In a previous post, I encouraged parents not to obsess over grade level to the detriment of their child's actual engagement and learning.
However -- yes -- I concede there are times you do have to think about grade level, and your child and your homeschooling efforts will benefit if you do.
When to Consider Grade Level
It's important to think about grade levels related to:
- Meeting requirements to continue homeschooling. Some states in the U.S. require that your child show progress related to grade level in order for you to continue to legally homeschool. If you live in one of these states, you should talk to homeschooling advocates in your area about how to meet these requirements if your child will be perceived as behind grade level. In many states there are alternatives to standardized testing that will demonstrate that your child is making progress, or your child may have learning differences taken into account. (As an aside, I have many concerns about these kinds of state requirements, what they purport to do, and how they impact homeschooling, but that's another essay.) In most cases, doing what you need to do to specifically and ethically meet these requirements may be less damaging than trying to push through years' worth of curriculum that is too many grade levels ahead of your child.
- Meeting requirements for future goals. This one is tricky. Of course, most children will have goals to attend college, start a business, have a resourceful or creative life, and/or be employed. Most will want to have the education necessary to live and manage independently if they can and to take care of their own families some day.
Attention to grade level can help you know that next steps need to be taken so your child will be prepared to live an adult life. However, a child whom school administrators might consider to be behind several grade levels still has to start with the next step. That next step may not be skipping ahead to a curriculum with a grade level for the average child who is your child's age.
For your child, the next step might be working on basic skills and knowledge that will lead to incremental advancement. This is done more effectively by engaging children just this side of the edge of their ability rather than by forcing resistant children to work in a grade level curriculum intended for "most" kids the same age.
Start where they are, not where you need them to be.
- Identifying a child who may benefit from intervention. Homeschoolers tend to be accepting of the wide range of normal development in children, recognizing that kids may read, write, and do math at different ages. Homeschoolers don't agree with one another about the usefulness of "labels" commonly used in education, and I won't get involved in that debate here. However, my observation has been that there are times when children have medical or developmental issues which benefit from therapies or specialized learning strategies — or even something as simple as glasses for nearsightedness. A child who is "not on grade level" may just be on her own developmental arc which will smooth out, or this might be a signal to a parent to look further to see if something else is needed.
Let grade level be your servant with a red flag, not your master.
Keep in mind that children's academic progress is affected by their overall development, and development may not unfold in a smooth arc. Also, school norms for grade level may not be norms for homeschooled kids. Many of us know kids who didn't read until age 8 as homeschoolers, who read fluently by age 10, and some of them have a more positive attitude about reading and learning than some kids who were pushed and pushed but resisted at early ages.
A special circumstance happens with certain approaches to homeschooling, including for families who are unschooling or who are purposely delaying formal academic lessons. Unschoolers are purposely trying to differentiate from school and live a lifestyle of learning. Learning in these families works best when school terms like "grade level" aren't used. However, unschooling can be done poorly -- it's not an excuse to leave a child only to his or her own devices. Children who are unschooling need parents as partners in learning.
If they get the needed partnering, these kids will be able to grow toward their potential.
That's true even though unschoolers and parents who don't push early academic lessons may have children who seem "below grade level" on specific skills at various times during their lives. However, these kids are still developing intellectually and can take advantage of the freedom to learn in customized ways at the ages and stages where learning naturally occurs.
Their parents have something to show all homeschoolers -- that there will be time for something I call "hoop jumping." Kids who grow up being engaged in interesting things and challenged by problems to solve and given the freedom to create and design and think and read and explore -- those kids will be able to meet their goals. Kids who grow up this way can be guided with an understanding of what it will take to meet their goals, and if they were ever going to be capable, they will be capable of jumping through the hoops necessary to meet their goals -- whether that be CLEP-ing certain classes, taking the SAT, learning physics, apprenticing with a blacksmith, obtaining a commercial drivers license, or achieving Scouting's highest awards. When they are accustomed to a parent being their facilitator and guide over years -- they will be able to turn to that parent for support as they begin to navigate the hoops for higher ed or jobs.
Truly, I know that de-emphasizing grade level feels like jumping off a cliff. So much is based on our fear of "what if." However, we often fail to ask ourselves the parallel and opposite "what if." We do not balance our "what if my child does not stay on grade level" with "what if my concept of school" or "grade level" or "standards" prevents my child from being the best learner possible?
Having a dull, resistant child is a high price to pay for trying to stay on grade level at all costs. A more realistic practice is engaging children in learning, while helping them learn there could be times they will have to meet requirements -- to jump hoops -- to meet goals in the future.
Light the fire, and the bucket will fill.