Both long-standing instructional practices and more recent changes in curriculum may have contributed to these problems. For instance, traditionally age-stratified classrooms, which most people take for granted, represent an unnatural and potentially unhealthy way of organizing children’s lives, experts now believe. Angela Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist and the author of Grit, hypothesizes that the age segregation of schools can contribute to competition and stress. In a mixed-age group, she told me, “the 10-year-old takes the hand of the 5-year-old and looks both ways crossing the street. The 5-year-old looks up to the 10-year-old with admiration and trust, and does as they are told. In contrast, when you throw hundreds of kids of exactly the same age together, attention goes, unhelpfully, to comparisons within the group: Who is smartest? Who is fastest? Who is prettiest?” This steers children’s values away from kindness, trust, and community and toward status competition, which can generate stress and bullying. This effect may be more potent than it used to be, because children spend more time away from their home and neighborhood than in previous generations.
Experts across the educational and ideological spectrums agree that a curriculum rich in literature, civics, history, and the arts is essential for strong reading, critical-thinking, and writing skills. But schools have—quite irrationally—abandoned this breadth in favor of stripped-down programs focused on narrow testing metrics. Five years after the shift to high-stakes testing under the No Child Left Behind Act, which was signed in 2002, a survey of a national sample of school districts found that nearly two-thirds of school districts had dramatically increased language-arts or math time while almost half had reduced time spent on social studies, science, art, music, physical education, lunch, or recess. “Special” classes, such as music—as well as periods like recess, physical education, and even lunch—provide children with important opportunities for emotional growth and independent learning. For many children, they are what make school bearable. (In one intriguing natural experiment, researchers observed that ADHD diagnoses spiked dramatically in tandem with the timing of states’ adoption of high-stakes-testing policies; another study found that being in kindergarten was a significant risk factor for receiving an ADHD diagnosis compared with same-age children who remained in preschool for an extra year.)
Pandemic Zoom classes have also revealed the extent to which the teaching of young children today relies on flawed classroom approaches—teachers talking too much, kids not enough. But developmental scientists and educators have long known that academic outcomes in the later elementary-school years are built on a foundation of authentic, conversational language and on the nurturing of meaningful relationships in early childhood. Early learning is fundamentally a social process, during which the architecture of the developing brain is constructed from emotional connections with trusted caregivers and friends. One study, from 2011, found that preschool teachers’ use of sophisticated, responsive language during children’s free play predicted better fourth-grade reading-comprehension outcomes. Many studies have shown the value of face-to-face, empathic teaching styles for language development in infants and young children. In general, children experience greater academic and social gains in classrooms where teachers are emotionally attuned to them—bending down to chat spontaneously and meaningfully, and following curricula that encourage physical, collaborative, open-ended play.