There is No Average Child

By Ren Cedar Fuller, Education Consultant at Bellevue Discovery

I reread Todd Rose’s The End of Average:  How We Succeed in a World that Values Sameness while I was preparing for last week’s talk with parents about their children’s temperaments.  While talking about learning styles, I explained to the parents that 30 years ago in my teaching credential program we were told there was a single way that children learn to read.  We were given a step-by-step breakdown of hundreds of reading subskills and the exact order in which they should be taught.  This breakdown was based on multiple research studies about how children learn to read.

A quarter of a century ago I brought this program with me into my elementary school classroom and quickly discovered that it didn’t work.  Not just for some of the children – it didn’t work for any of them.  Some children needed lots of direct instruction to learn reading subskills, but they learned the skills out of the program’s order; some needed direct instruction for some skills but not for others; and some children chafed against direct instruction … they thrived when given a quick concept overview and then the chance to figure things out for themselves.

I didn’t understand why the pseudo-scientific reading program didn’t work until I read The End of Average last year.  Rose points out what seems ludicrously obvious now:  finding the most common way children learn hundreds of reading subskills, and insisting all children must learn each subskill that way, isn’t likely to meet the needs of any of the children.  No child is exactly average in every way.

And because our children are not average, because they differ in their temperaments and learning styles, their differences need our attention as parents and teachers.  A child will have a cluster of temperament traits and learning styles that differs from their parents, teachers, and siblings.  Their temperament may differ from cultural norms.  Their temperament may feel challenging.  Let’s be honest:  sometimes our kids’ temperaments bug us.

When you find child’s temperament challenging, it might be that:

  • Your child is experiencing rapid developmental growth and you’ll need to ride the wave
  • Your child’s temperament reminds you of something about yourself you don’t like … or something about your partner
  • You are field sensitive (you make decisions based on what people around you think), leading you to be overly concerned about how people might view your child’s behavior
  • Child development norms are not your area of expertise and your expectations are not developmentally appropriate
  • Your child’s sibling behaves quite differently, and you need to remind yourself they are two different people
  • You just don’t like that temperament trait – you get along better with people who are on the opposite end of the spectrum
  • You worry that your child’s temperament will hold them back; you think there is a good or “successful” temperament and your child doesn’t have it

The American Academy of Pediatrics says, “A youngster’s temperament is only a problem when it conflicts with the expectations of parents, other family members, friends, or teachers.”   The way we come to value our children’s temperaments is by learning about them (what patterns do we see in our child’s behavior?), researching that aspect of temperament or learning style if it is outside our experience, and then doing the parental balancing act:  we prepare the path for our child while also preparing our child for the path.

We slowly, making mistakes along the way, help our children understand their own temperaments and learning styles, and develop their own accommodations so they can interact in the world with confidence.  There is no average child.  That is a challenging and beautiful thing.

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