My Three-Year-Old Failed an Academic Test: Should I worry?

Play is the best way to support giftedness and academic success in pre-schoolers

Posted Apr 01, 2017

wecometolearn via Flickr/CreativeCommon
Source: wecometolearn via Flickr/CreativeCommon

The mother of a child who is almost three asked me if she should worry about her daughter’s academic skills. The mom said, “The teacher quizzed my daughter on recognizing letters, numbers, shapes, and colours, and showed us the results.  Maybe it was the quizzing process, but I think Sammy gave up at some point, because I know she knows some of the letters she missed.”

As a psychologist specializing in the development of giftedness and talent, I was appalled. Why was the preschool teacher testing this very little girl for letter and number recognition, and then reporting to the parents this was an area of concern?

Was the teacher trying to foster test anxiety in the child, and competitive angst in the parents? The teacher didn’t actually describe the child as ‘failing,’ but the mother felt that perhaps she ought to start worrying. If there was a learning problem, she wanted to nip it in the bud. She didn’t want her child falling behind her peers. She was considering enrolling her little girl in extra classes, to get her up to speed with the other preschoolers.

No! I said. Just as your child is mastering potty training, exploring her world, and learning to play nicely with others, is not the time to introduce academic anxiety.

All the research I’ve seen and conducted on the development of giftedness, creativity, and talent suggests that early childhood is a time for engaged conversation, curiosity, exploration, imagination, relaxation, reflection, music, dance, and lots of free play. It’s not a time to drill and quiz kids on letters, numbers, or any other academic skills.

Yes, kids love to learn. If they show an interest in the mechanics of reading, writing, mathematics, or anything else, well then, give them the means and encouragement to do that.

But please! Don’t grill them. Don’t take them aside and question them about their knowledge, unless of course they’re the kind of child who enjoys that. (And some kids do love playing school, complete with serious tests.)

Other than playing school, the only time cognitive or academic skills testing makes sense for preschoolers is when there’s some reason for concern, and even then, I would suggest doing something play-based, casual, informal, conversational, and fun. I would engage the child in developing and augmenting the assessment, giving her opportunities to show what she knows and enjoys, rather than focusing on her weaknesses.

There are a variety of cognitive tests designed for young children, including so-called intelligence tests, and I have administered many of them. I have never been happy that the score accurately reflected a little child’s ability, unless I happened to be working with one of those kids who loves the testing process, and gets engaged by it. Most small children would rather invent their own games, or at least participate in co-creating the assessment, which standardized tests don’t allow.

I am not alone in having problems with the early childhood testing industry. Before the age of seven, test scores are not considered statistically reliable. The reason for that: there are way too many factors other than ability that interfere with getting an ‘accurate’ score: emotional maturity, mood, personality, individual differences, background experience, attention span, willingness to be tested, health, hunger, and lots more.

Like adults, most children test best when they’re included in co-creating the testing process, when they get to show what they like best, and what they know best. Like adults, most children don’t do well when they feel scrutinized, when they feel someone is looking to find what’s wrong with them.

If testing little kids is necessary:

  1. Engage the child in the test-design and assessment processes
  2. Make it fun and play-based
  3. Keep the focus on what’s right, not what’s wrong
  4. Start with the child’s interests, and go from there
  5. Highlight what’s going well, what the child is amazing at
  6. Ask the child for their own assessment of their interests, strengths, and weaknesses
  7. Take the results with a grain of salt

The other parents at the preschool are enrolling their kids in reading classes. Should I do that too?

I would not be worried about a 3-year-old who isn’t identifying all the letters of the alphabet on command. And I certainly wouldn’t be signing her up for extra classes, unless she showed an interest in participating in such classes. Most little kids would rather be playing. And if the choice is between outdoor play and reading class, outdoor play is almost always the right choice for a preschooler.

In Conclusion

If your child’s preschool or daycare teacher gives you your child’s academic test results, the only worrying for you to do concerns the situation your child is spending their time in. If you want to support the development of your child’s giftedness, creativity, and talent, the ideal environment in the early years is playful, supportive, congenial, and engaging. Little kids’ ‘school’ should not be about drilling literacy and numeracy facts, killing intellectual curiosity, or grilling them on their academic skills.

For more on these topics:

Being Smart about Gifted Education, by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster 

Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids, by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster  

"Parenting for Intelligence and Success: Educational Psychology Provides 18 Ideas to Help Kids Thrive at School and Life,” by Dona Matthews

Are Your Kids Getting Enough Free Play Time?” by Katie Hurley

Overscheduled? Too Busy to Play? Six Ways to Push Back and Create a Healthy Balance for Your Kids,” by Dona Matthews

Why Testing Four-Year-Olds as They Start School Is a Bad Idea,” by Colin Richards

Early Academic Training Produces Long-Term Harm,” by Peter Gray

Is Your School Helping or Hurting Your Child’s Literacy?” by Dona Matthews

"Children and Nature: Helping Kids Connect to Life Mysteries," by Marilyn Price-Mitchell

Learning to Read: What Age Is the ‘Right’ Age?” by Susan Goldberg 

Reading to Kids: Ten Reasons It Matters, Ten Ways to Do It,” by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster