his preparatory education in a preschool setting.  I imagine that in a new way of doing school, Joseph could even rise above his circumstances to get a degree from a four-year college. He could make a better life for his own children than what he had. And he could become a positive, productive member of society.

There are a few elements of education that have defined teaching and learning for over 100 years. What if we started over and took a developmental approach to education? What if we built a brand new way of doing school by replacing systems with structures?

We must dismantle outdated and ineffective systems and rebuild from the ground up with a structural shift in our teaching and learning.

A Developmental Approach to Education



School years with summer
Year-round school with term breaks
Grade levelsCohorts based on ability
Letter-grade report cards Competency-based transcripts
Standardized testingPerformance and portfolio assessment
ClassroomsOpen learning spaces
Birthday cut-off for
kindergarten start
Entry into school when developmentally ready
Punitive disciplineRestorative discipline practices
desk pens school design

Teachers and students all over the nation are going “Back to School.” What if we didn’t go ‘back’ to school, but went forward to a new school future?

If you are skeptical that new structures are needed, listen to this call to action from renowned author and speaker, Sir Ken Robinson. If you are ready to pick up your tools and work for the future of our nation’s students, then I’ll see you on the front lines.

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