Dr. Cotter on Development

The terms development or developmentally appropriate are frequently used, but finding good definitions is difficult. A dictionary defines develop as growing and becoming more mature or advanced. We see physical development in the young child. We know there is a time to crawl, a time to walk, and a time to talk. These special times, Dr. Montessori called sensitive periods while psychologists often refer to them as “windows of opportunity.” During these stages, the skills are easier to learn, seemingly automatic. The child directs their own learning according to their timeline. The same skill can be learned outside of this time period, but with greater effort.

Besides biologically-based skills, there are cultural accomplishments most children learn. To master these skills, a person needs a helping hand, or some support. One example is riding a bicycle. To begin learning, the child needs an appropriate bicycle, possibly training wheels, and a safe place. The rider needs help to learn how to get on, how to balance, how to stop, and so forth. I didn’t learn to ride a bicycle until I was 29, so I vividly remember many of these details.

One critical cultural skill children need to learn is reading. Even though a child has a good oral vocabulary and has had a thousand books read to them, the child will not automatically develop into a good reader. Listening to many books is important, but not sufficient. Portions of our brain are dedicated to hearing and talking, but there is no part devoted exclusively to reading. To develop into a reader, the child needs help to advance through the steps: associating the individual sounds of speech with letters of the alphabet, combining sounds into words, words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs. 

Another critical cultural skill we all need to learn is mathematics. Our brain does have an area devoted to quantity. This brain area is adjacent to the part of our brain that controls our fingers. It is developed in young infants to some extent, enabling them to detect small quantities without counting, through a process called subitizing. 

Children all over the world naturally show quantities with their fingers. The proximity of the finger-controlling and subitizing areas in the brain may explain why we need to group in fives in order to recognize quantities. Researchers have found that good subitizers perform better in math in the long term. These results do not apply to those who are one-by-one counters. Also, good early math skills predict greater achievement in the higher grades in science, and reading, as well as math.

Another interesting point is that children with good fine motor skills generally do better in math. Many have observed that people who excel in music often excel in math. Could this be because performers have developed finger dexterity by playing a musical instrument? I wonder if choir members who don’t play an instrument also exhibit this relationship.

There are other ways people have looked at development. Jean Piaget listed four stages: sensorimotor stage, from birth to age two; preoperational stage, from age two to seven; concrete operational stage, from ages seven to eleven; and formal operational stage, from age eleven to sixteen. Piaget was originally trained as a naturalist. He assumed mental stages of development occurred automatically just as physical changes. However, we now know that there is no detectable change in the brain indicating these mental stages. The brain develops continuously.

A child’s mental development depends upon the opportunity to learn. According to Douglas Clements, research finds that preschoolers’ brains go through significant development, especially when challenged with complex activities. Researchers found that same development did not occur with rote learning. We also know that intelligence is not fixed; it is changed by learning.   

Sadly, Piaget’s stages lead to the idea of readiness, the belief that children should not be exposed to learning until a certain age. Instead of age-related readiness, most areas of learning have a developmental hierarchy. Difficulties in learning often occur because the foundation isn’t constructed first.  

For years children in nursery schools and kindergarten spent their time memorizing rhymes, participating in craft activities, listening to stories, and learning some basic knowledge. 

Next came first grade with its extensive curriculum where the child was expected to learn to read and write, master numbers to 100 and do basic addition among other things. Children without foundational skills got lost.

On the other hand, some early educators in an attempt to reduce this heavy load suggested that children not start school until they are 8 years old. They felt the child would somehow catch up to their age mates who started earlier; when in fact, learning is accomplished by time on task at an appropriate level. 

Some even strongly advise that children spend no more than 20 minutes a day on math through their elementary years. Suppose we limited a baby who is learning to walk to 20 minutes a day. The baby would become frustrated and be slowed down in development. On the other hand, if learning math means only filling in numerous tedious worksheets and being subjected to flash cards, then 20 minutes might be too much.

Today many of the skills formerly taught in first grade are now part of kindergarten. Children are expected to be reading by Christmas. They also must learn the counting sequence to 100 and be able to continue counting from any number in the sequence, not just from one. Children without support for acquiring some basic knowledge before starting school are at a serious disadvantage that causes them to struggle for years. In a sense, we have eliminated kindergarten and expect caregivers to provide the necessary early learning.

Sometimes parents are tempted to delay their child’s entry into school for a variety of reasons, frequently unrelated to academic learning. There are special circumstances where this is necessary, but in general, a child who starts late will be delayed in reading and math. Also, they will have less time working in their career before retirement. Children with memory issues—about 20 percent of children—need not a late start, but an education based on understanding: language arts based on sounds and patterns, and math based on visualizing, not counting.

We need to remember children start learning long before they start school. They acquire a language. They feed and dress themselves and care for their environment. They distinguish different colors, different shapes, and different sounds. The role of the parent-educator is to simplify tasks to help the child become competent in mastering skills, keeping in mind that a child learns best when they have the appropriate tools and the task is interesting. We need to keep the child free from interruptions and avoid motivating them with bribes. 

In summary, learning causes development and development occurs because of learning. Delaying education until a child is “ready” does them a disservice. Teaching to where the child is, rather than their “developmental” age, provides the best education.



  1. Thanks, Dr. Cotter! These ideas are empowering for parents. When my daughter was around 3.5, I started playing a math game with her using 10 spaces from an egg carton and plastic coins. At 4.5 she was ready for RightStart A. We worked through every lesson, sometimes several a day but sometimes spending extra time mastering certain concepts. Rather than spacing it out over a traditional school year, we moved from A to B after about 5 months. Now she is about to finish D, and (age wise) she is finishing her kindergarten year of school. Despite how this may sound, she is a very typical kid. Her progress is an example of how carefully and patiently developing skills is much more important than a child’s age!

Speak Your Mind