We have traditionally expected children to fit the expectations of parents and society at large. To some degree, this is absolutely correct. The expectations we have for children - to become socialized, to learn to curb their aggression, and to be empathetic and kind to others - are very important. On the other hand, in the last 50 years we have learned that expecting children to live up to our expectations is a two-way street. 

Recognizing Individuality

The current vogue of back-to-basics and extended school days is unfortunately moving education away from the recognition of individual differences and toward a one-size-fits-all approach. Simply doing more of what has not been working will not prove helpful, nor can you teach a child simply by testing him. Similarly, greater accountability without teaching innovations will also be unlikely to produce improved results. Assessment can be a very valuable part of learning if it lets teachers know how well their methods are working and lets students and parents know what is being mastered and not mastered. In the best types of assessment, the child is constantly learning and assessing, as a demonstration of his mastery of the material.

Making Important Assumptions

When we focus on individual differences in education, we focus on skills including auditory processing and language, visual-spatial thinking, motor planning and thinking, and sensory modulation, as well as different levels of abstract thinking that children need to master to be successful academically, as well as socially and emotionally.

To ensure mastery of these basic processes in an early childhood program, six basic assumptions are necessary:

The uniqueness of each child. A child's experiences in large part determine what she learns. To facilitate learning and appropriate mental growth, experiences must be tailored to the child's "individually different" central nervous system. Children are different in their degree of mastery of early development capacities, such as their ability to focus and attend, the depth of their intimacy and relatedness, their ability to be purposeful and intentional, their capacity to solve complex problems, their skill in using ideas symbolically and creatively, and their capacity to think logically and abstractly. Family, cultural, and community patterns are also unique. Understanding these patterns makes it possible to build educational programs based on individual differences in the child and her family and community.

Families and educators working together. An individual-difference approach does not mean testing, labeling, and then tracking children. Educators and parents should work together to review the child's development, observe her functioning, and describe her profile. The physical environment, the curriculum, and the type of relationships that will foster learning are then adapted to each child's profile.

Learning through dynamic emotional interactions. As the child begins her formal education, dynamic emotional interactions are instrumental for learning. Abstract thinking, which is involved in reading, comprehending history, writing, science, social studies, and math, always involves two elements: (a) emotionally meaningful experiences with others and one's social and physical environment and (b) the capacity to reflect on and categorize interactions and expand on these experiences.

No room for failure. When a child cannot master certain skills, educating that child has to be altered until a road is found that enables her to have some relative degree of mastery in that particular area. Children are not allowed to escape into passivity, helplessness, or maladaptive behaviors. Their individual responsibility is challenged through extra help and structure.

Small groups. This individual-difference model calls for children being educated in much smaller classes than is now the case. Classes of 25 and 30 children are not conducive to learning. For the most part, only children who are capable of learning basically without the help of school learn well in such large classes. Helping gifted students to reach their full potential, average students to do better than they are doing now, and children with challenges to become competent, requires small classes for all children.

Foundation-building time each day. Each child has her own way of taking in and comprehending information, communicating, and thinking. These processing capacities are the foundations for reading, math, writing, and all types of academic and social thinking. To be more specific, these skills include:

  • The ability to take in and figure out what you are seeing and to negotiate the physical world
  • The ability to process information without being over- or under-reactive in each of the five senses
  • The ability to organize actions and thought

Because these basic capacities underlie academic achievement, a quarter to a third of each school day should be spent on strengthening these skills.

The individual-difference approach to education has the potential to significantly change the way we think about the children and families we work with in our educational settings.